At the end of The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman's new prequel to the His Dark Materials trilogy, Pullman quotes not Milton or Blake (the animating poets of the earlier novels) but Spenser. And indeed, most of the novel takes place in an increasingly defamiliarized English landscape, drowned beneath a positively Biblical (but also Faerie Queene-derived) flood, that its otherworldly denizens call "Albion" (loc. 5655; loc. 6260). Indeed, one of the novel's momentary resting points, a glamorous party attended by the dead (and the novel's villain), appears to be a direct reference to the Bower of Bliss, that dangerous place of "lavish Affluence" (bk. 2, canto 12), and one that poses analogous moral dangers. But this being Pullman, Albion is not a land of Christian allegory, but an eerie place in which the "old gods" (loc. 5079) momentarily manifest themselves again--but whether they are necessarily on the side of the novel's protagonists remains to be determined. What we have seen of Albion's old gods so far seems amoral, rather than moral; the character who insists that Old Father Thames is "on our side" (loc. 5079) may be making the same error as the novel's Calvinist Catholics. In any event, our protagonists, working-class Malcolm (on the verge of puberty) and Alice (an older teen), must play Red-Cross Knight and Una in their quest to save the infant Lyra from a mysterious but no doubt horrific fate at the hands of Gerard Bonneville, whose near-unstoppable pursuit of our heroes combines Archimago with Chun the Unavoidable. (Lyra is here not so much a character as a MacGuffin.) Much of the novel is spent on the floodwaters, voyaging from place to place in the eponymous canoe that takes the place of a warhorse; the picaresque format, as the characters try to negotiate through their unrecognizable surroundings, hints that their adventures will render them effectively homeless, mentally if not physically.
Like the novels in the first trilogy, LBS is partly about leaving childhood behind. However, both the religious and secular factions, the latter embodied by the Le Carre-esque Oakley Street spies, are perfectly willing to exploit and instrumentalize childhood innocence. When Oakley Street agent and academic Hannah Relf feels guilty about endangering Malcolm by turning him into a spy, her daemon coolly informs her that "[it]'s about wrong and less wrong. Bad and less bad" (loc. 1275); later, she is horrified when she realizes that Oakley Street has plans to use Malcolm as sexual bait for blackmail purposes, but continues to work with them anyway. On the flip side, there's the League of St. Alexander, under the aegis of the Magisterium, which suborns children to spy on their parents and teachers and report them for heresy. (Indeed, the questionable morality of everyone involved is more than a little reminiscent of the scenario in Le Carre's "Quest for Karla" trilogy. One cannot help noting that, speaking of allegory, it's possible to do a fair amount of political switcheroo-ing with both sides.) This behavior calls forward to the events of The Golden Compass/Northern Lights, in which children become scientific subjects and sacrifices. The adult characters aspire, not to goodness, but, in the terms of Hannah's daemon, less-badness; everyone is morally compromised. Whereas both the League of St. Alexander and Oakley Street justify their behavior on the grounds of moral or utilitarian motives, though, Gerard Bonneville's murderous pursuit of Alice, Malcolm, and Lyra is unapologetic in its shattering of the children's last illusions. Malcolm sees Gerard having sex with a nun in an attempt to get hold of Lyra, an act that leaves him unable to "think firmly or clearly about anything" (loc. 3770); later, when Alice describes her own terrifying encounter with Gerard, in which his gentle kisses contrast starkly with his hyena daemon's sexual violence, she tells Malcolm that it was nothing like the "stories" (loc. 5914). In Gerard's hands, sex heralds betrayal and destruction, not love and creation; even Mrs. Coulter finds the very mention of him horrifying (with the implication that she may too have been one of his victims). Moreover, the only way for Malcolm to defeat Gerard is to kill him, an act explicitly linked to animal instinct--Malcolm personifies his deadly rage in terms of a pack of "imaginary dogs" (loc. 6608), of whom he dreams throughout--and that, significantly, requires him to give up "pity" (loc. 6608). To kill, that is, Malcolm most momentarily abandon the quality that distinguishes him from Gerard in the first place. Given that, unlike Lyra at the end of the first trilogy, Malcolm approaches adulthood in the corrupt world-as-it-is, not a new world-as-it-could-be, it makes sense that he achieves very premature "maturity" by inflicting punishment instead of offering charity. Violence expels violence, but what is lost as a result?