In The Book of Dust Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage, published by Penguin/Random House, Philip Pullman takes us back to the universe he first made famous in the “His Dark Materials” series. However, instead of returning to where those books left off, he transports us to eleven years before the events they describe take place.
Eleven year old Malcolm Polstead’s parents run an inn called the Trout, located just a few miles away from the collages of Oxford, right on the banks of the Thames River. On the opposite side of the Thames lies the Priory of Godstow, home to a group of nuns. As Malcolm’s story progresses both the Thames and the Priory will come to play important roles, but when we initially meet him and his daemon Asta, they are merely carrying out the business of their days as normal.
Malcolm is a curious boy who, in the course of helping out in his parent’s inn waiting tables, has learned the invaluable arts of listening and watching. While he attends the local school his chances of a higher education are slim. His best hope is to either take over his parent’s business or maybe learn a trade. However, that doesn’t stop him from being fascinated by the conversations he overhears while working.
Thus he’s picked up a smattering of information on topics most children his age wouldn’t even have heard of, and somethings things it’s perhaps better he never heard about. For its through serving tables Malcolm is drawn into the complicated and dangerous dealings which make up the majority of the book’s adventure.
As in “His Dark Materials” there is an immense struggle underway between malevolent powers within The Church (The Magisterium and the Consistorial Court of Discipline (CCD) to name only two) who want to control what people think and believe and scholars and scientists who want to find out the secrets of the universe so everybody can share in the knowledge.
At the centre of this book is the infant daughter, Lyra, of the great explorer, Lord Asriel, and the mysterious Mrs. Coulter. As those who have read the previous series know there is a prophesy concerning Lyra. Even now when she is less then a year old, The Church is desperate to get its hands on her. They hope if they control the child, they will control the prophesy, or at least to be in a position to eliminate the child if that becomes a necessity.
As if turns out Lyra had been sent to the Priory right across the Thames form Malcolm’s parents inn, and he appoints himself her unofficial protector. He can’t explain why, but the first time he sees her, he realizes he will do anything he can to keep her safe. Of course to do that will require all his wits, courage, and strength. Along the way he receives help from some unexpected sources and learns more about The Church and the CCD than he’d like.
In some ways La Belle Sauvage follows in the footsteps of British adventure stories such as Arthur Ransoms’ Swallows and Amazons or any of Enid Blyton’s books. They all feature plucky heroes/heroines on the verge of adulthood who solve mysteries and find themselves in all sorts of trouble. However, unlike its predecessors Pullman’s book not only deals with adult themes, and sees the world through the eyes of its adult characters as well as his protagonist Malcolm, he doesn’t sentimentalize his child characters and make them out to be something they’re not.
In fact, one of the more insidious twists in the story has The Church creating a special league for children who wish to inform on their parents, their teachers, or in fact anyone they believe are acting against Church doctrine. Those children who enrol quickly become enthralled by their own power and start accusing teachers, and anyone else who crosses them, of heresy so they’ll be investigated by the CCD. The schools and play yards of Malcolm’s childhood quickly become a microcosm of the world around them – nobody is quite sure who they can trust and Malcolm quickly learns to be careful about who he talks to and what he says.
The other thing we quickly learn about people in Malcolm’s world is they aren’t divided up by good and evil. While some of the adults he meets are definitely good people and some are very bad, quite a number of them have a certain moral ambiguity which makes them seem neither good nor bad. These are people who appear to be on the same side as Malcolm, but neither do they seem to care if others are hurt if it helps them achieve their goals.
It is these layers and textures within the story which separates The Book of Dust Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage from other young adult adventure stories. Pullman doesn’t condescend to his readership or avoid issues that some might consider “Inappropriate” for children. There are probably those who would consider this an almost subversive book for its respect for those who refuse to stop questioning authority and seek answers based on fact not on what they are told to believe.
However, when it comes right down to it, this is also a wonderful adventure story and another fantastic peek into the world Pullman created in “His Dark Materials”. Its almost steampunk version of science and technology mixed in with mythology and fantasy make for a world that is both familiar and exotic. The perfect setting for any adventure.
The Book of Dust Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage is a wonderful book which should please any who have read and enjoyed the original series. In fact, the new series promises to be every bit as interesting and exciting as the previous. The characters, the settings, and the storyline are sure to keep readers enthralled, enchanted, and anticipating the next volumes with baited breath.