It’s been seventeen years since we left Lyra and Will under the hornbeam trees in their two separate Oxfords; twenty-two years since we met Lyra and Pan, scurrying through Jordan College. When the kind bookseller at Porter Square Books slid my copy of The Book of Dust across the counter, I teared up. “A lot of people are excited about this book,” she said, smiling. I mentioned that my daughter’s name was Lyra, and that today was her birthday. “Oh,” she replied, “You’re really excited.”
True. I took that day off and the next to read La Belle Sauvage, and when I finished, before noon on the second day, I immediately wanted the next volume. Alas, it will be another wait – so I simply began reading this one again.
Pullman brings us back to Oxford ten or eleven years before The Golden Compass begins, when Lyra is a six-month-old baby, and Malcolm Polstead – our new protagonist – is the eleven-year-old son of the owners of the Trout Inn, across the river from the Priory of St. Rosamond. Malcolm does work around the inn and and for the nuns, goes to school, and paddles around in his canoe, which he has named La Belle Sauvage. But things are changing, in Malcolm’s small world and in the larger one: the Magisterium (the Church) and the Consistorial Court of Discipline (CCD) are growing more powerful and frightening, and the League of St. Alexander comes to the schools, encouraging children to sign up and turn in anyone disloyal to the Church; this encouragement to inform on friends and family felt reminiscent of 1930s Germany.
This swing to the political/religious right is countered by liberal forces working in secret; one of these, Oakley Street, has a few familiar members, including scholar Hannah Relf and gyptian Coram van Texel (later to become Farder Coram). Malcolm becomes involved, meeting with Hannah weekly, but his true loyalty is to baby Lyra, who is in the care of the nuns at the priory. When a flood comes – as Coram warned – Malcolm and Alice Parslow (Parslow being another familiar name from The Golden Compass) take Lyra and flee in the canoe, but they are pursued by the CCD and by Gerard Bonneville, a scholar with knowledge of the Rusakov field whose daemon is a terrifying three-legged hyena.
The second half of the book takes place on the water, as Malcolm and Alice try to keep Lyra and themselves safe. First they plan to head to Jordan College in Oxford, where Malcolm thinks they could ask for sanctuary for Lyra, but the river is flowing too fast, and they head for London instead, hoping to find Lord Asriel and deliver Lyra to him. On the way they have several run-ins with scary figures, lose Lyra and get her back, and meet a fairy (a different sort of magic than any Lyra or Will encountered in His Dark Materials, but consistent with British fairy lore; Pullman has said he was inspired by William Blake). In the very last pages, Malcolm and Alice do find Asriel, and he manages to get them all to Jordan, where he entrusts the Master of the college with Lyra’s care; there the book ends.
Although La Belle Sauvage takes place about a decade before The Golden Compass, it has much the same feel. The CCD is immediately sinister, and unsurprisingly, Mrs. Coulter is behind the League of St. Alexander. Lord Asriel is much the same as he is in His Dark Materials. Hannah is to Malcolm much as Mary Malone is to Lyra; a scholar who mentors him, though she is somewhat in the dark herself. Baby Lyra’s brief time in a sort of orphanage, and Malcolm’s rescue of her there, is reminiscent of Bolvangar. But the most similar part, oddly enough, is Malcolm himself: he is like a blend of (older) Lyra and Will, with her facility for thinking on her feet (making up false names, for example) and his ability to be unnoticed. In their steadfastness to each other, despite initial antagonism, Malcolm and Alice are a bit like Lyra and Will as well; they rely on each other because they’re all they have, and that bonds them.
Now, we wait for the second volume of The Book of Dust, and we wait even longer for the third. I am confident that both will be worth the wait.