Review: La Belle Sauvage

Image credit: Olivia Sutherland

The question of how to classify a ‘children’s book’ is one which may occur to readers of La Belle Sauvage, volume one of The Book of Dust, Phillip Pullman’s foray back into the world of ‘His Dark Materials’, his best-selling children’s fantasy trilogy. Coming twenty-two years after the publication of the first novel, Northern Lights, in 1995, La Belle Sauvage is in fact a prequel, set in the same world ten years before the events of Northern Lights. It follows Malcolm Polstead, the innkeeper’s eleven-year-old son at Oxford’s ‘The Trout’ pub, as he becomes embroiled in the protection of Lyra, the original trilogy’s protagonist. Forced to flee with only baby Lyra and The Trout’s kitchen-girl Alice on the back of a great flood of allusion-heavy Biblical proportions, Malcolm is hotly pursued by mad-scientist-cum-sexual-predator Gerard Bonneville and the perhaps even more sinister Consistorial Court of Discipline, a branch of worldwide, totalitarian theocracy, ‘The Magisterium’. Given these explicit themes of the potential corruption of institutionalised religion, and sexual violence, and the perhaps somewhat censorious minor controversy that has arisen surrounding the book’s use of swearwords, the reader might be forgiven for thinking that child-protagonists are all that makes this book specifically suitable for children, which does not of course make it ‘children’s literature’. The sentence, ‘There was an agent they were targeting… who happened to be sexually interested in young boys’ might spring out as particularly atypical of a children’s book.

However, what makes Pullman’s newest tour-de-force of imagination, poignancy and wit so compelling is that it is literature for children in the broadest sense: not only for children’s consumption but in their interest, a manifesto, like the original trilogy, for the freedom of children to grow up uncorrupted by the manipulation of adults and their confused ideology on childhood. In Northern Lights, the machinations of adults to essentially castrate children for the sake of their ‘innocence’, by severing them from their daemons, animal-shaped external souls who represent both self and sexuality, is at the centre of the story. In La Belle Sauvage, a similar imposition of artificial adult values is felt strongly with the interference of the League of St Alexander. Encouraged to report suspicious behaviour in Malcolm’s school in the name of God and the Magisterium, the Nazi-Youth-like League of indoctrinated children become the perfect emblem of informer-culture, their ‘innocence’ in their lack of understanding of the lives they ruin the most terrifying thing about them. In a variation on a much-used formula, Nelson Mandela once said that the ‘true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children’. In this elaboration on the original trilogy’s concern with the corrupting influence of adult conceptions of innocence, Pullman makes his book ‘about’ children in thematic as well as narrative terms, brilliantly illustrating this homily.

Split into two parts, ‘The Trout’ and ‘The Flood’, La Belle Sauvage could potentially fall into the structural quandary of a divided narrative, with certain storylines and characters left, figuratively speaking, ‘floating’ in the wake of the flood, never to be picked up again in the second half, making the first half seem rather meandering and redundant, especially given its length. However, some of these structural problems, for example, the absence of conclusion of the storyline concerning Hannah Relf, can be solved if we remember to consider La Belle Sauvage as not the first part of a trilogy, but what it claims to be on the cover: one book split into three ‘volumes’, of which this is the first. This volume is not intended to stand structurally on its own, and we might trust that those elements seemingly abandoned in its second half be returned to in its second volume. Moreover, the time spent establishing Malcolm’s world in the first half seems anything but wasted. For a returning fan, it is nothing but pleasurable to be immersed in Pullman’s fantastically inventive universe again, but for any reader the establishment of the realism of Malcolm’s relatively mundane life, tinged with the magic of daemons, intrigue and Dust, is essential for true belief in the wilder narrative of the flood. Were it not for Pullman’s precise, material world-building of glazing sprigs and sausage and mash, later passages, which are rather more fey, in every sense of the word, might seem pretentious or ephemeral. As it is, Pullman’s fantasy is a cheek-by-jowl-juggling act of mundanity and magic, where ancient river spirits use the colloquial elision ‘en’t’, like everyone else in the narrative: this textured juxtaposition is what makes Pullman’s world sparklingly real. And while we might expect a story of which we know the conclusion (for Lyra, at least, survives to appear in the original series) to lack structural momentum, our concern for Malcolm and Alice as they face danger with every mile of their journey makes it a compelling page-turner, as satisfying in narrative terms as it is intertextually and thematically rich.

Our concern for Malcolm and Alice stems from the fundamental likeability of the characters: they are bright, brave and importantly ordinary, unburdened by the special powers and grandiose destinies which often encumber the protagonists of young adult fiction. Pullman disabuses us of the elitist notion that to be important, you have to be ‘special’. Thus, Malcolm is truly the focal point of the story, in his unknowingness and intelligence, which, in a narrative so focused on spying and perception (the League of Alexander informing; Malcolm spying for Dr Relf), links him so closely to his own canoe, The Belle Sauvage, named for Rosseau’s ‘noble savage’.  Malcolm looking on as the ‘noble savage’, still joyful and as yet unspoiled by the corruption of ‘society’, but increasingly aware of its problems, becomes the emblem of this richly woven work, which casts a critical yet optimistic eye on our own world through the mirror of Malcolm’s.  

blog comments powered by Disqus

Related Stories

In this section

Across the site

Best of the Rest