Monday, February 17, 2020

La Belle Sauvage

The first installment of author Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust trilogy, a companion series to His Dark Materials, centers around protagonist Malcolm Polstead, who works in a pub beside the Thames River, experiences a great flood like his country has never seen, and becomes linked to an infant named Lyra. The main text opens with a quote from Louis MacNeice’s poem “Snow” about the world being crazier than is thought, “incorrigibly plural.” Following this is an indicator of the setting, three miles up the river Thames from Oxford, where several colleges contest in boat races.

A priory named Godstow exists on the opposite bank of an inn known as the Trout, with one of its employees, Malcolm, having a canoe, the eponymous La Belle Sauvage, and sees guests who come in the middle of winter, one the ex-Lord Chancellor of England, Lord Nugent. The Consistorial Court of Discipline (CCD), an agency of the Church concerned with heresy and unbelief, is on the move, with battles among dæmons occurring. George Boatwright, a frequenter of the inn that had to be thrown out several times, disappears, an historian drowns in a canal, and the love-child of the explorer Lord Asriel, Lyra, is in danger, with Malcolm becoming her guardian.

Meanwhile, in Uppsala, Sweden, three men discuss a clock-like device and discuss a phenomenon known as the Rusakov field. Dr Hannah Relf visits the Trout for a meal and asks about an acorn-like device, eventually hiring Malcolm as a spy. Malcolm finds out that Lord Asriel has been a nuisance to the Church, and finds that the CCD had arrested George Boatwright. The League of St Alexander seeks to indoctrinate students in the ways of the Church, and the CCD eventually relents a little. The rescue of Lyra is plotted, spearheaded by her father Lord Asriel, and a three-legged hyena dæmon is on the prowl.

Malcolm loans his canoe to a gyptian named Coram van Texel, who talks about hazel sticks and a scientist named Gerard Bonneville. Another group named Oakley Street battles the Church, and the importance of Lyra is emphasized, with Malcolm dreaming several times about wild dogs. He finds that Mrs Coulter, Lyra’s mother, doesn’t want anything to do with her child, and visits Mr Taphouse at the priory. A fight with Bonneville breaks out at the end of the first part of the novel, with Lyra’s rescue taking place, the La Belle Sauvage getting away.

The second portion of the story opens with the La Belle Sauvage riding a great blood, where Malcolm seeks to get Lyra to Lord Asriel, Jordan College being an initial destination. It is learned that Bonneville was an authority on elementary particles, with the Magisterium interested in Lyra. Bonneville continues to pursue Malcolm and Lyra. George Boatwright and his wife Audrey provide Malcolm, his friend Alice, and Lyra, refuge, with the flood impeding the CCD’s quest for the baby. The action of the novel ends with the flood being at its height, with a quote from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene concluding Pullman’s narrative.

Overall, this was a fairly enjoyable prequel to the His Dark Materials series, with plenty of sociopolitical commentary, particularly on the issue of religion, and is far more mature than Pullman’s central trilogy of his series, given the coarse language and nudity at times. That most of the characters in the story have their own animalian dæmons, many of which have speaking ability and even metamorphic capabilities, is a nice bonus, as well, although those who have read and remember the His Dark Materials trilogy are the ones likely to get the most out of the story.

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