La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, #1)La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman has an enviable knack of getting critics to dwell on the high-flown literary allusions in his books – Paradise Lost in the His Dark Materials trilogy; The Faerie Queene here. But he’s also very self-consciously in dialogue with the rich history of children’s literature, most obviously CS Lewis, of whom Pullman’s vociferous critique is matched only by his wholesale borrowings. Pullman’s anxiety-of-influence tango with Lewis helps give his books their imaginative charge as well as their moral and aesthetic mission.

It feels initially like there’s less Lewis in La Belle Sauvage, with Pullman instead sounding notes that echo Erich Kastner, Arthur Ransome, Joan Aiken and more. He’s also drawing more on a strain of children’s writing – with Ransome’s Swallows And Amazons series a great example – which takes resourcefulness, practicality and craft as its cardinal virtues, rather than the imagination and creativity which are the guiding lights of His Dark Materials. The pragmatic bluntness of the young barmaid Alice, for instance, would never have fit into that trilogy’s universe of schemers and dreamers: here she gets some of the most memorable (and ferociously sweary) scenes. The world of La Belle Sauvage is a world where experience and skill can carry the day – the Gyptians’ deep knowledge of water and weather; boy hero Malcolm’s boatmanship and engineering acumen; the tradecraft of spies and woodcraft of poachers, and scholar Hannah Relf’s dedication to reading the alethiometer. “You’re the slowest but you’re also the best”, someone tells her at one point, and that’s the sort of care and patience the book values.

The story’s two halves – an Oxford-set spy thriller and a phantasmagoric passage through a flooded England – aren’t always coherently linked, with elements and characters from the first half all but vanishing in the second. But a theme recurs and echoes – the way that below the visible structures of the world are the deeper and more mysterious forces that truly shape or govern it. The flood, and how it transforms the countryside; the networks of spies that innkeeper’s son Malcolm accidentally stumbles upon; the odious youth movement of sneaks that subverts his school. And one of Pullman’s favourite themes – the complex web of sexual motivations and drives that underpins adult life and that children can detect but not understand (until they start to experience it for themselves).

There’s one more iteration of this theme, which teases the second book in the new trilogy: the flood itself, say the Gyptians, is a doing of the “Secret Commonwealth”, and all through the story there are hints, then appearances, of the hidden and more pagan Albion under the harsh religious exterior of “Brytain”. River gods, faerie folk, and secret allegorical places emerge to have their day. This IS an echo of Lewis, whose Christian metaphors are constantly being upstaged by his obvious attraction to Narnian otherkin: naiads, dryads, Santa, Bacchus, fauns, et al. The effect Lewis perhaps hit on by Freudian accident, Pullman wants to harness. How well he handles that is a matter for the remaining books. This one is a very good start, distinct enough from HDM in structure and style to stand as its own beguiling thing.

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