La Belle Sauvage
(The Book of Dust, #1)
by Philip Pullman
Hardcover, 464 pages
Published October 19th 2017
Once again Philip Pullman has drawn me into the welcoming yet menacing world of Brytain, Lyra’s parallel universe. Welcoming for all of its post-Victorian quaintness – warm fires and cozy pubs, pastoral landscapes populated equally by salt-of-the-earth commoners, tweedy scholars and graceful aristocrats – yet menacing for the insidious elements of religious zealotry that threaten to destroy this outwardly idyllic world.
Pullman achieves all this through the naive, altruistic eyes of 11-year old Malcolm Polstead; industrious, curious, honest and helpful to a fault. I found him instantly likeable, much in the same way one bonds with a good dog, though he is far more clever. Some might object to him as being too good, too unrealistic, but I myself have no such objections. In fact, there is a liberal helping of Samwise Gamgee in young Malcolm’s makeup.
As with the other books in the series (of which ‘La Belle Sauvage’ is a prequel) I admire Pullman’s writing style. He refuses to coddle his readers when guiding them through his world. Anbaric lights, gyropters, coal silk; these are everyday parts of the world, and as such need no explanation.
Also, for a ‘children’s’ book, he does not shy away from sensitive subject matter. Violence for certain is an ever-present element, but he even included a sex scene, and more impactfully, a horrible, pissing hyena, which conveyed a surprising amount of malice.
Again, the dæmons of Pullman’s world offer a fascinating lens through which to examine human psychology. The dæmon is like an alter-ego, part of one’s self yet separate, an outer consciousness. That dæmons can speak to one another, even without their ‘master’s’ knowledge, presents a puzzling paradox. And the character of Gerard Bonneville, who beats his own dæmon, conveys a level of self-loathing akin only to self-mutilation in our own world.
Framed as a river journey, Malcolm, Alice and Lyra face a series of trials which evoke mythic analogues, Odysseus-like, which become increasingly supernatural in nature, a motif which is not fully explained but which I quite like. There is a certain deus ex machina element to the ending, but Pullman does justify it through various sub-plots, and so I’m not bothered by it.
In all ‘La Belle Sauvage’ is a worthy companion to ‘His Dark Materials’, though perhaps not an equal to ‘The Golden Compass’. I’m wondering what adventures await young Master Polstead, and look forward to the next installment.