La Belle Sauvage ~Philip Pullman

IMG_0245I want it recorded here that I did not deliberately catch a cold on the day La Belle Sauvage was published just in order to give me an excuse to spend two days curled up in front of the fire reading Philip Pullman’s long anticipated return to the world of Lyra Belacqua.  In fact, I would much rather have read it with a clearer head.  Nevertheless, it certainly made those difficult first forty-eight hours easier to bear and the need to make sure that I haven’t missed anything gives me the perfect excuse to go back and read it through again as soon as the opportunity arises.  I may need to anyway if we have to wait as long for the next volume as we have for this, simply to satisfy my appetite for almost perfect story-telling.

Because, if there is one thing Philip Pullman knows how to do it is tell a story.  From the first page you know that you are in the hands of a brilliant raconteur.  His characters come to life in front of your eyes, the settings are picture perfect in your mind and the story begins to unfold with a logic that seems irrefutable.  We are back in Lyra’s Oxford, a city which physically doesn’t seem to be that much different to the one we know ourselves, but which, in terms of its social structure and the forces which motivate that structure, is very different indeed.  Ten years before the events unfolded in Northern Lights, the power of the Magisterium is just beginning to really make itself felt and when eleven year old Malcolm Polstead is confronted in school by a group calling themselves the League of Alexander, who are there to recruit the local children to be the ears and eyes of Holy Church and report on those in their community who suggest that there may not be a God or who mock the Church, he recognises this as something he wants nothing to do with.

Malcolm is the son of the local innkeeper and has as good a life as a child could wish for, helping out in the Trout Inn, running errands for the nuns in the local priory, and spending time on the river in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage.  And, like most eleven year old boys he is naturally curious, so when he picks up gossip in the inn about a baby being brought to the priory he hightails it off to see if this is true.  Sure enough, there is Lyra, just months old, left with the nuns by her father, Lord Asriel, to protect her from Church forces who are seeking the child as a result of a prophecy about her future.  Malcolm, like pretty much all of us who have met Lyra over the years, is entranced by her.  Given the scrapes she will be getting herself into on a regular basis ten years down the line, she is a remarkably good baby, which is fortunate, because when circumstances change and Malcolm is forced to flee with her, through horrendous floods and tracked by the Consistorial Court of Discipline, silence on her part becomes a necessity.

With only a local teenager, Alice, for company, Malcolm, having rescued Lyra from the devastated priory, sets out to find somewhere she will be safe from the machinations of her mother, Mrs Coulter, and of the Church.  His first thought is to get her to Jordan College, where she might be given sanctuary, but the floods don’t allow this and so swept ever southwards in the valiant La Belle Sauvage, the children aim for Chelsea in the hope that they will be able to deliver the baby to her father.

Pullman has said that this novel should not be seen as a prequel to His Dark Materials but as an equal and in some ways I could be pushed to agree with him.  As I’ve made clear, this is a rattling good story which engages the reader completely, just as the earlier books did.  However, for the most part, I can only see this as a forerunner of what is to come.  Most obviously, of course, it tells about events which precede those in Northern Lights. It reveals to us not only how Lyra came to be living under the protection of the scholars at Jordan College, but how the alethiometer found its way there as well. Furthermore, it is also a prequel in terms of what it asks of the reader.  Ideas which had to be given serious thought in the earlier novels, such as the concept of Dust, the relationship between a human and their daemon and most importantly, the question of Grace, are barely touched on here.  And, then there is the question of the underpinning of the story’s structure.  In His Dark Materials the debt that Pullman owed (and acknowledged) to Milton’s Paradise Lost was easily apparent.  If there is such a debt here it would seem to be to Edmund Spenser’s epic poem, The Faerie Queen, which is quoted on the novel’s final page.  However, not only is this work’s influence not immediately obvious throughout the book, but those episodes which it might be seen as having given rise to are, for me, the weakest parts of the story. Their purpose is so unclear that I could happily have lost them altogether.

Of course, there are two other books still to come and it may well be that when we have the completed trilogy more will be made apparent and that cohesive links which seem to be missing now will become obvious.  Nevertheless, La Belle Sauvage reads as a far less complex work than any of the books in His Dark Materials and as much as I enjoyed it I hope the forthcoming volumes of The Book of Dust will ask more of me as a reader.

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20 thoughts on “La Belle Sauvage ~Philip Pullman

    • Do you know what my first thought was as I started this, Harriet? This isn’t the work of a novelist but of a storyteller. There really is a difference. The anti-religious sentiments are still there but because Pullman really isn’t exploring the ideas behind the Church movement in any depth the atheism rides on the surface too. I understand that the next volume is going to take us twenty years into the future, after Lyra has freed the Dead. There may well be more incisive discussion of the religious themes then.

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  1. I keep seeing reviews of this indicating what a cracking good story Pullman has written. I think the next volume is meant to come after the final book in the Dark Materials series so effectively he is writing a sandwich…..

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    • Yes, the next book is twenty years on, so effectively after the power of the Church has been challenged. I shall be interested to see how Pullman deals with reprising the intellectual arguments that ‘His Dark Materials’ raises. They are certainly not much in evidence here. I must make time to re-read the earlier trilogy before the next book arrives.

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  2. I didn’t know the next book is going to make a “sandwich” of the storyline – that’s so interesting. Glad to hear that the story holds up, even if it wasn’t as deep as you were hoping. I have to get back to my reread of the original series, then I can dig into this one!

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  3. I quit reading Pullman after The Amber Spyglass, which I thought was made up of too much connective tissue for the series, and not enough story. This one sounds like it could pull me back in, though. And now that you’ve prepared me to think about The Faerie Queen, that will add another element of enjoyment to my first reading.

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    • Oh The Amber Spyglass was a mess. There were some great ideas in it but it really didn’t hang together as a novel. It’s interesting that, if my memory serves me right, the publication date was put back at least once as if the writing was not coming together as expected. I was amazed when it won The Whitbread children’s award, let alone the whole thing. In terms of cohesion, La Belle Sauvage is much better.

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    • Given that it looks as if the next volume is going to take place after the events related in the earlier trilogy I would read this one first and then re-read the others before the next book is published. That is certainly what I am going to do.

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      • That sounds like a perfect plan, really. I’m glad to hear you had such good company while recovering your health! I’m eager to return to his world, and I hope the other two volumes are well underway so that we needn’t wait too, too long. (Again.)

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      • Yes, there has been a dearth of good story telling from Pullman in recent years. I have read somewhere that the second book is complete and that he is in the process of writing the third but I don’t know if this is certainly the case.

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  4. I liked the book a lot (devoured over the first weekend after publication), but I felt it was less magical than the original. Whether that is because one is already familiar with Lyra’s world and you don’t get the same thrill of discovery or whether it was actually more prosaic I couldn’t say. It’s a cracking good story and yet certain aspects of the story don’t ring true; the characters are not as believable and vivid as those in the old trilogy (even when they are the same characters, just 10 years earlier). One thing is I would not recommend is listening to the audio version available on the BBC right now. It’s a brutal abridgment: a thick novel cut down to 2 1/2 hours.

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    • I think there is definitely less about what makes this world different from ours and what is there, especially towards the end, is less well integrated or explained. For most of the story take the daemons out and it is simply a cracking tale of adventure and escape.

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  5. What a great review, Alex! And I so agree with you about perfect storytelling, not a foot wrong in that respect.

    Which elements did you find linked with The Faerie Queene (I suspect that you know that poem a great deal better than I do)? I am wondering whether referencing it speaks more to his ultimate purpose for these ‘equels’, a sort of alternative British mythology, and this might become clearer in the later books.

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    • I suspect you’re right about the need to see all three novels together before passing any substantial judgement on the relevance of The Faerie Queen, Helen. The passages I was most interested in cameo towards the end of the book when the children end up on various islands on their way to Oxford. I couldn’t see how they really fitted into the narrative as it stands, but they do have certain likenesses to encounters in the Spencer epic.

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