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.