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Philip Pullman revels in writing about bad guys and dark forces, like the ones we have now, writes Jennifer Platt

Published in the Sunday Times

La Belle Sauvage
***
Philip Pullman
Transworld, R290

His Dark Materials is not as famous as the Harry Potter series – maybe because there’s something much more insidious and dark in Philip Pullman’s multiverse than in JK Rowling’s magical world. (Also, only one book was made into a movie – The Golden Compass, which was not successful.)

La Belle Sauvage is the first volume in the new trilogy, The Book of Dust, which is a prequel to His Dark Materials. But over the phone from the UK, Pullman is quick to remind me of his book ’s motto: “It’s not a prequel or sequel, it’s an equal.”

It’s been 22 years since the first Dark Materials novel, Northern Lights, where we were introduced to his heroine Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon. (Daemons are a person’s soul, externalised as an animal.)

The trilogy begins 10 years before Northern Lights, and in La Belle Sauvage we’re taken back to the beginning, when Lyra is just six months old. She is taken to a priory to be hidden from the power-hungry religious force, The Magisterium, that will do anything to control the world.

In His Dark Materials, Lyra went on a quest to save children from having their daemons sliced from them by The Magisterium. She became a saviour. She gets to know that there is something called Dust (with a capital D, not the stuff that needs a feather duster) and that she would somehow expose the truth and let the world know what Dust is. But His Dark Materials ends before everything is neatly solved – before we find out what Dust is. Pullman promises we’ll know more about Dust in this trilogy.

“I was writing about Lyra for the past 10 years because there’s all these things to still happen,” Pullman says. “How did Lyra develop? How was she placed in Jordan College? There is still so much more to tell about Lyra and it’s all very exciting.”

But there’s not much of Lyra in this first book. Pullman focuses mainly on his two new characters who need to save Lyra from the Magisterium. They are 11-year-old Malcolm, curious, bright and oh-so-good, who works in his family’s pub called the Trout. His daemon is Asta – not yet settled in form as he is still a child. And then there’s Alice, 15, a dishwasher, difficult yet steadfast and an annoyance to Malcolm. This sets up the two protagonists – male and female – which is integral to Pullman’s writing; everyone’s daemon is also of the opposite sex.

“It creates a pubescent dynamic, a very basic human dynamic,” he says. “This is all about living and growing up. It’s a form of discovery and change. The characters have to learn and finally come into adulthood.”

But the Magisterium is tightening its grasp – afraid of what the scholars of the world are saying. The church uses whatever means necessary to control and destroy those with opposing opinions. It has formed the League of St Alexander, which is brainwashing children into feeling that it is their duty to spy on their parents, teachers and friends. This is what gets Pullman so excited.

“The League of St Alexander was a way of including the way communist societies asked children to spy on people. It’s based in truth.

“In the last year and a half we have seen lies, fraud and stupidity take over the world and governments. We have allowed a stupendous folly to happen, one that we can still scarcely believe – Brexit. This great European project was ravaged by lies and stupidity. A reckless decision. And then what happened in the US.”

But there’s not just the church that Malcolm and Alice have to save Lyra from. There’s a far darker, more disturbing look at the evil of men found in the character of Gerard Bonneville. He seems indestructible, a sinister presence that keeps on coming after them even though they thought he was dead. His daemon is a one-legged hyena. He has escaped prison and is after the six-month-old Lyra as well. Revenge against her mother, perhaps?

“He was a great surprise to me, a great gift,” says Pullman. “I could never have based this character on anyone … I do enjoy writing the bad characters.”

To make things even worse, Malcolm and Alice have to survive an epic flood that sweeps the country. They take refuge in Malcolm’s boat, La Belle Sauvage.

Pullman says he based this trilogy on the model of The Faerie Queene, the Edmund Spenser poem first published in 1590.

“It’s this classic poem that is told in multiple different ways. This is epic storytelling. The structure is what I really want to take with me on how to write the books.” The poem is allegorical, which fits in with the layers in La Belle Sauvage. We learn more about the universe that Lyra has to survive in and about the forces of evil that try to control her world.

As for the second book in the trilogy: “I have written it, and it is being edited now.” – @Jenniferdplatt

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