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Philip Pullman’s new book La Belle Sauvage: the ultimate guide

Contains spoilers!

Today marks the publication of La Belle Sauvage, the first in Philip Pullman’s new trilogy, the follow up to his His Dark Materials series, The Book of Dust. Set in Lyra’s world, it follows the protagonist of His Dark Materials 10 years before the action of that series, while the second two parts of The Book of Dust are set 10 years after the His Dark Materials books. This jump in time explains why Pullman is reluctant to name the new trilogy either a prequel or a sequel, but rather, an “equel”.

This, of course, means there is much overlap between the characters, places and action of His Dark Materials and La Belle Sauvage. Here is out ultimate guide to what the two works have in common. It contains spoilers for both!

Malcolm Polstead

The name Polstead (meaning “place by a pool”) is fitting for the family that live on the bank of the Thames (The Trout is also close to several small lakes). He is an inquisitive child interested in woodwork, literature and science. His daemon, Asta, has not yet settled and changes form often: a sign of curiosity and intelligence in children. He meets baby Lyra through the nuns looking after her at Godstow Priory, and when she is endangered, attempts to sail her to safety in his canoe, “La Belle Sauvage”.

The name Polstead doesn’t appear in any of the original His Dark Materials novels, but particularly devoted fans might remember a Dr. Polstead from “Lyra and the Birds”, the short story included in His Dark Materials companion book Lyra’s Oxford, set a few years after the end of the original trilogy. That book describes “young Dr. Polstead”, who is “one of the few Scholars capable of climbing all the way up the tower several times a day” and who has “all his faculties in working order” – as Malcolm is just 10 or 11 years older than Lyra in La Belle Sauvage, we can assume that this is Malcolm in his early twenties, a successful scholar at Jordan still keeping a watchful eye over Lyra. He is “stout, ginger-haired, affable; more inclined to be friendly to Lyra than she was to return the feeling”, and it’s also mentioned that he had been “Lyra’s unwilling teacher” for “a difficult six weeks”. In the second companion book Once Upon a Time in the North, Lyra writes him a letter asking him for advice about her dissertation bibliography.

Alice Parslow

The 15-year-old Alice is described by Pullman as “ratty”. She works in the kitchen at the Trout and accompanies Malcolm on his journey in La Belle Sauvage, and is particularly skilled in looking after Lyra. 

Devoted fans might notice that Alice shares a surname with Lyra’s friend Roger, the kitchen boy captured by the Gobblers in Northern Lights. At the launch event for La Belle Sauvage on Wednesday, Pullman explained that Parslow is a common Oxford name. Like Polstead, the origins of the name have some resonance to Alice’s story: it comes from the Latin for “to cross” and the old French for “the water”. He added that while Alice is not Roger’s mother: they are cousins!

The story

Pullman and early reviewers have cited several influences on the plot of La Belle Sauvage: the tangental nature of Edmund Spenser’s 16th-century romantic epic The Faerie Queene, The Odyssey, The Iliad, biblical stories from the Flood to Moses escaping Pharaoh in his basket to Jesus’s persecution by King Herod.

Dr Hannah Relf

We meet Dr Relf a couple of times in His Dark Materials, as Dame Hannah Relf, the head of St Sophia’s College in Lyra’s Oxford. At the end of The Amber Spyglass, she invites Lyra to go to school and study the alethiometer under her eye (which Lyra accepts, as we know from Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in The North). First seen by Lyra in the trilogy as “quite uninteresting”, when they are reunited Lyra finds her to be “much cleverer, and more interesting, and kindlier by far than the dim and frumpy person she remembered”. In La Belle Sauvage, Relf is studying the alethiometer for the University and for an organisation called Oakley Street. She is extremely clever, devoted, principled, self-sacrificing and deeply concerned with Malcolm and Lyra’s wellbeing. Reader, I love her.

Coram Van Texel

The return of Farder Coram! He is known in La Belle Sauvage as just Coram van Texel, presumably as he is yet to reach elder status amongst Gyptians. A decade younger than when we meet him in Northern Lights, he’s not the “trembling” man who “walked with a stick”, but “lean, of middle height” and moves with “careful” movements. We already know Coram knew a BUNCH about the alethiometer, but here we learn that he deeply involved with Oakley Street’s work against the Church. There are also hints that we’ll see more from Coram in the next books in the trilogy, which are to be set 10 years after His Dark Materials: of his daemon Sophonax’s unique fur Pullman writes, “10 years after this evening, and again 10 years after that, Lyra would marvel at the colouring of that daemon’s fur.” At the launch event, Pullman confirmed that Coram will appear in the later two books, and added that although Coram seems old in the first triology, that’s because we see him through Lyra’s eyes: he’s only about 60.


The name of Lyra’s Britain. We learn more about Lyra’s world in these books: from the political discord that lead to the dominance of the Magisterium to the religious make up of the world to visiting its London.

Consistorial Court of Discipline

We hear about this in Northern Lights: the General Oblation Board (or Gobblers) responsible for stealing children and cutting their daemons away is an offshoot of the CCD. Here’s how it’s described in the original series:

Ever since Pope John Calvin had moved the seat of the Papacy to Geneva and set up the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the Church's power over every aspect of life had been absolute. The Papacy itself had been abolished after Calvin's death, and a tangle of courts, colleges, and councils, collectively known as the Magisterium, had grown up in its place. These agencies were not always united; sometimes a bitter rivalry grew up between them. For a large part of the previous century, the most powerful had been the College of Bishops, but in recent years the Consistorial Court of Discipline had taken its place as the most active and the most feared of all the Church's bodies.

In La Belle Sauvage, the CCD is described as “an agency of the Church concerned with heresy and unbelief. Malcolm didn’t know much about it, but he knew the sense of sickening terror the CCD could produce”. The CCD is feared by all the normal folk of Oxford as its presence leads to an atmosphere of McCarthyism, with widespread fear of saying anything that might offend the spies of the Church.

The League of St Alexander

A scheme started by the CCD encouraging children to report any heresy or non-belief they see around them: be it from their schoolfriends, teachers, or even parents. The children are given badges to wear that show their allegiance to the league, encouraged to persuade their friends to sign up, and made to feel heroic and important by the Church for doing so.

Oakley Street

Named so because it is nowhere near Oakley Street, this is the name of the secret service working against the Magisterium and the CCD. Coram van Texel is revealed to be one of their agents.

Lord Nugent

The director of Oakley Street, Lord Nugent is a former Chancellor of Brytain’s government working against the Magisterium and their grip on society, who helps Lord Asriel find somewhere safe for Lyra to be kept and instructs Dr Relf in how she may help the cause. It’s not clear whether his name is taken from the British politician Lord Nugent who took a strong interest in the conservation of the Thames (yes, the same river that Malcolm lives on the edge on, which floods Oxford in this book).

Gerard Bonneville

The villain of La Belle Sauvage, Bonneville is a seemingly French and deeply creepy experimental theologian who has been jailed for sexual offences, and perverts the moral order of Lyra’s world in two other ways: by hurting his own daemon, and touching the daemons of others with his bare hands. He desperately seeks to take Lyra away from her protectors, and pursues and terrifies Malcolm and Alice throughout the book. His daemon is a laughing hyena who sustains two serious injuries throughout the course of the novel.

The Rusakov field

Bonneville is researching “the Rusakov field” and “the shocking but incontestable revelation that consciousness can no longer be regarded exclusively as a function of the human brain”. We know from Northern Lights that Dust was discovered by a man named Boris Mikhailovitch Rusakov, and that Dust is sometimes called Rusakov Particles, but the “field” is new to us. Presumably it’s the area around a person that attracts Dust. As well as Bonneville, Mrs Coulter is looking into the field, and Dr Relf, too, is instructed to “enquire through the alethiometer about any connection you can discover between the Rusakov field and the phenomenon unofficially called Dust”.

The alethiometer

In Northern Lights, we learn that the alethiometer is a truth-telling device with three hands and 36 images that communicates via symbolism, that it is one of six, and that it somehow interacts with Dust. Lyra loses the ability to read the alethiometer intuitively when she reaches puberty. In La Belle Sauvage we learn of the locations of them: one resides at Uppsala University in Sweden, one in Paris, one in Bologna, one in the possession of the Magisterium in Geneva, and one in the Bodleian in Oxford, where it has been protected by Librarians, even at the point of death, for decades. The sixth is missing at the start of La Belle Sauvage.

Jordan College

Jordan College, Oxford is famously based on Pullman’s alma mater Exeter College, Oxford. It comes up early on in La Belle Sauvage as one of the only places left in the world where one can claim scholastic sanctuary, the ancient protection of the college that prevents one who claims it from persecution by enemies, the government or even the Church. Malcolm first aims to take Lyra here when he realises she’s in danger, but the flood prevents him from getting her there at first.

The Trout

A real pub and restaurant on the banks of the Thames in Wolvercote, separated from Oxford by Port Meadow. In La Belle Sauvage, its where Malcom and his parents live.

Godstow Priory

Based on Godstow Abbey. At the start of the novel, this is where Lyra is kept, looked after by the nuns.


An area of Oxford. In La Belle Sauvage, Dr Relf lives here.

Duke Humphrey’s Library

One of the oldest parts of the Bodleian Library, and the filming location used for the Hogwarts library in the Harry Potter films. In La Belle Sauvage, this is where Dr Relf conducts her alethiometer research.


At the University of Uppsala in Sweden, Coram van Texel is offered a glass of Tokay – the same wine the Master of Jordan College poisons and offers to Lord Asriel in Northern Lights. Other familiar reapparances include chocolatl, the hot-chocolate-esque drink popular with children.

Below you can listen to the New Statesman's culture podcast featuring an exclusive interview with Pullman:

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

Credit: The Bureau/Film4 Productions/British Film Council
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Lean on Pete builds on the proud history of horses in film

Cinema’s equine love affair is in no danger of dimming.

The mane attraction in cinemas next week is Andrew Haigh’s film adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel Lean On Pete, the story of a teenage boy and the horse he rescues.

If there’s any justice, audiences will gallop rather than trot to see it. Anyone who hasn’t read the book could be forgiven for expecting an inspirational, uplifting tale. Maybe, like the kid in Carroll Ballard’s beautiful, dialogue-light 1979 film The Black Stallion, the hero of Lean On Pete will train his four-legged companion to be a champion racehorse. But that isn’t how things turn out. Not even close. Haigh’s picture has more in common with Au hasard Balthazar, Bresson’s plaintive 1966 study of the sad life of a donkey, or Ken Loach’s Kes. Boy and horse help alleviate the other’s loneliness and suffering, at least in the short term, but they reflect it too.

That’s also the role of the horse that 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) finds tied up in Fish Tank, and attempts to liberate. As its title suggests, Andrea Arnold’s 2009 drama is not short on nature metaphors; there’s also a dog called Tennents, and a carp that meets a sticky end. To be honest, the horse is probably pushing things a bit. Don’t you see? It’s really Mia and she wants to set it free because she herself yearns to be emancipated! Yeah, yeah, we get it. But such objections count for little next to the sheer physical might of a horse on screen. There’s no getting around it. Did you ever see a horse that didn’t exude awesomeness, magnificence and film-star charisma? They’ve got what it takes.

Trigger was first out the gate. Though when Olivia de Havilland rode him in The Adventures of Robin Hood, he was still going by the name Golden Cloud, which sounds uncomfortably like an obscure sexual practice. Roy Rogers coughed up $2,500 to buy him, then changed the animal’s name when his co-star Smiley Burnette remarked that the beast was “quick on the trigger.” It stuck. Trigger and Rogers first appeared together in 1938 in Under Western Stars. Down the years, other horses sometimes stood in for him, so estimates vary as to how many appearances the horse-formerly-known-as-Golden-Cloud actually made. You’d need a photo finish, though, to tell the difference.

A horse plays a vital part in Valeska Grisebach’s recent Western, a tense and mysterious study of German labourers working in Bulgaria. The title demands at least one horse, I suppose, as well as the various macho stand-offs that occur in the course of the film, but its presence introduces an air of nobility and calm amidst the general lawlessness. “Horses make everything alright,” says a character in Willy Vlautin’s most recent novel, Don’t Skip Out On Me, and you’d have to agree. When the horse in Western is imperilled, you know trouble is a-coming. Look what happened in The Godfather.

Horse sense tells you these creatures have got to be respected. In the sort-of Bond movie Never Say Never Again (essentially a second adaptation of Thunderball, made possible due to complicated copyright reasons pertaining to the original novel), there’s a nasty stunt in which a horse leaps from a great height into the ocean, hitting the water upside down. There was a furore about it at the time of release in 1983 and it tends to be excised on those rare occasions when the film is screened today. Quite right, too. The filmmakers’ cavalier attitude toward animal safety really takes the Seabiscuit.

Equine enthusiasts aren’t short of cinematic opportunities to indulge their passion—everything from National Velvet and International Velvet to War Horse, Phar Lap and The Horse Whisperer. Among the various incarnations of Black Beauty, allow me to flag up the 1994 version, adapted and directed by Caroline Thompson, the pen behind Edward Scissorhands. Sadly it has no trace of the stirring theme music from the 1970s television series (surely a contender for greatest TV theme ever) but there is ample compensation in Alan Cummings’s gentle Scottish lilt, which gives Beauty’s internal monologue the ebbing rhythm of a bedtime story. Human roles are shaved bare but David Thewlis gets the sweetest moment, when Beauty steals his doorstep sandwich, gambols about with it victoriously, then showers him in a confetti of crumbs.

Jockeying for position with all these movie horses, though, are some that don’t exist anywhere except in the imagination. I’m referring, of course, to the invisible ones on which King Arthur rides through medieval England in Monty Python and the Holy Grail while his servant follows nearby, clapping together two halves of a coconut shell. This was the ultimate case of necessity being the mother of comic invention, since the budget wouldn’t stretch to actual horses. It’s just a shame that when Arthur later encounters three fabled knights, their catchphrase turns out to be “Nii!” rather than “neigh.”

Lean On Pete opens 4 May. Western is on release.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.