In 1995, Philip Pullman published the first book in the trilogy, His Dark Materials. Set in an alternate-universe Oxford, Northern Lights told the story of Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry as they fought the machinations of the Magisterium, the equivalent of the Catholic Church in another dimension where there had been no Reformation nor any halt to its two-thousand-year expansion of power. Throughout the trilogy, Blake was quoted repeatedly, particularly with regard to the concept of Dust, and you can find some of my own reactions to his use of Blake in an earlier podcast.
With his new novel, La Belle Sauvage, the first title in a new trilogy called The Book of Dust, we are once more in the Oxford of Lyra, although now she is a young baby merely six months old. The story this time centres on an eleven-year-old boy, Malcolm Polstead, who works in a pub, The Trout, alongside the Thames and comes to learn of Lyra’s existence through a chance meeting with Lord Nugent, the former Lord Chancellor of England. Nugent has sought to place the young girl – daughter of Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter (familiar from the previous trilogy) – in the safe keeping of an order of nuns who live in Oxford. Through his work for the sisters, who are portrayed in a warm and generous light by Pullman (for his critique of organised religion is by no means blindly hostile), Malcolm becomes increasingly affectionate to Lyra and her daemon, seeking to protect her from the evil inclinations of those members of the Magisterium who wish to do her harm in order to hurt Lord Asriel. During this time, Malcolm also befriends a scholar, Hannah Relf, who has been inducted by Nugent into the secret society he heads, Oakley Street; Relf reads an alethiometer to discover events for the more liberal groups that Nugent represents. Less happily, at least to begin with, Malcolm’s acquaintances include the kitchen maid, Alice, who will become one of the real stars of the novel.
When the strange villain of the book, Gerard Bonneville, a crazed and sadistic scientist who has some understanding of the real nature of Dust, attempts to abduct Lyra, Malcolm and his daemon, Asta, flee the city along with Alice in his boat, La Belle Sauvage. A huge storm has flooded the Thames and surrounding areas, and when they flee southwards so the most important literary source for the novel – Homer’s Odyssey – comes to the fore, influencing a series of weird, visionary experiences along the way as when Malcolm and Alice encounter an island in the river whose inhabitants ignore them and the grim realities of their former lives that are hidden from view by an unearthly fog. In interviews accompanying the publication of the book, Pullman has also indicated that the unusual happenings along the Thames also take their inspiration from William Blake.
Before turning to the influence of Blake in more detail, some general observations on the novel are in order. A very simple observation is that for those readers who enjoyed His Dark Materials, on the whole they will almost certainly be pleased with La Belle Sauvage. It is, perhaps, a slower burn than the previous trilogy, and in comparison to Northern Lights it is worth observing that not a great deal happens. Indeed, a few readers on sites such as Goodreads have grumbled, not entirely without grounds, that this is a dull and slow book. That certainly wasn’t my experience of it, although my only criticism would be that it is very much a novel that is setting in place a number of pieces for the remaining trilogy. The end, when Malcolm and Alice finally meet Lord Asriel and hand over Lyra to him, is satisfactory enough but is very obviously not a moment of closure. Partly because of the allusions to The Odyssey, however, as well as the character of Bonneville, who is truly compelling (and disturbing) as a villain I personally found the novel much more entertaining than some other readers.
The critical reception of La Belle Sauvage has generally been very positive, with critics noting his literary influences (including a perceptive comment by Frank Cottrell Boyce regarding his struggles with C. S. Lewis). Sam Leith called it “a rich, dreamlike prequel well worth the wait”, a sentiment echoed by Claire Loughrey, and Stuart Kelly forgives Pullman the literary lectures in Daemon Voices because the first volume of The Book of Dust is so good.
A number – although by no means all – critics mention Blake. The influence throughout the novel is more subtle: with His Dark Materials, the full build-up to the war in heaven and a Blakean re-reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost took some time, but there were quotations and direct references that made Pullman’s debt to Blake very clear. This is not the case in La Belle Sauvage – the influence, rather, is implicit in elements such as Dust (which, as he made clear throughout the earlier trilogy, took direct inspiration from Blake’s poetry) and the resistance to organised religion. Upon first reading, my own assumption was that Blake had been relegated in importance, but repeatedly in interviews Pullman draws attention to Blake. Thus, for example, he told Time magazine “in William Blake’s terms I’m a proponent of two-fold, three-fold and four-fold vision and not single vision,” a notion repeated in his NPR interview. As such, Blake becomes a principle support for Pullman’s metaphysics, one where imagination provides the ability to re-vision the world around us as a matter of course.
The essays collected together in Daemon Voices are, as the editor, Simon Mason observes in his introduction, very varied. Comprising thirty of a hundred and twenty or so that Pullman has written over the years, this collection does contain a substantial insight into his understanding of Blake. The romantic poet and artist is scattered throughout the book, especially in the various discussions of His Dark Materials, but the very best essay in the collection – originally published in The Guardian in 2014 – is Pullman’s discussion of Blake’s influence over a period of fifty years. “Soft Beulah’s Night: William Blake and Vision” begins with a wonderful evocation of Pullman attempting (and failing) to locate copies of Blake’s work in Merionethshire after reading Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (the fact that he was able to track down Ginsberg in the coastal resort of Barmouth but not Blake speaks volumes). When he finally encountered the Dent Everyman selection of poems edited by Ruthven Todd, thus began a deep affection for the poet which is probably the most significant of all those affecting Pullman:
That was fifty years ago. My opinions about many things have come and gone, changed and changed about, since then; I have believed in God, and then disbelieved; I have thought that certain writers and poets were incomparably great, and gradually found them less and less interesting, and finally commonplace… But those first impulses of certainty about William Blake have never forsaken me, though I may have been untrue to them from time to time. Indeed, they have been joined by others, and I expect to go on reading Blake, and learning more, for as long as I live. (pp. 342-3)
This essay also provides a key to unlock La Belle Sauvage, discussing as it does the profoundly materialist nature of consciousness which Pullman garnered from that visionary materialist, William Blake, whose prologue to Europe a Prophecy includes the line “every particle of dust breathes forth its joy”. Likewise, it is from Blake that the later author draws his own conception of fourfold vision, the ability to view not with single, rational vision but to overlay all the faculties of our empathy and imagination.
The second essay on Blake, “I Must Create A System: A Moth’s-Eye View of William Blake”, is less compelling, mainly because it is a transcript of a talk given to the Blake Society and is one of those pieces that would be infinitely more pleasurable to hear than to read. Nonetheless, again and again Pullman demonstrates his deep and thoughtful relation with Blake, offering keen insights as when he notes that Blake was not a Gnostic, not infected with that religious sect’s despair against the natural world. Indeed, it is through such engagement with Blake that we come towards another important element of Pullman’s relationship with the earlier poet, one evident in the title. Pullman’s conceit of daemons, animal spirits that materialise the psyche of each character in his alternate world, draws much of its power from another text by Blake, one intimately bound up with the animal world and which Pullman refers to repeatedly. Auguries of Innocence, perhaps the first true poem dealing with animal rights and man’s indebtedness to the animal world, at least in the west, becomes the second key that opens the doors onto the world of Philip Pullman’s fiction. It may be, indeed, that he wishes to use Blake’s advice to create a system that will free him from organised religion and repressive science, but it is also important that the system he seeks to create can see a conscious, living world of energy and joy in every particle of dust, in every grain of sand.
La Belle Sauvage and Daemon Voices are both published by David Fickling books and are available for RRP £20.