Book Review: Philip Pullman's La Belle Sauvage | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Book Review: Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage

Culture critic Reo Lewis reviews Philip Pullman's much awaited return to the His Dark Materials series

Twenty-two years after the release of The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman has returned to the world of his bestselling His Dark Materials trilogy with La Belle Sauvage. The first volume of a new trilogy, The Book of Dust, announced by the author earlier this year, the fantasy novel was finally released on 19th October, to be met by the expectations and hopes of Pullman’s fans. Having been intentionally secretive in the run-up to the release, simply describing the novel as not a “prequel” or a “sequel” but an “equal”, Pullman’s plot and its connection to the original story remained a mystery to us all until the moment of turning that first page.

It is there that we are introduced to the story’s protagonist, Malcolm Polstead, an eleven-year-old innkeeper's son with a dæmon called Asta and a canoe called La Belle Sauvage. The description of Malcolm’s life given in these first few pages is very careful to point out the location of The Trout, his home, as being close to a priory. Later on it is his neighbours the nuns who first introduce the young protagonist to a character already familiar to us as readers despite being ten years younger than we last saw her; a baby Lyra Silvertongue.

Malcolm quickly forms a brotherly connection to Lyra, his dæmon Asta even showing several examples of maternal affection to Lyra’s dæmon, the young Pantalaimon. It is through a combination of this bond, a mentorship by the scholar and spy Dr. Hannah Relf and a night time encounter with the famous Lord Asriel, that Malcolm’s story begins.

Not only are we gifted with the introduction to several new characters, but also with cameos by many of the old ones...

When Oxford is drowned by a flood of biblical proportions, Malcolm, alongside Alice, a fifteen-year-old acquaintance, find themselves with sole care of the infant Lyra and faced with the daunting task of getting her to her father in London. All whilst being pursued by the religious authority, the Consistorial Court of Discipline, and Bonneville, a crazed ex-convict, both of whom want to get their hands on Lyra for their own purposes.

The action and adventure that follows for the two children is at once familiar to Lyra and Will’s story from the first trilogy. Not only are we gifted with the introduction to several new characters, but also with cameos by many of the old ones, including the notorious Mrs Coulter. Fortunately, their parts do not seem to have been thrown in simply for the purpose of fan pandering, but really to add something to the new story. The most noteworthy of Pullman’s new characters is the villain Bonneville. Unlike the antagonists we have come to know from Lyra’s world, who use a sinister yet unrealistic combination of science and magic to drive fear into our hearts, Bonneville is disturbingly recognisable by his possibility for being a real person. This character introduces a new type of villainy to the books; one of self-mutilation, personified by his three-legged hyena dæmon, and of a sexual predator, his criminal past being mentioned several times throughout the book. Bonneville is less of a fantasy villain, more a psychopathic archetype. He, along with other chilling subjects touched upon in the novel (a group of children called the League of St Alexander which would not seem out of place within the pages of the dystopian 1984) contribute to the question of whether or not La Belle Sauvage can truly be considered a children’s book. Perhaps, knowing that his original audience is twenty-two years older Pullman did not intend to target a young audience as he once did.

Pullman effortlessly draws us into a world which is both eerily familiar to our own and yet distinctly different...

And yet the slow-pace of the novel may disagree. Anyone who knows anything about His Dark Materials, even if it’s just from watching the 2007 film adaptation, The Golden Compass, knows that it is plot-heavy and action-packed from start to end, something which the author seems to have wanted to take a step away from with his return to the world. The plot of La Belle Sauvage is simple and accessible to readers of all ages and the perfect platform to properly appreciate the imaginative writing style, without, possibly, being distracted by trying to keep up with what’s going on.

The lasting impressions of La Belle Sauvage are good ones and we can all breathe out a sigh of relief knowing that Pullman has not fallen under the curse of bad sequels, prequels or equals. I would recommend reading the original trilogy before delving into this new set of stories, if only better to understand Lyra’s importance which Malcolm’s story leans so heavily upon, and to connect more with her character, which is not fully translated in the form of a gurgling six-month-old baby. Nonetheless, it is clear that if someone were to read La Belle Sauvage first they would not be losing anything in the quality of their introduction to Lyra’s world. Pullman has lost nothing of his fantastic descriptive approach which effortlessly draws us into a world which is both eerily familiar to our own and yet distinctly different; the trademark of all good fantasy writers.

Fingers crossed, the promised upcoming two volumes will not disappoint either.


8th March 2018 at 9:00 am