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  • Writer's pictureRussell F. Hirsch

Review: Pullman’s Book of *FAIRY* Dust


I closely follow the work of Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy and now, the latest foray into Lyra’s universe, The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage. (To learn about Pullman’s rivalry with C.S. Lewis, see The Fantastical Frenemies–or certain sections of my Master’s thesis!)

Released last October, La Belle Sauvage, is essentially a prequel (or as Pullman calls it, an “equel”) that takes place a decade before the start of His Dark Materials. Lyra is a just a baby and it’s up to two brave youths–Malcolm and Alice–to rescue her from kidnappers amidst the biggest flood since Noah.

I’m always a bit hesitant of books expanding on a series that is already nicely contained, because the author might present character backstories or futures that contradict what readers have already fleshed out in their own imagination. Pullman handled this cleverly though! By making Lyra an infant along for the ride, he kept her at the centre of the action in this book without really influencing how she is portrayed in the original trilogy.

We see a few other crucial characters from the original books as well, notably Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, but they are likewise fairly peripheral, so the impressions we have of them here remain consistent with what we know from HDM. He does nicely flesh out a few of the most intriguing secondary characters from HDM, notably Farder Coram and Dame Hannah Relf, but the novel really focuses on the new protagonists, Malcolm and Alice; a determined and capable duo that drive the story.

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Through the first 80% of the book, my continual thought was: “This is exciting–but certainly more intimate than His Dark Materials.” HDM sprawled across parallel universes and just about every kind of landscape within! And in addition to the trademark daemons that accompany characters, there was a plethora of other fantastical creatures: witches, talking bears, dragonfly-riding Gallivespians, and more! For much of La Belle Sauvage, the setting is contained to flooded stretches of rural England and the most exotic creatures are a pair of peacocks at a pub. There’s plenty of tension, action, and adventure, but not on the sprawling scale of the original trilogy.

Then, with about 100 pages to go, I will obscurely quote hockey broadcaster Bob Cole and say:

bob cole

A witch shows up! The Queen of the Fairies shows up! A giant shows up! They pass into a subterranean fairy garden and narrowly escape.

I should have felt forewarned regarding this fantastical turn of events by the title of Chapter 21…

chapter 21

But I distinctly remember thinking, “Enchanted? That’s probably hyperbole; it seems he’s keeping this novel pretty realistic.”

How incorrect I was!

The fantastical turn was a bit of a surprise, but a pleasant one–especially the incorporation of the fairies. The whole plot revolves a kidnapped child, which is, after all what the fairies do best.

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Robert Kirk’s compilation of folklore from the 1690s helped inspire Pullman.


I was fascinated to learn that the next volume of The Book of Dust will take place after the events of HDM, when Lyra is a university student–no Star Wars-esque prequel trilogy here! Considering Book II is titled The Secret Commonwealth, it will undoubtedly draw Lyra back into the fairyland escapades she unwittingly experienced as a baby.

Again, Pullman’s doing a very clever thing here. By moving the next Book of Dust volume to a time after HDM, he can leave the original trilogy be, but this new quest for Lyra won’t seem out-of-the-blue because he’s laid the foundation for it in her infantile backstory. This is a really fascinating way of structuring the new series so that it still lets the original trilogy stand on its own.

HDM reinvented Paradise Lost and war-in-heaven myths for teens. The Book of Dust looks like it will also reinvent a myth; that of the fair folk. It even closes with a quote from Spenser’s Faerie Queen:

spenser

There’s a nice mirroring effect here. HDM focused on the sky–a battle for the heavens, soaring angels and witches, a bridge into the stars. Now, Pullman turns his attention in the opposite direction; to the earth–under its soil and waters, where the fairies dwell.

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Well played, Pullman.


Also, there’s some exciting recent news about the BBC TV adaptation of His Dark Materials here!

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