LA BELLE SAUVAGE: VOLUME ONE OF THE BOOK OF DUST
By Philip Pullman
Knopf, $22.99, 449 pages
As a reading child, to me the most interesting heroes were the scamps and troublemakers, kids with starch: Huck and even Nancy at her better moments, seafaring Jim Hawkins and smarmy Harvey Cheyne Jr. in "Captains Courageous." The ones I loved best were subversives, and lousy role models. Now cometh the nerdily-named Malcolm Polstead, Pollyannaish protagonist of "La Belle Sauvage," a fantasy for heterodox young readers, octogenarians included.
An obedient kid, Malcolm lives with his kindly parents, proprietors of a rustic inn near Oxford on the bank of the timeless River Thames, in a timeless alternate world of uncertain period, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps not. Science seems locked in a medieval state of alchemy; its Holy Grail is an oracular device, the alethiometer.
Yet Malcolm borrows a book to read: "A Brief History of Time," presumably by our own Stephen Hawking, nee 1942.
Malcolm is the perfect boy at the book's opening (though not the story's beginning - or perhaps it is - for reasons that may be clear, or not). At dinnertime he waits table, serving up his mum's savory meals to mysterious guests. He avoids quarrels with the surly scullery maid Alice. He runs errands for Da and does chores gratis for the sisters in the local nunnery, where he helps the handy handyman and thus learns manly skills that will stand him in good stead.
Were this Twain's Missouri, Malcolm would not pay cash to whitewash a fence because he would already have painted it before lazy Sawyer came down to breakfast. Malcom is a congenital goodygoody.
But the world around is not benign and this saves him from a life of Bobbsey boredom, as willing readers are saved as well. This is the world of Philip Pullman's making in his previous "His Dark Materials" trilogy and furthermore this book is the first of a promised trilogy which itself is a prequel to the earlier work, which began with the captivating "The Golden Compass." Moebius-strip anyone?
This topsy-turvy twist had me flummoxed until I encountered the hyper-hybrid imagery of the magic-realist painter Erik Thor Sandberg, now on exhibition at American University's Katzen Art Center. These illusionist idylls proffer satyrs from Breughel and prancing nymphs out of Playboy, putti shooting arrows at bodacious buttocks and beauty queens with nesting heads like Russian dolls. Suddenly Mr. Pullman makes sense somehow too.
Thus, let me summarize backwards his newest plot. A coming-of-age tale, by its end Malcom has become an able adventurer. He has braved the worst deluge since Noah's flood, placated a monster riverine Neptune, escaped theocratic fascists, disarmed a conspiracy to enslave all England, seduced the now-not-so-surly Alice, and triumphed through his personal odyssey. He is an epic hero.
This is a classical adventure, and as a prequel it inevitably enables its characters to prevail in order to live another day in "The Golden Compass" et sequii. And not merely survive. Through whirlpool and maelstrom Malcolm must protect the babe-in-arms who will be the sequel's heroine, Lyra. So the ending of this installment is never in doubt; like a voyage on a Cunard liner, it's not the destination that counts so much as the getting there. That's both the joy of any prequel and its challenge to author and reader alike.
The centerpiece of this book is a voyage too, a passage down the Thames through a flood so fierce it drowns the spires of Oxford. Malcom's boat is the title character, La Belle Sauvage. I hesitate to call this vessel the Achilles heel of Mr. Pullman's noble undertaking, but it is a canoe, that tippiest of insubstantial watercraft, and it nearly capsized my suspended disbelief. Sorry, a canoe could not survive what Mr. Pullman asks of it.
Surely a skiff or a scow might, but a canoe? Mayhap something was lost in translation; Mr. Pullman is a Brit after all and we are still "divided by a common language." Still, the little vessel pictured in the frontispiece and endpapers is a canoe, something you might paddle in summer camp on Lake Winnipesaukee, one that Nancy Drew could borrow.
Nevertheless, readers who can overlook the unlikely survival of such a bobbin through a titanic flood that engulfs England up to the battlements will be rewarded. Because this flaw notwithstanding, Malcolm's excellent adventure occurs in Mr. Pullman's miraculous multiverse, a place peopled by the likes of the morganatic Mrs. Coulter and majestic Lord Asriel.
This world is animated by daemons, Mr. Pullman's most excellent creations. Everyone has a daemon, a kind spirituous alter-ego, typically of the opposite gender to oneself, a tangible and nebulous companion, one's own visible conscience and truth-teller. By the time one has become an adult, one's daemon is fixed, as this book's supervillain has his three-legged hyena always in tow. But every child's daemon is a protean soul, morphing from thing to thing, now a butterfly, then a puppy, soon becoming a cunning raven. It gives every kid the starch to be positively subversive. "La Belle Sauvage" is worth its list price for the daemons alone.
• Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press in Bethesda, Md., writes about history and culture.