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

Contains spoilers!

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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.

Brytain

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.

Jericho

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.

Tokay

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 culture editor of the New Statesman.