I first read Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy back in college. I was swept up in the wave of Harry Potter mania and looking for something just as all consuming.
If I had had the time, I would have loved a reread of the original Pullman trilogy before diving into the newest novel in the series. As it was, I had to rely on Wikipedia and my memories to answers any questions that came up.
From what I remember, the books were steeped in religion. The series takes place in a parallel England where people are constantly accompanied by their dæmons, their inner selves manifested in animal form. While marketed to young adults, the series is heavy and dark, essentially inspired by Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. While it includes elements of fantasy like the dæmons, witches and talking polar bears, it also delves into philosophy, science and theology. It very much criticizes religion, or rather fanaticism within religion.
I remember greatly enjoying the first book, but feeling a bit lost and out of my depth with the latter two, particularly the third. I was a bit trepidatious, but also excited when I learned that Pullman was returning to the “Dark Materials” world with a new trilogy.
The new series is called “The Book of Dust” and the first novel is “La Belle Sauvage.”
This is no sequel to the original trilogy. Pullman takes us back in time to Lyra’s infancy in what he refers to as a companion novel. Like the earlier books, the story is set in Oxford. The protagonist is 11 year old Malcolm, a kind, unassuming but very curious boy, whose parents run a pub and inn called “The Trout.” Malcolm goes to school, helps out at the pub and lends a hand to the nuns at the nearby priory.
He is intellectually curious and also adventurous. He takes great pride in his little canoe, “La Belle Sauvage”, which he paddles around the river near his home.
His world begins to open up when he meets Dr. Hannah Relf, a scholar who studies the alethiometer, a mysterious device prominent in “His Dark Materials” and also acts as a spy for a government faction that opposes the growing church powers.
In Lyra’s world of the original trilogy, the church wields extreme powers, controlling the government and wanting to take free will away from the people it rules. “His Dark Materials” essentially tells the story of a second “fall” with Lyra as a second “Eve”.
Years earlier, during Malcolm’s time, the church was just starting to consolidate its hold on power, infiltrating schools to recruit children to be spies and reporters on non believers and trying to limit academic exploration, particularly concerning anything related to the mysterious material known as Dust.
It is during this time that Lyra is born. “La Belle Sauvage” reintroduces her parents, Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, whose affair produced the child. When Mr. Coulter learned about the child’s parentage, he attacked Asriel, who killed him in retaliation. Mrs. Coulter was not interested in having a child so Lyra ends up at the priory near Malcolm’s inn.
However, her life is in danger. The ruling body of the church, The Magisterium, wants her for their own ends. A disgraced scientist accompanied by a horrifying and deformed hyena dæmon also wants to kidnap her.
Meanwhile, a great flood threatens England.
The night the flood breaks, Malcolm finds himself in a position to rescue baby Lyra. Along with 16 year old Alice and their dæmons, the boy takes off in his little canoe, determined to deliver Lyra into scholastic sanctuary at Jordan College or into her father’s home in London.
If “His Dark Materials” was a retelling of “Paradise Lost,” “La Belle Sauvage” is reminiscent of Homer “Odyssey”. The little canoe navigates the great flood, fleeing from pursuers and encountering magical undersea creatures and dangerous fairies, all while Alice and Malcolm protect little Lyra.
“La Belle Sauvage” continues to play with the themes of the original series: the innocence of childhood, what it means to grow up, free will, science vs. religion and good vs. evil.
Malcolm might not be the fiercely willful protagonist that made Lyra so compelling, but he is a smart, kind and resourceful little boy whose protectiveness towards the baby is endearing. His journey to keep her safe pulls his from his cozy, safe childhood into a more dangerous adult world.
Pullman’s world is familiar but also deeply unsettling and frightening. Pullman himself is a magical storyteller, spinning a wonderfully readable story that grabs the reader from the first page and enthralls them until the very end, leaving them desperate for more. I finished “La Belle Sauvage” ready to pick up “His Dark Materials” and read them again, for the first time in over 10 years, excited to delve back into Lyra’s magical Oxford.
It may have been over 20 years since “The Golden Compass” was published, but Pullman has not lost his touch. “La Belle Sauvage” is a must read for children and adults alike.