The three volumes of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy have a permanent place on my bookshelves. All three have featured in my end of year Top 10s with “Northern Lights” (1995) being my second favourite book of the year both times I’ve read it (1998 and 2001). I last read the whole trilogy 18 years ago but I know I’ll be revisiting them again.
From this you might have thought that I would have snapped up “The Book Of Dust” when it was published in 2017. I didn’t, not even when it came out in paperback. The copy I’ve just read I borrowed from the library. My selection was motivated by two things- the publication of the second volume this month and the impending and much heralded BBC adaptation of “His Dark Materials” which begins this weekend.
But why was I put off from reading this before now? I think it’s because it’s a prequel to the main series. Prequels- they are never that great are they? Immediately coming to mind was CS Lewis’ “The Magician’s Nephew” published five years after “The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe” which certainly, I feel, if read before the more famous book diminishes the reader’s introduction to Narnia because it is greatly inferior. It’s more common for a different author to write a prequel (as in Jean Rhys’ 1966 “Wide Sargasso Sea” linked to “Jane Eyre” which is an acknowledged modern classic but also left me cold). Because this is by a different author, however, it doesn’t influence my view of the Bronte novel which I love. When you look at prequels to movies you’re in the realms of “Psycho IV – The Beginning” and “Oz; The Great & Powerful”, I’m not at all sold on this prequel idea.
In this first volume main trilogy character Lyra is a baby who is being cared for by nuns. She becomes a source of fascination for 11 year old Malcolm Polstead who helps out at his parent’s pub and spends free time in his canoe (La Belle Sauvage) mainly bridging the watery gap between The Trout pub and the priory on the opposite bank. When he observes a strange occurrence on the riverside a chain of events opens in which he has to take direct action to ensure Lyra’s safety. The Oxford area is threatened by heavy rain and broken river banks making a proficient canoeist significant. His interest in Lyra leads to his introduction to a couple of shadowy organisations. Plot-wise this is all good, I love the presence of individual’s daemons, an idea which so enhances the trilogy. This time around, however, I did find the pace slow in places as if Pullman is fully prepared to take his time over his narrative thread and stretch it out over a sequence of novels. Malcolm is a very good central character and there is no doubt that this pre-teen protagonist would appeal to a quite young audience as would the structure of the adventure story which harks back to a modern take on children’s classics such as “Swallows And Amazons”, yet a couple of scenes, the language (there is the odd outburst of swearing by one particular character when pushed to the edge, which even despite this context still feels unsettling within the framework of the novel) and certainly the scientific principles demand greater maturity. It’s probably a case of the reader taking from it what they can and letting the rest wash over, which, let’s face it, is how many of us read Victorian classics.
I did enjoy this book and will read the next volume more quickly than I got round to this one (I have already reserved a library copy) but it is unlikely to make my Year End Top 10 and that fact alone makes me feel a little disappointed by it, and I would very much urge readers discovering Philip Pullman for the first time to read “His Dark Materials” and approach this as a separate introductory and related series.
The Book Of Dust: Volume 1 – La Belle Sauvage was published by David Fickling Books in 2017.