La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (2017) 545 p.

belle sauvage

We waited twenty years for this?

Philip Pullman describes La Belle Sauvage, the first in a trilogy comprising what he calls The Book of Dust, as neither a “prequel” or a “sequel” to his Dark Materials trilogy – apparently the books will run before, during, and after that trilogy, chronologically speaking – and instead describes it as an “equal,” which is a clever turn of phrase and also a whopping fib. La Belle Sauvage is an unnecessary prequel if there ever was one.

The book takes place ten years before the events of Northern Lights, on the outskirts of Oxford, where innkeeper’s son Malcolm often does chores for the nuns of the priory across the river. One evening a group of important noblemen congregate at the inn and inquire as to whether the nuns have ever been known to take care of an infant – so soon the priory finds itself raising the baby Lyra, the protagonist of Northern Lights. The agents of the authoritarian Church (the least interesting part of the Dark Materials trilogy) are sniffing around for the baby, as is a mysterious man with a hyena for a daemon, and a great storm is building. In due course of events, Malcolm finds himself trying to bear Lyra to safety during a cataclysmic flood.

I’m one of the readers – who I suspect may be a majority – who adored Northern Lights, liked The Subtle Knife less so, and found by the The Amber Spyglass that the spark had sputtered out. While reading La Belle Sauvage it struck me that perhaps Pullman never fully grasped what made Northern Lights so compelling for so many young readers. It wasn’t the religious overtones (almost entirely absent from that book anyway); it certainly wasn’t Dust and fate and destiny and all that other philosophising that crumbles when you look too hard at it in daylight. It was the vibrant, creative and fascinating world that he introduced us to – a world a lot of readers have wanted to return to, but not if he merely treads the same ground. Consider how wildly inventive everything in Northern Lights was – the daemons, the bears, the Scandinavian witches, the clockwork beetles, the alethiometer. Every chapter seemed to have something new. But La Belle Sauvage contains nothing fantastic that isn’t a re-tread of the original trilogy or lazily lifted from English folklore.

La Belle Sauvage, most of all, is badly paced and understuffed. To compare: my hardback edition of Northern Lights is 403 pages long and contains Lyra’s world of Jordan College, her life and subsequent escape from Mrs Coulter in London, the world of the river-dwelling gyptians in the Fens, an Arctic expedition, the eerie polar research institute, the Scandinavian witch clans, the island of the armoured bears and Lord Asriel rupturing a gateway through the aurora into another world. My hardback edition of La Belle Sauvage is 545 pages long and contains… a priory on the riverbank, some amateur sleuthing, a big flood and a ridiculously persistent pursuer. (On a page-to-page level, the book is increasingly bogged down by Pullman’s inability to sort the wheat from the chaff when droning on about Malcolm’s physical actions while preparing his canoe, shifting his gear, packing his food, etc.) There are a handful of chapters towards the end dealing with the magically disruptive events of the flood, as Malcolm and his companions stumble across a few elements of English fairy mythology; but it’s too little, too late. Northern Lights was an epic in a single book, a grand story about a child’s first adventure out into the wider world; La Belle Sauvage, on the other hand, takes an awful lot of pages to tell us not very much.

I didn’t completely hate it, but I did find myself bored by it, much as I was bored by large parts of The Amber Spyglass. I’ll continue to read the rest of the trilogy as Pullman releases it, particularly because La Belle Sauvage strikes me as an egregious example of groundwork-laying, and perhaps the later books will improve. But by and large, I imagine a lot of fans are going to be very disappointed by this – and it certainly isn’t an “equal” to Northern Lights.