The Book of Dust 1: La Belle Sauvage—Philip Pullman

[I’m reading this in four sections. I write about each section before reading on, so I don’t know how any of it will turn out. So far I have read one section, roughly the first quarter of the book.]

30 October 2018
Chapters 1-8
Good old Philip. He seems to be playing a clever game in the first part of this, lulling us into thinking we know exactly where we are, in a fantasy vision of an old-fashioned England as comfortable as a pair of slippers. The non-weird aspects the world he evokes are familiar from the best English children’s fiction up to about the 1960s and, whilst his daemons are all his own—and what comfort to know that we’re in Lyra’s world again—I can’t help thinking of Philippa Pearce. La Belle Sauvage, Malcolm’s canoe, is Pearce’s Minnow on the Say for me, a fenland craft while Malcolm’s is in the wet flatlands of Oxfordshire. (I’ve just noticed that the cover of the hardback edition is very similar to the original cover of The Minnow on the Say.) But the DNA of other great children’s writers is in there too, like Alan Garner and John Christopher. I sometimes re-read those authors, and they are brilliant at what they do. And Pullman definitely works within the same tradition of taking the ordinary and giving it a compelling, through-a-glass-darkly tweak.

Even in these early chapters, Pullman is moving things along. It’s impossible not to be conscious of the 21st Century England that Pullman lives in, and the stupidities he’s always kicking against. Pullman’s sly dig at a world without public libraries might be like John Christopher’s early on in The Guardians, in which a bright boy from an unpromising background visits an almost derelict library in order to feed his own curiosity. In La Belle Sauvage, Malcolm’s schoolteacher can’t give any individual child the time to nurture a love of reading, and… say no more. The political realities might be different, but Malcolm’s idyllic-seeming world is starting to have a problem with a political Right that wants to come down on free speech, and academics have to be very careful what they say. Don’t get me wrong, Pullman isn’t suggesting that things are as bad in our Britain in 2018 as they are in Malcolm’s, some time in the recent past. We don’t have government officials encouraging schoolchildren to report their parents’ incorrect views, Hitler Youth-style. But old liberties are being eroded in both, and what’s the point of creating a fantasy world if you can’t offer a take on the real one? (One other connection. Is there climate change in Pullman’s fantasy world? It always seems to be raining, and the cover has an image of Malcolm’s canoe sailing through a half-submerged landscape….)

I’m sure that Pullman is establishing his world very consciously along familiar lines in order to subvert it, a process that’s already begun in these early chapters. This is a pre- or non-digital age, where most technology is like our own nearly 100 years ago—Malcolm’s life at the ‘tavern’ would fit into one of Pullman’s Victorian novels—but we are much later in the 20th Century than might appear. Readers of the His Dark Materials books know this, but there’s other evidence. Clothes, and the presence of women in high-status positions are unexpected in a world in which travellers stay at inns, or at the local convent with its community of friendly nuns. This is a world in which the Reformation never happened and the Church is flexing its muscles after what appears to have been a period of tolerance. Pullman’s England is becoming like the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany in the 1930s, where people are careful what they say, and when agents working for the Church’s version of the KGB or SS visit the pub, everybody looks down and shuts up.

But I’m not telling you the plot. Malcolm, bright-as-a-button son of the landlord of the Trout, gets drawn into the dark world of Church politics when, along the canal-side, he happens to see a man drop something and lose it. Malcolm’s daemon has spotted where it went, she thinks, and they find it. They go after the man but, in the distance, he is accosted and taken away by two official-looking men. Those same men turn up at the pub with a photo of a different wanted man, and one of them carelessly removes other notices so they can display it prominently. When a local boatman makes a scene and tears it up, they tell him to wait outside. The way they torture his daemon when he refuses would make anybody comply, and he goes—but disappears, and we still don’t know if he’s in hiding or has been found and arrested. Meanwhile, luckily—this is an adventure yarn, after all—the son of the local court official happens to be in Malcolm’s class, and he tells him stuff. Like, the man who was found drowned—Malcolm had been shocked when the news appeared in the paper, and he recognised the man on the canal-side—had been strangled first. Gulp.

Pullman, famously gender-savvy, brings in the female interest. OK, we’ve met some very nice nuns too, and they will almost certainly be on the side of the angels, so to speak. But so far they’ve just been capable and nice, reluctant to criticise the KGB. Or the CCD as they are in this world. Dr Hannah Relf, the female interest, is a historian. (In fact, both she and Malcolm make a big thing of saying an historian, correcting themselves if necessary. He loves the quirkiness of English, Pullman.) She’s an Oxford Scholar doing some work on the Bodleian’s—sorry, ‘Bodley’s’—own alethiometer, and she’s competent enough to get some clues as to Malcolm’s identity while trying to find out what happened to the little object she’s looking for. This is the one he found, a carved acorn that can be unscrewed clockwise to hide a message. Malcolm had managed to unscrew it, marvels at its cleverness, and has read the message so many times he has it by heart. It means almost nothing to him, because…

…it’s about stuff that nobody except a reader of His Dark Materials would know anything about. Dust is in there, and particles, referred to in the language of this world’s alternative science. It transpires—i.e. Hannah Relf tells Malcolm all about it—that the message was intended for her, asking her to find information by way of the alethiometer about new developments regarding the study of Dust. This is what the acorn drop-box system is for, run by a group she only knows as Oakley Street. (I’ve just noticed the play on words—acorn and Oakley. Pullman loves this sort of stuff.) She’s set up meetings with Malcolm because he, keeping his ears open as he helps his parents in the Trout, is a mine of information. He knows about developments she doesn’t know, because of the kinds of people who stop off at the inn…

…like those three men, one of them the former Lord Chancellor—what are the chances?—who had turned up to reconnoitre that nearby convent to see whether they’ve ever looked after an ‘infant’. And before you know it, the nuns are doing just that, looking after the illegitimate child of—wait for it—one Lord Asriel, in disgrace for killing a Mr Coulter, husband of the child’s mother. (Technically, given the particular circumstances, the killing isn’t illegal. But it’s a scandal.) What new readers won’t know—and it’s hard to believe that any new readers would start with this novel—is that the girl-child Mrs Coulter gave birth to is none other than Lyra Belacqua, the heroine of the Dark Materials trilogy. And that Mrs Coulter is the villain of that story. And that it’s no surprise she wants nothing to do with the child—but, because of a witch’s prophecy about Lara that is mentioned again in this novel, plenty of others would want to do her harm. No wonder the nuns have been advised to board up their windows—they don’t know that the infant Lyra will survive and do all sorts of stuff in the future. (Hands up everyone who didn’t realise this was a prequel?)

What else? Other stuff. Coram van Texel, the ‘gyptian’ who plays a big role in the first trilogy, visits some academics in Uppsala and reports back that the CCD, or whoever, have been snooping around trying to find information. There are only five known alethiometers in the world, and their university has one. But the academics had feigned incompetence, saying that the real expert was on sabbatical. Maybe their story is true, but I doubt it—one of the academics is Gunnar Halgrimsson, another important future player whose name we recognise. And… is that enough for now? Is Malcolm the new Jim Hawkins from Treasure Island? There’s certainly some good ripping yarn-style action in this novel—like the scene in which Coram and his daemon have to fight almost to the death to survive a fight with the thuggish agent sent to keep an eye on him. Maybe if a film comes out of this, the studios will make a better job of it than The Golden Compass. And maybe Pullman is going to make this trilogy, or at least the main story, a little more accessible than the first. We all love Paradise Lost, Philip, but get real. Or don’t, I suppose. (I’m sure you won’t.)