La Belle Sauvage is the first novel in The Book of Dust, Philip Pullman’s prequel trilogy to the metaphysical YA juggernaut that is His Dark Materials. Which means, inevitably, that it comes with a whole load of not-necessarily-fair reader-response baggage. (I can’t imagine anyone reading La Belle Sauvage without already having read the original series. But maybe that’s short-sighted of me.)
I found it an odd beast, compared with His Dark Materials. Our Hero is Malcolm Potstead, a precocious eleven-year-old whose parents run the Trout, a country inn a couple of miles from Pullman’s alternative and vaguely steampunk Oxford. (The Trout is a real, and moderately famous, pub; one of the delightful things about reading La Belle Sauvage is tracing its characters through slightly different versions of places that really exist.) When the nuns at Godstow Priory, just opposite the Trout, take in a baby girl called Lyra (who’ll grow into the heroine of the later books), Malcolm gets drawn into the machinations of a secret society called Oakley Street, which works against the oppressive state church which controls the Britain of the novel. He becomes a spy for Oakley Street alethiometrist Hannah Relf, taking her news of Lyra and the church’s incursion into his school and anything else vaguely unusual.
The novel intertwines chapters from Malcolm’s point of view with chapters from Hannah’s. This feels unusual in a novel that’s ostensibly YA/MG (although it’s something that Pullman’s done before, with Mary Malone’s chapters in The Amber Spyglass). What’s more, Hannah’s chapters are (unsurprisingly) markedly different in content and feel than Malcolm’s. They’re filled with worries about academia and Oakley Street politics and her spywork, the complexities of functioning as an adult in a very real, and very hostile, world. Malcolm’s chapters are no less complex, exactly, but they register the world in a different way: to his single-minded and still childish intelligence, the world is a puzzle to be solved, not quite participated in as a full agent. So, when a great and unprecedented flood comes to Oxford, threatening to put Lyra in the way of her father Lord Asriel’s enemies in the church, Malcolm’s solution is one only a child could come up with: ride the flood (in his canoe La Belle Sauvage) to London, to take Lyra to her father there.
The flood chapters are…interesting, and don’t exactly seem to take place in the same world as His Dark Materials. As John Clute points out in Strange Horizons, they are Spenserian rather than Miltonian: they take place in an England (or, an Albion) populated by hidden, allegorical magic beings (Father Thames, for instance, pops out of the flood at one point). As Malcolm, Lyra and their abrasive, accidental companion Alice float down the swollen river, chased by Lord Asriel’s enemies, they encounter strange and mist-bound perils, which they escape through a combination of fairytale logic, ingenuity and childish literalness of thought. I couldn’t help comparing the linearity and narrow focus of this Spenserian quest structure with the much more exploratory bagginess, the dead ends and reversals and multiple plotlines, of His Dark Materials. (If I recall correctly, Hannah Relf’s chapters in La Belle Sauvage end when the flood comes, leaving us with a single narrative thread to follow.) Put more simply: Father Thames doesn’t feel like something that can exist in the wonderful but ultimately scientific-rational world of His Dark Materials. His is a less comprehensible magic, one unencompassed by Hannah Relf’s understanding of the world as a web whose threads, however tangled, can be followed at least in theory.
One of the things I think Pullman is interested in, then, here and in his earlier trilogy, is the difference between childhood and adulthood, and, more precisely, the transition between them. Malcolm’s story may look like Spenserian allegory, but it’s not immediately clear what it might be an allegory for. Certainly not innocence: like His Dark Materials’ Will, and older Lyra to a certain extent, Malcolm and Alice are forceful about getting what they need for Lyra (nappies and bottle feeds are major plot drivers), and about escaping those who hunt them. They break into shops and houses, they are canny about how to elicit people’s sympathies, they don’t hesitate to use violence. Which isn’t to say that they are horrible people, of course (although I remain, frankly, unconvinced about Malcolm); merely that Pullman is pushing back against conventional representations of the child. As I’ve said, the novel’s form suggests that, for Pullman, the difference is one of outlook: a child’s (or teenager’s; Alice is fifteen) view of the world is narrow, specific, and observant, and occupies a position of relative powerlessness, while an adult’s is strategic and participatory, looking for networks and intersections with a view to influencing and inhabiting them. Adults create the waterways that children navigate, to force a metaphor perhaps too far.
So it’s a book about power and powerlessness (and wouldn’t this post have been so much shorter if I’d realised that an hour ago?). It’s very much a first-in-series novel, so it doesn’t come to any conclusions (unlike Northern Lights, the first His Dark Materials novel, which stands by itself very nicely both plot-wise and thematically) – which, to me, makes it feel vaguely unsatisfying. As does the fact that I don’t think Pullman does Spenser nearly so well as he does Milton. Faerie requires a lighter, more ethereal touch which Pullman’s storytelling is too robust to deliver. La Belle Sauvage feels like – well, not exactly a minor work, but nothing equalling anything in His Dark Materials either. In the most clichéd of reviewerly sign-offs: it remains to be seen what he’ll do with its sequels.