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THE BOOK OF DUST - Review of 'La Belle Sauvage' and 'The Secret Commonwealth' by Phi

A couple of Christmases ago Angharad gave me 'La Belle Sauvage', the first volume in Philip Pullman’s second trilogy, ‘The Book of Dust’. It had just been published. Despite devouring the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, after a few pages I set it on the shelf where it languished for two years. Then last Christmas she gave me 'The Secret Commonwealth', the second volume in the trilogy, also just out. Crikey, I thought, I’d better get cracking. So it was that between Christmas and my end of January birthday I read both volumes. What a journey! Such a pleasure to be immersed in the familiar yet other world of Lyra Silvertongue, the child of destiny who is being pursued far and wide by the Consistorial Court of Discipline (CCD), agents of the austere and puritanical Magisterium.

First of all it’s a compelling, page-turning tale. Both volumes are set in a parallel world with our same geography (Brytain) but a different history. There are similarities to England in the 1920s and 30s, but some elements hark back to the mid 19thcentury when canal people – in this case known as gyptians – were doing themselves out of a livelihood by helping to build railways. Then there are flashbacks to the 13th century when a benign King Richard is replaced by a villainous King John. One thing about this world is different. They don’t have Electricity. But they do have Dust.

In the first trilogy Lyra Belaqua is a boldly precocious girl of about 12 who is, according to the prophesies of the witches, a second Eve and destined to end destiny itself. She travels to the North to help rescue children whose animals souls – daemons – have been severed from them under the supervision of Lyra’s very own mother in malevolent experiments. She also helps to overturn injustice by restoring the crown to the rightful Bear King who, in gratitude and recognition, names her Lyra Silvertongue. In the second and third volumes of the His Dark Materials trilogy she visits the Land of the Dead and falls in love with a lad from our world, Will, whom she is ultimately and irrevocably separated from. It’s a heart-wrenching climax.

In the first book of the second trilogy, La Belle Sauvage, Lyra is a baby of six months. We have gone back in time. She’s been abandoned by her parents – who’d had an illicit, high-level love affair – and is being looked after by nuns. The plot is complex but basically the agents of the Magisterium are out to get her. She’s rescued by a boy, Malcolm, the same age she is in the first trilogy. In rising floodwaters they are swept away in his rowing boat, named La Belle Sauvage, which can be translated as ‘wild beauty’. During these adventures she first acquires the aleithiometer, sometimes known as The Golden Compass, a symbolic divining device which, when she’s older, Lyra can read intuitively, but which otherwise requires years of training to interpret.

In the second volume of The Book of Dust, The Secret Commonwealth (TSC), we leap forward twenty years. Lyra is now a student at an Oxford college, but she’s lost her former confidence and ability to read the aleithiometer. Under the influence of books by super rationalists popular with students she’s come to doubt the reality of imagination and meaning. She falls out badly with Pantalaimon, her daemon, who leaves to find her ‘imagination’. For Lyra to be seen without her daemon puts her in jeopardy. Besides, she’s desperate to find Pan again. So she sets out for a ruined city in the Levant, said to be haunted by humanless daemons. It’s also in the direction of a peculiar mountain-girt desert where rare roses grow that are made into vision-inducing oil used by shamans. It seems that, under its influence, you can see Dust, ‘sparkling granules of light.’ Needless to say the Magisterium, opposed to anything they deem heretical, want to put a stop to this. Malcolm is tasked with heading into the thick of it and finding out more.

Philip Pullman gives a good summary of his own books when describing Malcolm’s feelings about an ancient Persian poem he’s reading: “It was highly episodic: the story had many turns and byways, and brought in every kind of fabulous creature and outlandish situation… Further elaborations followed each adventure, like little vortices of consequence spinning away from the main flow. In Malcolm’s view the story was almost insufferable, but … redeemed by the poet’s rapturous description of the rose garden itself … and of the pleasure of the senses … enjoyed by those who reached it in a state of knowledge.” Of course PPs books are far from ‘insufferable’. But there are definite parallels.

One of the pleasures of reading Pullman is that he creates characters capable of bold and quick-witted action in the face of desperate odds. Although he says Lyra is just ‘an ordinary girl’ she’s exceptional in her intelligence and courage, a real role model. Later in TSC Malcolm’s pub landlady mother, up till now a minor character, enters the fray against the CCD with invigorating mettle. Many recognisably contemporary themes are also present, including refugees, insurgents, arms dealers and pharmaceutical giants.

But for me one of the most thrilling themes in the book is the Secret Commonwealth itself. Lyra is tempted to dismiss this Otherworld as ‘nonsense, superstition, nothing but meaningless fancy’. But her old gyptian friend, Farder Coram, tells her: ‘When I was young there wasn’t a single bush, not a flower nor a stone, that didn’t have its own proper spirit. You had to mind your manners around them, to ask for pardon, or for permission, or give thanks… Just to acknowledge that they were there, them spirits, and they had their proper rights to recognition and courtesy.’ It is an animistic belief in the genius loci, or spirit of place, that I share.

Before sending her off Farder Coram says to Lyra: ‘Witches are poor, but they bear themselves like queens and great ladies. I don’t mean conceit and swagger … but there’s a majesty, a kind of pride and awareness, a sense of magnificence… They’re modest in their clothing, and they have the bearing of panthers. You could do that. You do it already, only you don’t know it.’

Not only is Philip Pullman an excellent storyteller he’s also a philosopher of science and religion. However he’s exploring the mysteries of soul (daemons) and consciousness (Dust?) not in a dry, academic manner but through a complex, emotionally engaging, imaginatively satisfying story.

At the end of The Secret Commonwealth Lyra is walking alone at night into the haunted ruined city. Nothing is resolved. Finally there are only the words: ‘To be concluded.’ It is the ultimate cliffhanger. But it’s exciting that the man with such a pull on the imagination is writing the final volume of The Book of Dust trilogy right now. As we wait!

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