“But the meaning of a book is never just what the author thinks it is. It’s a great mistake to rely on the author to tell you what the meaning is. We don’t know. The meaning is only what emerges when the book and the reader meet.” Philip Pullman
Philip Pullman‘s new novel is exactly the kind of book I loved reading as a boy. There’s adventure and realism in surviving fights, making fires, messing about in boats, coping with disaster, a little swearing and outwitting adults. There’s fantasy and make-believe in the form of giants, witches, magic, mysterious gothic imagery and shiny steampunk-style gadgets. The danger is real, the villains villainous and there is a cavalcade of memorable characters. Malcolm Polstead, the 11-year-old protagonist, is honest, resourceful, gutsy and adults treat him with respect. Most importantly, you feel like you are him. You feel transported to the world Pullman creates as if truly having the adventure yourself.
“In a bed of black velvet lay a golden instrument like a large watch or a compass. It was the most beautiful thing Malcolm and his dæmon had ever seen…The thirty-six pictures around the dial were minute and clear, the three hands and the one needle were exquisitely shaped out of some silver-grey metal, and a golden sunburst surrounded the centre of the dial.”
“The moon shone brilliantly down on the sodden grass, the mossy gravestones, the crumbling mausoleum, the figures in their hideous embrace between the columns.”
La Belle Sauvage – The Book of Dust #1 (2017) is set in the same universe as His Dark Materials, a trilogy consisting of Northern Lights (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2000). Lyra Belacqua, the protagonist we met twenty-two years ago, is a baby in this latest instalment. Pullman calls it an ‘equel’ rather than a prequel. There will be two more books to follow and not all will be set prior to the events of the original trilogy.
We are re-acquainted with Pullman’s characters – the young Mrs Coulter, Lord Ariel, Lord Nugent and their dæmons – if only for a few pages in some cases as most of the action centres on new ones. For those unfamiliar with Pullman’s alternate Oxford universe, each human has, put simply, a soul in the form of an animal that lives outside the body. This dæmon is not fixed when young and “frequent changes of shape in a child’s dæmon” are good indicators of “intelligence and curiosity”. Even incidental characters often have amusingly appropriate, vivid dæmons. Mr Croker, the woodwork teacher, has a green woodpecker. I will not spoil your enjoyment of the novel by talking about Gerard Bonneville’s dæmon.
As an adult reader, there is much more to reflect on – in this very traditional, well-written English novel for young people – than what I would have thought about when I was Malcom’s age. There is a very interesting homage to Edmund Spenser’s The Faire Queene and of course, much to consider in regards Pullman’s ideology and themes. The author said in an interview:
“I don’t write books to illustrate a theme but I sometimes find a theme developing as I write them. In this one, it’s the importance of imaginative vision, in William Blake’s terms. The dangers of what he called “single vision” — a narrow, dogmatic point of view that excludes every other angle of vision but what it deems to be true. You see that not just in dogmatic politics and religion, you see it in science, in all kinds of fields. It’s always destructive and it’s always restrictive and it’s always unhelpful. And in this trilogy, that sort of area is going to be what I’m exploring.” Source
This outlook is evident throughout the novel, especially in relation to politics and espionage. Pullman engagingly explores paradox, ambiguity and ethics as Malcolm is confronted with challenges to overcome and situations to understand. One example, Malcolm will not spy for the League of Alexander but recognises, then rationalises, the irony of spying for Dr Relf. The quotes will provide some insight:
‘You can join the League of St Alexander today. You’ll get a badge, like the one I’m wearing, to wear yourself and show what you think is important. It doesn’t cost anything. You can be the eyes and the ears of the Holy Church in the corrupt world we live in. Who would like to join?’ Hands went up, many hands, and Malcolm could see the excitement on the faces all around him; but the teachers, apart from one or two, looked down at the floor or gazed expressionlessly out of the windows.
‘God will be very happy to know that so many boys and girls are eager to do the right thing. To be the eyes and ears of the Authority! In the streets and the fields, in the houses and the playgrounds and the classrooms of the world, a league of little Alexanders watching and listening for a holy purpose.’
… Well, if I thought my parents were doing something wrong I still wouldn’t want to tell on ’em. And … I suppose I reckon this League has got something to do with the CCD.’ It had occurred to Malcolm already, and it came back to him now, that what he was doing in talking to Dr Relf was very like what St Alexander was celebrated for. What was the difference? Only that he liked and trusted Dr Relf. But he was no less a spy for that. He felt uncomfortable, and she noticed. ‘Are you thinking—’ ‘I’m thinking that I’m sneaking to you, really.’ ‘Well, it’s true in a way, but I wouldn’t call it sneaking. I have to report the things I find out, so I’m doing the same sort of thing. The difference is that I think the people I work for are good. I believe in what they do. I think they’re on the right side.’ ‘Against the CCD?’ ‘Of course. Against people who kill and leave bodies in the canal.’ ‘Against the League of St Alexander?’ ‘One hundred per cent against…
‘What does Parliament know about Oakley Street?’ ‘Very little. Our activities are funded – not very well – out of the general defence fund, through the Cabinet Office. There is a group of MPs, government backbenchers, who are passionately pro-Magisterium – I’m sure you would know some of their names – who suspect that something like Oakley Street exists, and who would love to expose it and destroy it and put a stop to everything we do. This is a deep and uncomfortable paradox, which will not have escaped you: we can only defend democracy by being undemocratic. Every secret service knows this paradox. Some are more comfortable with it than others.’ ‘Yes,’ said Hannah. ‘It is a paradox. And it is uncomfortable.
She had nothing to fear from the police, or from any other agency, except that like every other citizen she had everything to fear. They could lock her up with no warrant and keep her there with no charge; the old act of habeas corpus had been set aside, with little protest from those in Parliament who were supposed to look after English liberty, and now one heard tales of secret arrests and imprisonment without trial, and there was no way of finding out whether the rumours were true. Her association with Oakley Street would be no help; in fact, if anyone found out about it, it might even make things worse. These agencies and half-hidden powers were fiercely rivalrous.
Pullman has always been concerned about authoritarianism of any hue, especially religious absolutism and theocracy. Much has been written about his distaste for CS Lewis’ Narnia series. Pullman sees Lewis as a proselytising propagandist for religion and often mean-spirited. Pullman – who was called “the most dangerous man in England” for his atheistic views – sees Lewis as “bullying, hectoring and dishonest in all kinds of ways” and describes the Narnia books as “very dodgy and unpleasant – dodgy in the dishonest rhetoric way – and unpleasant because they seem to embody a world view that takes for granted things like racism, misogyny and a profound cultural conservatism that is utterly unexamined.” Pullman hates how Lewis “pours scorn on little girls with fat legs. And, as one commentator said, among Lewis’s readers will be some little girls with fat legs who find themselves utterly bewildered by this slur on something they can’t help and are embarrassed and upset by already. It’s the position, as this commentator said, of the teacher who curries favour with the bullies in the class by bullying the weak children with them.” (The Guardian 20/11/2013)
CS Lewis had become, after his BBC radio talks in the 1940s, “the foremost Christian apologist in the English-speaking world”. He was much more well-known than Tolkien – “who had a widespread academic reputation as a time waster and dreamer” – and whose fame only really spread when he was an old man and after his death. Lewis certainly had a moral political agenda that was clear to others, like the writer and journalist, George Orwell. Lewis’ broadcasting approach was successful, in Orwell’s opinion, as his “chummy little wireless talks” succeeded in making everyman listen and were “not really so unpolitical as they are meant to look.” Quite simply, “since becoming a Christian, his teaching, reading, writing, and scholarship had all acquired zest and purpose. He had found his vocation: to fight the Lord’s battles in the academy and the world at large, armed with wit, dialectic, and invincible faith” suggest Zaleski and Zaleski*. This was not Tolkien’s style at all. He believed that while myth and fairy tale must reflect religious truth, they must do so subtly, never depicting religion as it appears in “the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.” Lewis certainly, well at least after his conversion to Christianity in the early 1930s, had no such compulsion. He was happy to proselytise and use allegory, which Tolkien rejected. Tolkien insisted on the strict separation of the allegorical from the mythopoeic but Lewis thought they mixed. (*see The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams).
Some may accuse Pullman of proselytising secularism, effectively the same crime he believes Lewis committed with his religious allegories. It is near- certain Tolkien, a devout Roman Catholic who loved the latin mass, would have disapproved. I do not think this the case – although I am very comfortable with Pullman’s worldview – but feel that he is balanced, and not ‘nasty, in any way. Yes, the Magisterium and the Court of Consistorial Discipline are theocratic, authoritarian obsessives but the nuns are viewed favourably, even when making errors. He does wear his ideology on his sleeve but one cannot help but feel that children are being challenged to think. One never feels that with Lewis. Pullman wishes to avoid having “a narrow, dogmatic point of view” and largely succeeds.
Pullman often amuses with little asides and quips: “…she went inside and made some coffee and did what she had never done in her life: tried the newspaper crossword. ‘What a stupid exercise,’ said her dæmon after five minutes. ‘Words belong in contexts, not pegged out like biological specimens.” However, his strength, in comparison to many other young adult novelists, is that he takes the time to think things out with his young protagonists. This is a lengthy quote but illustrates the point:
“No one can remember all the meanings of the alethiometer pictures, so we need the books to be able to read it.’ ‘It’s like a secret language.’ ‘Yes, it is.’ ‘Did someone make it up? Or …’ ‘Or did they discover it? Was that what you were going to say?’ ‘Yes, it was,’ he said, a little surprised. ‘So which is it?’ ‘That’s not so easy. Let’s think of another example – something else. You know the theorem of Pythagoras?’ ‘The square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.’ ‘That’s exactly it. And is that true for every example you’ve tried?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And was it true before Pythagoras realised it?’ Malcolm thought. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It must have been.’ ‘So he didn’t invent it. He discovered it.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Good. Now let’s take one of the alethiometer symbols. Take the hive, for example, surrounded by bees. One of its meanings is sweetness, and another is light. Can you see why?’ ‘Honey for the sweetness. And …’ ‘What are candles made of?’ ‘Wax! Beeswax!’ ‘That’s right. We don’t know who first realised that those meanings were there, but did the similarity, the association, exist before they realised it, or not until then? Did they invent it, or discover it?’ Malcolm thought hard. ‘That’s not quite the same,’ he said slowly. ‘Because you can prove Pythagoras’s theorem. So you know it must be true. But there’s nothing to prove with the beehive. You can see the connection, but you can’t prove …’ ‘All right, put it like this. Suppose the person who made the alethiometer was looking for a symbol to express the ideas of sweetness and light. Could they have chosen just anything? Could they have chosen a sword, for example, or a dolphin?’ Malcolm tried to work it out. ‘Not really,’ he said. ‘You could twist it a lot and make them similar, but …’ ‘That’s right. There’s a natural sort of connection with the beehive, but not with the other two.’ ‘Yeah. Yes.’ ‘So was it invented or discovered?’ Malcolm thought hard again, and then smiled. ‘Discovered,’ he said. ‘All right. Now let’s try this. Can you imagine another world?’ ‘I think so.’ ‘A world where Pythagoras never existed?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Would his theorem be true there as well?’ ‘Yes. It would be true everywhere.’ ‘Now imagine that world has people like us in it, but no bees. They’d have the experience of sweetness and of light, but how would they symbolise them?’ ‘Well, they … they’d find some other things. Maybe sugar for the sweetness and something else, maybe the sun, for light.’ ‘Now imagine another world, a different one again, where there are bees but no people. Would there still be a connection between a beehive and sweetness and light?’ ‘Well, the connection would be … here, in our minds. But not there. If we can think about that other world we could see a connection, even if there was no one there to see it.’ ‘That’s good. Now we still can’t say whether that language you spoke about, the language of symbols, was definitely invented or definitely discovered…”
I highly recommend La Belle Sauvage – The Book of Dust #1. Pullman’s novel, which I would have truly loved when I was young, certainly gave pleasure to the current me and I eagerly await the next instalment, The Secret Commonwealth, which will focus on Lyra as a 20-year-old undergraduate student. The time has come re-read the original trilogy, His Dark Materials, in preparation.
Other titles read during October
Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son (2016) by Mark Colvin
Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) by George Saunders
Mirror Sydney (2017) by Vanessa Berry
Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985) by Patrick Süskind
Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury
Hemingway’s Paris: A Writer’s City in Words and Images by Robert Wheeler
New Paris: The People, Places & Ideas Fueling a Movement (2017) by Lindsey Tramuta
Finding George Orwell in Burma (2011) by Emma Larkin
George Orwell at the BBC in 1942 (2017) by Dennis Avery
The Complete Works (1592/2003) by Michel de Montaigne and Donald M. Frame (Translator)