[I decided to read this novel in four sections. I wrote about each section before reading on, so I never knew how any of it would turn out.]
30 October 2018
Chapters 1-8 of Part 1
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 a storm-tossed version of 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.
Pullman moves things along smartly enough. It’s impossible not to be conscious of the 21st Century England that Pullman lives in, and the stupidities he’s always kicking against. His sly dig at a world without public libraries is 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. There are cracks in this idyllic-seeming world, in which a political Right 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 we’re seeing already. 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. 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, even later, we 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 to recognise the man on the canal-side when the news appeared in the paper—had been strangled first. Gulp.
Pullman, famously gender-savvy, brings in a female character. 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 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 with 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 what she’s looking for. This is what 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, like the Rusakov Field. 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 sets 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 Nugent, 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, the heroine of the Dark Materials trilogy. And that Asriel is a key player in that story while Mrs Coulter is a key villain. It’s no surprise she wants nothing to do with the child—but, because of a witch’s prophecy about Lyra 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 apparently 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.)
Chapters 9-15—to the end of Part 1
A lot to write about, not least some harrowing plot developments. But first, those references I was making to 1950s and 60s children’s fiction…. If I’m right about the chronology of this, Lyra was about twelve years old at the start of Northern Lights (1995), set in an alternative present-day world. So she must have been born in the early 1980s—not that Philip Pullman will have to stick with those dates if he doesn’t want to. In many ways, because of how all kinds of developments lag behind those of our own world, the Oxford of La Belle Sauvage feels like the 1950s. Malcolm’s mum acts and talks like a 1950s mum, people like Hannah Relf keep warm with coal fires, and if people have a car—a gas car in this world, and I’m not sure we’re necessarily talking about gasoline—it’s something of a rarity. Malcolm gets around by boat, when it hasn’t been borrowed by one of the two lords who’ve dropped into the Trout recently, because the only viable alternative seems to be for him to walk. I’m sure readers who haven’t been young adults since before the term was coined are feeling more than a whiff of nostalgia.
There’s one exception to the slowness of developments in this other 20th Century: women in this alternative 1980s seem to have as many chances to make a mark as in our own at that time. I’ve mentioned how savvy Pullman is when it comes to female characters—the main character and her nemesis in the previous trilogy are both female—and now, in addition to Hannah Relf and Mrs Coulter, we’re getting a fifteen-year-old girl beginning to come into her own. This is Alice, who works cleaning and washing up at the Trout. She’s a wary, downtrodden girl who doesn’t seem to trust anybody, and she and Malcolm have recently come to a tacit understanding that they will simply ignore each other. But, at the end of Part 1, Malcolm has just had to rescue Lyra from the same thug who tried to ambush Coram van Texel in Uppsala, and he simply couldn’t have done it without Alice. As they escape from the convent through rising floodwaters, it’s Alice who brings a chair crashing down on the man’s back to gain some time, while Malcolm holds the baby. That’s our Philip.
But, as I mentioned, there’s a lot of plot going on. We continue to follow Malcolm—except, as far as I can remember, just once—but the person everyone’s interested in is Lyra. She might be no more than an infant, but everybody important seems to be interested in her. The thug, of course—or Gerard Bonneville as we now know him. Those three men who were asking about the convent early on in the novel, including Lord Nugent, are back in the frame and we find out they’re on the case. Then there’s Lord Asriel—he’s the one who borrows Malcolm’s boat to escape the secret police, or whoever it is who’s prohibited his coming anywhere near his daughter—and, inevitably, Mrs Coulter. When, at Hannah’s house and feeling brave, Malcolm asks her if she knows a man with a three-legged hyena daemon—I’m not making this up—both she and her own daemon are very disturbed indeed to be asked. Bonneville really is the thug Coram van Texel thrashed in Uppsala—the hyena must have lost its leg then—and Mrs Coulter denies any knowledge, obviously. But we know he isn’t trying to kidnap or kill Lyra just for something to do, and it would be no surprise if it turns out that Mrs Coulter is the one giving the orders.
The three men, plus a woman, are ‘Oakley Street,’ and one of them, George Papadimitriou, is the Oxford don that Hannah Relf works with. He invites her to an address in Oxford, and they tell her they have acquired a different alethiometer. It had been about to fall into the Magisterium’s hand, but good intelligence—and, no doubt, some of their own alethiometer-readings—meant they could save it. But they couldn’t stop their own man being killed in the struggle…. Oakley Street makes Hannah an offer: if she gives up her research at Oxford, she will have sole charge of, and work full-time with, the new alethiometer. She takes it from its box, finds it more conducive to work with than the one at Bodley’s Library, and agrees. Her career will be, at best, put on hold—at worst she will never work in academia again—but she’ll be doing important work. Fine. But, near the end of Part 1, she discovers there’s a catch. They love the special information she’s been able to get from Malcolm, but they want more. They want to set a trap for the Magisterium agents and, as she puts it, Malcolm will be the bait. She hates the idea, obviously… but what can she do?
Meanwhile, Malcolm is making himself as indispensable at the convent as he is at the Trout. I’ve already mentioned Jim Hawkins as one of the possible models, and the way Jim, brought up at an inn, is able to talk almost on equal terms to people of all ranks, fits Malcolm perfectly. When another mystery customer arrives at the Trout looking for him, it’s Lord Asriel himself. He seems to know that Malcolm is his best bet to get him into the convent, and he’s nearly right. In fact, they only get as far as the closed door, but when one of the nuns calls down, Asriel is able to persuade her that she should let him in. Which she does… and I wonder if his charismatic power is somehow another aspect of this world’s magic science. He isn’t the only character to possess it—I’ll come back to at least one other we’ve met—but I’m suddenly reminded that in His Dark Materials his daughter Lyra later comes to be known as Silvertongue. She has the gift too, I guess.
Inside the convent, Asriel persuades the nun in charge of Lyra to let him hold her for a while. Which he does, taking the baby out into the garden to whisper to her. But—adventure yarn alert—the forces of darkness are closing in, and Asriel persuades Malcolm to lend him La Belle Sauvage promising to return it. Which, many days later, he does—and it’s been given a complete overhaul by a professional boat-builder. Malcolm doesn’t recognise the man who brings it to him, but we do—Coram van Texel who, as one of the gyptian inhabitants of the watery world, warns him in passing not to believe any weather forecasts that suggest the upcoming dry spell marks the end of the almost incessant rains.
Nobody except Hannah Relf believes Malcolm when he tells them, but Coram is right, of course. The waters are rising at an unprecedented rate at the end of Part 1, smashing down the convent’s gatehouse, and Malcolm is only just able to get away with Alice and the baby. He can’t get into the Trout—it’s night-time, and his parents have locked up, not knowing he’s gone out—so he and the others have to get into the newly weather-proofed boat. Bonneville is behind them—and the flood bears them across the grass to the river. Destination, apparently, Oxford.
Bonneville isn’t merely a thug. He’s an entirely different sort of character, more viscerally evil than the agents of the Magisterium. And there is something so warped about his relationship with his own daemon, the hyena with the missing leg, that one of the nuns decides he must be ‘mentally ill.’ (I don’t know why Philip Pullman just doesn’t let her come out with it and call him mad.) The incident that she and Malcolm have witnessed—he from his window at the Trout—was when Bonneville tried to climb into the convent, his Daemon draped around his shoulders. Something goes wrong, and the howls that sound like tortured laughter come about—Malcolm’s daemon, seeing it through the eyes of an owl, can’t believe it—because Bonneville is beating his own daemon. This never happens—Bonneville will be feeling all the pain too.
That isn’t all. Bonneville had been in the Trout earlier, and every adult there hates everything about him. He sits at the bar, and all the other men huddle as far from him as they can. But Malcolm, when he talks to him, instinctively likes him—and later, when Alice grudgingly speaks to Malcolm about him, she says he’s ‘nice.’ It’s like a skewed version of Asriel’s charisma—perhaps one that only works on children. Alice might be fifteen, but her daemon hasn’t taken permanent form yet. She’s still sexually immature, which, we come to realise, is how Bonneville likes them—he makes a habit of molesting children and adolescent girls. Worse still, the high window that was open for him to climb up to was that of a novitiate nun…
We find out how bad it is when Bonneville is about to make his second attempt to get hold of Lyra. Somehow, Alice—who, luckily, now does some part-time work at the convent, too—has discovered that something is going on. She tells Malcolm to get to the potting-shed at 8.00 next evening, which he does. What he half-sees in the next room—he knows where babies come from, we are told—is Bonneville having sex with the young nun. In return for revealing to her the joys of orgasm—Malcolm, mystified by this aspect of the process, hears all of it—she will let him into the room where Lyra sleeps. Aagh. Cue chase, rising floodwaters, escape.
What else? Maybe that’s enough for now—and I notice that Part 2’s subtitle is The Flood. Climate change? The world has witnessed some awesome flooding in the past few years… but I suspect that Pullman’s flood is something else. Readers of a certain age know what ‘the Flood’ signifies in Christian cultural and religious life, and might wonder what forces, meteorological or otherwise, have been disturbed. And has it been messed about by the Magisterium? By those research scientists and their pesky Rusakov Field? Perhaps we’ll find out.
These make up roughly the first half of Part 2, and I’m not finding it all that fascinating. It’s a river journey in the style of Huckleberry Finn, itself a re-working of the epic voyages of classical myth and, like Huck, Malcolm starts to discover things both about himself and about the strange workings of the world. And, also like Huck, he has somebody to look after. But he also has Alice with him—and the way their interactions move from suspicion and hostility to a growing mutual respect become a part of his coming of age. It isn’t about sex—he’s only eleven years old to Alice’s fifteen—but he finds it’s possible to enjoy co-operating with somebody who had previously meant nothing to him.
Which is all well and good, but it doesn’t stop these 130-odd pages from being longer than they need to be. Aside from the shortest chapter, set in Jordan College with the academics, we’re with Malcolm all the way. The river-voyage chapters follow a pattern. Malcolm, in his professionally revamped boat, can do the Huck Finn/Jim Hawkins thing of growing into self-reliance through intense water-based activity. Pullman has him think about how what he’s doing, navigating a course through a fast-flowing and obstacle-strewn flood, is far beyond the creeks and canals he’s used to.
Chapters tend to begin with a launch into the unknown—the first, in darkness under pounding rain, is the most terrifying—then, after arriving somewhere, planning the next part and interacting with Alice and a few occasional survivors. And keep a step, or a few hundred exhausting strokes of the paddle, ahead of Bonneville. There’s nearly constant risk, maybe two or three moments of real danger per chapter… but our brave pair always come through because, let’s face it, nothing else is ever going to happen.
That’s why it’s over-long. By the end of Chapter 20, as they had to be, Malcolm and Alice have Lyra safe in their care. They’re half-way to London, because it becomes clear in the first chapter of Part 2 that Oxford can’t be their destination… which is why the rest of it, so far, consists only of their epic voyage. There’s been real jeopardy—Malcolm and Alice have to do real harm to Bonneville and his daemon in order to escape from him and the shotgun he’s got hold of, and when Lyra is taken away by the forces of horribleness it takes a whole long chapter for her to be rescued. But we always knew she would be.
And it isn’t only narrative determinism, if such a thing exists. They have magic on their side. The witches of the north, the ones who know all about Lyra, also know about a boy who will carry ‘treasure’ to where it needs to go. And, like the kids in Alan Garner’s Elidor, Malcolm is susceptible to an inescapable visual sign from a different world. It’s to do with Asriel, and if it doesn’t always show him what he needs to do next, it at least confirms when he’s getting it right. (When he described it to Hannah in Part 1, she had told him it sounds like a migraine aura. It isn’t, and when he looks it up in a dictionary he finds ‘aurora’ instead. Accidental? With Asriel in the frame? Hah.)
Don’t get me wrong. Pullman knows how to tell a good story, to rank alongside the writers I’ve been comparing him with. His descriptions of the torrential flood, the countryside made strange and the inundated city are as real as you would hope them to be. Meanwhile, the details of Malcolm’s practical boatmanship are straight out of the adventure yarns of a century ago. Fine. But in the best of them, Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson knows that the voyage isn’t the thing that matters, it’s the arrival.
And we care about the people—the ones that are there on the Hispaniola with Jim Hawkins, not just at the places where she lands. The best thing about Malcolm’s journey so far are to do with people as well, but there are only two important ones he has to deal with, Alice and Bonneville. It’s as though the episodic Huckleberry Finn approach is just too tall an order for this author. Mark Twain has Huck encounter characters of Pilgrim’s Progress-scale monstrousness—and the satirical humour is as black as ink. That’s how you get later authors to call you the greatest, not this watery plod. (Do I agree with Hemingway’s judgment of Huckleberry Finn? I think I might do. I wrote about it here.)
But I should tell you what happens. The journey itself is, as I’ve said, a matter of getting from one place to another in spite of the obstacles. Oxford is only reachable by way of the fast-moving flood at its height, and Malcolm can’t manoeuvre them to the hoped-for sanctuary at Jordan College. But he’d already had the idea by then—or the idea had magically got itself placed in his mind—that Asriel’s place in London would be a better bet anyway. After hearing the laughing howl of the hyena-daemon in the dark, floating by close to where they have tied up at a half-submerged tree, they have terrible difficulties getting to Oxford. But their first bit of good luck is very good indeed: they are able to climb into the first-floor window of a place that stocks every single thing they need for Lyra—a pharmacy. What are the chances? And what a good thing there’s nobody about, except a single boat with an inquisitive chap in it who’s easily fooled by the fibs that Malcolm is able to make up…
…because this isn’t a post-apocalyptic world of desperate looters and exhausted, sodden survivors trying to get on board. Oxford seems deserted, despite the preternaturally fast onset of the flood. So Pullman can focus on other stuff, like the way Alice moves from her current way of speaking to Malcolm—Pullman knows how to write downtrodden girls who know how to give as good as they get—to something different. Before, you could often cut the sarcasm with a knife, like when he tells the nosy-parker she’s called Sandra, but now there can be something approaching affection in her manner.
After we’ve been given a brief respite in Papadimitriou’s rooms at Jordan College—I’ll come back to that—we’re back in the canoe. In three chapters they make landfall three more times, and Pullman nods to three different genres. There’s the evacuated stately home, now guarded by a shotgun-wielding drunk that Malcolm is able to sweet-talk. Thank goodness for all those years of practice…. But they’ve only landed to get away from Bonneville who, in the meantime, has been given a quite perfectly unfeasible back-story. He’s always been a monster—he was in jail for child-molesting—but he used to be a top scientist. What’s sent him over the edge into madness has been his frustration at being prohibited from working on the Rusakov Field. He wants Lyra as a hostage, a bargaining tool to force the authorities to let him work for them on discrediting or overturning the uncomfortable truths about matter that are causing the Church such a headache. Or something.
The genre is Gothic. Bonneville follows them into the big house, realises that they’ve escaped through a trapdoor into a system of storage cellars—yes, honestly—and when Malcolm looks for a different exit he’s waiting. But—phew!—he’s on the other side of a locked door. Malcolm, transfixed, listens to the man’s tales about the years of pain that have seeped into the very stones, from when the cellar was used as a chamber for the sacrifice of children. It’s hard to imagine a more unscientific-sounding villain—although, I suppose, science in this daemon-inhabited world isn’t the same as ours…. The child-torturer, Lord Murdstone—Lord Murderer to the locals—might be a monster from a fairy-tale, but Bonneville’s little story has done its job. Malcolm, terrified, just has to get out of there and… cue face-off at the flood’s edge—after they’ve cast off Bonneville’s boat and taken his rucksack—and the stabbing of Bonneville in the leg, using a knife Malcolm picked up in the kitchen. Hyena-daemon? Remaining front leg almost shot off by Alice, who’s retrieved the gun after the howling Bonneville has dropped it. Phew, again.
Next genre: band of valiant fugitives. Specifically, fugitives from oppression, with the added spice of the threat of betrayal. It’s hard not to think about tropes when the nephew of another new arrival to the band is suddenly unaccountably absent, and his aunt mentions his membership of the Hitler Youth, or Children of St Sneaky or whatever—Aagh, quick, they’ve got to leave. Oh no—uniformed men arrive and beat anybody up who tries to stop them taking Lyra. One of the resistance fighters is Mr Boatman or Boatswain or Boatbuilder—the one who evaded arrest at the Trout all those weeks ago—who is unconscious for hours. Malcolm and Alice can do nothing, so they wait until the water has slowed down enough for them to go home.
Only joking, obviously. Lyra is almost certainly being held at the fortress-like convent of The Sisters of Holy Obedience, and they have no chance whatsoever of rescuing her from the nursery there. Except… Philip Pullman must have seen the first of the Star Wars movies, the one in which Luke gets the plans of the Death Star from C3-PO’s hard drive and finds the tiny gap in the armour they forgot to make secure. Malcolm knows about the layout of convents, and he has his own C3-PO—a fugitive or flood victim who used to work there; It’s a sort of orphanage, and the babies’ nursery can be found if you… etc. And you’ll never guess what he manages to do. Oh, you have.
There’s a couple of bits of jeopardy on the way to the rescue (by way of some loose grating over a outflow, if you’re interested), firstly when the orphan-slapping Sister Cruella meets him on the corridor… but she’s easily fooled by his pretence of being a new boy. He gets away from her, finds some blankets and a box, and finds the nursery. As he hides in the apple-barrel—sorry, behind a cot in the nursery—he overhears a useful conversation about Lyra’s parentage and that Father Nasty, going beyond his powers, is going to take her away next day. The nun—is it Sister Cruella?—shows him the wrong baby, but Malcolm recognises Lyra and easily gets her back to the canoe because she’s been drugged. ‘Took your bloody time, didn’t you?’ is Alice’s first greeting, but she’s ultra-careful with Lyra, and, in fact, she can’t hide her admiration for Malcolm. Enough.
Except for that Jordan College chapter. Papadimitriou, as we know, is one of the pillars of Oakley Street. Hannah arrives in waders—they used to be her brother’s but he doesn’t need them since his accident, so that’s all right—and, later, Bud Schlesinger arrives too. His name makes him sound like a wrestler, but really he’s one of the academics we met at Uppsala. They all talk about Bonneville and why he wants Lyra, and Hannah tells them what she knows. This is where we find out about that prediction about the boy with his treasure, and Bonneville’s work on the Rusakov Field. And how important it is for Malcolm to do what we watch him doing for the next 80 pages. And most of the pages after that, I suppose.
Well, let’s see.
Chapters 21-25—to the end
We do see, and yes, he carries on doing what he’s doing for most of the rest of the book. Alice is there too, and they only nearly lose Lyra one more time… but, really, this is all Malcolm’s story. I find it odd that Pullman has created two such strong female characters in Alice and Hannah—to mention nothing of Mrs Coulter—when he does so little with them. Hannah has simply disappeared—I know this novel is ‘to be continued,’ but whatever happened to that subplot about her being part of a bigger plan to use Malcolm as bait?—and Alice, while always feisty, actually has very little to do beyond being rescued by Malcolm’s quick-wittedness and courage. Twice, in that order—and it leaves me feeling disappointed. Here is an author who made his name with a resourceful, clever female lead in Sally Lockhart in The Ruby in the Smoke in 1985, and an even more interesting one in Lyra in Northern Lights ten years later. Now he gives us a young hero growing into manhood in the best Boy’s Own tradition. Even the language is from an earlier age.
I’ll pass over the rest of the epic journey for now—I’ll come back to it—because I need to say that the final two chapters are brilliant. If you wanted to argue for Pullman’s abilities as a writer of dramatic set pieces, you couldn’t do better than quote from the suspenseful lead up to Malcolm’s rescue of Alice from Bonneville in the penultimate chapter, its crashing pay-off, and the chapter that follows it. The whole issue of the rights and wrongs of killing rears its head one final time as Malcolm realises that, despite every last particle of his moral being telling him otherwise, he has no choice but to kill Bonneville. This is a boy of eleven or twelve, sensitive enough to a baby’s needs that he has voluntarily left his own daemon to guard her while he, agonisingly, has forced himself to where Bonneville and his hyena are on the way to committing atrocities. Both of them, Malcolm and his daemon, are still suffering a kind of post-traumatic shock at the end of the book a whole chapter later.
A huge amount happens from the show-down with Bonneville and the end of the novel a chapter later—more, I’d say, than the whole of the rest of Part 2 put together. It made me recognise Pullman’s mistake: pace. The set piece of the rescue, followed by a chapter that begins when London is still some distance off and ends with everything sorted, are as fast-paced and exciting as anything in Treasure Island. As the forces of good in their three gallant little launches face off the SS in their cruel search vessels—which have made Malcolm and Alice’s lives miserable for days—the action switches away from what’s going on in the canoe. One of the Oxford contingent reaches Asriel’s place, where the building of his fine new boat has just been completed. He needs it so he can sail to the frozen wastes of the north, but not this minute… so he has the time to ram the KGB boat bearing down on the canoe and one of the Oxford launches, saving the day. But he can’t save La Belle Sauvage, and Malcolm isn’t too exhausted to shed a tear—or perhaps he is, I forget—but everyone else is safe. And…
…so is Bonneville’s rucksack, whose significance Asriel doesn’t understand until Alice lets rip after he’s sarcastic about Malcolm’s concern for it. ‘Playing? You think we were playing? This was Mal’s idea, to bring Lyra to you to keep her safe, because by God there was nowhere else she’d be safe. … I thought it was impossible but he was stronger than me and if he says he’ll do something he’ll fucking do it. … If I told you half of what Mal’s done to keep us alive and safe, well, you couldn’t imagine it… Whatever Mal says, I believe. So take that fucking smile off your face, you.’ But her fearlessness in the presence of the alpha male does nothing to redress the gender balance. The novel has ended in a gung-ho male heroism-fest, and Malcolm—for all his sensitivity and uncomplaining childcare duties—has become a man, my son. There’s little for Alice to do but look on and tell the world how brilliant he is.
I’ll shut up about that. Exhaustion beyond all measure, gyrocopter ride to Jordan College, and a final blessing from Asriel. After he tells them to lie low at the Trout, he explains his next move: ‘I’d take her with me into the far north, where the dangers are open and obvious, but for one thing. She seems to have found some good guardians already. She must be lucky.’ What he’s planning is to get Lyra sanctuary at Jordan College—which is where we meet her for the first time in Northern Lights, of course. The end, until the next volume comes out.
But a quick rewind. I was talking about genres before and, following the raid on the Holy Death Star, Pullman rings the changes. First up—I’m not joking—The Enchanted Island, a mash-up of Tolkien’s Rivendell and the Brothers Grimm. Galadriel’s needy sister clearly has some of that magic charisma we’ve come across before, because before she knows it, Alice has succumbed. She’s handed Lyra over to her so she can breast-feed her and, before Malcolm’s half-fascinated, half-appalled gaze, she, Alice, is now enjoying the first TLC she’s experienced in her life. Her hair, no longer ratty and uncared-for, is being braided with magic flowers that have no right to be growing before the spring has arrived. Far more sinister, Galadriel—real name something else—is telling her how beautiful she could make her, and Malcolm can, sort of, see what she means….
But this won’t do. Urged on by his daemon, he says it’s time to get Lyra off her and leave. His quick-wittedness kicks in when he and his daemon have to persuade the wavering Alice and hers that Lyra is too big a price to pay. The woman in her fairyland of eternal spring wants to keep her, tells them that, having drunk from her breast, Lyra is hers. Oh dear. We’re in a fairytale world now, so statements like this count for something. What to do…? Got it. Give the woman three guesses about who they are and what they’re doing. After two wrong attempts, she shows them she’s just been playing: she knows everything, from the rescue from the convent onwards. Ha-hah! But no, she’s got their names wrong, as Malcolm knew she would—they’ve stuck with the names he made up at the pharmacy—so they can leave. He tells Alice, who is mega-impressed, that he remembered Rumpelstiltskin. Thanks, Phil—a hint about what universe we’re in, and a plug for wider reading at one blow.
Next is the Land of Cockaigne—or a mash-up of the old myth and several of the updates of it from Pleasure Island in Pinocchio, Eyes Wide Shut and The Big Rock-Candy Mountain. To get there, they have unaccountably descended a cataract under a different enchanted island, and… stuff. Palatial house, lovely lawns, and trees that offer any fruit (or whatever) you find yourself wishing for. Couples in evening dress are making their way to one of Gatsby’s big parties. Except… it isn’t Gatsby, but Bonneville—and, beyond the fog, Malcolm sees the world of ruin and toxic waste these people are hiding from. Luckily, whatever illusion Bonneville has created here, he isn’t in full control of it. A bit more quick-wittedness and wider reading helps Malcolm to persuade the river-god guarding the biggest lock-gates ever seen that it’s his duty to open them for the princess they carry. He, the weed-strewn god, knows what sort of story he’s in and, whoosh, another descent brings them back to the flood. They hear the gates clang shut behind them.
What on earth does Philip Pullman think he’s doing in these chapters? I’m not talking about the impossible topography of this land—Alice had been puzzling over the two descents that end at the same level they started at—or of the flood, for that matter. Like, sometimes there is nothing standing between the boat and the horizon in any direction. On an Oxford boat, one of the gyptians has an explanation, sort of, about disturbances to the Force, Luke, but he goes quiet when Schlesinger or whoever tries to get any clarification. Fair enough. But in these chapters, what had felt like a plod has almost come to a standstill. There are little bits of jeopardy here and there, usually involving Malcolm and Alice quaking that this time the Stasi boats’ searchlight will catch them. It never does, and they float on, heading, finally, to the exciting bit.
Two last things to mention. I’m sure the second part of the trilogy isn’t going to be Malcolm and Alice: the Trout Years—but that accolade from Asriel about their total trustworthiness, and what amounts to his order that they keep themselves hidden away in the pub for the time being chimes with something else. Those not-quite sexual feelings Malcolm has for Alice aren’t going away—we get the ‘electric’ sensation he feels but still doesn’t quite recognise—and we’ve heard what she really thinks about him beneath her sarcastic surface. And whereas before this adventure, Malcolm had only ever loved his parents, now he knows he also loves the two people who have been with him on his life-changing rite of passage. He and Alice will never be the landlords of the Trout, because he at least is destined for greater things. But I could imagine, given a few years, that they might find a way of expressing their mutual regard….
And that rucksack of Bonneville’s. We know what’s in the heavy wooden box long before Malcolm does—it’s an alethiometer, almost certainly the only remaining one unaccounted for—and opening the box is useful for him. Not only does the precious instrument add another element to the witches’ ‘treasure’ prophecy, he can use the box to trick the needy fairy-woman. He offers it, now containing only a rock, as a consolation prize—knowing that she’ll never be able to open it, because she isn’t the ‘mechanic’ she’d sneeringly called him. Sometimes it’s useful to have your feet on the ground, and not have your head away with the butterflies that seem to be the woman’s collective daemons. Also in the rucksack are five folders of impenetrable calculations and other writing. If there is a key to Dust, and by the end of Northern Lights Asriel seems to know a lot about it, it’s probably in these folders. Fine. But I still think Bonneville was never any more of a quantum physicist than I am.
The end, again. For now.