top of page


by William Hosie-Lissac

The Book of Dust Vol I: La Belle Sauvage

Philip Pullman, David Fickling Books, 2017

Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling

Philip Pullman, David Fickling Books, 2017

‘Meanings are for the reader to find, not for the storyteller to impose’, declared Philip Pullman in a talk given at the Royal Society of Literature in 2001. Pullman argued that the key to writing a good story is to maintain authorial detachment; to tell events rather than offer an interpretation of them. Although Pullman keeps returning to His Dark Materials, it is not so much because of his attachment to a bestselling creation as it is because the original story itself, and the vivid, unforgettable world within it, are worth revisiting. Pullman’s new novel, La Belle Sauvage, returns to the world of daemons (animal manifestations of one’s soul) and alethiometers (truth-telling golden compasses), creating new characters and recounting new quests, while leaving us free to interpret the interplay of intertextual references and symbolic allusions.

La Belle Sauvage takes us back ten years before the events in Northern Lights, the first installment in the Dark Materials trilogy which chronicles protagonist Lyra Belacqua’s quest to understand a substance called Dust and uncover the reason why corrupt adults working for religious authorities seek to destroy it. As her search progresses, she finds out that Dust is feared by the Magisterium, a religious organisation made up of courts, colleges and councils. Dust amalgamates around individuals when they hit puberty. This is why in Lyra’s world, where every human being is accompanied by a daemon, adult daemons do not change species like a child’s. Dust makes daemons settle; in the eyes of the Magisterium, a settled daemon is identified with experience, awareness and a loss of innocence. Lyra decides that if so many villainous authority figures want to destroy Dust, then the right thing would be to treasure it. She is assisted along her journey by Will Parry, a boy from another world, more similar to our own, and objects such as the ‘subtle knife’ which allows them to carve doorways between worlds. But she also faces many obstacles; prophesied as the second Eve, she is constantly hunted down by the Magisterium. The quest for Dust ends when Lyra and Will declare their love to each other in atheist ‘paradise’: a Garden of Eden set in oblivion. By eating fruit and kissing Will, Lyra enacts a second Fall of Man and allows Dust to continue spreading across the different worlds.

What makes Pullman’s original trilogy so captivating is this dizzying use of other-worldliness, an element which he has called an ‘essential part of storytelling’. The emotional depth of Lyra’s character, as mirrored by a shape-shifting Pantalaimon (her daemon), combined with this flexible world-hopping, made the books some of the best reads of my childhood. La Belle Sauvage begins with an epigraph from Louis MacNeice’s ‘Snow’ in which he describes the world as ‘incorrigibly plural’. But rather than replicate this other-worldliness, we reach the end of the novel without having left Lyra’s world: no Northern Lights, no City of Angels with subtle knives, no alternative Oxfords. This slight disappointment was offset, however, by the new protagonist, Malcolm Polstead: a more attractive hero than Lyra. While we are drawn into her rebellious tendencies from the first pages of Northern Lights, when she sneaks into the Retiring Room of Jordan College without permission and saves her father from drinking poisoned wine, we are also told a little later on that she vandalises the boats of Gyptian families. Her bratty and snobbish behaviour contrasts with Malcolm’s, who is portrayed as an ideal child: helpful and grateful, curious yet careful. When a religious organisation, the League of St Alexander, manages to infiltrate Malcolm’s school, he is among the only ones to resist brainwashing. Most students go as far as turning in their own parents to religious authorities because they have expressed doubts about Christian ideology. It becomes something of a 1930s totalitarian youth group; in a single chapter, Pullman skillfully shows how manipulable young minds can subscribe to a Manichean vision of life and lose all reason through the thrill of denunciation and the attraction of newfound power.

While La Belle Sauvage's hero may have been well received, the novel's nature as a prequel has attracted more criticism. Professor Colin Burrow has remarked on the discrepency between what Pullman promotes in His Dark Materials, i.e. that moral and intellectual superiority is achieved by ‘breaking out’ of a system and reversing it, and the fact that he is doing the exact opposite in writing a prequel, where he is ‘bound by the laws and foreknown outcomes of books that have already laid down its future’. Yet perhaps writing a prequel is not necessarily a sign that Pullman is ‘imprisoned’ in his own system, unable to free himself from the world of His Dark Materials and inevitably conditioned by a pre-existing narrative. Rather, that the dark materials are now old enough to serve as source materials, allowing Pullman to explore the unanswered questions behind the original trilogy. He shines a light on these dark materials, uncovering their hidden stories.

Since the publication of The Amber Spyglass in 2000, Pullman has explored the possibilities of adapting his bestsellers into film (such as The Golden Compass, 2007), but also more importantly and more successfully into new stories. While the original narrative of his fantasy world drew heavily on Milton’s Paradise Lost, the ‘companions’ to His Dark Materials, Lyra’s Oxford (2003) and Once Upon a Time in the North (2008), see Pullman borrowing primarily from himself to create new stories. These shorter works set up a range of textual issues which La Belle Sauvage engages with. In the preface to Lyra’s Oxford, set two years after The Amber Spyglass, Pullman wonders, ‘Perhaps the future affects the past in some way we don’t understand; or perhaps the universe is simply more aware than we are.’ By writing a prequel to His Dark Materials, Pullman explores these transcendental qualities and grapples with the elaboration of a plot line which, as Burrow points out, has to fit an already-predetermined system and outcome. What Burrow seems to have overlooked, however, is the fact that La Belle Sauvage’s relation to His Dark Materials is not so simple. While we may wish to understand it as a companion and prequel to the original trilogy, its status becomes more ambiguous when we consider its place as the first instalment of a new trilogy, and even more so when we consider that the two other books in the new trilogy are set to take place after the events in His Dark Materials. Pullman himself has described La Belle Sauvage as an ‘equal’ rather than a ‘prequel’.

If La Belle Sauvage is indeed an ‘equal’ to His Dark Materials, then it must have sufficient authority to belong to its own system, rather than a pre-existing one. Pullman has stressed the importance of creating one’s own system in writing and the challenges of being enslaved to another’s. In a talk delivered to the Blake Society in London in 2005, Pullman described the difficulty of writing a novel defined by intertextual links. The His Dark Materials books were consciously written as a reversal of Milton’s Paradise Lost; an extract from Book II of Milton’s poem serves as an epigraph to Northern Lights, and the very title ‘His Dark Materials’ is borrowed from that same passage. Pullman’s understanding of the epic poem was called into question when he read Professor A.D Nuttall’s The Alternative Trinity: Gnostic Heresy in Marlowe, Milton and Blake (1998). Nuttall’s book reappraises Milton’s poem and uncovers a tension between orthodox Christian doctrine and Gnosticism, specifically the branch of Gnosticism known as the Ophite heresy (a view of the snake in Genesis as either Christ himself or Sophia, wisdom). Pullman read Nuttall’s book while writing The Amber Spyglass, and became perplexed ‘with relation to [his] own novel’. But, as he points out himself, Paradise Lost works just like His Dark Materials; angels are ‘not simply big-people- with-wings’ but can ‘also be understood as emblems of psychological states’. Although Pullman’s relation towards Christian theology is starkly different to Milton’s, both writers elaborate the Christian cosmos in order to share ideas about human experience, striking a balance between the personal and the allegorical. Only upon acknowledging this did Pullman realise that he had already created his own system, unique in its inventiveness and belonging to a tradition of retelling and adaptation, rather than being bound by a system which he feared he had misread.

La Belle Sauvage also ties into this intertextual tradition. Where Northern Lights begins with an extract from Paradise Lost, La Belle Sauvage ends with an extract from The Faerie Queene. Pullman subverts Spenser’s Gloriana, the Faerie Queene whom other characters idealise but never actually appears, through his Diania, whose name recalls the classical fairy queen Diana. Pullman reverses Gloriana’s ultimate sovereignty and power through the portrayal of Diania as a lonely and desperate woman, whom Malcolm and Alice meet on an enchanted island during their journey down the Thames valley and who tries to keep Lyra as her own child after breast-feeding her. The novel also draws on Exodus: Lyra, the prophesied infant, is saved from the river and granted sanctuary in the palatial Jordan College. Like in every oeuvre of a certain length, intertextuality is accompanied by intratextuality; both La Belle Sauvage and His Dark Materials are structured by internal repetition. In the new novel, the storyline alternates between moments of enquiry and discussion, and episodes of high tension and violence. In His Dark Materials, parallels with Paradise Lost are subordinated by the parallels which exist between different plot lines. The cognitive scientist Mark Turner’s The Literary Mind (1996) helped Pullman identify a recurring pattern in His Dark Materials which he coined ‘a form of binary fission’. Lyra’s parents separate after her birth, Will has to leave his sick mother, Lyra has to leave Jordan College, the Magisterium wants to separate children from their daemons in order to “preserve their innocence”; the list goes on. In a lecture given in Oxford in 2002, Pullman explained that his awareness of this pattern allowed him to use it consciously when writing the final novel of the original trilogy; as a result, Pantalaimon is separated from Lyra when she enters the world of the dead in The Amber Spyglass. Pullman insisted he had to maintain this pattern in order to preserve ‘formal sense’ across the trilogy.

Patterns which he developed without realising thus became the controlling forces of his own writing: Pullman is not the omniscient master of his prose. Like his readers, Pullman is often surprised by the turn of events in his narrative. For instance, in Northern Lights, when the Master of Jordan College predicts Lyra’s involvement in a great betrayal which she will be chiefly responsible for, we believe we have seen this prediction confirmed when Lyra unwillingly leads Roger to his death at the end of the novel. In The Amber Spyglass, when Lyra betrays her own daemon Pantalaimon, we realise the earlier betrayal was a red herring. ‘Little did they [the readers] know! Well, little did I know, actually’, concluded Pullman.

Pullman lets his fantasy world overpower his authorial intentions: he disappears behind a story guided by natural flow. In fact, the fantasy world he creates is so powerful that readers alien to this parallel universe are convinced by its rules. While daemons are a purely fictional invention, their role as both soul and guardian angel to the humans they are associated with allows for a faithful representation of human psychology, a depiction of the constant dialogue of the self with the self. Within this parallel universe, many elements that define our own worlds are recognisible. When the villainous Bonneville, La Belle Sauvage’s paedophilic ex- scientist, abuses his own daemon (a terrifying three-legged hyena), the scene becomes a disturbing enactment of self-harm. La Belle Sauvage sees Pullman build on the strengths of His Dark Materials, revisiting a world which readers know the rules of and shocking them by transgressing these very rules. The ‘terrible fury’ of Bonneville ‘thrashing and beating with his stick’ is, at the heart, a literary experiment testing the strength of a system and the effect of its rule-bending on the reader.

The strength of La Belle Sauvage lies in the exploration of a system’s limits, which Pullman achieves through masterful use of self-borrowing. By building on the steady foundations of a bestselling trilogy, Pullman elaborates a new quest narrative; the pursuit of Dust complete, we are now introduced to the quests that, by preceding it, made it possible in the first place. In completing his quest by bringing Lyra safely to her father Lord Asriel, who then makes sure she is granted scholastic sanctuary at Jordan College, Malcolm Polstead is shown to be the hero behind His Dark Materials. The first instalment in The Book of Dust is not a book about Dust. Rather than offering a history of Dust’s scientific study, La Belle Sauvage shines a light on the more unexpected agents involved in Lyra’s destiny. La Belle Sauvage not only stretches Pullman pre- existing system; it also fills in gaps by joining the dots between different companion books. Indeed, Pullman introduces us to Dr Polstead, the young scholar of Jordan College, in Lyra’s Oxford. Dr Hannah Relf, who lends Malcolm books about physics and ‘the history of ideas’ while conducting research on a truth-telling alethiometer, appears towards the start and finish of His Dark Materials. These seemingly peripheral characters in the world of His Dark Materials are foregrounded in Pullman’s new contribution to his fictional universe: he continues his playful practice of redefining readers’ expectations of the significance of characters.

This kind of playfulness has long been a staple of Pullman’s career. When Pullman released a new edition of His Dark Materials in 2007, he added previously unseen illustrations of lantern slides, like those which Lord Asriel shows his fellow scholars to prove the existence of other worlds in the second chapter of Northern Lights. Pullman explained that these slides were not a way of rewriting his story, but simply an opportunity to ‘play’. Self- borrowing is not only about adapting dark materials and unveiling their secrets; it can simply be about playing with them, relishing in the unresolved nature of mysterious symbols as opposed to just filling in gaps. Essentially, this playfulness engages with ideas like sincerity and representation. Whether by bending the rules of his fantasy world or subtly challenging textual authority through pictures, Pullman invites us to reconsider our understanding of his parallel universe, in the same way that Lyra relentlessly challenges received truths. This playfulness enlists both Pullman’s literary experimentation and his atheistic ideals. The lantern slide illustrations encourage us to question the relationship between art and technology, which Pullman explores throughout His Dark Materials by giving literary authority to technical objects: the alethiometer, the subtle knife and the amber spyglass. By showing how engineering and science feeds into art, Pullman not only reflects on literary creation; he also affirms the importance and superiority of science over religious dogma. For Pullman, science is the seed of creativity; it allows him to create objects like golden compasses and play around with text and pictures, while also allowing characters like Lyra and Malcolm to challenge received truths and appreciate complexities with a mature outlook as opposed to the innocence promoted by theocratic authorities. Pullman challenges dogma through a celebration of engineering and scientific enquiry, showing how the latter encourages creativity and playfulness, which, in La Belle Sauvage, takes the form of allusions to (and subversions of ) previous elements of His Dark Materials. Pullman invites us to question the sincerity of pre-existing stories, riddled with gaps and characters kept hidden in the dark, waiting for their stories to be told. I am reminded of something Iorek Byrnison, king of the ice bears, says in The Amber Spyglass: ‘The intentions of a tool are what it does. A hammer intends to strike, a vise intends to hold fast, a lever intends to lift. They are what it is made for. But sometimes a tool may have other uses that you don’t know.’ A story may have another one in the background waiting to be written, and the closure of a narrative quest may foreground the birth of another.

WILLIAM HOSIE-LISSAC reads English and French at Magdalen. Born slightly overweight, his parents called him Buddha for the first 24 hours of his life.

Art by Grace Crabtree


bottom of page