Phillip Pullman. Photo: Asta AFP via The Independent
If there is anything that the accolades and golden stickers dripping from the jacket of La Belle Sauvage suggest, it is that British fantasy author Philip Pullman has risen above criticism. He certainly needs no introduction. Nor, apparently, does his new trilogy, The Book of Dust, of which La Belle Sauvage is the first installment. Given its dryness, geriatric leftyism, and ability to irritate, the novel introduces a series that seems more aptly titled than was intended.
Basking in the worldwide success of his previous trilogy, His Dark Materials, the author feels free to approach creative writing as pronouncements rather than performances—that is, sermonizing allegories from the high pulpit of anti-Christendom.
Pullman’s alternate Earth is run by the Church, or more specifically, its political wing, the Magisterium, a tyrannical organization combining elements of a medieval theocracy and Nazism. In addition to putting down free speech and honest scientific inquiry, the Magisterium also conducts hideous experiments concerning the nature of human existence, seeking to manipulate or suppress discoveries in the light of its established dogma.
All of this, Pullman has claimed, is a counter-Narnian crusade to wrest spirituality away from the Church and to repaganise it. His reimagining of the New Testament under the title The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010) tells you all you need to know on that score. Unlike C.S. Lewis—whose works he can fairly be said to despise—Pullman employs few analogies in his fiction. The Church is the Church; England is England; universities are universities; scholars are scholars. The academic heroes and theocratic villains of Pullman’s morality play wear no masks; they offer no fluidity, and afford no adaptation.
As a result, we are left with not so much a work of fantasy as the exasperated propaganda of an anti-Christian activist—the kind who would rather bubblewrap his ideas as “children’s fiction” than write an earnest piece of cultural criticism for intellectual forums. Lewis did both, keep in mind, and Philip Pullman is no C.S. Lewis.
La Belle Sauvage is not The Golden Compass either. Success tends to weaken the efforts of popular writers, and the newest addition to Pullman’s universe lacks its precursors’ glitter. Set ten years before the opening events of His Dark Materials, La Belle Sauvage tells how Lyra Belacqua ended up in Oxford as an infant, and of the violence and intrigue leading to her claim on academic sanctuary. The protagonist is a working-class boy this time—11-year-old Malcolm Polstead, the son of innkeepers—whose curiosity and helpfulness get him tangled up between the Church’s secret police and the heroic secret society of university scholars who oppose them.
Relying largely on the stages set in His Dark Materials, the world is not so much described in La Belle Sauvage as presented, making its fictional arrangements and contrivances all the more striking. Society is split between educated elites and the working class, the latter distinguished—as in J.K. Rowling’s less memorable works—by their phoneticized speech (“’cause,” “’spect”, “’em,” “en’t”, etc.).
As Pullman—a former educator—portrays him, Malcolm is too smart for his kind, and ripe for liberation from it. Unlike his parents, he loves reading, and immediately earns the affection of Hannah Relf, a historian of ideas at Oxford, and member of the scientific secret society known as Oakley Street. Malcolm becomes a bit of a spy for Dr. Relf, looking in on the baby recently left at the Priory of St. Rosamund, where he serves as an errand boy. It is not long, however, before Malcolm’s spycraft lands him in deep water, quite literally, when a flood of historic proportions (likely due to climate change) threatens the region.
The second half of the novel is plotted like a thriller, as an agent of the Magisterium’s sinister Consistorial Court of Discipline (CCD) stalks Malcolm and Lyra down the river.
Millions have no doubt enjoyed Pullman’s dark fantasy world while remaining oblivious to or dismissive of its messages. It is difficult to say at what age or level of political self-awareness the undertones of His Dark Materials’ dystopia become deafening to a reader. And while La Belle Sauvage lacks the shrewd theological contrivances of the previous novels, its bluntness—especially as a culturally celebrated work—is a shock to civility.
There is a scene where a representative of the Magisterium’s “Order of St. Alexander” enters Malcolm’s elementary school looking for information on dissenters. She tells them the story of a boy who betrayed his parents to the Church for harbouring pagans. The parents were executed, while the boy, Alexander, went on to earn his sainthood. Inspired by this tale, Malcolm’s classmates rush to join the order, receiving badges, while the teachers who oppose the campaign go missing one-by-one. Malcolm resists it, as should we all if faced with such evil. But rather than teach vigilance against all tyranny—as Orwell does, for example—the author focuses his hatred on a real institution, not allowing the reader to interpret its warning subjectively. One wonders if schoolchildren, after reading La Belle Sauvage, would be at all loath to rat on their Christian acquaintances to secular inquisitions.
For the progressivist choir, La Belle Sauvage will stand above reproach. For others it will be a cheap shot, and a cowardly one, especially given the persecution of Christians around the world. If it is relevance Pullman seeks, why flog the dead horse? Hasn’t his cassocked bogeyman already been beaten into dust?
Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar currently living on a mountainside near Vancouver, British Columbia. He can be reached on his website at http://www.harleyjsims.webs.com