Book reviews: La Belle Sauvage & Dæmon Voices, by Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman PIC: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images
Philip Pullman PIC: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images
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What a curious experience it is to review these two books at the same time. The first instalment of The Book Of Dust is an utter joy. It is also generous, frightening, thrilling, clever and ingenious. The essays, by contrast, are a lazy and strident collection, which sorely needed an editor. Let’s begin with the downside. Dæmon Voices is marred by being, mostly, occasional speeches, cobbled together into volume form. The opening words are “Thank you for inviting me to talk to this conference”, and we shall later encounter “Thank you very much for inviting me here”, “I am very honoured to be have been asked to give the Patrick Hardy Lecture”, “First of all I want to thank Trinity College for inviting me…”, “Thank you for inviting me to speak here in this distinguished series of lectures”. That’s bad enough, but Pullman ought to get an award for recycling. The same quotations – bits of Blake and Frost and Merrill, enthusiasms for the Moomins and off-hand dismissals of critical theory – occur again and again. Sometimes the same idea is trotted out – the wood versus the path, or story versus novel, or why I don’t like God – sometimes the very same words are used.

There are moments of interest: he is excellent on Manet’s A Bar At The Folies-Bergère, typically insightful on Milton, intriguing on Kleist’s On The Marionette Theatre. But overall, unless some postgraduate wants a way to keep countless photocopies between two covers, I can see little edifying in this. When one essay – and I use the term lightly – refers to finding “a slight revulsion” at the word “spiritual” and the next refers admiringly to a “spiritual condition”, one wonders if the book was even read before it was assembled.

Yet I shall forgive him because La Belle Sauvage is so good. The title of this first part of The Book Of Dust is the name of the hero Malcolm Polstead’s canoe. But it is worth unpicking because sauvage means wild, as in unspoiled, as well as savage – and Lyra, the heroine of His Dark Materials, was introduced as a “coarse and greedy little savage” – and also unsociable – a term that ably describes Malcolm’s comrade-in-arms, Alice. Alice works in Malcolm’s parents’ pub outside Oxford, as does Malcolm. They start the novel not even speaking to each other. Malcolm witnesses something which brings him into the orbit of factions determined to oppose the intellectual stultification of the Magisterium, Pullman’s version of the Church. “How can knowing something be sinful?” he asks as he is drawn into the resistance. When the rivers begin to rise in a cataclysmic flood, he and Alice have to protect a significant individual.

One of the problems with prequels is that we know – roughly – what will happen. So it is immensely satisfying that Pullman has managed to create one which still has a sense of jeopardy. Lyra is, at this point, a six-month-old infant, given over to the care of the nuns at Godstow. (They are presented as genuinely kind and sincere women; so of course there will be another convent of sadists). We finally return to Pullman’s universe, and it is a bold move to make the character so admired literally speechless throughout the novel. Lyra, we know, will survive. But will Malcolm and Alice? The severing of the dæmon and the child in the original finds a kind of narrative rhyme in a new villain, who beats his own, crippled dæmon, in a scene as visceral. There are walk-on parts for Asriel, Coram van Texel and Mrs Coulter; and a sense of impending totalitarianism, especially in a Hitler Youth style organisation. The hints about Dust and consciousness are still there, in silhouette as it were.

The novel is very much a diptych. The first half is about Malcolm’s growing awareness of the wider world and its complexities. The second, once the rivers break – a background which seems derived from recent flooding events – is a different proposition. As they float towards London, Alice, Malcolm and Lyra seem translated into one of the oldest stories of all, The Odyssey. Each berth on their voyage has another potential enemy – supernatural ones and human ones. Some of the resolutions to these episodes rely on a kind of storytelling as old as the Grimm Brothers or the Arabian Nights. But perhaps the most glorious thing about La Belle Sauvage is its ordinariness. His Dark Materials was eschatological. Here, it is small kindnesses and everyday braveries that matter most. It is even there in the names of the characters. Lyra – and her dæmon, Pantalaimon – are, by name alone, exceptional. Asriel’s was called Stelmaria. Malcolm and Alice’s dæmons are called simply Asta and Ben.

At one point Pullman writes “He hadn’t lost the power to live from second to second and to take pleasure, even, in the warm yellow light that filled the canoe”. It is that wholesomeness that seems to invigorate the book, and means it is not a continuation but a beautiful deepening of the series.

*The Book Of Dust Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman, Penguin, £20. Dæmon Voices: Essays On Storytelling, by Philip Pullman, David Fickling Books, £20