At one point in La Belle Sauvage, the child protagonists travel in their eponymous canoe along a stream covered in a high mist. That mist, it’s eventually revealed, marks the boundary between a blithe class of pleasure seekers and the horrors of which they’re willfully ignorant. Eventually, a river god ominously warns, there will be a reckoning.
The arrival of La Belle Sauvage feels the way a Narnia book arrival must have felt during C.S. Lewis’s career. Author Philip Pullman is taking us into strange new worlds, but leaving signposts to the world we’ve come to know very well through his acclaimed trilogy His Dark Materials (1995-2000). Pullman’s stories bear many similarities to Lewis’s — children are called upon to perform heroic feats, appearances can’t be trusted, universes open onto others in unexpected ways — but his ultimate vision remains the opposite of Lewis’s. Aslan is to be feared, but trusted; Pullman’s Authority is to be mistrusted, and pitied.
Pullman belongs to that small fellowship of fantasy writers — Lewis, Rowling, Tolkien, Dahl — who successfully tether epic imagination to concrete storytelling. In comparison to the Dark Materials books, La Belle Sauvage (the first in a planned trilogy that intersects with the preceding stories) favors the concrete over the epic. While Lyra and Will leapt through windows in space, wrestling with bears and angels, Malcolm and Alice of Belle Sauvage walk, row, and crawl through a single world as floodwaters rise, pursued by an antagonist with an all-too-realistic motive.
The Dark Materials audiobooks are epic productions in themselves, with Pullman himself narrating while a full cast of voices chime in and musical cues mark chapter transitions. They lend a cinematic sweep to the stories, and the Belle Sauvage audiobook doesn’t quite reach those heights.
Narrator Michael Sheen does a creditable job distinguishing the various voices of the story, although his voiced characterizations are less subtle than those on the page. When a character is oily, you really know it. Sheen also tends to rush through action scenes, getting literally breathless when Malcolm and Alice are in danger — rather than trusting Pullman’s prose to do the job without such emotive gilding of the lily.
Fans will debate whether it’s a masterstroke or a cop-out to turn Lyra herself into essentially a McGuffin, being carried in infant form through an astounding array of hairy situations and having to be, on multiple occasions, literally snatched from the arms of evildoers. As a prequel, though, Belle Sauvage largely satisfies. We see Lyra’s world through the eyes of two children who were far-removed from the machinations of great powers, until they’re suddenly called upon to summon the strength to save the world.
It’s one of the oldest stories ever told, and Pullman lovers — including me — wouldn’t want it any other way.