We have written before about Philip Pullman’s most popular work, the ‘His Dark Materials‘ trilogy. The majestically vast canvas of the worlds and peoples described in “The Northern Lights“, “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass” along with its central idea of questioning the concept of human consciousness, spirituality and the role of religions left many characters and questions in reader’s memories. We all wanted to hear more about this world, know more about the lives of these characters. We wanted to find out what went before and what came after the big war.
And so over almost two decades since the trilogy, Philip Pullman has written a few more books about this world. Beginning with Lyra’s Oxford published in 2003 and following it up with another short novella called ‘Once upon a time in the North’.
But even before ‘Lyra’s Oxford’, Philip Pullman conceived what was called The Book of Dust. And it has taken almost 15 years in development, when it grew from one book to two – one set before “His Dark Materials” and one set after – to what is going to be a trilogy now.
The first book in this trilogy is called La Belle Sauvage. This was published in October, 2017 by Random House Children’ Books.
We have read it recently and here are our thoughts on it……..
The grey-blue world with sea and sky merging into each other and a little canoe adrift on floodwaters with two children paddling and carrying a bundle is an apt representation of the premise. Not to forget the two daemons – a three legged hyena representing darkness of human mind and a brave little child’s daemon facing it. The letters on the canoe stand out clear in the darkness.
Like “Lyra’s Oxford”, “La Belle Sauvage” has a thought-provoking quote at the beginning:
“World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Louis MacNeice, “Snow”
The book is divided in two parts: The Trout and The Flood.
We meet eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his daemon Asta. Theirs is a happy existence in general. Malcolm goes to school, works at his father’s inn “The Trout” in evenings, enjoys taking his little canoe called “La Belle Sauvage” out on the water to Oxford located three miles downriver, and helps the nuns at the Priory of St Rosamund situated across the river from “The Trout”. He has a lively interest in life and work that goes around him. He listens to conversations of patrons in “The Trout” with attention and is also equally attentive when the tradesman around him teach him how to do things. He is quite a young mechanic.
But Malcolm’s bright and unclouded existence is about to change because a new baby has entered his world. Lyra Belaqua was born six months ago and her existence is very precarious at the moment, because the witches of the North have heard voices in the Aurora:
“This child is destined to bring end to destiny…..”
Those who have read “The Dark Materials” are aware of Lyra’s parentage and the love-hate relationship between her parents Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter. Lord Asriel killed Mrs Coulter’s husband after Lyra was born and hence, at the moment Lyra is under protection of the court. Lord Nugent (a formerly powerful politician) decides to place her in the care of nuns at the Priory of St Rosamund. It is here that Malcolm sees six-month old Lyra and literally falls in love with the baby, feeling himself bound to her.
Meanwhile, the religious and political forces in the wider world around them are also clashing. Malcolm discovers a secret drop operation by accident and meets Dr Hannah Relf, a prominent scholar working with the Oxford alethiometer. They strike a friendship and eventually Malcolm learns that Dr Relf works for Oakley Street, a secret organisation that is working against the influence of ‘The Magisterium’ or ‘The Church’. The Magisterium considers the prophecy about Lyra to be directed towards end of the Church and has sent agents out from its disciplinary arm called CCD – The Consistorial Court of Discipline – to abduct the child.
On the other hand, Mrs Coulter is now curious about the prophecy and is actively chasing her daughter. There is also a disgraced scholar turned madman Gerard Bonneville who is planning to kidnap Lyra to serve his own ends and the agents of Oakley Street are trying to prevent him.
As children do, Malcolm observes bits and pieces of all these happenings, but adult behaviour is so unfathomable that he can’t quite make the full picture out of it. But there is one thing he discovers for sure – that Lord Asriel loves his daughter and so when in return for Malcolm’s help, Lord Asriel gifts him an upgraded ‘La Belle Sauvage’, he accepts. However, the Gyptian who delivers the canoe also brings a warning of a severe flood. No one except Malcolm plays much heed to this.
But the inevitable rains and flood do come, and with a vengeance too.
“His Chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
And dark is his path on the wings of the storm…”
The flood destroys part of the Priory of St Rosamund and with a madman loose on the premises bent on killing Lyra, Malcolm escapes with the child and a very unlikely ally – fifteen-year-old Alice. Life hasn’t been kind to young Alice and even though she works at ‘The Trout’, she is hardly on friendly terms with Malcolm.
With nowhere to escape, this brave trio takes ‘La Belle Sauvage’ on the flood. This is where the thrill of escape and chase starts. A baby on their hands, unstopping rains and cold outside, most of the land underwater, not enough rations or blankets or weapons, Malcolm and Alice only have their bravery and resourcefulness to rely upon. They are now being chased by not only Gerard Bonneville, but also by the CCD agents. Their only hope for help is Lord Asriel who may even not be present at their destination.
Suddenly, the world feels very primeval and both children must grow up very quickly as their actions will become irreversible. Do they even have a hope of outrunning all these pursuers and their entire world against them? How will they bring Lyra to Jordan college and safety?
There was a second prophecy after all – The voices in aurora spoke about a boy who had to carry a treasure to a place of safety. Will Malcolm fulfill this prophecy?
Like any good children’s books, La Belle Sauvage has a sort of fairy tale quality. It is a quest; it has the ring of prophecies around the events. It has a helpless baby under death threats from the world around it for no fault of its own, and it has a few protectors who are bound by nothing more than love and honour.
There are plenty of lessons for children around here – to be good and to be right, to learn skills and take responsibilities, to learn to see through things that are hazy and to keep up the courage when they are afraid. Also the fact that you shape your own life when you decide to put it in danger for the right cause. Malcolm and Alice are still children when they first escape with Lyra, the responsibility is thrust upon them by circumstances. But when she is stolen from them and they go back to rescue her from almost impossible situation, they become adults. They make the world around them rather than choosing to live with the existing one. Every child could do with a story like that.
“La Belle Sauvage” also has a lot of action, the excitement of chase, an enchanted island, riddles with a fairy and the good old river giant which all just add to the enjoyment of the book. The dark currents are there, but they never quite overpower the sunny innocence of childhood.
As this trilogy is called ‘The Book of Dust’, we also have the theological/ religious /political side of the story which will equally appeal to grown-up readers. Instead of making it a descriptive side track, La Belle Sauvage gives us glimpses of Dust as we meet various characters. It is as part of conversations and letters and questions asked of alethiometers. This being almost twelve years before ‘His Dark Materials’, the discovery of Rusakov Field and particles associated with it is not a very widely understood phenomenon.
The anti-religious notes are emphasized through the unmissable parallels in this story to biblical lore, especially the flood vs Noah and the ark story. But the survival stories and the driving forces are just as unmistakably different e.g., the prophecies made by the witches are what sets these events in motion. The league of st Alexander is a saintly celebration of someone who saw his own family to death. And the theological research of the era is all directed towards finding the root of consciousness rather than believing in Providence.
As much as we enjoyed reading “La Belle Sauvage” as its own story, you can’t help but feel that current of expectation. You know this events are not final, that bigger things are yet to come, whether that is already published “His Dark Materials” trilogy or whether that will be rest of ‘The Book of Dust’ trilogy, will be interesting to see.
As usual, we would like to keep spoilers at bay, but here are a few quotes from the book that we admired and we think will tempt you to read it:
But what matters is not the similarities your imagination finds, but the similarities that are implicit in the image, and they are not necessarily the same. I have noticed that the more imaginative readers are often the least successful. Their minds leap to what they think is rather than waiting with patience. And what matters most of all is where the chosen meaning comes in the hierarchy of meanings, you see, and for that there is no alternative to the books. That is why the alethiometres we know about are kept in or by great libraries.
Investigating the mystery of consciousness – human consciousness-that is, of why something entirely material such as human body, including the brain, of course, should be able to generate this impalpable, invisible thing, awareness. Is it material, this consciousness we have? We can’t weight it or measure it. Is it something spiritual then?
Consciousness is a perfectly normal property of matter, like mass or anbaric charge…
There is a field of consciousness which pervades the entire universe, and which makes itself apparent most fully – we believe- in human beings. Precisely how is a question…
Since the discovery of the Rusakov field and the shocking but incontestable revelation that consciousness can no longer be regarded exclusively as a function of the human brain, the search for a particle associated with the field has been energetically pursued by a number of researchers and institutions without, so far, any indication of success.
You got to have an escape route no matter where you are. Always have an escape route. And when the time comes, don’t hesitate a single second.
It was his fate to drift for ever on a worldwide flood further and further away from everything that was home, and they would never know where he was…
On a little note of interest, while you do understand the relevance and the part “La Belle Sauvage” plays in the whole story, where does it come from? Well, Malcolm’s uncle had a pub by that name, dedicated to someone who had done brave things….
Some things are worth the wait…
And “La Belle Sauvage” is one such work…
8.5 out of 10
Quick Purchase Links:
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- Buy La Belle Sauge (Book of Dust Series) – Paperback from Amazon India
- Buy The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage Collector’s Edition (Book of Dust, Volume 1 – Hardcover – from Amazon US
- Buy The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage (Book of Dust, Volume 1) – Hardcover Edition – From Amazon US
- Buy The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage (Book of Dust, Volume 1) – Paperback Edition – From Amazon US
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- Buy Lyra’s Oxford: His Dark Materials – Paperback Edition – from Amazon US
- Buy Lyra’s Oxford: His Dark Materials – Hardcover Edition – from Amazon US
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