It is as though, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Pullman feels compelled to repeat Lyra’s story for the sake of his publicby Frances Wilson / November 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
Only those who live in an alternative universe will have missed the publication of La Belle Sauvage, the first volume of Philip Pullman’s new fantasy trilogy, The Book of Dust. An extension of the hugely successful His Dark Materials trilogy, La Belle Sauvage was announced, together with other major news items, on the Today programme. An entire Radio 4 Saturday afternoon slot was given over to a reading of the novel by actor Simon Russell Beale. The following week it was Book at Bedtime. To help us get through the day, the station also broadcast a series of afternoon lectures called Daemon Voices (collected in a new book published by David Fickling) in which Pullman reflected on the art of storytelling.
Like a river that has burst its banks, we are currently deluged by Philip Pullman. There are sandwich boards outside bookshops telling us that La Belle Sauvage is now in stock; my local bookshop has reserved its display window—all 18 feet—solely for Pullman. Hard cheese for any other author hoping to promote a book this autumn. The endless press coverage has included, in the Observer, a list of questions for Pullman from famous fans such as Ed Sheeran and Rowan Williams. Not the sort of questions authors are usually asked, such as “where do you get your ideas from?” but those you might put to an alethiometer (the name Pullman gives to the compass that reads the future and reveals the truth). Andrew Rawnsley, for example, asked Pullman to explain why the “Remain” side lost the European Union referendum and how voters could be convinced to change their minds. Melvyn Bragg asked whether Pullman believed that there were “other planets like our own.”
“We have turned Pullman into Plato’s philosopher-king”
This is a heavy load for one children’s book to bear. Especially when the author is famously wary of authority and claims, on his website, to be in the “once upon a time business” rather than the “message business.” But storytelling and message-bearing have blended in Pullman’s art. We have turned Pullman (a former teacher) into Plato’s philosopher-king. When he protested against the closure of public libraries, his speech, in which he compared the government cuts to the laying waste of the great library of Alexandria in the fourth century, was hailed as Ciceronian.
“There are things above profit,” Pullman thundered, “things that profit knows nothing about… things that stand for civic decency and public respect for imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight.” His words went viral, and were even reported in the American press. “Can we make him Minister for Education, please?” asked the novelist Joanne Harris. When he protested that authors were not paid for appearing at literary festivals, authors were immediately paid for appearing at literary festivals. In a character-name auction for The Book of Dust, Pullman raised £32,400 for victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. As a result 15-year-old Nur Huda el-Wahabi, who died in the blaze, will lend her name to a girl in the next volume.
Pullman’s grandeur is akin to that of Lord Asriel, whose daughter Lyra is the feral heroine of His Dark Materials. When we first met Lyra she was the 10-year-old ward of Jordan College, running amok with Pantalaimon, her “daemon” (the animal embodiment of her soul).
In La Belle Sauvage, which is set a decade earlier (the following two books in the trilogy will be set 10 years after the close of His Dark Materials), Lyra is a baby, placed for protection by Lord Asriel in a North Oxford convent. The Book of Dust, says Pullman, should be read as “an equel” and not a prequel or a sequel to His Dark Materials. But to all intents and purposes, this novel is a prequel. And prequels or sequels are rarely equals.
Lyra’s mother Mrs Coulter, whose daemon is a golden-haired monkey with an “unfathomable” expression in his black eyes, is here younger and even more terrifyingly beautiful. Lord Asriel is dishier and even more enigmatic, and Dr Hannah Relf, head of St Sophia’s College in His Dark Materials, is a research student with an expertise in the alethiometer. The Magisterium, the powerful and oppressive Church body based on the Vatican, is still hunting out heretics and now infiltrates schools, bribing children with the promise of a badge to report on the beliefs of their teachers.
The book’s concern is still with “Dust,” a particle believed by the Magisterium to be related to original sin and which first appeared, as Pullman explains, “when living things became conscious of themselves.” Though what exactly the meaning of this “Dust” is remains, at least for me, bafflingly complex.
La Belle Sauvage is the name of a canoe and the heroes of the story are the boat’s owner, the “intensely romantic” 11-year-old Malcolm and his daemon, Asta. It is important to acknowledge Asta as well as Malcolm because they are two halves of the same being. Pullman presents the interior life of his characters through the shape and behaviour of their daemons. This is his greatest imaginative feat, and the dexterity with which the various daemons are handled in these pages keeps the book afloat.
Until a child reaches puberty his or her daemon will be a shapeshifter, and so Asta morphs from sparrow to jackdaw to robin to mouse to vole to owl, according to Malcolm’s needs. “What d’you think happens when they stop changing?” asks Alice, the 15-year-old heroine, whose “ratty” body is also changing and whose restless daemon, Ben, has turned himself into a snake. “Dunno,” says Malcolm. “My mum always said don’t worry about it, it’ll just happen.”
Adult daemons adopt the form of an alter ego: Lord Asriel has a leopard-daemon and the villain, a mad scientist called Gerald Bonneville, recently released from prison on charges of sexual assault, has a three-legged laughing hyena-daemon who pisses in public places. Pullman’s own daemon, he says, would be a raven because ravens “steal things,” but such is the burden of La Belle Sauvage it might as easily be an albatross.
There are dozens of literary trinkets shining in Pullman’s nest. His Dark Materials famously reworked the war between heaven and hell in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Pullman credits Edmund Spenser’s 16th-century romance The Faerie Queene as a source for La Belle Sauvage. Spenser’s poem describes the quests of six Protestant knights, each of whom represents a different virtue. His anti-Catholicism appeals to Pullman, whose own war with religion has been raging for the last two decades. A self-proclaimed “Church of England atheist,” Pullman’s quarrel is less with faith itself, for which he has a fascination, than the abuses of religious organisations. He is the first to admit that the Devil has the best lines and the Bible the best stories.
Malcolm’s parents run the Trout Inn at Wolvercote on the Thames next to Godstow Bridge, and Malcolm, who helps out in the evenings, enjoys reading Agatha Christie and is confused by A Brief History of Time, books which anticipate what lies ahead. A climatic catastrophe causes the river to burst its banks and La Belle Sauvage becomes an ark in which Malcolm/Noah saves himself, Lyra and Alice.
While Oxford is flooded with brown water, the story is flooded with literary references. The children are washed into a Wonderland of sorts, but the cargo of beasts and humans also recalls the lifeboat in Yann Martel’s Booker-winning Life of Pi. There is a nod towards Jim Hawkins, the hero of Treasure Island, who also lived with his parents in an inn by the river, while Long John Silver is recalled in the three-legged hyena-daemon. Like Conrad’s Marlow, the party follow the river down towards the Heart of Darkness (there is a terrific “Mistah Kurtz—he dead” moment); like Dante, they cross the Styx and navigate the Lethe. We are reminded of the river Jordan (also the name of the college in which Lyra will find sanctuary), of Moses in his basket escaping Pharaoh, and of Huckleberry Finn’s escape down the Mississippi. When, like Prospero and Miranda, the sailors wash-up on a magical island, Malcolm defeats the fairy who tries to steal Lyra by employing a trick he learned from Rumpelstiltskin. Rooted in myth and fairy tale, the journey evolves into allegory. But reality is never far away in the form of Lyra’s dirty nappies, which give new meaning to the term “dark materials.”
Pullman describes himself as a storyteller rather than a writer, a distinction that creates a tension in his work. He is a writer, he says, only when he is sitting at his desk with a pen in his hand, while stories are the air he breathes; it is stories that contain the great truths of the world. The storyteller in Pullman keeps his presence anonymous and his prose plain; he is an amanuensis or a medium, letting the tales speak through him. But when he describes the daemons, the writer takes hold of the wheel, there is a change of gear, and Pullman’s own voice comes through at full throttle.
These are the book’s finest moments. Pullman describes the daemons’ animal qualities with the skill of a naturalist, and is wonderful at depicting the “deep pain” that comes from separating daemon and human. “It was like struggling to climb up a steep slope,” he writes when Malcolm has to leave Asta behind on one occasion, “with his lungs clamouring for air and his heart hammering at his ribs.”
The plot is propelled by its own set of stories, overheard and passed on. “There’s some things it’s dangerous to talk about,” says Mr Taphouse the carpenter, whose daemon is “a ragged-looking woodpecker,” but this is a world in which everyone talks about everything, no matter how dangerous it is, and everyone spies on everyone else. Malcolm hears a group of men talking in the Trout and repeats what they say to the nuns in the Priory, then passing on to Hannah what the nuns have told him. Hannah tells her spy network what Malcolm has told her and then feeds tidbits of information back to Malcolm, which he passes on to Alice who tells him about the suspicious things she’s seen and heard, which he duly related to Hannah.
There’s little about adult life that Malcolm doesn’t know. “I’m not old enough for this!” he thinks as he saves Alice, who has been snatched from the boat by the jaws of the hyena-daemon and is about to be raped by Bonneville. Malcolm, who now develops romantic feelings for Alice, has a rite of passage on every page. He even sees something nasty in the potting shed in the form, once again, of the satyric Bonneville, this time in an embrace with a nun who is “leaning back against a pile of empty sacks, her bare legs gleam[ing] in the candlelight.” Bonneville’s daemon, meanwhile, is “licking” the nun’s daemon, a pug who is lying on her back, “squirming with pleasure.”
Does La Belle Sauvage live up to the hype? There are some memorable moments, and children will relish the sex and the swearing. But it doesn’t dazzle like His Dark Materials, or possess the reader in the same way. For all its flashes of beauty, the prose has a slow pulse rate and seems produced under pressure.
It is as though, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Pullman feels compelled to repeat Lyra’s story for the sake of his public, but would rather cut through to a different universe instead.