December 28, 2017


The Book of Dust, Volume One: La Belle Sauvage. By Philip Pullman. Knopf. $22.99.

     A prequel to the magnificent His Dark Materials trilogy of 1995-2000 and, in effect, two half-novels joined in the middle to make a single one, Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage is a most welcome return to the world of Lyra Belacqua at a time when Lyra herself is an infant whose diaper-changing needs are actually a plot point. But although Lyra is scarcely old enough to be an active protagonist in this part of her own story, she is quite important enough to be the prime mover in a tale of religious fanaticism on the rise and the first stirrings of heroic efforts to stem the tide. In fact, stemming the tide is a subtle metaphor in La Belle Sauvage, which really gets moving because of a flood that results in protagonist Malcolm Polstead fleeing with the infant Lyra to what he hopes will be safety.

     Knowing about the world of His Dark Materials and the role in it of Dust as a substance that both encapsulates and spreads consciousness is important for the full understanding and impact of La Belle Sauvage. Sensitivity to Pullman’s subtle and cultivated way with words is crucial, too. The book’s title refers to 11-year-old Malcolm’s much-loved canoe, but what the words actually mean is “the beautiful wild” (not “the beautiful savage”!), and while the importance of this concept is nonexistent for Malcolm himself, the fact that Pullman has Malcolm choose this name for his watercraft is significant for readers of His Dark Materials and, now, The Book of Dust. It is very much a part of Pullman’s anti-authoritarian, anti-rigidity worldview.

     Pullman is one of the world’s great storytellers, with an easy erudition that permeates his vocabulary and pacing. One should never, ever underestimate the care with which he builds worlds and fills them out. In La Belle Sauvage, Malcolm comes into contact with a scholar named Dr. Hannah Relf, who is studying the mysterious truth-indicating device known as the alethiometer; she lends him books while arranging for him to become, in effect, a spy for her – and the books she lends him are by Agatha Christie and Stephen Hawking. Leaving aside the cosmological question of how A Brief History of Time would fit into Pullman’s world (it would not, at least not neatly), what is interesting here is how Pullman uses this detail, one among a great many, to flesh out the world itself and the characters in it.

     He does not, however, flesh all of them out equally, so intensely does he devote himself to the central one. Malcolm is a marvelous creation, as fully formed in this book as an older Lyra is in His Dark Materials. And just as Lyra follows a somewhat Miltonic path in the trilogy built around her (whose title comes from Paradise Lost), so Malcolm follows a classic path of his own, specifically that of The Odyssey, with Malcolm called upon to find his own inner trickster while offering baby Lyra tenderness and fierce defense in equal measure. It is an impressive feat of characterization, one among many in Pullman’s works in general and the world of His Dark Materials in particular.

     However, the Odyssey elements of La Belle Sauvage, around which the second half of the novel is built, fit imperfectly onto the “thriller” elements that make up the first half. The early part of the book powerfully shows the rise of an autocratic, narrow type of religious tyranny in the form of the Magisterium, which not only maintains a black-shirt sort of security force called the Consistorial Court of Discipline (CCD) but also has a kind of Hitler-youth group called the League of St. Alexander. Both the CCD and the League pursue Malcolm as he flees with Lyra, boy and baby helped on their journey in La Belle Sauvage by the cranky and initially rather one-dimensional Alice Polstrow, a teenager with whom Malcolm has been working (and fighting) at the inn owned by his parents. Over time, as Alice and Malcolm become sort-of-friends, Alice develops more personality, but she is mostly a foil against whom Malcolm can display his growing heroism and self-awareness. In the second half of the book, wherein mythical creatures from our own world and Pullman’s appear during the young people’s journey (an evil fairy, Old Father Thames, and others), much of the book’s first part simply disappears – including, for example, Dr. Relf.

     The “nemesis” character who spans both halves of La Belle Sauvage is a strange and genuinely frightening man named Gerard Bonneville (another instance of irony in Pullman’s name choices: “good city”). He is a disgraced scientist, which here means an experimental theologian, with a scary hyena as his daemon – one of the most basic elements of the world of His Dark Materials is that people have daemons, essentially external manifestations of the personality and/or soul, that can act semi-independently but must always stay nearby. Bonneville is presented as a sexual predator (including some apparently consensual involvement with Alice) and, even more significantly, as the discoverer of the Dust particle. But his motivations for coming after Malcolm, Alice and Lyra in the book’s second half are never made entirely clear, much less convincing. He seems to want Lyra for some sort of leverage with the Magisterium, or perhaps for revenge after being sent to prison, or perhaps simply because he is deranged and obsessed – at one point he says he wants to roast and eat the baby and is really pursuing Alice. Bonneville is deeply sinister and tremendously violence-prone, but he is also rather mundane as an evildoer, more of a cardboard bad guy than a wholly believable (if detestable) adversary. The slightly uneasy mid-book merger of the thriller and Odyssey elements of La Belle Sauvage, the somewhat-less-developed characterization of those in the story other than Malcolm himself, and the mindless and scattered anger and viciousness rather than clear-but-twisted motivation of Bonneville, all make La Belle Sauvage somewhat more superficial than His Dark Materials. But if it is modestly less appealing on its own, it is nevertheless an excellent fit into the world of the earlier trilogy, a frequently exciting and oftimes imaginatively splendid return to the world Pullman created there, and yet another venture into Pullman’s superb storytelling art. The second volume of The Book of Dust, to be called The Secret Commonwealth, will take place after the events of His Dark Materials rather than before, and it will not be at all surprising if some of the characters of La Belle Sauvage reappear in it, perhaps in further-fleshed-out form.

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