Worldbuilder, storyteller—these are Philip Pullman’s great strengths for me. As a ‘novel-maker’ he’s stuck in a rather old-fashioned, comfortable mode which doesn’t respond well to an overly critical reading, and as a philosopher (which all but the most unreflective authors of speculative fiction must be) he has some blind spots. The delicious pleasure of a Pullman book is precisely a kind of thoughtful but uncritical comfort read—La Belle Sauvage resembles a mass market thriller remade for cultured twelve-year-olds. The writer to whom he bears the greatest resemblance, ironically given their diametrically opposed positions on the Catholic Church, is J.R.R. Tolkien. The core fantasy of their work is the same despite their differences on religion—it’s the possibility of an objective morality, the certainty of an oral truth received from a trustworthy authority.
Such authorities feature as prominent ‘actantial helpers’ to the protagonists throughout the His Dark Materials trilogy, of which The Book Of Dust is a continuation (although this, its first volume, is a prequel). Certain adults are understood to be implicitly trustworthy, a certain heroic goodness or nobility immanent in their very presence. Pullman never tricks the reader with regard to this quality—his plucky and intuitive child protagonists are always alert to any lack of sincerity in the adults they encounter. His heroes are such figures in the making—perhaps this is why they need to be children, as the whole adventure would be too easy for such people if they were adults, too clearly understood by such sages. Lyra in particular, who is a major character in this book as an infant, though hardly a protagonist, is a figure in whom is vested enormous power and responsibility, simply by virtue of her birth and the vatic speech her nativity occasions.
Another such authority is the narrative voice. You know you are in safe hands with Pullman’s narrator—their truths are absolute, their (frequently disclosed) judgements incontrovertible. That is the kind of world this is: one in which truth and value are singular, and are available in their entirety to the god-like cognisance of the omniscient narrator. After re-reading His Dark Materials I wrote of my difficulty reconciling such a world with Pullman’s overtly anti-authoritarian, anti-religious positions—he would like authority, ‘The Authority’, to relinquish its power, but he has no intention of ceding his own. This is not an easily defensible position with regard to ‘the modern novel’, but in terms of the key facets of Pullman’s creative project, it’s the perfect high ground from which to command the field. For the reader to enjoy La Belle Sauvage fully they must allow Pullman to take them by the hand, lead them into his world, and tell them his story.
And this is a very well-made story. The ways in which mysteries are established, tension escalated, sympathy elicited, and action unleashed are expertly modulated and structured. Pullman’s prose is beautiful, in the way that a well-constructed piece of hardwood furniture is beautiful. His characters are easy to believe in, and easy to like (or hate—delete as appropriate). The world in which they exist is also plausible. It’s one we had established for us in His Dark Materials, and which probably played a major part in securing that trilogy’s popularity—a world of zeppelins and riverboats, Arctic exploration and helium balloons, clockwork and steam, dark wood and burnished brass. It chimes well with a popular appetite for the stylistic features of Steampunk, without adopting any of that genre’s more outlandish features, and it is a world which has been carefully thought through with regard to its social and cultural structures.
Other worlds feature in His Dark Materials, and for me Pullman’s most masterly piece of worldbuilding occurs in The Amber Spyglass, the final volume of the trilogy. In that book he articulates an alien ecology that could stand next to Frank Herbert’s Dune as an exemplar of the planetary romance—but that world is rendered inaccessible to his protagonists by the denouement of his narrative, and its fundamental strangeness is probably less welcoming to readers who enjoy the familiar comfort of Pullman’s writing style. In La Belle Sauvage he doubles down on the worldbuilding of Lyra’s home universe, developing his alternate history Britain in more depth and detail than we’ve previously seen, and exploring the specifics of the Church’s role in his theocratic society.
A major flood features in the story, and it functions as what Farah Mendlesohn calls a ‘portal’ in Rhetorics of Fantasy, her typology of fantasy fiction—it is the device by which the protagonists cross from their prosaic everyday lives into the fabulous, and simultaneously the device by which the fantastical irrupts into the everyday world. Pullman hints somewhat at an incursion of Faerie, and introduces the term ‘the secret commonwealth’, which is the title of the second book in this series. He then explicitly introduces Faerie as a narrative and worldbuilding element. As such, it forms a small and apparently diversionary episode, without any very clear relation to the narrative as a whole.
Perhaps by way of clarifying why Faerie, which doesn’t crop up in His Dark Materials, has a place in his world, Pullman gives a cameo appearance to a witch of the kind that features prominently in his earlier stories. It felt as though he was reminding us that there are magical elements in this world of early twentieth-century technology, but the witch comes and goes so quickly, with so little narrative impact, that her presence feels extraneous. However, given that La Belle Sauvage appears in much smaller type on the cover than The Book of Dust, the title of the yet-to-be-completed trilogy which it inaugurates, I’m willing to suspend judgement on these elements until I can consider their presence in the work as a whole.
I’ve not talked about the ‘daemons’ of characters in this world (parts of their psychology which are physically manifest as animal companions), or the narrative uses he puts them to. Nor have I mentioned his ‘Rusakov field’, a physical field which imparts matter (all matter) with consciousness. There is, I’m pleased to say, a lot going on philosophically in this book (as in the preceding volumes in this series). I don’t always agree with Pullman’s postulates, or find his thinking that convincing, but these ideas are always deployed structurally, driving the narrative rather than decorating it, and they are an integral element in the comfortable, exciting-yet-cosy milieu that he constructs.
Overall La Belle Sauvage appears to be the work of a writer who has continued to hone his craft in the twenty-five odd years since Northern Lights was published. It’s cut from the same cloth, but in terms of plotting and characterisation it is that much more precise and finely judged that I found myself devouring it hungrily—and I finished it happy in the knowledge that I’d waited until well after the second volume came out before I read it. Pullman limits his ambitions in respect of what fantasy fiction can achieve, but within that compass he has few peers.