Like all good children’s stories, His Dark Materials is just as enjoyable to read at twenty-two as it was at twelve. As I recently re-read the trilogy, however, I was struck by just how greatly and how variously this truth relates to it, compared to other children’s books.
As time goes on, I have not just discovered new ways to enjoy His Dark Materials, but new worlds within the book, worlds of meaning beyond those within the story that would have been imperceptible to my twelve year old self. Of course, however, I have also lost perhaps just as many of these worlds in the dull process of growing up.
The perception of this loss made me wonder what 12-years-old me would have thought of La Belle Sauvage, the first installment Pullman’s newly released prequel to the trilogy, The Book of Dust. While this question is sadly destined to remain unanswered, I am ready to guess she wouldn’t have been half as struck by it as I was. After I finished reading the first installment of The Book of Dust, I felt shattered.
The journey undertaken in reading La Belle Sauvage is a dark one, but the quality of this darkness is different than that of Pullman’s preceeding trilogy. Lyra, the protagonist of His Dark Materials, is a half-wild creature, brave and fierce and slightly savage from the start of the books. Malcolm Polstead, the protagonist of La Belle Sauvage, is at first glance very different. There is a sweetness to him, and an aura of love and warmth surround his life at the Trout Inn. Like Lyra, he is clever, and yet unlike her, he is from the first a lovable character. This warmth is something Lyra and Jordan college unmistakably lack. Her story begins without pre- amble with a strong sense of the corruption of figures of authority, and children going missing.
From the outset, the reader is encouraged to trust no one but Lyra, and her demon Pantalaimon, despite Lyra being such an accomplished liar that she wins the name Lyra Silvertonge over the course of her adventures.
By contrast, at the beginning of his story, Malcolm definitely always tells the truth. Stemming outwards from Malcolm’s initial innocence, the atmosphere of the first part of La Belle Sauvage encourages the reader to feel safe and to trust its character.
But the warm shelter of the first half of the novel acts as a foil to its much gloomier second part. As we venture into the flood on board La Belle Sauvage the familiar, reassuring Oxford landscape changes. Under the water, the city and the story assume an eerie, menacing light. The cold, haunting tone which permeates His Dark Materials is again felt, and felt all the more impactfully because of the warmth it replaces.
Trying to explain his perception of the flood, Malcolm says: ‘It’s kind of between time. Like a dream or something…It’s as real as anything could be. But is just seems kind of bigger than I though. There’s more things in it”. In the flood, the world is different to how it was before; richer, and yet more frightening. In a nod to the diluvial, the flood seems to mark a turning point in history. The reader is left with the soul shattering impression that after the flood, nothing in Malcolm’s life will be the same, just as the book cannot fail to change the reader’s own world view, albeit in subtler, less definable ways.