La Belle Sauvage
(Volume One of The Book of Dust)
by Philip Pullman
Readers of His Dark Materials will recall that the story resolved satisfactorily at the end of The Amber Spyglass. It may not have been the ending many readers wanted, but there was a certain logic to it, one that left open the possibility of a sequel. What would happen to Lyra and Will when they grew up?
‘Malcolm supposed the prohibition against touching another person’s daemon was true for babies as well; in any case, he would never have dreamed, after those few minutes, of doing anything to upset that little child. He was her servant for life.’
We have waited a long time for Philip Pullman to return to his fractured (now mended?) multiverse. Now that he has decided to do so, the question was, could he maintain the pace and originality of the original – or has everything been said that can be said about Lyra’s Oxford?
The big surprise here is that Mr Pullman has gone back in time rather than forward. La Belle Sauvage (which is incidentally a canoe) is a prequel set about ten years before the events described in Northern Lights. Lyra is an eight-month-old baby, being cared for by a group of nuns in a priory by the River Thames. Already she is being sought by agents of the Magisterium, who want to kill her to prevent fulfillment of a witches’ prophecy. She is also in danger from the unsavoury physicist-turned-sexual predator, Gerard Bonneville and his three-legged hyena daemon.
‘Alice was groping for the wall and trying to stand up. Suddenly she was hurled aside as the man Bonneville burst in – smashing the door open even against the water at its foot. – and, seeing Malcolm, leaped towards him, snarling so vilely that he sounded worse than his daemon -‘
The new hero of La Belle Sauvage is Malcolm Polstead, the eleven-year-old son of the landlord of the Trout Inn, and owner of the canoe. Malcolm helps out with the customers and he hears and sees things. Befriended by Hanna Relf, a professor at the university and an expert on the alethiometer [you’ll remember, this is an instrument which can read the future], he is recruited as a spy for a secret organisation opposed to the Magisterium.
‘Malcolm looked in cautiously. The air smelled of age and dry rot and damp, but of nothing worse than that. In the dim flickering torchlight they saw rows of shelves, with coffins neatly placed on them …”‘I’m sorry,” he whispered to the occupant of the first, “but I need your coffin.” ‘
Before long, Oxford is struck by a deluge [a kind of Noah’s Flood] that engulfs the city and destroys the priory. Malcolm rescues Lyra with the help of Alice, a servant girl, and they embark in the canoe into the flood. They have a choice to make: take the child to scholastic sanctuary at Jordan College, or travel to London and give her into the care of her father, Lord Asriel. Unfortunately, the river current is so fierce that they are forced to go south.
Pursued by Bonneville and by agents of the CCD, the Magisterium’s Consistorial Court of Discipline, Malcolm and Alice head for Chelsea. Adventure after adventure overtakes them as they try to evade their pursuers and, at the same time, take care of Lyra’s needs. Time is running out because Asriel is preparing to depart on an expedition to the North.
‘Lyra was beside herself with glee. Nothing in the world …. had pleased her more than this crazy plunge down a waterfall in the total darkness.’
La Belle Sauvage has little in the way of original fantasy. The ideas of Northern Lights, and some of its characters still fill the pages. The scientists are studying ‘Dust’, the philosophers probing the mysteries of the alethiometer. Mrs Coulter pursues her sinister quest. Her affair with Lord Asriel is no secret and everyone knows the baby is hers. There is talk of witches and night-gasts. The friendly adults are suitably scholarly, the antagonists suitably evil. Bonneville is in a class of his own.
However, though there are few new fantastical ideas, La Belle Sauvage makes an exciting spy thriller, with kidnapping, murder, theft and secret messages as part of its intriguing plot. It is true to the world of the original story and, like His Dark Materials, should appeal to adults and children alike. I very much enjoyed returning to this fascinating alternative to the countryside I know so well.
Two more volumes are to follow. In the second, according to Pullman’s own publicity, we will meet Lyra again as an Oxford undergraduate. We can only speculate about where that, and the third volume, will lead us.