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  • The Book of Dust. Volume one: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
  • Peter Fields
Philip Pullman. The Book of Dust. Volume one: La Belle Sauvage. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017. 449 p.

La Belle Sauvage, the first volume of The Book of Dust, reminds us how exceptionally important young adult literature has become in regard to grown-up speculative topics, not least of which would be the nature of consciousness itself. Pullman, often accused of being anti-Christian, is probably better understood as the anti-Lewis, mining similar territory as The Narnia Chronicles if only to offer his own brilliant take on Lewis's motifs, especially the possibility of plural universes (recall the "wood between the worlds" in The Magician's Nephew). Pullman's universe also ingeniously employs Enochian angels. HBO has announced the first season of its own adaptation of Pullman's His Dark Materials, the trilogy most notable for its first volume, The Golden Compass (originally titled Northern Lights). It became a 2007 movie starring Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Coulter, the villainous mother of the young protagonist, Lyra Belacqua (also known as Lyra Silvertongue) for her consummate skill with storytelling and lying.

In this first volume of The Book of Dust, a prequel to His Dark Materials, eleven-year old Malcom Polstead is the infant Lyra's most faithful guardian. He uses La Belle Sauvage, his beloved canoe, to rescue her from the clutches of the Magisterium's violent, repressive, and murderous investigative agency (known by the initials CCD), and to [End Page 225] navigate the river Thames when it abruptly overflows, creating a flood almost as devastating to Oxford and its immediate environs as the Great Flood in Genesis, but which has the effect of re-inaugurating island outposts of mythic portents familiar to everyone from fairy folklore. Pullman hardly needs to fall back on borrowed, ready-made characters and motifs, which was Lewis's predilection. The anti-Lewis then might have been his fellow inkling J. R. R. Tolkien. In Prince Caspian, for instance, Lewis gives us the reawakening of a mythic world as led by the boy-god Bacchus, who is very much the same character we find in Ovid's Metamorphoses. The pains-taking Tolkien never ceased to be chagrined by Lewis's penchant for ready-mades and thought he was giving us a Bacchus-figure in his own character Tom Bombadil, who was sadly left out of Peter Jackson's movies. Pullman's Malcom is equally original, a Promethean temperament with a talent for mechanics and working with his hands, taking pleasure in how things work, and pondering such quotidian mysteries as how to fix broken window panes or how to improve security for window shutters by using special "non un-screwable screws" (106).

The point of departure for The Book of Dust might be Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which is also a voyage from island to island, but, ironically, Malcom's mechanical gifts give him the edge in each island's allegorical world. In one case, it requires out-thinking a fairy godmother who scorns literal-minded children (like Malcom in her view) and who abruptly breastfeeds Lyra and claims the infant as her own. Malcom outwits the fairy woman. He quickly masters systems of any kind and in the cove of a different island persuades a swamp-bound giant to open a water gate back to the flooding Thames. Pullman's only narrative peer might be Danielle Trussoni in the Enochian novel Angelology, but even then, many people might give the palm to the consummate phrasing and diction of Pullman, only hesitating when comparing him to the beloved Rowling. Yet Rowling is much closer to the economical narrative of Lewis than the rich, panoramic vistas of Pullman's description.

However, Philip Pullman is more than a foil to Lewis, more than a fabulist on par with Tolkien, and more than a rival with Potter's Rowling for the laurels of most important still-living author of young adult literature. Just to cite one example, in La Belle Sauvage, Pullman anticipates where events have taken us in our own country as well as the UK...


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