A Review of La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust) by Philip Pullman: Stepping Into an Old House I Used To Call Home
Philip Pullman, the god behind the world of His Dark Materials, a trilogy I held close to my heart as a child, has decided on another trilogy twenty-two years later. Like His Dark Materials, this trilogy will also embrace the life of Lyra Belacqua.
La Belle Sauvage, roughly translated ‘the beautiful savage’ or ‘the wild beauty’ is volume one of the newest trilogy The Book of Dust, written by Philip Pullman. The name La Belle Sauvage also appears on a canoe of the main protagonist, and as he explains, he borrowed the name from his uncle’s inn sign which ‘was a picture of a beautiful lady, and she’d done something brave, but I don’t know what it was’.
I’ve done some research of this inn, and it had appeared to be a real inn in London since as early as the 15th century. The origins of the name are unknown, one of the theories said it was named after Pocahontas, a Native American woman, who stayed at the inn when it was still named the ‘Bell Savage’. I had to look a bit deeper into the matter of the name since, as a writer myself, I know how we love to put hidden meanings behind names. Was this wild beauty the inn was named after, Pocahontas? Perhaps, although I’d have to consult a historian on the matter.
Photo by Katarina Ferk
I’ve read the last book in His Dark Materials trilogy (The Amber Spyglass) approximately ten years ago, so my memory of the story is a bit ‘foggy’ in the details. However, I’m quite sure I was delighted to finally read a good adventure story with the main protagonist being a girl. A girl who was brave and smart, and rescued others instead of being the usual ‘damsel in distress’.
The Book of Dust, however, doesn’t seem to revolve predominately around Lyra Belacqua (La Belle Sauvage – the first volume). Yes, her existence does drive the storyline, but the main protagonist appears to be Malcolm Polstead. If this name sounds familiar to you, you’re right. The author himself confessed that we’ve briefly met one of the characters in one of his previous stories about Lyra, and that character is Malcolm Polstead.
He appears to be a fairly young scholar at Jordan (academy where Lyra was raised), and Lyra contacts him via letter in Once Upon a Time in the North, where she is referring to him as Dr. Polstead.
But, there’s another name that rings a bell, or more accurately – a last name, Parslow. Alice Parslow is the second protagonist, or the heroine of the second part of La Belle Sauvage novel, the Flood. She works in the kitchen, just like young Roger Parslow in His Dark Materials trilogy. Roger was born in 1983, so he must’ve been three years old when the flood happened (1986). At first I thought he was Alice’s younger brother, but Alice herself says she has ‘two younger sisters’, and His Dark Materials Wiki page says Roger was Alice’s cousin.
In case you’ve forgotten who Roger was, - he was Lyra’s friend whom she rescued from the Gobblers, only to see him die a cruel death (daemon separation) in the hands of her own father, Asriel.
ONTO THE STORY OF LA BELLE SAUVAGE (SPOILERS AHEAD)
At the beginning of the book we meet a curious and smart boy named Malcolm Polstead. He works at his parent’s inn called the Trout, and his favorite pastime is looking after his canoe named La Belle Sauvage. He has a daemon named Asta who is yet to settle in her form (daemons are a kind of ‘spirit animals’, they are the ‘animal soul’ of a person, and cannot separate from their human).
Occasionally he helps at the nunnery, talking to the nuns, asking them all kinds of questions. When he asks one of them ‘how can the world be only a few thousand years old if there are fossils millions of years old’, she simply replies ‘that the days were much longer back then’. One day the nuns get a baby to raise, a baby named Lyra.
Lyra is the lovechild of Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel. Mr. Coulter (the husband) find out of this child and attacked Lord Asriel who then killed him in self-defense. Lyra’s custody was granted to the court since her mother didn’t want her at the time, and Asriel wasn’t allowed to because he killed a man. Witches mentioned Lyra in a prophecy that said ‘she’ll end destiny’, and that she’s the new Eve. Because of that prophecy the Magisterium (Catholic Church) wanted the baby for themselves.
Gerard Bonneville, an experimental theologian, wants to kidnap the baby and give it to the Magisterium in return for his equipment and laboratory. Apparently, he’s been in prison for a crime of sexual nature against girls, and the woman who testified to that was Mrs. Coulter, Lyra’s mother. The man himself doesn’t seem so unpleasant, but his daemon who settled as hyena repels all people and daemons. One of her front legs is missing and she keeps on biting at the bloody stump.
One night Malcolm sees Bonneville sneaking around the nunnery, and then hitting his own daemon hyena who screams in agonizing laughter. This is uncomprehensive to others since humans feel everything their daemon feels, so hurting one would mean hurting yourself.
On the night of the flood Malcolm and Alice (the girl who works for his parents) rescue Lyra from being taken by Bonneville. They jump into the canoe and sail through the swollen rivers. They are being followed by Bonneville, but luckily they’re able to hide.
Photo by Katarina Ferk
The next day they find a pharmacy and get all the baby stuff they need. Malcolm persuades Alice to take Lyra to Asriel who gave him his address when Malcolm snuck him in the nunnery to see Lyra.
The most gut-wrenching and cruel moment happens when they stop at an island. Bonneville catches up to them, but Malcolm stabs him in the thigh and Alice shoots hyena into the only front leg she has. I understand that Bonneville and his hyena were made to be the villains of this story, and I’m fine with Bonneville getting hurt, but what happened to the hyena was just too cruel to read. I did not like that part of the story, and am personally appalled by it. I know she wasn’t an animal and that she was technically a ‘daemon’, but reading about how she cried, and squirmed, and had no way to walk anymore is just… Writers are supposed to evoke emotions in the reader, but this was more than emotion, it was frankly – disgust that someone would even write that down. But, because I’m anti-censorship, I let that go.
Lyra, Malcolm and Alice escape and on their path to Asriel are met by a mad fairy, a merman, a fog that makes you forget, they even stop at a cemetery, burning the coffin lids to keep themselves warm.
At one point in the story Lyra is kidnapped by CCD (Order of Child Protection) and taken into a strict nunnery where they abuse and beat children. The cause of this is a little bastard named Andrew who ratted them out while they were resting. He, and many other children were brainwashed by the League of St. Alexander (a saint who ratted his parents and the pagans they were hiding from Christians to the Church and got them all killed).
Alice and Malcolm rescue Lyra, only to be attacked by still alive Bonneville at the cemetery. Bonneville assaults Alice, and in order to rescue her Malcolm must separate from his daemon who’s guarding Lyra (separating from one’s daemon too far causes extreme pain). He kills Bonneville, and the three again manage to escape.
Just when the reader feels as hopeless and as emotionally exhausted like the characters in the story, they get rescued by Lord Asriel. He flies them to Jordan College where Lyra is granted protection, and Alice and Malcolm are instructed to not talk about Lyra when they return to their normal lives.
Lord Asriel leaves for an expedition to the north, and the book writes ‘to be continued’.
I read this book in less than a day. It’s not because it has an epic story, it’s because of that childhood feel I got when I finally read Philip Pullman’s writing style. It is incredibly poetic, and the way he writes dialogue makes for a very ‘British’ read. To read the dialogue in a British accent makes the story even better, it creates a sort of ‘homey’ feeling.
Stepping into The Book of Dust was as stepping through the door of an old house I used to call home.
Note: All the photos were take by me, and are also on my Instagram (@katarinaferk).
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