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Sunday 15 September 2019

Pullman's return to fantasy island

Fantasy: La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust V1, Philip Pullman, Penguin Random House Children's, hardback, 560 pages, €19.99

Parallel world: In Pullman's new triology, people's souls take physical form. Photo: Geoffrey Swaine
Parallel world: In Pullman's new triology, people's souls take physical form. Photo: Geoffrey Swaine
The Book of Dust

It's been 17 years since the last instalment of His Dark Materials trilogy, writes Ian O'Doherty, but the first volume of Philip Pullman's new series certainly shows it's been worth the wait.

It may seem hard to believe to all but the most ardent fan of Philip Pullman's remarkable His Dark Materials trilogy, but it has been 17 years since the publication of the final instalment.

In that time, the world has changed almost beyond measure, but His Dark Materials (the individual books were Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and 2000's The Amber Spyglass) quickly established itself as a classic piece of literature which will be enjoyed and argued over for years to come.

Set in a parallel Oxford, where people's souls are physical creatures called 'daemons' who reflect the human's character and act as a sort of corporeal spirit guide, the books, which would have once been published under the heading 'children's fantasy', threw the usual conventions of the genre out the window and instead created a world where organised religion did battle with the forces of science in a realm where it was often hard to tell them apart.

It was an astonishing piece of work, one which was powerful enough to draw spectacular fury from the religious Right in America and it pushed Pullman firmly into the then growing ranks of 'atheist writers'. But that did Pullman and, more importantly, his books, a grave disservice.

While the Magisterium was obviously based on the Catholic Church, and the experiments they conducted on children to separate them from their daemons were unspeakably cruel, it always seemed that Pullman was more interested in railing against all forms of authority and unthinking loyalty, even if his portrayal of heaven as a cross between a concentration camp and the Greek underworld of the dead was a dagger straight through the heart of traditional Christian thinking - as one leading US Catholic activist bemoaned at the time: "Pullman is teaching atheism to kids."

That was a ridiculously simplistic approach, as it's unlikely many of the younger readers caught the nuanced exploration of particle physics or the evils of the concept of original sin, and perhaps the main reason why His Dark Materials didn't attract quite the same levels of hysterical opprobrium as Harry Potter - they sold comparably in the States - was because it was so much deeper and more ruminative than the antics of the boy wizard.

Now, 22 years after the publication of Northern Lights, comes The Book Of Dust, set 10 years before the events of His Dark Materials.

Volume One is La Belle Sauvage, and any understandable fears long-time fans may have had can be put to rest. This is brilliant, and a worthy addition to the canon.

La Bell Sauvage introduces us to Malcolm Polstead, a pub landlord's son who lives in an Inn outside Oxford.

A bright kid, he is popular with others, shows an interest in everything around him and when not puttering around with his daemon Asta, likes to visit the local nuns or play on the Thames in his canoe, 'La Belle Sauvage'. But as he delivers food and drink to the customers in The Trout, he picks up nuggets of information which suggest that all is not right.

With a power struggle between the secularists and religious taking place at high level, a sinister government group called the Court of Consistorial Discipline has begun to exert malign influence. A sort of Spanish Inquisition, or Gestapo, for the Magisterium, they have the power to arrest and 'disappear' anyone who displeases them and precocious Malcolm soon finds himself embroiled in a battle he can't hope to understand.

Key to all this is the mysterious baby being cared for by the local nuns. As fans will already know, that baby is none other than Lyra, the heroine from the first series, and as Malcolm becomes closer to the infant, he vows to protect her.

During a storm of Biblical proportions - but mysterious provenance - Oxford is flooded and Malcolm finds himself fleeing with the child, chased by a deranged physicist and the Magisterium, while the resistance forces of a group known as 'Oakley Street' and Lyra's father, Lord Asriel, try to find them.

For those who have never read His Dark Materials, there is plenty to enjoy, although a general understanding of the previous books adds to the experience.

Like all great parallel-world fantasies, it's the similarities to our own, rather than the differences, which are striking.

Malcolm reads The Body in the Library and A Brief History of Time, for example, but there are more subtle, and more effective, nods to contemporary society.

For instance, amidst throwaway lines about "atheist writers being jailed and killed", a group called The League of Saint Alexander - the patron saint of people who inform on their own family - has taken control of Malcolm's school and the students who are verified members of the League have power over the teachers. As Malcolm notes after the group orchestrates the departure of the school principal: "It gave the badge wearers a giddy sense of power. By themselves they had unseated the authority of the headmaster. No teacher was safe now."

If that doesn't sound like a commentary on the current campus craziness in America, or the current vogue for social media mobs, then nothing does.

That's the real joy of Pullman, these subtle, sucker-punch comments on our own world and the dangers posed by all form of unquestioned authority and unquestioning obedience, religious or not.

This was worth the wait.

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