This post contains mild spoilers, FYI!
I never thought that, seventeen years after The Amber Spyglass was published, I would be sitting in Jordan College reading the near-fabled Book of Dust. After years of rumour, speculation and terrible fears over Pullman’s health after his struggle with cancer, it barely seemed real to sit in the Divinity School, in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, the influence for the fictional Jordan, surrounded by other adults who were also cracking open their copy of the book with unsuppressed glee.
Three miles up the river Thames from the centre of Oxford, some distance from the great colleges of Jordan…
And, just like that, you’re back. As if you’ve never been away – as if you’re being welcomed back to somewhere familiar, and safe. A place of childhood, of adventure, and of sweet possibility.
La Belle Sauvage, the first of three volumes that will make up The Book of Dust, is one of the most anticipated books of all time. Waterstones reported the largest ever preorder of books since Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. In the first week alone, La Belle Sauvage sold seventy-one thousand copies in the United Kingdom.
Pullman says he never has an aim for a readership, when he writes – he simply hopes. Doubtless those of us giggling gleefully at the pre-release event first met Lyra as children, and at the signing event at Oxford’s Blackwells adults certainly outnumbered the children in the queue by miles. And though this book is certainly centred around characters who are children, there are, of course, adults in the mix, too. The book, much like the His Dark Materials series that preceded it, is a children’s book for adults – because we need stories now more than ever.
Was La Belle Sauvage and The Book of Dust always planned? Pullman says yes, based on one aspect, one question that needed an answer – how did Lyra get to Jordan? However, the real starting point for the story’s planning came from the Gyptians – the waterways and life of the river that is also so great a part of Malcom Polstead’s life. Malcom, the main character in La Belle Sauvage, sees life from the point of view of the river – perhaps even more so than his parents. And his boat – the titular La Belle Sauvage, is as much a character in the novel as himself. Lyra, of course, features heavily in the novel, but has a much less active role to play, as she is still only a baby. Pullman describes her as the catalyst for the story, around which all other events revolve.
Many aspects of La Belle Sauvage are based on events and happenings from Pullman’s own childhood. The almost biblical flood that launches Malcom and Alice into their adventure came from Pullman seeing great flooding in Australia during the 1950s, and he claims it left a great impression on him. Likewise, Hannah’s fostering of Malcom’s interest in books reflects a kindness paid to Pullman as a child, when an older lady would lend him books to read. Education becomes a theme for Malcom (and anyone who has read Lyra’s Oxford may recognise a familiar face). And outside of Pullman’s own history are instances in the novel based on true events. The librarian’s hiding of the alethiometer, and refusal to give it up, is reminiscent of Oxford’s Bodleian librarian hiding the letters and works of Milton when they were destined to be burned. However, the Bodleian librarian was not, unlike his fictional counterpart, dragged out to a firing squad. Libraries, Pullman says, have always been protectors of knowledge. Richard Ovenden, librarian of the Bodleian, remarks amusedly that perhaps real librarianship is the art of hiding books.
As well as the real-life events influencing The Book of Dust, Pullman is quite clear that he came to La Belle Sauvage and the future second and third books in the series (Book Two is currently rumoured to be titled The Secret Commonwealth) from his love of mythology. Anyone who has already finished La Belle Sauvage will be aware of the folklore and traditional tales that have influenced the story, but as with Pullman’s other works, we are warned not to invest too hard in the theory that in fairy tales the bad people always get punished. Fairy tales are meant to be reassuring, but when discussing whether or not children’s books are ‘scary enough’, these days, Pullman is quick to state that the most frightening thing of all, of course, is scary or bad things happening without justice being done. As to whether or not that is a teaser for what is to come… we can only wait and see.
Because, alongside the adventures and mythology, there are unmistakable darker themes. Pullman jokes that The Book of Dust might have been called His Darker Materials, and perhaps rightly so. Though there is the familiar menacing figure of Marissa Coulter (who is apparently ‘fun to write’!), in La Belle Sauvage her cameo is overshadowed by Bonneville, who is utterly chilling. An experimental theologian, Bonneville is a ‘nasty bit of work’, according to his creator. His relentless pursuit of the children is frightening, as is the way he treats his intimidating hyena daemon. Though the self-harm aspect of Bonneville’s actions may pass over the heads of younger readers, as an adult I felt completely unnerved – as I should, when reading about such a skin-crawling villain.
Equally chilling, though for different reasons, is the League of St Alexander – an organisation that encourages children to spy on their parents and teachers, and report them to The Magisterium if they aren’t behaving or thinking as the church would like. Secret societies are prevalent in La Belle Sauvage – on the other side of the coin in Oakley Street, a society working against the church’s teachings, though, as Dr Hannah Relf, a member, discovers, not without its own questionable ethics.
This brings to mind Pullman’s reluctance to label any of his characters as ‘evil’. Indeed, if even ‘the good guys’ are dealing with people who are dangerous, it is quite clear that most characters in La Belle Sauvage are morally grey. Perhaps an exception can be made for the evil of Bonneville, but even Hannah initially uses Malcolm for her own gains, though she is quick to protect him from other people who would wish to use him in potentially more dangerous ways.
The more adult themes, if they can be called as such, should not, however, be pushed to the forefront of any discussion of this truly incredible book. Whilst there has been a touch of controversy over the language used in the novel, I would consider using a chance to ask the author about their craft utterly wasted if one were to enquire only about the number of swear-words in the text (and, for the record, there are lots, and they are all impeccably used and entirely necessary). This petty focus detracts from the fact the book also contains references to paedophilia, self-harm, and sexual assault. Becoming offended at language for the sake of becoming offended does readers a disservice – particularly those who are children. No reader should be patronised simply for reading the word fuck.
La Belle Sauvage was completed in 2016 – a year of tremendous political and social upheaval. And whilst there is not direct correlation between our events and those in Lyra and Malcolm’s world, Lyra’s world is entering a state of flux and change that will continue through the familiar events of His Dark Materials, and into the next two novels that make up The Book of Dust. Can fiction be a tool to change the world? Yes, says Pullman, but there are more ways than one to use it. Looking is important, as is learning from mistakes. Education is, and always has been, a political matter – and it is education that changes Malcolm’s world as well as our own, though in our own world education has become fixated on money and target outcomes. This is, says Pullman, deplorable.
What is more important, and what Pullman’s magnificent novel achieves, is to inspire imagination. The rich mythology relies on childish imaginings, as well as belief in the impossible, for Malcolm and Alice to continue on their journey. Ultimately, as in The Amber Spyglass, the message for the readers, and for the future, is clear:
Tell them stories.
La Belle Sauvage, written by Philip Pullman and illustrated by Chris Wormell, is published by David Fickling Books and Penguin Random House. RRP: £20