It has been 22 years since Philip Pullman set pen to paper and created the first novel in his seminal trilogy His Dark Materials. In that space of time, we have had a movie adaptation with Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman (though I try to ignore its existence), two novellas (Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North) and of course, a plethora of controversies. In the wake of Northern Lights’ publication, religious conservative groups criticised the anti-church narrative. Lyra Belacqua, the young protagonist of the series, sets off on a quest to undermine the Magisterium (the Church in this imagined world) and by the last novel in the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, she intends to build a reformed “Republic of Heaven” in its place. Despite the commercial success of the series, His Dark Materials failed to gain an equal standing with Harry Potter due to the critical backlash that it received.
In many ways, it can be argued that Pullman’s trilogy transcends J.K. Rowling’s work and other fantasy series published in the late Nineties. Set in a parallel universe in which a person’s soul is reimagined as an animal companion called a daemon, His Dark Materials begins as a coming-of-age story of a twelve-year-old girl living in Oxford. Lyra’s discovery of a truth-telling device (an alethiometer) and the impending threat of the Gobblers (a Church funded group who kidnap other children in the area) leads her to take on a mission that gradually takes the shape of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Pullman’s target audience is ambiguous at times, what with the complexity of his themes and philosophies interwoven in each novel. It is apparent that whoever his audience may be — twelve-year-olds, teenagers, adults — Pullman never panders or slows the pace; he expects his reader to keep up.
Throughout the trilogy — and even beyond, in two short stories — Pullman’s powerful imagination has created a world with a society very similar to our own, despite some magical elements. There are armoured bears that live in ice castles, Spectres that feed on human consciousness, and a cold-hearted woman with a golden monkey daemon, blinded by her love for The Authority. Rarely does a trilogy of books consistently hold a reader’s attention as does His Dark Materials.
It’s easy, then, to appreciate why expectations were incredibly high for Pullman’s return to this universe in La Belle Sauvage last month. The first novel in a new trilogy entitled The Book of Dust, La Belle Sauvage takes place twelve years previous to Northern Lights, just a few months after Lyra’s birth. Malcolm Polstead, an ordinary prepubescent boy who works in Wolvercote’s historic inn, The Trout (now at the top of my list of places to visit), becomes entangled in a plot to protect the baby Lyra, who, for reasons unknown to Malcolm, is being hunted down by a man with a three-legged hyena daemon.
La Belle Sauvage is a treat for fans from start to finish. It features brief appearances by beloved characters from the original trilogy and a similar combination of romanticism and realism in its descriptions. Malcolm makes for a worthy contrast to the hot-tempered Lyra in Northern Lights, his pragmatic and reserved nature not unnoticed by the reader. Other characters include Dr. Hannah Relf, who assigns Malcolm as a spy on the League of St Alexander (a Church programme for children to report any unorthodox behaviour at school). Dr. Relf, although not as nuanced a character as Dr. Mary Malone from The Amber Spyglass, plays an important role in Malcolm’s understanding of the theoretics surrounding consciousness and will no doubt become an integral part of future instalments of The Book of Dust trilogy.
As the novel progresses, Pullman employs a catastrophic flood in the south of England as a biblical analogy, with Malcolm paddling the eponymous canoe to deliver baby Lyra to the safety of Lord Asriel’s arms in London. Along the way, Malcolm and Alice (a disgruntled bar maid from The Trout) encounter fairies and giants, river gods and witches, whilst attempting to evade the attention of the Magisterium.
Pullman tackles a new set of questions in La Belle Sauvage as well as unearthing answers from His Dark Materials. There are occasionally moments in La Belle Sauvage that feel unevenly paced and the language perhaps a little rushed, however this is a small criticism for a novel that will now sit comfortably on bookshelves for years to come, lifting the dust that had settled on Lyra’s (and Malcolm’s) fantastic world.