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Philip Pullman, La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust, Volume One
by Theresa Krier

Pullman, Philip. La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust, Volume One. David Fickling Books, 2017. 546 pp. ISBN: 978-0-385-60441-3 (cloth).  $22.99 (£10.00), cloth.

When the editors of this journal asked me to review Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage (volume I of The Book of Dust), the big, long-awaited novel succeeding the three books of His Dark Materials (1995-2000), I immediately said yes, because I adore His Dark Materials. But then I fretted. Prequels are never a good idea; what a crazy risk for the author to follow up on a fiction as incandescent as His Dark Materials; and so on.

Well, the worries were needless. La Belle Sauvage, the first in a trilogy called The Book of Dust, is wonderful, as startling as His Dark Materials. Nothing about it is predictable. With remarkable assurance, Pullman assures his audience that this book is not a prequel but an equel—and he is right about that. Crucial elements of the earlier trilogy remain: Lyra imperiled by religio-political forces much bigger than herself; staunch allies who protect and further her adventures, at great cost to themselves; scholars on the side of reading, libraries and thinking; the alternate-universe Oxford area; the overriding battle between free thinking and the Magisterium, what we’d call the Church in our universe; above all, daemons, the animals who are their humans’ souls, companions, guides, confidants. Each of Lyra’s passionate, aristocratic parents, Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel are here, and the careful, wise Gyptian Coram van Texel. (In His Dark Materials he was, or will become, chief advisor to the King of the Gyptians.) Knowledge about Dust is less advanced than it will be in His Dark Materials, and as a result the struggle between good and bad is less religiously inflected than in the trilogy, more about fascism’s threat to freedom of thought.[1]

At the start of this novel in two parts, the young Lyra, somewhere between six- and eight-months-old, has been brought to a Godstow priory for care by its good nuns; her protectors in more dire straits – the main characters – are Malcolm Polstead, age eleven, and Alice Parslow, age fifteen, who know each other through their work in the kitchen and dining rooms of the riverside inn called The Trout, owned by Malcolm’s parents. Part I, a spy fiction, traces a wide web of working townspeople, scholars, nuns, aristocrats, schoolchildren and also spies, criminals and thugs.

As befits a good English spy story, the sense of a home place slowly wound into a tightening web of mistrust and betrayal is crafted meticulously. Malcolm and his cherished, useful canoe La Belle Sauvage move nimbly around the Oxford waterways, carrying him to and from the Trout, as he visits the Priory where he does odd jobs, and the flat of scholar Hannah Relf, who studies the alethiometer at the Bodleian and who joins forces with Oakley Street, the secret agency fighting the Magisterium. The waterways and the canoe provide one form of his belonging in his world; the other form of belonging is, quite wonderfully, kitchens. Malcolm works as a serving boy at the Trout; he is constantly in and out of the kitchen where his mother cooks everyday dishes lovingly particularised; at the Priory he helps the aged Sister Fenella in the kitchen, cleaning, paring, chopping, stirring pots of simple foods; at Hannah’s flat they talk books and ideas over tea or hot chocolatl. There are kitchens and fireplaces everywhere. The adults too meet to discuss political concerns over food and good drink, always precisely fitted to the occasion. By chapter eleven, Malcolm has already developed an urgent sense of the changes to his home: ‘The steamy, noisy kitchen was the safest place in the world, it seemed to Malcolm. Safety had never been anything to think about before’. He can think this because he is in a place of temporary safety ‘but there was danger all around, just the same’ (152-53).

Most of Part I, reliant though it is on John Le Carré, seems to me a canny adaptation of Spenser’s handling of narrative in The Faerie Queene I, in which the world as represented in the opening cantos turns out to represent not ‘the world’ as such, but the world as taken by the Redcrosse Knight in his early Innocence – for example, Una pure and shining, who will become more complex as Redcrosse, or maybe the reader on Redcrosse’s behalf, goes deeper into the realm of Experience. (In His Dark Materials, a Blakean dynamic of Innocence and Experience was quite explicit; in this book Blake’s model is less in evidence, and the oblique narrative technique of Spenser and allegorical quest more active.) Something of this sort – the world as taken in Malcolm’s honest, idealistic innocence – seems to me to account for the straightforwardness of his Oxfordshire home before spies come into the picture: the honest working men with names like Mr. Taphouse (carpenter) and Mr. Boatwright (boatman), the admirable nuns, the cranky representation of Alice, which is at first the representation, rather, of cranky Alice whom Malcolm finds alarming. Thus Malcolm is eleven, she is fifteen; she comes from a harder part of town; she holds her tongue unless she is speaking her mind, her ways of using language different from those of Malcolm —all of this the right stuff to make an eleven-year-old boy wary of her. 

Throughout Part I rain falls pretty steadily, and the waters keep rising, which adds to the ominousness of human troubles: teachers and other townspeople disappearing, a man found dead – no, murdered, it turns out – in the river, formidable strangers asking questions. Part I ends with torrential rain and flood in the night. The rivers and canals have overborne their continents; Port Meadow is flooded, buildings are knocked down. Malcolm and Alice find themselves rescuing Lyra from the grip of the predatory and violent madman Gerard Bonneville; then all three of them are committed to the waters in the well-crafted canoe.

Part II takes place almost entirely on the flooded river or scattered bits of land that rise up over the flood, or under the water, or in a region called Albion to which the water takes them, ‘kind of a between-time. Like a dream or something,’ says Malcolm (382). In Albion they have phantasmagoric adventures with a female fairy; with a party of elegantly dressed people at a party who never register the children’s existence; with a minor river god, commissioned by ‘Old Father Thames’ to guard iron-bound gates blocking their journey. They also undergo terrifying encounters with the relentless Bonneville. In the first, Malcolm and Alice believe they have probably killed him; in the second, they see him coming at them during that disconcerting party; in the third, at a mausoleum, quite desperate, he is killed, after a terrible violence to Alice. In the end, by a hair’s breadth and the most extreme, exhausting measures, they do save Lyra, all three of them snatched up by her father, who delivers them all to sanctuary at Jordan College. And this is where we will meet, or will have met, Lyra ten years on, in Northern Lights (His Golden Compass). This final chapter is titled ‘A Quiet Rode,’ from Spenser’s stanza at The Faerie Queene I.xii.52, and the book concludes with that full stanza, the peace and safety of which shine more brightly, like a good deed in a naughty world, after the flood’s welter.

Part II is titled The Flood, but it might equally be titled Misery. Malcolm and Alice are soaked, chilled, hungry and exhausted, throughout. Each has bouts of sickness and wooziness, since they each suffer blows to the head. The physical demands of sustaining the canoe’s journey and Lyra’s life are all but beyond their capacities. Their encounters with others sometimes feed and warm them, but just as often leave them beaten, hurt, aching, frightened, betrayed. Bonneville pursues them despite all their efforts, as do agents of both good and bad political organisations. There are episodes of horror, terror and sexual violence. By misery I mean not only the children’s physical trials, which are vividly detailed, but also the misery that a reader could well feel (I felt it) going through the relentless flood episodes with them. It was a little like reading the fifth book of The Faerie Queene, in fact: a hero trapped in a world in which force and violence seem the only means to survive, the insane persistence, destructiveness and duplicity in adversaries, the demands on a male in the hero role to marshal his own force and self-control, the tamping down of occasional wellings of intimacy or tenderness or longing. In Part I Malcolm discovers that he can intelligently deduce whom to trust and whom not to, that he can lie if need be, and that he can trust his instincts in spycraft. In Part II, he also discovers that he can bracket painful emotions and thoughts to do what he must to survive; that he can be violent, pitiless, murderous; that he can coerce and deceive Alice in order to keep them all going; that his impulse to defend Lyra and Alice can’t always succeed. It is grim reading. His Darker Materials, Pullman has quipped of this book.

Still, together Malcolm and Alice discover their capacities for survival, improvisation, loyalty, speculative conversation, their joint commitment to protecting the infant. Malcolm is an ideal pilot and defender: he has been from the start friendly, decent, helpful, curious and handy, willing to take risks, quick to devise impromptu plans when in danger. His intelligent idealism is explicit from the start. He falls in love with Lyra at first sight: ‘He was her servant for life’ (54). He honors paths of knowledge when he meets them in books and scholars and in others’ traditions; he values the alethiometer and is fascinated by its interpretive interaction with its user. He trusts extraordinary phenomena as he undergoes them, as when he starts to experience sinuous lines and circles of light in his perceptual field. His mentor Hannah Relf tells him these are probably migraine auras, which Malcolm later mixes up with aurora, the connotations of which intensify his trust in the experience of ‘the spangled light’, as he calls it (306), drawing on a phrase from Milton’s paraphrase of Psalm 136: ‘He was never frightened: it wasn’t alarming; in a way it was even comforting, that calm oceanic drifting. It was his aurora – it was telling him that he was still part of the great order of things, and that could never change’ (307).

Malcolm’s aurora is one of a number of lovely episodes of light, which help to punctuate the ubiquity of mud and muck, and to give the reader moments of respite, sometimes moments of connection to the blazing worlds of His Dark Materials. Like  The Faerie Queene, Pullman’s fictions about Dust makes much of the elements – in His Dark Materials, especially air and fire; in La Belle Sauvage, water. The waterways of Oxfordshire, and then the flood across all of southern England, lap at buildings and islands and bridges. The ubiquitous kitchens of Part I, which Malcolm longs for in terms of their fires and steams and food, recur in Part II in the sculleries, water pipes, drains and tunnels that go along with kitchens, and Malcolm learns to navigate these dismal, often underground waterways as well. Water’s weight as well as its wetness take the children, and the canoe, down, down; when in Albion they are not only in a between-space but sometimes deep beneath the surface. There’s heavy mud, and reports of mysterious beings in the depths. Though reviewers rightly cite Spenser as one of a temptingly endless array of sources and analogues for the flood voyage (wait! no one’s mentioned Dorothy Sayers or George Eliot or Patricia Smith!), I think it is more interesting to consider how water becomes muck in the novel; how it is more like the muck of the Nile in The Faerie Queene I than like the ebullient rivers of Book IV; how both Spenser and Pullman think richly of water in its viscous forms. Pullman’s range with ‘viscous porosity’, as Nancy Tuana phrases it, extends from the rains and floods, to the kitchen pipes, to the incessant viscous porosity of a baby’s body: at least seven times in the novel, Lyra’s need for diaper-changing becomes a bone of contention between Malcolm and Alice (Malcolm dodges this task throughout the book, inciting Alice’s contempt, and Lyra’s dangerous nursing at the breast of a fairy has some possibly transformative effect on her, though its extent is not clear in this novel.)[2]

To read this book well requires, first, a relinquishment of all the loves and expectations that you harbor from having read His Dark Materials – love of the witches and hot-air balloons and daemon hares, of the wild girl Lyra, of gay angels and the polar bear king, of shamans and the glittering North, of all the poetry and high color and epic similes and profusion of poetry. (This present book has only a couple of lines from MacNeice’s ‘Snow’ at the start; the oblique reference to Milton; and an all-out stanza from The Faerie Queene at the end.) But to read this book well requires, second, a recovery of all those loves and expectations, so as to discern the remarkable imaginative risk of writing a book that is so dark, dominated by water and flood as La Belle Sauvage. The stake is that this book in its misery can make us hanker after the incandescent flights and dash of the earlier trilogy, and appreciate anew its energies, as if they are emerging from the depths of this current book. (Of course, this dynamic might well change as the next two volumes of The Book of Dust appear.) While I share Colin Burrow’s feeling in his LRB review (‘boy did I miss the witches’), I share more intensely Katy Waldman’s feeling in her Slate review when she describes ‘the helpless vehemence that stole over [readers] when The Golden Compass came out’; like her, I feel that same helpless vehemence about this book.[3]

Theresa Krier

Macalester College

 



[1] David Lee Miller has a detailed set of podcasts for use in teaching His Dark Materials; they give a lucid sense of the structures chapter by chapter: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLCAy1o7SnXEDmF1BHhIRiMtjVL3nhAlj0

[2] Nancy Tuana, having drafted an essay for a collection, rewrote the essay when the desolations of Hurricane Katrina were brought home to her. ‘Viscous Porosity: Witnessing Katrina,’ in Material Feminisms, ed. Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 188-213.

[3] Colin Burrow, in London Review of Books 40, 1 (4 Jan. 2018): 7-8; Waldman, from The Slate, http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2017/10/philip_pullman_s_the_book_of_dust_la_belle_sauvage_reviewed.html

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48.3.6

Cite as:

Theresa Krier, "Philip Pullman, La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust, Volume One," Spenser Review 48.3.6 (Fall 2018). Accessed December 16th, 2018.
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