A world of fact and fantasy
With an 11-year-old hero, Philip Pullman's new book is a delightful nod to Edmund Spenser's 'The Faerie Queene'
If Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy was an obvious nod to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, his new Book Of Dust trilogy takes inspiration from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Though thematically different, both fall within the same literary genre—they are epic poems, long narrative pieces recounting heroic deeds, and if the term could loosely be used to describe works of prose, then La Belle Sauvage, the first in the Book Of Dust trilogy, is one such novel. Spenser’s late-16th century poem, though incomplete, follows the adventures of medieval knights. Our knight is 11-year-old Malcolm Polstead, curious, intelligent, good-natured and clueless, when we first meet him, of the trials that await him. La Belle Sauvage, then, is a companion, or “equel" (a new story that stands alongside his previous trilogy), to His Dark Materials trilogy.
La Belle Sauvage begins in a space of great comfort and fortitude, much like Neil Gaiman’s Ocean At The End Of The Lane, also a book where strange and dangerous things change a young boy forever. The similarities stem from the invocation of fireside and familial warmth and also, more strikingly, comfort food—meaty roasts and baked potatoes, apple pudding and custard. Malcolm’s parents run The Trout inn , where Malcolm is potboy. He is friends with, and helps out, the nuns living at the priory on an island across the river. Pullman, wonderful storyteller that he is, expertly sets up this world for us, much like Lyra’s Oxford at the beginning of Northern Lights, the first in His Dark Materials trilogy. This world too is wrecked, and terrible things on an epic, biblical scale befall our protagonists.
As with most disasters, it begins small.
Malcolm and his daemon Asta, a shapeshifter, find an “acorn" dropped by a man later revealed to be a spy. When they try to return the lost item, they find out he’s been murdered. The “acorn" contains a secret message they cannot decipher, and it leads them to Doctor Hannah Relf, an academic and expert on altheometers, which, if you remember from His Dark Materials, are beautiful, intricate instruments of truth-telling and prophecy.
At the priory, things are aflutter because a baby girl has been placed in their care. There are people out to harm her, but not if Malcolm can help it. Also important to the story, although it’s hard to tell this at the start, is Alice, a helper at the inn, a surly teenager with a perpetual frown on her forehead. Yet, as we find out, also endowed with steely grit and resilience that turns her truly endearing.
A reason to love La Belle Sauvage is the way in which Pullman masterfully brings past and present on to the page, creating a world which is familiar yet quite unlike our own. There are certain resonances, though, that matter. Spenser’s Faerie Queene, set in medieval Arthurian times, frequently critiques, celebrates, and makes allusions to the politics and turbulence of Tudor England. So does Pullman. In Malcolm’s world, libraries are being closed or made paid-subscription only, teachers are under ideological threat regarding syllabus and pedagogy, public voices of dissent disappear or are humiliated, the evil Consistorial Court of Discipline and its sub-branches practise systemized surveillance and efficient violence. And most pertinently, the novel raises a furore about climate change; meteorological systems seem out of whack, resulting in weird weather patterns and frequent natural disasters. Most of the action, after the first section, takes place in water, in the midst of an epic flood (easy to guess which Biblical disaster this alludes to). And the constant refrain among the people is that “nothing will be the same again". The flood has changed their world.
The story is propelled not just by the flood but also by the fact that Malcolm and Alice and baby Lyra, in their care, are being pursued by one of literature’s most malevolent villains, Gerard Bonneville, a seemingly “nice" man with a vile, three-legged hyena for a daemon. One of the book’s most disturbing scenes is when Malcolm and Asta spy Bonneville hitting the hyena relentlessly while she yelps and screams (in Pullman’s universe, a daemon is the external manifestation of a person’s “inner" self that takes the form of an animal). He must hate her, they say, and worse, it would be hurting him too. He chases them through the flood. Here, the landscape takes on the dreamy strangeness of a medieval romance story (think John Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci), with all its otherworldly dangers. They drift through the water encountering an ancient river god and refuge commune, a magical moonlit garden which hosts an eternal party, a mysterious mausoleum.
Yet this is also where the story sometimes dips and drags. Their encounter with the fairy princess on the enchanted island seems pointless (unless it has a relevance later in the trilogy?), for instance. The trip to rescue Lyra from the Sisters of Holy Obedience, despite it being set up as a seemingly impossible task, suddenly becomes all too easy. Also unbelievable is that, at an abandoned manor house where they seek shelter, Malcolm would entrust their safety to an inebriated man with a shotgun, who, unsurprisingly, is swiftly seen floating face down in the swollen river.
Yet it’s still a story—as with all of Pullman’s books—that keeps you racing to reach the end, mostly because it’s peopled with a set of characters that you’re rooting for because they’re brave, and complicated, and silly and endearing. This is Pullman at his best.