The Golden Compass, the first book of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, first appeared when I was in high school. At that point I was already a long-standing fan of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, but also of Brian Jacques, Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula Le Guin, Robin McKinley, Terry Pratchett, T.H. White, Jane Yolen, and indeed of Pullman’s Victorian Sally Lockhart stories. Neil Gaiman’s work was only beginning to catch on, at least in my corner of New England.
J.K. Rowling was scribbling the beginnings of Harry Potter on the backs of napkins, if indeed he was anything more than a twinkle in his creator’s eye. Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games was yet to be thought of. “Young Adult,” never mind young adult fantasy, was still a bizarre dumping ground in your local public library for those stories that could not be accommodated in children’s. In those years, Diana Wynne Jones could still be told that fantasy stories with heroines would not sell.
|The Book of Dust, Volume 1
La Belle Sauvage
By Philip Pullman
Knopf Books for Young Readers
Pp. 560. $22.99
Pullman is a veteran of those years: writing in a genre before it really was a genre, which the popularity of his books helped to create. Writing in Oxford in the heyday of Richard Dawkins, he felt passionately that Lewis and Tolkien, and their Christianity, had to be dethroned from their place within fantasy fiction; if His Dark Materials is a Miltonian parable, whether it is God or Lewis whose controlling influence must be exorcised is an open question.
I loved The Golden Compass, felt deeply meh about The Subtle Knife, and liked parts of The Amber Spyglass. I never re-read the series, which in my case is usually a bad sign. I didn’t object to the content, although one would have to be an idiot to miss the thumping import of the allegory; I simply couldn’t warm to Pullman’s writing.
Seventeen years on, we now have Star Wars: Episode One — ahem, The Book of Dust. Not a prequel but an “equal” is apparently what Pullman would like to call La Belle Sauvage, a stand-alone story in which characters from the later trilogy, most importantly the infant Lyra, appear but are not the main characters. The publicity campaign has been, by all accounts, epic: the old saw that children’s fantasy couldn’t make money has died a thousand deaths, and we are in a vacuum between epic fantasy trilogies that, clearly, Knopf would like The Book of Dust to fill.
Critical praise is fulsome, and even Rowan Williams has pronounced the series spiritual. If you have children who love His Dark Materials or if you love it yourself, it is a return to Pullman’s quasi-steampunk 19th-century world with many of its best characters, and it is an opportunity for Pullman to work again with his best idea (which, to his credit, he knows is his best idea): that in his world, every person has a daemon, a talking, animal totemic personification of opposite sex that morphs and changes constantly in childhood before settling into adulthood into a fixed aspect of the human’s personality. Both fantasy and science fiction at their best invite meditations on what it means to be human, precisely by placing human characters in an alien or fantasy world: Narnia famously had talking animals who were emphatically not human, and the races of Middle-Earth allowed Tolkien to externalize different aspects of human personality and culture.
Likewise, Pullman’s daemons give him a dramatic visual vocabulary by which to represent, even to allegorize, a spectrum of moral complexity: in the Book of Dust, we meet adults with daemons who are a lemur, a badger, a mastiff, a marmoset, an owl, a golden monkey, a snow leopard, and most powerfully, a maimed hyena. Intimacy, including sexual intimacy, is expressed through daemon-daemon interaction, and Pullman posits a rather artificial social taboo against touching someone else’s daemon except in extraordinary circumstances.
La Belle Sauvage begins in Pullman’s native Oxford, whose canals, water meadows, and neighborhoods are lovingly described. His main character, Malcolm, works at his parents’ pub, The Trout (a real place in our world, including the peacocks), until he finds himself drawn into a le Carré-inflected world of Oxford scholars involved in intelligence-gathering, shady government agencies, and an increasingly coercive church, The Magisterium.
A baby born in scandalous circumstances, the infant Lyra, has been left in the care of the nuns still living, in Pullman’s universe, at Godstow Abbey. The nuns are portrayed as kind, if a little hapless; one can see Pullman trying to nuance his portrayal of religious characters at least a little. This is the weakest part of the book, in my opinion, and not because of my religious views: Pullman’s coercive Magisterium and its effect on Malcolm’s local school definitely veers into territory much more pointedly analyzed by Rowling, a born satirist if ever there was one. That Lyra’s mother is simultaneously able to act as a socialite version of Dolores Umbridge while having a child out of wedlock stretches the bounds of credibility (at least mine).
For Pullman, the motivations of adults (particularly Lyra’s parents) are nearly always complex, ambiguous, and flawed. In this story, however, her father is portrayed overwhelmingly as a positive character who brings stability and love to the story and her mother as a glossy, malignant, poisonous manipulator inciting people against one another. This rather seems to reinforce precisely the sort of stereotypes about women a character like Lyra is supposed to challenge. (I have a pet peeve about male authors making female characters “strong” by making them “feisty,” and otherwise changing nothing whatsoever about the social roles they are supposed to play.)
Likewise, the more complex and nuanced characters of Malcolm and the girl Alice occupy surprisingly traditional roles for supposedly progressive fiction: Malcolm pilots the boat (Alice never does) and Alice changes diapers and wishes she was prettier. Lewis may have had his gloriously patriarchal moments, but give me Lucy or Aravis any day.
The central event of the book is a great flood, which sweeps our Holy Family/Moses in the bulrush basket/Noah in the ark south to London. The flood is described in all-consuming terms, appropriate enough for a world grappling with climate change. Pullman’s central, and extremely vague, philosophical concept introduced in this book, namely that consciousness is a property of matter, allows him to paint the catastrophe as somehow more than natural: the flood blurs boundaries between living and dead, past and present, this world and other worlds, allowing him, of course, to have his spiritual but not Magisterial cake and eat it too.
The plot is arbitrary, impulsive, and dissolves at will when necessary. Cosmologically, again, this stretched my credibility past where I truly believed in his fantasy world, or believed it to be anything other than an arbitrary collection of set-pieces: Pullman’s world allows him to have electric — ahem, anbaric — lights when it suits him and to switch them off when it doesn’t.
The idea of a post-apocalyptic flood or of the connection of London’s rivers to its pre-modern past is not a new one: I refer interested readers to Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant/Rivers of London series, as well as the critics’ darling film of 2013, Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, in which another child-messiah leads a posse through a monster-infested flood to a promised land. This last shares with Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) or Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Buried Giant (2015) my central problem with The Book of Dust: fundamentally it is a book for adults, using child actors or the (admittedly artificial and recently created) genre of children’s or young adult fantasy fiction to tell particular kinds of stories.
Okay, fine, but please can we drop the pretense that this is anything but a book for adults, using nicer, better, more innocent versions of the people we would like to be? The villain in the story, it is clear, is somehow sexually deviant and abusive, but Pullman is so elliptical in his treatment that ultimately he falls between two stools, in his vague cautionary tale invoking all the darkness of the subject without any of the precision necessary to treat the subject with honesty.
For all the critics heaping lavish praise on The Book of Dust, I for one will be extremely surprised if children pass it around like contraband or queue up in droves to purchase it in anything like Harry Potter quantities. While the character of Malcolm is lovely and his emotions are well-observed, there are entire conversations he participates in that feel like carefully rehearsed usherings of Character A to Plot Point B via Arbitrarily Placed Character C.
For all the critical sneering about Rowling’s writing, her dialogue is believable and has real oxygen, and she can write plot. Pullman has neither. Adults have patience for, and enjoy the loose structure of, a road or, in this case, a boat movie. Children, as Rowling well knows, like structure and puzzles and patterns. And it is this vagueness, rather than any sort of campaign against religion, that I fear will sink this particular ark with its intended audience.