La Belle Sauvage is an interesting revisiting of Lyra’s world as developed in Pullman’s original series, His Dark Materials. Instead of continuing the story from where it left off at the end of The Amber Spyglass, we go back to the very beginning. Lyra’s beginning. We see that the wild adventure of her life didn’t start in The Golden Compass, but mere months into her life. The events that befell her before she had even spoken her first words are enough to put most adults in therapy.
“Words belong in contexts, not pegged out like biological specimens.”
While Lyra is the focus of the plot, she’s not the main character for obvious reasons. Instead, we are introduced to Malcolm, a boy who is far brighter and braver than he believes. Malcolm is not generally noticed, managing to blend in with his surroundings at his family’s inn, and he uses this talent to hear everything that goes on around him. When a baby is brought to live at the neighboring priory, Malcolm appoints himself her protector. This decision will result in the craziest, most terrifying days of his life. I love everything about Malcolm. He’s kind and considerate and curious without ever seeming rude. He can read people better than most any character I’ve encountered. As much as I love Lyra in the original trilogy, I think I love Malcolm just as much or even more. I found him to be the most wonderful element of this book, followed closely by the title’s namesake.
“He was liked when noticed, but not noticed much, and that did him no harm either.”
Malcolm’s prize possession is a little canoe that he has named “La Belle Sauvage.” This canoe becomes incredibly important and serves as the hinge upon which the entire narrative depends. Before I started reading this book, I had always found the title odd. Now, I don’t think it could’ve been any more appropriate. La Belle Sauvage is the little canoe that could, and I came to share Malcolm’s love for her.
“If I told you half of what he’s done to keep us alive and safe, well, you wouldn’t imagine it could be true.”
Once again, I found Pullman’s commentary regarding the religious establishment of Lyra’s world incredibly thought-provoking. In this novel we are introduced to the League of St. Alexander, and it is absolutely terrifying. The League is an arm of the Church that is aimed at drawing children into the fold of their enforcement branch. These children are encouraged to police their school, reporting teachers and students alike for anything that could be construed as sacrilegious or disrespectful of the church. This covers everything from teaching that the Bible might be metaphorical instead of literal in places, to neglecting to open each class period with a prayer, to simply being eccentric and not conforming to the norm in some way. The League is a disturbing blend of the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials and Orwell’s Thought Police. I shudder to think of it becoming part of our society, though I’m aware that there are places where it’s not so far off. For those who do these things in the name of Christianity, I can only say that Jesus would be absolutely furious.
“Once we use the word spiritual, we don’t have to explain anymore, because it belongs to the Church then, and no one can question it.”
As much as I enjoy Pullman’s books, I really think the fact that they’re billed as children’s literature is doing them a disservice. While I’m a firm believer in allowing kids to read any and everything that will not leave them psychologically scarred from consuming it too soon, I know many parents and teachers who would disagree. There are adults who will only allow children to read things billed as children’s fiction so that they can protect young minds from strong content until they are mature enough to handle it for themselves. There’s content in this book that would have those parents completely aghast, such as incredibly strong language at points and allusions to dismaying sexual content that doesn’t actually appear on the page but is clearly referenced. So if you’re one such adult who feels the need to filter what the children in your life read, be warned.
“How can knowing something be sinful?”
I enjoyed La Belle Sauvage, but it didn’t quite live up to the amazing standard set by His Dark Materials. That being said, I’m still very much eagerly awaiting the next installment. Any chance to revisit Lyra’s world is a one I’m going to happily take.
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