Children’s fiction in the late-1990s and early-2000s was dominated by one series and one character: Harry Potter, the specky wizard whose greatest trick was filling bank accounts at the swish of a wand. By comparison, it is not difficult to see why Philip Pullman’s aggressively anti-religion, metaphysical adventures with more than a whiff of Milton about them might not have been the ‘box office’ smash to rival the Potter kid. His Dark Materials, however, will have played a large part in the formative years of many young readers and so the news of Philip Pullman’s return to Lyra’s Oxford will have been welcomed by many.

La Belle Sauvage (2017) is set some 10 years before Lyra began hopping from one universe to another like a bee skipping between spring flowers, drunk on the possibilities. Indeed, in La Belle Sauvage, Lyra is not hopping anywhere. A baby at the mercy of others, the feisty upstart who we first met in Northern Lights here has her agency reduced to the sporadic filling of her nappy. Enter Pullman’s new hero, Malcolm Polstead. A quieter, less boisterous lead, Malcolm – with the help of his daemon Asta – works at his parents’ inn and spends time at the local nunnery, helping the sisters with small tasks and visiting the infant Lyra who has been entrusted to the nuns’ care.

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman book cover

While there is a cosy sense of familiarity for the reader in returning to Pullman’s and Lyra’s very English Oxford, it is a place where teachers are bullied by religious fanatics and their recruits, free libraries do not exist, and an “unhappy air of suspicion and fear” hangs over the place. It is impossible for the reader to miss the commentary on the current state of the world and Pullman here extends beyond religious and intellectual narrow-mindedness, and revolts against climate change denial, financial inequality, and the oppressive atmosphere created by despotic government. In Malcolm’s Oxford, the Consistorial Court of Discipline (CCD) and its minions are doing their best to create a totalitarian state where thought crime is punished and 1984 is not a dystopian nightmare but a manual for the perfect society.

There are those who resist in the form of a mysterious group known as ‘Oakley Street’. Malcolm brushes up against these rebels, but his Oxford is a world defined more by what cannot be said or done than by what can. In this staid environment where knowledge is power and therefore not easily obtained, Malcolm goes about his business unassumingly until he witnesses a spy drop going wrong. From that point, things rather unravel for Malcolm and when a biblical flood submerges Oxford, he takes it upon himself – along with his companion Alice, a teenage kitchenmaid – to protect Lyra.

With his beloved boat (the eponymous La Belle Sauvage), the three children negotiate the perilous waters pursued by the CCD and a paedophilic dust-chaser named Bonneville who wishes to claim Lyra as his own and, seemingly, defile both Malcolm and Alice in the process. It is a lot for two young children to take on but Pullman wouldn’t have it any other way. And that is without considering the power struggle between Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter, which is already in full swing and into which Malcolm and Alice stumble. Whether the young heroes can negotiate the harsh adult world and deliver Lyra safe to her father or to Jordan College is but one of the questions La Belle Sauvage poses as its 600-odd pages tick by.

In Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Lyra’s stubborn, impetuous drive was given a foil in the form of Will, a serious, practical boy who accompanied her through much of her journey. Here Malcolm inherits more of Will’s qualities than Lyra’s and provides the calm centre of a book swirling with outlandish characters. He is Oliver Twist to Fagan; or, dare I say it, Harry Potter to Voldemort. This opens up possibilities for Pullman and there is something charming about following a pre-adolescent boy as he learns to care for a baby - the minor emergencies of a full nappy or an empty stomach that are just as pressing as the murderous villains at the children’s backs and just as full of dramatic potential. Of course, there is Malcolm’s relationship with Alice too, a slightly older girl with whom he had exchanged no words before the flood. With the waters obscuring the familiar terrain of home (spot the symbolism) and parents left behind, the pair have to negotiate their friendship in the new world as they learn to take responsibility for themselves and one another.

In terms of murderous villains, we have - as with His Dark Materials - the controlling religious faction who pursues our heroes, but here we also have Bonneville, a lone ranger who chases the children, his frightful hyena daemon in tow. Bonneville is a thing of nightmares: unable to be subdued, he is as persistent and unshakeable as the Terminator in his pursuit of the children but with intentions far darker than death for them. Before the full enormity of his sickness as a predatory paedophile (for yes, that is, explicitly, what he is) is revealed, the reader knows there is something hideous about Bonneville. His hyena daemon laughs a wretched laugh and pisses in the path of anyone it dislikes. As a manifestation of the man’s soul, this does not bode well. Worse still, we learn that Bonneville beats his daemon – sickening outward evidence of the inner contradictions of his dark soul.

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The scene is set, then. The forces of good lined up against those of evil. On one side, Malcolm and Alice, Oakley Street, and a supporting cast of honest, practical people who help them on their way, including Gyptians and, shock horror, nuns (who, it turns out, are not all awful servants of a malevolent overlord); on the other side, the controlling CCD, Bonneville, and various opponents who appear from nowhere.

Despite everything one might expect, in a sense, this is a realist novel. But with daemons and witches. The way in which Pullman charts La Belle Sauvage’s journey along the Thames with cartographic exactness and shows Malcolm caring for Lyra or reading A Brief History of Time is thrown into sharp contrast by the ethereal encounters with characters, fantastical and exaggerated, who bleed into a world not unlike our own, creating a swirling mix of myth and reality. The fact that Pullman carries the reader with him as he blends these very different aesthetics is testament to his skill as a writer.

A similar balancing act is struck between literary allusions and accessibility of story – Pullman, after all, describes himself as a storyteller above all else. Where His Dark Materials used Milton as a regular reference point, here allusions to Spenser’s 'The Faerie Queene' are the order of the day. Equally, it is no coincidence that Malcolm’s companion shares the name of Lewis Carroll’s most famous creation who also rode the Thames in her fictional adventures. Most younger readers won’t appreciate all the literary references in Pullman’s metaphysical allegory (nor, for that matter, will most adults, myself included) but this doesn’t impact the pleasure in watching the story unfold. In fact, if anything is likely to intrude on the pleasure of the read, it is the moments of church-bashing that are just a touch too close to the surface and incongruous to the novel’s voice in the opening chapters, or the coarse language that erupts from one of the characters every so often.

Overall, there is not much to complain about here. La Belle Sauvage is smaller in scale than His Dark Materials, contained as it is within not just one world but one country. Malcolm is a smaller character than Lyra too, and the narrative is very much in keeping. This shouldn’t be seen as a criticism, just a difference. I can’t imagine many readers will come to La Belle Sauvage without having read His Dark Materials but there is enough background information to get the uninitiated started. If anything, it is the long-term fans who may struggle with the lack of extra information about dust and its properties. For we learn very little that has not been covered about dust elsewhere. It seems Pullman is lining everything up for the later books in the series and I have no doubt we will learn more then: there are worse ways to start a series than by leaving the reader’s curiosity unsated.

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