In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys the first volume of Philip Pullman’s new trilogy The Book of Dust
In Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time, a physicist takes issue with a modern author, arguing that ‘Shakespeare would have grasped wave functions’ and John Donne ‘would have understood complementarity and relative time’. In writing about these new scientific developments of the twentieth century, ‘they would have educated their audiences too.’ But modern writers, for McEwan’s scientist, are too obsessed with developments in the arts at the cost of the exciting discoveries and debates going on in other fields of human endeavour.
Of the novelists who are engaging head-on with these discoveries and mysteries in his fiction, Philip Pullman is one of the most engaging and engaged. In His Dark Materials, his ambitious trilogy released around the time of the millennium – a trilogy which offered a riposte to the pro-Christian messages of much children’s and young-adult fantasy of the twentieth century – Pullman took in ideas from quantum physics as well as metaphysics, to produce a masterly piece of storytelling that McEwan’s fictional scientist would doubtless have admired. Now, Pullman is at work on a new trilogy set in the same universe as His Dark Materials, of which La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One (Book of Dust 1) is the first volume.
In La Belle Sauvage, many familiar characters and details from the previous trilogy are here: Lord Asriel; Mrs Coulter; the daemons everyone goes about with from birth, which represent their inner spirit or personality (and which change from one creature to another throughout childhood and adolescence, until settling down into a suitable animal – and remaining as that creature – when the person reaches adulthood); use of the word ‘anbaric’ rather than ‘electric’ to remind us, in a minor detail, that Pullman’s is an alternate Oxford and alternate universe; Lyra Belacqua, the heroine of Pullman’s previous His Dark Materials trilogy; and Dust, that mysterious substance whose precise significance and essence remains hard to pin down and whose symbolism, as in all good fiction, is irreducible to a single meaning. It is the last of these which lends its name to the title of this follow-up trilogy, The Book of Dust, of which La Belle Sauvage is the first instalment, published in 2017.
Pullman has described The Book of Dust not as a sequel or prequel but an ‘equel’: an inspired coinage that conveys the chronological sweep of this new trilogy. While the events of La Belle Sauvage take place when Lyra is still an infant, the second volume, The Secret Commonwealth, focuses on Lyra as a young adult. So this new trilogy straddles the time scale of the His Dark Materials trilogy which first brought Pullman to international attention as a writer of innovative fantasy (although Pullman himself dislikes the genre label and has little time for many works in the genre, David Lindsay’s charmingly bizarre A Voyage to Arcturus excepted). The protagonist of La Belle Sauvage is a young boy named Malcolm Polstead, who lives in Oxfordshire and helps out at the pub in Godstow that his parents run. Malcolm doesn’t have many friends of his own age, instead spending time on his canoe named La Belle Sauvage (hence the novel’s title), or helping out the nuns at the nearby priory – nuns who, he learns, have been charged with caring for the infant Lyra. Over the course of almost 600 pages, La Belle Sauvage follows Malcolm’s adventure as he slowly learns more about Lyra’s identity, her importance, her parents, and the secret machinations of a Christian group named the Consistorial Court of Discipline (CCD). Malcolm is curious but canny: he susses out Mrs Coulter’s devious villainy and the need to get Lyra to Lord Asriel rather than the infant’s mother as quickly as possible, and there’s a good scene where Malcolm exposes Mrs Coulter’s true designs. I won’t reveal too many details of the plot here for fear of spoilers, but suffice to say that Malcolm’s La Belle Sauvage will come in handy in the course of the novel as he and a 15-year-old girl named Alice, who helps out at his parents’ pub and at the priory, have to rescue the baby Lyra from the priory during a particularly heavy flood which casts the world into chaos. (The flood, like Dust, is another feature of Pullman’s novel that subtly points in several different directions at once, echoing the Biblical Flood while also suggesting the all-too-contemporary threat of further climate change.) The only other detail I’ll reveal is that Gerard Bonneville, the novel’s villain, is first observed harming his own daemon (a hyena), which is an extremely neat but original way of signalling he’s Bad News, and another way in which Pullman’s concept of the daemon (the product of a Eureka moment while the author was struggling to write the first chapter of Northern Lights) provides an entertaining and effective way of building his characters’ personalities in the space of a short scene.
As a genre, fantasy often struggles to explore Big Ideas – perhaps because it is rooted in the past, in timeless stories of myth and tradition, rather than in the here-and-now world. There are exceptions – Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions is an unlikely but compelling precursor to Pullman’s work, in taking in ageless myth and quantum mechanics, as well as weighty political ideas – and, of course, it can work as allegory, as in Pullman’s bête noire, C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (whose Christian proselytising Pullman wanted to offer a corrective to in the His Dark Materials trilogy). And it can convey timeless truths relating to heroism and power, tyranny and empire, love and loyalty; but how many famous fantasy novels explore complex ideas relating to their time? Science fiction is full of such examples, although many of them quickly become dated through trying to capture a scientific or political zeitgeist. Pullman’s novels, assuming we can label them as ‘fantasy’, certainly aren’t afraid to explore complex ideas that don’t immediately lend themselves to seamless storytelling. In His Dark Materials it was religion and quantum physics, among other things (both themes resurface here). In The Book of Dust the chief theme is one of the great remaining mysteries of science and metaphysics: consciousness. Pullman has said in an interview that Dust is ‘an analogy of consciousness’; in La Belle Sauvage, one of the ongoing debates is the precise nature of the fictional Ruzakov field, which is related to Dust, or Ruzakov Particles, and so linked to consciousness. One of the key moments in the plot comes when our hero, young Malcolm, finds an acorn an academic-turned-spy has dropped, and reads the message hidden inside. From there, Malcolm becomes friends with Dr Hannah Relf, the academic-cum-spy for whom the acorn-note was meant, and learns about Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, with its acknowledgment of the difficulties of measuring things with any accuracy at the quantum level (i.e. the Dust-level in this alternate universe). But consciousness is everywhere in La Belle Sauvage: in the very young Lyra’s half-formed awareness of what is unfolding around her; in her shifting little furry daemon, Pantalaimon; indeed, in the lives of all characters’ daemons, to an extent. In representing the ‘soul’ in a soulless universe – Pullman is an atheist – daemons really represent the closest thing we have to the Christian soul: consciousness.
I thoroughly enjoyed La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One (Book of Dust 1), even if it takes a few hundred pages to get going, and some of the dialogue flows less smoothly at some moments (of exposition, inevitably) than others. (Having said that, there were several laugh-out-loud exchanges involving the younger characters, which show how well Pullman can do this sort of thing.) It’s refreshing to find a novel that is ‘fantasy’ of sorts but which engages with difficult contemporary scientific theories (I use the word ‘fantasy’ in a loose sense: the daemons and the alethiometer, a quasi-magical device that can allow the user to divine the truth, being the closest to supernatural details). I sense that things will really get going, plot-wise, in The Secret Commonwealth, the next novel in the series. That’s out on 3 October; I have an advance review copy which I plan to devour (all 700 pages of it) in time for the Secret Library column out the following day. I can’t wait.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.