Book Review: 'La Belle Sauvage' by Philip Pullman

Updated: Aug 22, 2019

Cover photo of Philip Pullman's 'The Book of Dust Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage', showing a small boat on rough waves and two daemons - a hyaena and a weasel - clambering on the title

It's difficult to review a sequel to His Dark Materials, one of the most evocative trilogies in English literature -- and particularly when we consider that they are children's books. With its dizzying array of alethiometers, armoured fighting bears, flying witches, parallel words, prophecies, the afterlife, and, of course, the animal-formed manifestations of the soul known as daemons, Pullman created an incredible world, different from our Britain and yet undeniably familiar.

He revisits in La Belle Sauvage, the first book in his prequel trilogy, The Book of Dust. La Belle Sauvage follows Lyra in her infancy: after Lord Asriel kills her mother's husband, she is taken to a priory for safe-keeping, but there are those who have other ideas. Malcolm Polstead is a boy with a canoe who works for the nuns at the priory, and when Lyra is threatened -- by agents of the Church, mysterious criminals, and flooding -- he and teenager Alice take to the rising waters to find her sanctuary.

La Belle Sauvage takes us deeper into Pullman's world, still focussing on the nature of Dust. The reading of the alethiometers through study rather than grace explores further the connections between symbolism, culture, and consciousness -- heady stuff for a children's book.

Although we see an infant's daemon for the first time, I was a little disappointed that we still don't know how they're born. Are they birthed from the human mother along with the child? Does the mother's daemon bear them? Do they crawl from the baby's mouth once they take their first breath? It's a minor matter, yet it is still something I'm curious about.

One of my favourite aspects of the book is a greater sense of the pervasive and terrifying nature of the Church. Anyone who dares speak up -- not even necessarily against the Magisterium, but only in rudeness to one of its agents -- disappear, and even in schools the Magisterium implements a system of honour to encourage children to inform on their teachers.

The magical realism of the first trilogy seems to become even more fantastical in La Belle Sauvage, and for me it was less enjoyable. I won't elaborate any further in case of giving away major plot points, but those aspects seemed to degenerate into more generic children's fantasy books.

La Belle Sauvage has not been as enjoyable as the His Dark Materials, and as a stand-alone book it introduces a great many theories that, naturally, cannot be resolved until the sequel. As a companion filler to His Dark Materials, it does well in giving what the old readers wanted, namely a more in-depth exploration of the world the characters inhabit.

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