La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman: democracy and civil liberties at stake

Darker themes of losses of democracy and civil liberties underpin this YA fantasy adventure in a world that isn’t quite our own.

Philip Pullman’s long-awaited addition to the His Dark Materials trilogy finally arrived at the beginning of 2018 in the form of a prequel, the first of a trilogy centred on The Book of Dust. This is more than just a fantasy: democracy is breaking down, civil liberties are being lost. This would make a great book to read and discuss with teenagers.

Young adult themes and a darker note

La Belle Sauvage is more of a rip-roaring Tale than Northern Lights. In Northern Lights, death takes place at a distance or off stage. In La Belle Sauvage, the violence is full frontal, with descriptions of how Malcolm has to attack Bonneville to protect Lyra & Pan, Alice & Ben. If it was filmed, we would have to witness it. But this is righteous anger in self defence against evil, similar to Lord Asriel’s killing of Coulter and Iorek Byrnison’s killing of the other bear in Northern Lights.

This is altogether much darker than Northern Lights, with more adult themes. Bonneville was imprisoned and had his laboratory taken away from him because of sexual crimes. Now released, even those who know nothing of him find him inexplicably repulsive, though on the surface he is charming; outwardly his evil characteristics are focused in his hyaena daemon. Uniquely, he is cruel to his own daemon, causing it deliberate pain.

Children save the day

This goes back to the adventure tales I read when I was a child, with the added spice of late 20th century children using bad language. It’s the sort of language children use when their parents and teachers are out of earshot. The BBC might not use it before the watershed, but the age group that should be reading this will undoubtedly have heard worse on Eastenders.

In the ‘good old days’, the children in adventure stories came from well-to-do homes and often had their adventures in the school holidays, more or less unsupervised by adults. In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, in Swallows and Amazons, in The Psammead or The Secret Garden, children have no responsibilities except to play and leave the adults in peace.

Malcolm and Alice

Malcolm and Alice, however, have an altogether more working class background. Both work in Malcolm’s parents’ pub, but they are different. Malcolm is happy and secure, curious, intelligent and helpful. He’s the sort of boy who would be wasted leaving school early to follow in his father’s footsteps. To start with, he and Alice are hostile to each other. I got the feeling that Alice had a background of neglect or possibly even abuse. She is sullen, but that seems to arise from insecurity, the sort of girl who would fall prey to a charming man. Later she reveals herself to have hidden depths, but in her favour from the start, she is working hard, washing all those dishes by hand. I’d be sullen if that’s what everyone thought that was all I was capable of.

Malcolm, on the other hand, is everyone’s favourite helper. Apart from helping out in the pub, he helps the carpenter and is never too busy to help Sister Fenella peel potatoes or apples. He’s observant, tactful and interested in everything. Just the sort of child to be invited to borrow books from an academic’s personal library or to get caught up in passing messages and observing the goings on of the adults around him. It’s just his misfortune that things are about to take a turn for the worse. “Becoming rich was never an aim of his; he took tips to be the generosity of providence, and came to think of himself as lucky, which did him no harm in later life.”

Humour, grammar and language

One of the things that surprised and delighted me about this book was the humour; a sort of twinkly-eyed grandfatherly, favourite teacher-like humour that sometimes takes a moment to sink in.

“ ‘I thought neat was all right,’ he said.
‘It depends on whether you want the idea of neatness to modify the act of tying the parcel, or to refer to the parcel itself once tied.’ “

I highlighted this in the book and was rather perplexed to understand what it meant until I realised it was a grammar joke. Just prior to this, Sister Benedicta has corrected Malcolm’s question ‘How d’you make them [sic] parcels so neat?’ to ‘neatly’.

Or: “as far as Malcolm knew there were no openings in scholarship for a bright boy with a canoe.”

I love the way Pullman continues to talk about grammar and language:

“ ‘Sanctuary?’ Malcolm liked the sound of the word, and he could see how to spell it already, in his imagination.” This is how I remember words. If I hear a word and can’t imagine how to spell it because I’m confused about which language is in (English or Dutch), I really can’t place it. Occasionally I have to ask someone to spell a word for me before I can understand what they are saying.

This book is full of wonderful comments about reading and imagination, too:

“ ‘These meanings – the relation between them – if they work by kinds of similarity,’said Coram, ‘they could go on a lot past a hundred. There’s no end to finding similarities once you start looking for ‘em.’

‘But what matters is not the similarities your imagination finds, but the similarities that are implicit in the image, and they are not necessarily the same. I have noticed that the more imaginative readers are often the least successful. Their minds leap to what they think is there rather than waiting with patience.’”

Oddly enough, on the day I was writing this review (or collection of quotes I love), my family had been having a discussion about whether it is better to know ‘spoilers’ before you read a book, watch a film or, in this case, play a new video game. Apparently ‘research has shown’ that spoilers enhance your enjoyment, and there are always those people who can’t resist reading the end of a book first. For me, half the enjoyment of a book is the guessing at what might happen, but it has to be said that a few choice snippets to whet the appetite in the form of blurbs or trailers can spur you on, even if they are often misleading. In that case, you still come across unexpected situations or things don’t pan out as you had been led to believe.

Threats to democracy

In this book, an evil, all-powerful organisation, the Holy Church, is recruiting young people to join an organisation, the League of St Alexander, reminiscent of the Nazis and the Hitler Youth or any number of similar organisations in totalitarian states. Miss Carmichael visits the school and tells them that “ ‘God will be very happy to know that so many boys and girls are eager to do the right thing. To be the eyes and ears of the Authority! In the streets and the fields, in the houses and the playgrounds and the classrooms of the world, a league of little Alexanders watching and listening for a holy purpose.’ “ Of course, this should throw a chill over anyone who has read anything about this tactic in pre-WWII Germany, Russia, later the DDR, China, etc., etc. It’s a common tactic to brainwash children, indoctrinating them and trying to get them to the point where they will incriminate their parents.

Conversely, Malcolm is able to use his knowledge of human nature to find out what the League is up to by asking his friend leading questions. This tactic works because “the pleasure of knowing secrets was doubled by telling them to people.”

The erosion of civil liberties and democracy

We also see how insidious the gradual wearing away of civil liberties can be. Sister Fenella is out of touch, so she doesn’t realise the story of a boy denouncing his parents, resulting in their execution is a current story. For her, that is something that happened in the distant past, and she believes bad things can sometimes lead to good: “These things are too deep for us to understand.” She is misinformed: things are gradually reverting to unusual and ancient ways of surveillance and punishment.

Hannah Relf is more aware:

“She had nothing to fear from the police, or from any other agency, except that like every other citizen she had everything to fear. They could lock her up with no warrant and keep her there with no charge; the old act of habeas corpus had been set aside, with little protest from those in Parliament who were supposed to look after English liberty, and now one heard tales of secret arrests and imprisonment without trial, and there was no way of finding out whether the rumours wer true.” The disquieting thing is, that all these things seem to be happening in our own world, particularly in the USA where President Trump seems to think nothing of stripping away hard-fought liberties with nary a thought.

This may be a YA book, but Philip Pullman doesn’t shy away from political and philosophical discussions that relate to democracy and liberty. Lord Nugent explains to Hannah that “This is a deep and uncomfortable paradox, which will not have escaped you: we can only defend democracy by being undemocratic”, i.e. keeping the mysterious Oakley Street secret. Hannah is recruited. If she joined, “You would know […] that you were making a great contribution to the progress of this war, this secret war. You know who the enemy is, so you know what we’re fighting. Think what is at stake. The right we have to speak and think freely, to pursue research into any subject under the sun, all that would be destroyed. That is worth fighting for, don’t you agree?”

A minor mystery

One rather strange thing struck me, having read Northern Lights/The Golden Compass back to back, and that is that Mrs Coulter’s hair has changed colour. In La Belle Sauvage, when Malcolm meets Mrs Coulter, “The woman’s name hit Malcolm like a bullet. This was Lyra’s mother. She was the most beautiful lady he had ever seen: young and golden-haired and sweet-faced, dressed in grey silk, and wearing a scent, just the very faintest hint of a fragrance, that spoke of warmth and sunlight and the south.” This is contrast to the Northern Lights, where she is described with black hair (p.66). I suspect this is through inattention rather than hair dye, but it could also have been to fit in with the filmed version of The Golden Compass. In any case, a strange thing to get wrong in the sort of book in a series that is liable to be pored over by adoring fans.

That, however, is one tiny quibble in a book full of delight and things to ponder upon. The darker themes make it altogether a more interesting book than I had expected, rather than just an escape into fantasyland. This would make a fabulous book to read and discuss with teenagers.

Verdict: Highly recommended!