Times out of joint

Godstow nunnery ruins 1784 (credit: http://thames.me.uk/s01860.htm)

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

Illustrated by Chris Wormell
David Fickling Books / Penguin Books 2017

Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead is an exceptional young man, bookish yet practical, hard-working yet imaginative. Living in a world parallel to ours, near an Oxford which is not quite the same us ours and in times very different to ours, he has to call on all his innate resources when the times prove to be out of joint. Will he prove instrumental in helping to set it right?

Pullman’s long-awaited new trilogy The Book of Dust, set in the same frame as His Dark Materials, in my view looks like living up to its promise. If we can accept the existence of daemons, those anima/animus beings in the form of animals that humans all have in this world, then at first this narrative starts off as a straightforward thriller. Those familiar with the earlier trilogy and its associated works will not be surprised to discover that this instalment provides further details of Lyra Silvertongue’s backstory; but new readers will not be unduly disadvantaged because our focus is almost entirely on Malcolm and the deep water — literally — he finds himself in.

Already there are ominous signs that the Brytain of this world is an increasingly dangerous place. There are shadowy authoritarian organisations like the Consistorial Court of Discipline and the League of St Alexander with which Malcolm is made very well aware of, the former sending agents into his family’s pub The Trout and the latter turning pupils in Malcolm’s school into Stasi-like informers on their peers, their teachers and their families. Into this caustic mix come rumours of a mysterious child being placed in the care of the sisters at Godstow Nunnery, sited on the banks of the Thames upriver from Oxford. Adding to that are predictions from gyptians that a flood of almost biblical proportions is coming. A perilous journey downriver in Malcolm’s canoe La Belle Sauvage follows, with expected physical dangers almost the least of his worries.

This is a touching tale of a young man’s rapid growing up because of the responsibilities he chooses to take on. Especially effective are his changing relationships with the older Alice, his emotional attachment to the baby Lyra and his solicitous attentions to the nuns at Godstow (in this world the nunnery is not yet in ruins). He also gains from the unorthodox tutelage of scholar Dr Hannah Relf and draws on unexpected depths when confronted by the sinister Gerard Bonneville.

The straightforward thriller I mentioned earlier takes a surreal turn the closer Malcolm, Alice and Lyra get to London. Instead of mere pursuit by strangers intent on capturing Lyra the trio encounter more fantastical situations, and I sense this is when cavilling readers get uneasy. Here is where I suspect Pullman is drawing on more atavistic roots as well as literary sources (Edmund Spencer’s The Fairie Queene is one of the more obvious examples) — and if the earlier flight is perilous the latter part verges at times on nightmare. Aquatic creatures, otherworldly dances, river divinities and an amoral fairy all appear, the stuff of folklore and fairytales, ghost stories and legends.

In fact, the passage down the Thames takes on mythic associations as we are subtly reminded of so many crucial watery trips made by infants such as Moses or Beowulf, piloted by Charon, say; I even thought of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness when reading this, and you may find other parallels. Like all tales with a journey — Pilgrim’s Progress, The Lord of the Rings and so on — the perils to be faced before a goal is reached shapes and somehow strengthens those who undertake it.

Now, is Malcolm almost too perfect? I ask this because he seems to combine a good moral compass with native wit, a practical sense and a genuine thirst for knowledge. Is he a figure set up to play a role?

I’m reminded of Hamlet’s words: “The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite, | That ever I was born to set it right!” I think that Malcolm is likewise a reluctant hero but that, unlike the Prince, he acts when the call comes.

20 thoughts on “Times out of joint

  1. Kristen M.

    I have been wondering if I should reread the original trilogy first. I have a very bad book memory (which is why I’m a big rereader) so only have the basics still in my head. It sounds like I would be okay though. I really don’t mind rereading but it puts off this one for (at least) months and I don’t want to wait too long or the second book will come out before I’ve read the first!

    1. My advice, Kristen, would be to go ahead and read this now because, whatever Pullman says, this really is a prequel to HDM (he calls it an ‘equel’!).

      I too am hazy about some of the details of the earlier trilogy but feel that some of the characters (like Malcolm Polstead and Hannah Relf) who got passing mentions there — and whom I don’t remember at all — will now take on an added significance.

      So, do go for it!

        1. I’m sure you won’t regret it! Be warned though, there are some disturbing incidents which some — though not me — feel out of place in a ‘children’s book’. My experience however is that the kids who are likely to read this are more savvy in the ways of of the world from news stories and from what their peers might discuss than guardians of their innocence might suppose.

          In any case, Pullman is not one to talk down to his readers just because they are young — even his books ostensibly aimed towards pre-teens have moments of true menace to be met and situations where crucial moral decisions have to be made.

          1. Kristen M.

            He definitely doesn’t talk down to readers. And you’re right — today’s young readers are more mature and world-wise, for better or for worse.

            1. I’m planning to be starting HDM again in the New Year, it’ll be interesting to see what I think of it a score of years on from first starting it …

  2. I was mesmerised by the fantasy sequences and saw some intriguing parallels with relatively modern sources. One nightmarish cellar sequence evoked the hideous scene in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” where the two unnamed main characters discover humans kept alive and dismembered gradually as a food source. This might be coincidence but I was struck by the parallel between The Road and LBS – both a protagonist trying to preserve the innocence of a child in a post-apocolyptic scenario.
    I’m interested that nobody has remarked on the island sequence with Diania. I cannot believe that Pullman’s choice of name for this character was arbitrary. It closely resembles that other inhabitant (posthumously) of a romantic island retreat, and synecdoche of sentimentalised and unhealthy maternal manipulative feelings, Diana Princess of Wales. Here Pullman seems to be suggesting that we use celebrity to create mythical characters today, as once myth and folklore were used in times before mass media or universal literacy.

    1. I still haven’t got round to The Road (and, much as I like Viggo Mortensen as an actor, I’m not ready for the film either) but yes, the joy of some books is the jangly echoes of other narratives that they awake in our memories.

      I’m also reminded that the burial of Princess Diana on an island in a lake on the Spencer estate evoked headlines along the lines of The Lady of the Lake, another potent literary allusion. Your observations are so spot on, thanks for commenting!

  3. An interesting review. I am not so positive about the book as you, Chris. Whereas I found His Dark Materials a breathtaking trilogy, I could only describe La Belle Sauvage as a plodding yawn! I missed his unexpected plot twists, his fascinatingly unique, deep and rich characters, and the brooding mystery of the trilogy.

    1. I’m looking forward to the next volume, Denzil, to see if the loose stands and less defined characters are a bit more filled out. “A plodding yawn” for me it wasn’t, however, even though I remain puzzled by the fantasy sequences (yes, I know it’s all fantasy, but some aspects is more realistic according to our world).

      I still think some of the obscurity comes from Pullman’s allusiveness, which he rarely spells out. For example the name La Belle Sauvage (the derivation of which there isn’t enough space here to discuss) I have a suspicion is related to the name Beowulf. Why? Not just because a mythical Beowulf is supposed to be cast adrift, in Moses fashion, but maybe because there is a faint verbal resemblance between the two names: Beowulf (literally ‘bee wolf’, a kenning for the honey-loving bear) and “belle sauvage” (an apt description of Lyra).

      I wouldn’t push it but Pullman does tend to shove in closet parallels from his wide reading. One could argue that this unbalances his narrative and characterisation, and I wouldn’t strongly disagree!

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