La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman review – a tidal wave of imagination | Books

Join Hafta-Ichi to find out the article “La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman review – a tidal wave of imagination | Books”

La Belle Sauvage – the name of the boat in which Philip Pullman’s hero Malcolm navigates a flooded Thames valley – was also the name of the pub in Ludgate Hill where Pocahontas and her brother Tomocomo stayed when they first arrived in London. The landlord cashed in on the Algonquian princess’s presence by using her portrait as a pub sign. Tomocomo had decided he would count the number of people he met in England by making a notch in his tally stick for each new face. By the time he left Plymouth dockyard the stick was a handful of splinters. The world turned out to be bigger than Tomocomo could imagine.

The mark of a great fictional universe is that it is bigger than the story, that there is something beyond the map in the endpapers. I remember getting that Tomocomo feeling when I first opened CS Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and saw that there were islands and unknown lands beyond Narnia. La Belle Sauvage opens with an even greater surprise. There are nice nuns in Pullman’s Oxford!

The book, the first in a three-part prequel to His Dark Materials, tells the story of the infant Lyra, who is placed in the care of some competent, kindly sisters at Godstow and who has to be rescued from her enemies and from a catastrophic flood by their resourceful odd-job boy, Malcolm. The babyhood of your most beloved character is a worryingly obvious place to start a prequel, but one of the marks of Pullman’s genius is that he can take the obvious and make it blaze. What could be more obvious than an animal companion – every Disney film has one. But is there a richer, more complex conceit in modern fiction than Pullman’s daemons – animal companions that are both a projection of yourself and a guide, both soul and guardian angel?

The other mark of a great fictional universe is that you are persuaded by its rules. When Bonneville, the delicious villain of this book, abuses his own daemon, it’s a truly horrifying moment. The force of Pullman’s fantasy comes partly from the precision with which he describes the mundane. La Belle Sauvage may be floating on a supernatural flood but she’s definitely a boat of wood and canvas. There’s a delight in the details of making and fixing things – anti-clockwise screws form a major plot element.

One of the unexpected pleasures of the book is the tenderness with which Pullman describes Malcolm’s growing fascination with how babies work. I’m not a bit surprised that he can write a thrilling chase but I really wasn’t expecting it to get its urgency from the need to change a nappy and the pain of a raw bottom. Of course in a sense La Belle Sauvage is a realist novel. As Alan Garner did in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Pullman has given his fantasy an address in the real world. You could follow the action of this story from Oxford’s Port Meadow and Folly Bridge on to London. It’s not the geography that’s changed, it’s the physics. It takes some nerve to set a fantasy book in the same locations as Alice. A lot is made of Pullman’s engagement with the literary canon – his inverting of Milton, his debt to Blake. The Odyssey is in there too, as well as Exodus – Lyra is the prophesied infant rescued from the water and sent to live in a kind of palace. But this book is also channelling the pure thrill of children’s literature. Philippa Pearce’s Minnow is surely just ahead of Malcolm’s boat, as are Arthur Ransome’s Swallow and Amazon. There’s a moment when a river god unexpectedly appears that brought to mind Lucy M Boston’s Green Knowe. There’s an encounter that is straight from the ancient Welsh tales of The Mabinogion. He’s even taken a hagiography and twisted it – the story of a boy who instead of being persecuted for standing up to persecution is canonised for helping persecute his own parents (there’s still plenty of anti-Catholicism in here).

And of course Lyra’s Oxford is haunted by Pullman’s nemesis, CS Lewis. There’s an Italian saying much beloved by Italo Calvino – the tale is not told until you add to it. Pullman wrestles with all these influences like Jacob with the angel, trying to get some sort of blessing. It’s all the more amazing that after the complexities and complications of The Amber Spyglass, he has moulded them into something as simple as a chase. One other way in which La Belle Sauvage recalls those children’s classics is the sheer beauty of the book itself. David Fickling Books should be praised for the faith it’s shown in producing something both lavish and readable. It takes its place alongside the other gorgeous volumes that have appeared in the run-up to Christmas – Hamish Hamilton’s The Lost Words and Macmillan’s beautiful Moomin encyclopaedia. As a book lover you can’t but admire this attempt to assert the primacy of the physical book over the digital. At the same time, there’s a price for beauty and these books all cost more than most children would ever be able to persuade an adult to spend on a book. When I was a child that was not a problem. I could walk into a library and borrow one. Walking into the tiny library in my home town – that was my Tomocomo moment. We are allowing more and more of our children to be deprived of the possibility of such moments. We do so at our peril.

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman is published by David Fickling Books (£20). To order a copy for £14.60 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Source: The Guardian
Keyword: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman review – a tidal wave of imagination | Books

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *