Dæmons in His Dark Materials pt. I

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

I've been writing an essay since not long after the airing of the first episode of His Dark Materials prompted by my own feelings and the wider reception towards the treatment of dæmons on the show.

There have been various criticisms (as well as much appreciation), the most common being that there simply aren't enough of them. For me, that summary rings hollow as the true problem or implicit solution. I believe the reasons why dæmons are niggling at us a bit on screen goes deeper.

I didn't realise quite how much deeper. I guess I have over twenty years of thought about this most formative of books to explore, so this exercise has turned into a bit of a beast.

I think I have nailed it down to five sections: How Pullman establishes dæmons in Northern Lights; how he draws on a history of animal symbolism from Renaissance art; how the 2003 National Theatre adaptation expanded on those ideas; what the two screen adaptations' approaches have been; and finally, how I think they have missed the mark and some thoughts on how I believe dæmons could be more successfully approached for screen adaptation.

I have written most of that. More than I could possible use really. It still needs rather a lot of editing and clarifying.

But the first section is in some kind of shape, and I really wanted to get part of this out before tonight's episode of His Dark Materials - because this is a section about beginnings, about how dæmons are established, not really how that establishing pays off. And the fourth episode of His Dark Materials, 'Armour', marks the point where the series story stops being beginning and starts being middle.

On that note while I will reference later events of course, and the later books in the trilogy, my focus is on the opening of the book Northern Lights (known in the US as The Golden Compass).

I am functionally ignoring Lyra and The Birds, Once Upon A Time In The North, La Belle Sauvage and The Secret Commonwealth. That’s not because I don’t like them, quite the opposite in all cases, but rather because these books cannot speak to how Pullman imagined and created dæmons in the first instance. They represent a thought developed in new secondary directions by another of imaginative thought and writing. My concern here is how we meet dæmons first.

The one His Dark Materials adjunct I do particularly bring up later is The Collectors the lovely spooky short story (that is sadly Amazon-only), because it sheds a particularly interesting light on one of the aspects of how Pullman coded dæmons which I am going to discuss in section II.

However, regardless of that focus, spoilers for all of Northern Lights ahead.

Dæmons and what's up with, y'know, them

There are big, definitive aspects regarding dæmons that are accepted as canon which we – fans and even adaptors – have rather forgotten are really just conjecture.

In fact in terms of what is absolutely stated in the books, that which we know for sure about dæmons is less than one might imagine, and less than the adaptations have been keen to claim for fact up-front.

This is what we know according to what is presented as fact in the books: we know that dæmons are life-companions to humans that manifest automatically in Lyra’s world, but which humans from any universe may learn to make manifest; we know that they take the forms of creatures – insects, birds, mammals, perhaps (and this is something I'll look at in section II) even creatures that are, in our world at least, mythical; we know that a child’s dæmon is able to change the form it wears, but that at around the age of puberty the dæmon settles into one form for life.

We know that dæmons can speak, probably universally (though there is at least one prominent dæmon never seen to speak at all), and regardless of whether the dæmon’s physical form includes a mouth, let alone vocal chords. We know they mostly only talk to their own humans and other dæmons but can and do talk to other humans too, especially (though we are getting into the realms of inference with this one) if there is trust and closeness between human/dæmon pair A and B.

We know some things for certain about the way the bond between human and dæmon works: that the two cannot move very far away from each other without starting to experience a sensation which is “part physical pain deep in the chest, part intense sadness and love” (NL, ch. 11); we know that humans and their dæmons experience each other’s corporeal injury and hurt to at least some extent; we know that there is a great taboo in Lyra’s society about one human touching another’s dæmon which is felt and adhered to "as instinctively as (the sense that) nausea was bad and comfort good."(NL, ch. 9).

But what of the big, shorthand explanations of what dæmons are, so frequently cited, by both fans and adaptors of the text for other media? The assertion that a dæmon is literally a person's soul? Not strictly canon. Not asserted by the authoritative voice of the narrator, but only a theory or metaphor referenced by characters in-universe. A suggestion the text arguable supports but not a simple proposition.

Equally surprisingly, we are never actually expressly told – or even very much shown, as I shall come to later – that the form an adult’s dæmon takes reflects something important about their personal nature. Again, the theory is referenced and we are even led towards that conclusion. It's a valid takeaway but it is not established fact, and as I will argue in section II, there is a lot that is dictating dæmon-form in Northern Lights and His Dark Materials generally that has nothing to do with individual totemic character representation.

As I go on I’m going to refer quite a lot to the stage play adaptation of His Dark Materials by Nicholas Wright, because it provide such an interesting and useful counterpoint of method and approach to the choices and assumptions that both screen adaptations have made.

This is from Robert Butler’s book covering the adaptation and production of the debut staging of the play at the National Theatre in London, The Art of Darkness, where he talks about how playwright Nicholas Wright regarded dæmons

“… Pantalaimon’s behaviour would be ‘the vehicle’ for showing the audience how scared Lyra was. He would be the one revealing her inner feelings. Pantalaimon was almost…. But, no. (Nicholas Wright) said, “Philip Pullman won’t go so far as to say the dæmon is the soul". Like many aspects of the book, a dæmon was rich in meaning, which was another way of saying, it couldn’t be readily defined; a dæmon could be the head or the heart, an older or younger brother or sister, the inner feelings someone isn’t showing, or an instinctive intelligence, a sixth sense, that understands things before a person does. A dæmon could almost be that person’s soul, but not quite. Whatever a dæmon was, Nick said, “You can’t pin it down.””

But “Philip Pullman won’t go so far as to say the dæmon is the soul" and “it couldn’t be readily defined” are sentiments which the screen adaptations have not shared:

“So many worlds, parallel to each other. Worlds like yours, where peoples’ souls live inside their bodies; and worlds like mine, where they walk beside us as animal spirits we call ‘dæmons’." (Opening narration from The Golden Compass, 2007)

“Here, a human soul takes the physical form of an animal, known as a dæmon. The relationship between human and dæmon is sacred.” (Opening chyron from His Dark Materials, 2019)

So either the creatives involved in these screen adaptations have decided consciously to change the presentation and thereby nature of the dæmon concept, tying it firmly to this ‘soul’ idea. Or it’s the operation of a trope like Memetic Mutation / God Never Said That / Common Knowledge.

I.e. the soul thing is certainly there in the books, secondary characters reference it and our protagonists ruminate on it. It’s an idea that Pullman steers us towards, but like Wright notes, “Philip Pullman won’t go so far as to say the dæmon is the soul.”

He tells that story, he doesn’t make that statement, and there is all the difference.

In a video about Cloud Atlas and its film adaptation (another speculative fiction epic built around deceptively simple philosophies), Kyle Kallgren once said,

“There’s (your kindergarten teacher) teaching your little toddler brain that one plus one equals two, and then there’s Bertrand Russell’s 1910 Proof published in Principia Mathematica using only symbolic logic, basic mathematical axioms and inference rules to illustrate… that one plus one does in fact equal two.” (x)

So how does Philip Pullman create dæmons with his storytelling in Northern Lights?

Dæmons are a creation of storytelling. That might sound like an obvious statement: of course they are, they are an entirely invented idea expressed in a novel. But Pullman is unusually skilled at using the tools of the narrative to create and explore an idea. When I say dæmons are made of storytelling I mean it in the sense that David Hockney’s dogs are made of paint or the emotions a song evokes in the listener are made of notes. The idea and the storytelling of dæmons are inextricable.

Pullman's medium is the words of the story, so they are worth looking at in some detail.

Specifically I am going to look at how the start of the story operates to establish dæmons, and to establish our expectations around their storytelling.

Actually, let’s start before the story. There is one part before the narrative begins which merits inclusion in the analysis.

Author's note, Northern Lights

This might confuse readers from some countries, because whether one’s edition contains this note is dependent on what country and language you are reading in - mostly for obvious reasons.

(The reason that US-English editions don’t contain the note where the UK editions do is a little more involved and part of a small set of differences in text which include, of course, the title: to cut a slightly long and complicated story short, Pullman did some editing on the manuscript after US publisher Knopf had already moved into production.

The author’s note must have been one of those last-minute additions, because while all UK editions include this note; no US edition does.)

In any case, all this note appears to be a bit of mundane housekeeping – and it is – but in that appearance there is a metatextual trick at play. It’s hard to say if it was intentional, but the effect is to prime the reader with all sorts of responses and expectations.

Where it is included it sits somewhere between the publishing page and the start of the story, often on the reverse of the page with the Milton epigraph on.

It draws attention to the word dæmon and therefore the as-yet-unknown concept it denotes as an important one. I am going to talk about how skillfully Pullman disguises the primacy of dæmons to the novel with his narrative voice, so it might seem odd to now praise this attention-drawing, but the crucial point is that this is outside of the narrative itself.

In fiction, there’s lots of ways of including a bit intermediary priming between the engagement with media and the start of the story (i.e. between the front cover of the novel and the opening line of the narrative, or between the sitting in the cinema seat and the beginning of the film's main body), notes which storytellers use to establish the ultimate goal of the story, or prime the audience to keep a certain theme at the back of their head.

Think of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character turning to camera at the beginning of Season 2 of Fleabag, breaking both the fourth wall and the dramatic, fraught mood of the scene to tell the audience with a smirk, ‘This is a love story’.

Or think of how subtitles are sometimes used: Doctor Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

Or how epigraphs are often used to establish a theme or an expectation.

And we happen to know that Pullman is fond of such pauses or grace-notes to openings; the man loves a subtitle and an epigraph.

So this author's note primes us, it tells us to pay attention to dæmons and it puts a kind of spotlight of phrasing around the word to get our brains working in the right direction right away.

The phrasing works hard without appearing to: “like the English word ‘demon’” is a lovely bit of juxtaposed mundanity and drama, embodying something central to the tone and intent of the coming book. That use of the mundane and the already-understood to balance out the fantastical is something Pullman uses a lot throughout the coming novel and especially in the opening pages to persuade the reader to invest in dæmons without focusing on them.

The Decanter of Tokay

Getting into the narrative itself, I am going to look at the first eight pages of the novel in detail to talk about how Pullman establishes the idea of dæmons.

It’s the first eight pages (going by the typesetting of the UK paperbacks) because that is the section before the scene shifts into a different gear with the entry of Lord Asriel.

I am going to discuss these pages in detail partly because, of course, the opening of the novel and the introduction of the dæmon concept is of particular significance for deciding how we view the concept overall. But also because contained within are really all the tricks that Pullman will continue using throughout the novel.

So here is every line from those first eight pages where dæmons are mentioned in a way which establishes something about them which is new to the reader:

  • “Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.”

  • “”You’re not taking this seriously,” whispered her dæmon. “Behave Yourself.” Her dæmon’s name was Pantalaimon, and he was currently in the form of a moth, a dark brown one so as not to show up in the darkness of the hall.”

  • “As Lyra held her breath she saw the servant’s dæmon (a dog, like almost all servants’ dæmons) trot in and sit quietly at his feet…”

  • “Lyra could feel Pantalaimon bristling with anxiety, though he made no sound. For herself, she was pleasantly excited.”

  • “Then (the Steward) smoothed the hair over his ears with both palms and said something to his dæmon. He was a servant so she was a dog; but a superior servant so a superior dog. In fact, she had the form of a red setter.”

  • ““You’re supposed to know about conscience, aren’t you?””

  • “Lyra felt a mixture of thoughts contending in her head, and she would have liked nothing better than to share them with her dæmon, but she was proud too. Perhaps she should try to clear them up without his help. … “Pan?” she whispered. “Yes?” “Do you think there’ll be a war?”

Let's go through these examples one by one and take a look at what hard work the seemingly simple and restrained phrasings are doing.

  • “Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.”

The book is, well, bookended by a very first and very last line that start with the same phrase: "Lyra and her dæmon". Nowhere else is it used exactly, and that too draws the reader’s attention to the significance of the repetition as framing an opening and closing statement. The book begins begins with the above line, and it ends,

  • “So Lyra and her dæmon turned away from the world they were born in, and looked towards the sun, and walked into the sky.”

The very opening of the book creates immediate questions in our mind, What is a ‘dæmon’? In what sense is this one Lyra’s?” The final sentence says, gesturing at the preceding 100,00ish words, ‘and that’s what a dæmon is. That is how Lyra and Pantalaimon belong to each other’.

And the clever thing is that though everything in the text between these two points is in some way supporting the narrative exploration of dæmons, the reader is probably not quite aware that this is the centre of the story until that last sentence.

Pullman's deployment of mystery from this very first line is masterful. We have questions around the ‘Lyra and her dæmon’ phrase but no confusion. The phrasing tells us a good deal straight away about how to start thinking of dæmons.

When Pullman in his meta writing describes how the concept of dæmons first came to him, he says it was as both a phrase and an image: the phrase ‘Lyra and her dæmon’ and the image of the girl accompanied by a something, an ephemeral, shadowy presence not yet fleshed out in his mind's eye into animal form. And he writes his first line in a way that creates the same first impression in readers’ minds.

He imagined the phrase ‘Lyra and her dæmon’ and was immediately intrigued by all the resonances of the words and their associations – ‘her’ ‘demon’ ‘moved’ ‘taking care’ – bouncing off each other to invent exactly what that meant.

He writes the phrase 'Lyra and her dæmon' and we are intrigued in the same way as he was - to continue with the story, and find out.

  • “”You’re not taking this seriously,” whispered her dæmon. “Behave yourself.” Her dæmon’s name was Pantalaimon, and he was currently in the form of a moth, a dark brown one so as not to show up in the darkness of the hall.”

Having generated those immediate questions from the opening line, that urgent need to know what is meant by ‘Lyra and her dæmon’, Pullman makes us wait for even bare information on what he means by this immediately arresting phrase. Possibly no other example says more about Pullman’s approach to writing generally, and his handling of dæmons in particular than that paragraph of waiting between those first two mentions of dæmons in Northern Lights.

He gives us enough time for the imagination to engage with that pure, archetypal image, by pausing to do some leisurely setting of other aspects of the scene. Finally we get a line of dialogue and a brief unfussy line of exposition that fill us in on the very basics we need to know to go on without distracting confusion.

As for the lines themselves they are a simple handful of sentences but packed with carefully illuminated implication. We learn a great deal and infer a great deal more from these lines: the dæmon can talk to Lyra, he has personality, he has a relationship with Lyra, his name is Pantalaimon, he is a 'he', he is in the form of a moth.

He is currently in the form of a moth. Within the information Pullman slips us another angle to be intrigued by. He is currently in the form of a moth “so as not to show up in the darkness of the hall”. Pantalaimon’s form is variable and consciously chosen.

There's the name too, of course. Even the orthography is working hard. It's a made-up fantasyish name but has the ring of reality, of a Greek route, too. It's a name that makes even an adult reader pause the first time to sound it out. Again, Pullman has made us stop and pay attention to the word and therefore the concept. And as the narrative dialogue goes on in the following pages we will see that the narration always refers to the dæmon by his full name, but Lyra always calls him 'Pan'. I'm going to talk more about Pullman's narrative voice and character more below. It is, in contrast to those belonging to to much other modern children's fiction, unabashedly authoritative, grown-up, somewhat judgemental. His narrative voice is a character with a view on events. This grown-up voice calls the dæmonn Pantalaimon. But Lyra calls him 'Pan' and we feel the intimacy and familiarity of that because it's a contrast. If Pantalaimon had no longer name, or if Pullman's narrator too referred to him in abbreviated form it would sap the sense of special intimacy between Lyra and the dæmon.

Does the reader even notice that we are being slipped a huge amount of implied information to internalise?

Pullman is here using a directly expository voice, telling the reader information. But he’s still ‘showing' not 'telling’, because these are facts used to illuminate the wider implications which we are to infer. He tells in order to show us much more.

Pullman can do this, this direct telling which he so often uses to slip us wider pieces of story, because of the narrator’s voice he employs.

Pullman stood out in the 90s, and stands out still, for employing a third-person, omniscient narrative voice which nonetheless has a particular personality and attitude, and one that has the authority of a grown-up authority figure (and one not always totally sympathetic to his protagonist - in fact sometimes surprisingly damning).

It’s an approach more recognisable from older texts, from Victorian children’s publishing through to about the 60s, than it is from contemporaries. Current (and 90s) children’s authors tend to position themselves as at the child protagonist/reader’s level.

Pullman’s approach allies him more with the school and era or eras of Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbitt, Elizabeth Goudge, even – though he wouldn’t appreciate the comparison - C. S. Lewis. It’s the voice of the storyteller, the elder relating a narrative to a child.

And so he has at his disposal the directly, unembarrassed, expository voice, the confident statement of fact.

Children’s writers of those past eras didn’t balk at opening books by simply giving us a broad expository account of their protagonist, often rife with value judgements, not hesitating to praise or chide their natures and tendencies.

So here in the same way that Goudge would tell us, in the opening of The Little White Horse, about Maria Merryweather’s accessories, concluding that she ‘was a fussy little thing’ or Eve Garnett would describe Mr and Mrs. Ruggle in bald exposition at the beginning of The Family At One-End Street, Pullman tells us that ‘Her dæmon’s name was Pantalaimon, and he was currently in the form of a moth, a dark brown one so as not to show up in the darkness of the hall.’

Though he is using the telling voice he is not stepping outside the reality of his world. He acts as if we know all about dæmons and just need the details of this one covering. telling us about the concept of dæmons, just about the details of this particular dæmon. It invites us into a sense of familiarty but appearing to assume we’re all in on this while also carefully planting the information we need for the reality that readers are new to this idea. Pullman relates the story as if he and we are occupants of Lyra’s world ourselves.

To illustrate the point, one can imagine how seamlessly the openings of children’s books of the classic era would include similar lines mentioning the dæmons of their protagonists while barely disrupting the existing tone, in versions which appeared within Lyra’s world:

"... Not that it was often seen for Smith and his dæmon were rather sooty spirits of the violent and ramshackle Town, and inhabited the tumbledown mazes about fat St. Paul’s like the subtle air itself. " (Smith by Leon Garfield)

“He had a thin face and very large eyes and his dæmon Feste was matching them in owl-form; they looked patient and rather sad.” (The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy Boston)

“... At the same time, Emil was not a prig. He was not even one of those unnaturally good children who seem to have been born old. He had to try really hard to be good, as hard as some people try to give up sweets, or going to the pictures. His dæmon Adalgisa sometimes had to remind him to stick to his guns” (Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner)

  • “As Lyra held her breath she saw the servant’s dæmon (a dog, like almost all servants’ dæmons) trot in and sit quietly at his feet…”

  • “Then (the Steward) smoothed the hair over his ears with both palms and said something to his dæmon. He was a servant so she was a dog; but a superior servant so a superior dog. In fact, she had the form of a red setter.”

Pullman plays a similar trick again in this pair of lines: a bit of apparent telling which is actually being used to show us something far more significant and wide-reaching.

We are told that the Butler has for a dæmon “a dog, like almost all servants’ dæmons” and a few pages later that the Steward “was a servant so (his dæmon) was a dog; but a superior servant, so a superior dog. In fact she had the form of a red setter.”

Pullman could be – has been – criticised for the apparent classist essentialist snobbery here, but for my money that misses the point. For one thing it mistakes narrator for author. More to the current point, what is happening here is that he is using a rigid, old fashioned and widely understood social order to teach us both about the tone of the world and Lyra’s experience of it, and specifically about how dæmons work.

He is ordering the idea of dæmons via archetypes we already understand in order to enable us to reach the wider implications on our own.

Near the start of this essay I mentioned that, surprisingly, Pullman never really states that most obvious and quoted aspect to dæmon function, that their settled form reflects the truest nature of the human of whom they are part.

Because really, in a narrative sense, dæmons don’t reflect the inner natures of their associated humans. For one thing, as characters in a novel, they do not in fact have inner natures.

I talked earlier about dæmons being made of storytelling, and here we are again. The Butler and Steward have no inner life to reflect, they are bit parts that only exist in one or two scenes of a novel.

And there's a choice telling in its absence. Pullman, having shown by the characters actions some very clear characteristics belonging to the two servants - the Butler is obseqious, nervy, gossipy and the Steward is sneaky and thieving - could have given them each a dæmon that reflected those qualities, and the reader would have understood at once to look to dæmons as an easily interpretable key to understanding their humans' nature. But he does not, he instead guides us to classify them by other systems. Not personality, or not in an obvious, moralistic, totemic way in any case. He points to the social category that defines them, or even the story category that defines them, and tells us that is why their dæmons are what they are.

It's not just 'they have dogs because they are servants' but 'they have dogs because they are servants in a story'. They are avatars of story, not people.

This is how dæmons are written throughout. It shows how much more readers pay attention to what characters claim and believe and say than they do what they are actually shown. That readers all - me too initially - come away from Northern Lights with the understanding that dæmon-forms are individually reflective of character.

Because in terms of what we see, dæmon-forms are nearly always entirely opaque as indicators of character.

Why does the Master have a raven, Ma Costa a hawk, Lee Scoresby a hare? Approaching from the angle of individual totemic meaning, your guess is as good as mine. These dæmons forms are not obeying a motivation to shed light on some character aspect, at least not only that. They are designed to create patterns and systems by which we might understand still wider principles, and base greater feats of imaginative inference upon.

I’m going to talk in Part II about how dæmons are drawn from the history of animal symbolism in Western classical art, and how that plays off societal and social groupings and systems.

But for now suffice to say that Pullman is teaching us how to think about dæmons and it is not to think from the direction of individual characters.

(And the latter is what the BBC/HBO series has tended towards, giving the baddies cold ugly insects and sneaky snakes and the goodies appealing mammals and birds, prompting more than one viewer new to the idea of dæmons to wonder how a society can possibly work, let alone look comparatively similar to ours, when you can at once see if someone is greedy or sly or nasty via their dæmon's form.)

With the servants-have-dogs notes, Pullman gives us the keys to a system by which we might go forward in our understanding of dæmons. It's intuitive by nuance and mysterious too. What people 'are' in some way dictates the form of their dæmon; but it's not a simple equation and the reader should be prepared to hold the idea with space around it.

Pullman could of course simply have told us directly what we here learn from these couple of lines by inference. But that would shut down rather than intrigue the reader’s imagination. Humans have pattern-seeking, system-recognising brains, and a good writer knows how to feed that the right kind and amount of information to make it do the work.

Where a fantastical system is explained thoroughly and directly it turns that pattern-seeking intelligence against the story. Told the facts of dæmons straight away we would find the idea suspect and start picking holes. Allowed – or rather positioned carefully by the author – to see for ourselves, the imagination is instead engaged in putting together what is observed and extrapolating what Pullman wants us too. It's another area that adaptations have frequently fallen down on, but I shall get into that in Parts III and IV.

  • “Lyra could feel Pantalaimon bristling with anxiety, though he made no sound. For herself, she was pleasantly excited.”

This is simply the first instance we have of Lyra and Pantalaimon sharing some kind of low-key psychic/empathic bond. It is underplayed and will remain so for most of the novel outside later big dramatic pay-offs. Again, Pullman communicates ideas around dæmons less by direct telling and more by more by creating the idea-shaped space that the reader's imagination neatly drops into. It makes things more convincing, because it allows the reader's imagination to fill in the details in whatever way are more immediate and natural to it, rather than insisting on some specific note which might ring falsely for some readers.

The line doesn’t explicitly note that Lyra's perception comes from beyond her five ordinary senses. In fact, Pullman is always very keen to tie the psychic or supernaturally empathic aspect of their bond to visceral, physical sensation. But we catch the edge of non-naturalness in the idea. Pantalaimon is a moth throughout this scene (a choice I'm going to go into more in Part II), and really the only way Lyra could perceive any emotion from him outside out his dialogue, let alone as human an emotion as anxiety, is through some kind of extrasensory perception between them.

It's such a tiny bit of fantasy that we probably don't even notice it as such. But we have been required to make that little leap for ourselves, do that minute bit of imaginative colouring-in, and once we've done that the imaginative space has already started to be carved out. When the golden monkey attacks Pantalaimon in chapter five, the scene in a way presents new information and we are interested to learn it: that dæmons and humans share physical pain. But it is not a jarring surprise either, we are able to absorb it and still focus on the drama and tension around it, because Pullman has not only been laying down the groundwork for that from the start but doing so in a way which encourages the reader to make their own leaps of inference.

  • “You’re supposed to know about conscience, aren’t you?”

Lyra’s line is another juicy clue, both in itself and in Panatalaimon’s subversion of it's claim – or rather, nuanced relationship with the idea.

After several lines which establish the way dæmons operate, how Pantalaimon relates to Lyra and vice versa, we get this reference to what dæmons might mean.

And true to form it is put in a way which opens up rather than shuts down the imagination, hints at a direction, tells the reader to keep their eye on an idea, but gives us no immediate answers.

It’s important to remember that Pullman isn’t creating dæmons in a vacuum. He has some intertextual baggage to deal with. The talking-animal-companion-as-conscience has history, most famously of course as Jiminy Cricket. And it’s not necessarily irrelevant to dæmons either. But he doesn’t want to tie his colours to that particular mast right now.

When Lyra says this, Pantalaimon has just cheerfully admitted to being motivated by cowardice and advised Lyra to let a murder go ahead to save their own hides, so the line is presented in a way that is clearly meant to be playful or questionable, but at the same time the context doesn’t entirely disavow its applicability. Lyra is our expert in all this and she seems to think her dæmons should be a moral guide – even if Pantalaimon isn’t living up to it.

  • “Lyra felt a mixture of thoughts contending in her head, and she would have liked nothing better than to share them with her dæmon, but she was proud too. Perhaps she should try to clear them up without his help. … “Pan?” she whispered. “Yes?” “Do you think there’ll be a war?”

The last quote I have included as part of the initial set up is similar in some ways to “you’re supposed to know about conscience”, and puts a kind of button on this scene before it becomes about some different things as Lord Asriel enters.

We spend eight pages with Lyra and her demon in one mode, one which we can soon infer is a common state for them, of lightly bickering as the more nervy and sensible Pantalaimon attempts to curb the more reckless and curious Lyra. The stakes escalate and the squabbling comes to a head; and they fall out and both assume self-righteous silent treatment of each other.

For the first time, we really go inside Lyra’s head a little, observing her not from the outside or as half of a duology, but her interiority. Trying to mull things over is presented as a completely new exercise for her, which gives us a nice sense of the story, the character, and the relationship progressing already. There’s already the sense of her story being one of maturation, a growth into thoughtfulness.

It’s not an exercise that lasts long, and she’s soon forgotten that she’s being proud and not talking to Pantalaimon. He responds equally casually. Their relationship has already reset to intimacy and allyship, admitting uncertainty and chewing over difficult thoughts together.

Along with their previous bickering it creates a sense of Lyra and Pantalaimon very like siblings. They fall in and out of friendship easily, wind each other up but are immediately and totally aligned in the face of outside - especially adult - challenge. There’s a gag in the Simpsons where Lisa is angrily nagging Bart that if he keeps bouncing on the couch he’ll break it. He does, and Homer comes in to hear what the commotion is, and Lisa and Bart are in immediate and instinctive cahoots against the parent. I remember that instinct from my own childhood.

Lord Asriel interrupts their resumed conversation with his entrance, and it's here that

the scene shifts into another gear and focuses on a different relationship and new secondary character, and then subsequently dense informational plotty dialogue.

So it's neat that in these initial eight pages a little arc has played out between Lyra and Pantalaimon and it's one by which we can infer a whole history and wider life. Their back-and-forth, his sensible hesitance to her bold curiosity, the casual insults, all escalating to a point of haughty silence - and then the swiftness with which difference is forgotten, the implicit trust and equality of the relationship reasserting itself. It's a whole little story of a relationship played out over a very few sentences of focus scattered over just eight pages of action. We have out pattern set and signed off for the Lyra/Pan dynamic, and are ready to take it as established and turn our attention to other matters by the time Lord Asriel enters.

Not that we feel we know everything we need to know, far from it. Pullman has also instilled, by the means described above, a sense that we need to hold open our imaginations and curiosity. But we have a complete working model of how this dynamic operates.

This is also a good point to bring up the scene that plays out over these eight pages as a whole and how it begins a pattern in the narrative which is itself part of the toolkit by which Pullman builds the emotional understanding of dæmons.

That is, the somewhat episodic rhythm of the novel which repeatedly places Lyra in new situations with new allies and enemies to relate to, only to eventually have her and Pantalaimon left alone – together – again.

Again and again by this pattern we have reinforced the sense of permanence, reliability and primacy in the bond. Pantalaimon is always there. Lyra has a friendship with Roger powerful enough to motivate her across continents, finds a surrogate family with the Gyyptians, forms a powerful bond with Iorek Byrnison – but each time these fall away to leave just her and Pantalaimon, an eternal unit and pair.

The pattern is another way of really teaching us on an emotional level what dæmons mean. Lyra’s tumultuous life has many people with a kindly or solicitous interest in her, many allies and enemies. Sometimes Pantalaimon disappears into the background as Lyra is fascinated by a new presence like Iorek Byrnison, or sometimes Lyra seems to disappear a bit for Pan as he finds joy swimming as a dolphins amongst a pod. But other characters and concerns always fall away, and she and Pantalaimon still have each other.

It's the lesson of the book, and the characters themselves discuss it at last in the closing pages:

“We’d be alone. Iorek Byrnison couldn’t follow us and help. Nor could Farder Coram or Serafina Pekkela, or Lee Scoresby or no one.” “Just us then. Don’t matter. We’re not alone, anyway; not like…” She knew he meant, not like Tony Makarios; not like those poor, lost dæmons at Bolvangar; we’re still on being; both of us are one. … Behind them lay pain and death and fear; ahead of them lay doubt, and danger, and fathomless mysteries. But they were not alone. So Lyra and her dæmon turned away from the world they were born in, and looked towards the sun, and walked into the sky.”

And while the repetition, Lyra and her dæmon, enforces the sense of permanence, it also showcases the pair’s growth. If the first scene shows the Lyra/Pantalaimon dynamic at its most immature, the young brother/sister comparison I made, later instances of Lyra/Pan scenes show how the pair begin to communicate in a more sophisticated way.

Drama reveals vulnerability and we see their undisguised love for each other. Events prompt growth and we see how they learn better to respect each other and listen even when in disagreement.

They are still children trying to work things out, but now in a kind of responsible, complicated, attentive earnest that they would not have been capable of in chapter one.

And finally they come to an understanding via wisdom of what they knew only implicitly at the start of the novel: they are not alone.

Next time: Animal symbolism!

​© 2018 by Kathryn Rosa Miller. Created with Wix.com

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