You can find Part I of the series here
and Part III here
In the first part of the series, I looked at how Pullman used his medium, the medium of novel-writing – i.e. words – to establish in just the first eight pages of the novel the concept of dæmons in the reader’s mind, and heart.
I drew conclusions around the idea that Pullman deploys what he shows us carefully not so much to directly tell us what to think, but rather to guide us where he wants our imaginations to go and invent for themselves. In this way dæmons swiftly feel alive and natural, because the space is left for the reader to glue everything together with their own particular sensibility, and he doesn’t force the mind’s eye to behave in ways that feel awkward to it.
I also touched on how Pullman uses the scaffolding of pre-existing ideas, patterns and systems to help establish this new one. In particular I paid some attention to the seemingly simple couple of lines, “a dog, like almost all servants’ dæmons” and “He was a servant so she was a dog; but a superior servant so a superior dog.” I talked about how here we are taught to relate dæmons not, or not exclusively, to some idea of individual inner nature, but to tidy them under patterns we already understand.
That’s the idea I’m going to get more into in this section.
Firstly, I’m going to go a little more into how Pullman guides us to think of dæmon forms in that first chapter.
I talked about the notes on the servants' dæmons but the servants represent only one of three or four allusions to the reasoning behind dæmon-forms in that first chapter. Pullman gives us a set of interacting steers around the reasoning for dæmon-forms as both a working model and an open question, and afterwards lets the idea lie for a long time.
The first allusion to the reason behind a form is very early, in the sentence where we first learn anything at all about dæmons. The narration tells us Pantalaimon “was currently in the form of a moth, a dark brown one so as not to show up in the darkness of the hall.” So our first sense is that the shape a dæmon wears is optional and at least in this case the choice is made for pragmatic reasons.
Then next hint is the aforementioned “a dog, like almost all servants dæmons” (and its partner a few pages later, ”a superior servant so a superior dog”). I’ve discussed the implications around this line already: the indication that the dæmon's form is in some way a meaningful comment on the character, but also a steer away from a simple individualistic totemic reading.
The other person who passes through the scene in those first pages is the Master of Jordan College. His dæmon’s form is noted without overt commentary on any implication to it. However it is worth noting that there’s a pretty clear resonance between action and dæmon-form going on: the Master is here to attempt murder, and his dæmon is a raven. Curiously this obviousness of connection doesn’t feel heavy-handed, perhaps because Pullman leans so much away from framing the Master as an ominous or spooky presence otherwise. It is however another clue to the reader that though dæmon forms are significant, it is perhaps not in an obvious or even consistent manner. That the way we should be processing dæmons is not by thinking about inner nature but rather in story terms. Not quite meta-textually, but remembering that characters on a page are not the same as people in a room. They have a story identity. The Master is, in-universe, a complex man hardly defined by one desperate attempt at assassination. But as a player in the story, that is what he’s all about.
The final new character to enter in chapter one is Lord Asriel. He is the first character, and possibly the last, to embody the principle that everyone thinks of as universally applicable: his dæmon really is an obvious totem of his nature. Stelmaria’s being a snow leopard is just one part of a semantic field around Asriel’s introduction that draws comparison with the image of a powerful, wild, feline beast: “yawning like a lion”, “fierce”, “savage” “a wild animal held in a cage too small for it”. Then there’s her geographical connection. We have already at this point heard mention of Asriel's having come from “the North”, and soon we will plunge into his account of his polar expedition.
So Stelmaria’s form is obvious as an expression of this man. As I say, I think this early appearance of a character so directly and transparently represented by their dæmon is part of why readers tend to talk as if the principle is universal, and they are not precisely wrong to do so. I think that’s a surface idea that Pullman steers us towards. It's just not anything like the whole picture, either sub texturally or in terms if storytelling mechanics.
On that note, I’d make two other observations. Firstly, that like the example of the Master’s and the Servants’ dæmons, Stelmaria’s form is in fact reflecting Asriel’s story role as much as anything. Asriel’s imagined in-universe inner life and history aren't really that connected to the North. He has apparently explored many territories and has concerns and ambitions beyond geography in quite a literal sense. Really from his point of view, the North is a means to an end. But his Northern connection is what is of particular relevance to the story and to our protagonist.
Secondly, I would point out that Lord Asriel is exceptional, in several senses. He is painted as hugely powerful, bold, superhumanly arrogant. His dæmon’s bold and obvious form is meant to strike us like his direct gaze, intimidatingly unabashed and powerful.
So much for the dæmons of secondary characters. But what of Pantalaimon? I’ve mentioned that the phrasing around his introduction introduces us to the idea of dæmons as variable in form, and this one specifically as coming from an intelligent volition, and motivated by practicality. But what of the form itself?
As I discussed in the first part of this series, in the novel we are introduced immediately to the word ‘dæmon’ and only gradually filled in on what exactly to think when we hear that word. The dæmon we meet first and by whom we learn our first information by is the protagonist’s, Lyra’s Pantalaimon. For a paragraph or two we have the word dæmon and no visual except the vague sense of a moving, companion, belonging-to-Lyra presence.
Then we get an image: this fellow Pantalaimon is “currently in the form of a moth”.
And so he stays for all of the first chapter and almost all of the second, finally changing shape – to ermine-form – as the first episode comes to a close.
No adaptation has emulated this introductory form. In fact both movie and series have done something different to the book but similar to each other:
In both cases, the first character shot of the movie belongs to Lord Asriel and therefore the first dæmon we see is Stelmaria.
After their respective Asriel prologues, both adaptations then begin the main story of the film with an establishing shot of Lyra, Pantalaimon her her shoulder, pausing as they prepare to dash into the chaos of play.
The series creators claim not to have been influenced by previous adaptations, and it’s entirely believable that they arrived at a very similar way of doing things independently and from first principles.
Because on the surface it’s a neat piece of storytelling.
Screen adaptations have to neaten and contain, pull in tendrils of nuance or contradiction to tidier packages. And they have to get information across fast. A reader will allow themselves to be confused and uncertain for a while; a film viewer needs to be caught up quickly.
Films also need to work visually, of course. It’s one thing to have a character shape-shifting about on the page and quite another on the screen, where we are so reliant on the visuals by which to understand things, and by which to invest emotion and interest.
So making Pantalaimon an ermine on arrival would appear to be a simple piece of competent adaptive storytelling between mediums. And it certainly isn’t a wholly duff move.
I went to a Q&A with some of the lead creatives from the His Dark Materials TV series recently, and Russell Dodgson, head of VFX for the production on behalf of Framestore, half-joked that though the trilogy was packed with interesting ideas fans really focused on dæmons because “people love talking animals.”
It would be unfair to treat this as anything other than an off-the-cuff comment not meant fully seriously. But it does tally with something of the lack of understanding of the storytelling around dæmons shown in the series which I’m going to come to later on.
I don’t object to the description in a kind of protective fannish ‘well actually’ lore kind of way, but because whether or not it's a fair representation of Dodgson's own attitude, I think it's a statement which sums up the lack of understanding of the storytelling of the source material which I have perceived in the series. The series has leaned into a talking-animal presentation of dæmons. And I believe the decision in the case of the series at least is as much about the adaptors missing what’s going on with the storytelling, as understanding but deliberately changing things to suit a new medium.
The archetypal dæmon
I mentioned before, Pullman dreamed dæmons into being in words and an image in the minds-eye at once. He thought of the phrase ‘Lyra and her dæmon’ and he saw in his imagination a kind of shadowing ephemeral companion presence beside his heroine.
Inspiration is only the start of the story of course, and it was practiced skill and trained intuition which enabled him to both recognise the vast exciting potential in this image and to parse it out into a meaningful story.
His first decision was that dæmons should shapeshift between animal forms (it was only after writing a draft of the first chapter where this applied universally that he discovered the idea that only children’s dæmons should do so, and thus the meaning he could use them to write into his story).
But though he wrote and rewrote and invented to develop and refine his ideas, Pantalaimon’s form in the opening remains very close to that primal image that first came to him: the moth is ethereal, half-there, a small, shadowy presence. It means we first see dæmons in our imaginative eye in much the same way that Pullman first did. It gives us a similar access to the primal sense of what dæmons are first of all without the obfuscating visual distraction of a characterful animal form.
The choice of a moth form divorces Pantalimon’s character from his form. Moths aren't expressive; or cute. They're barely visible. Pantalaimon isn’t a talking animal. The traditions and tropes of talking animal companions is of little interest or use to what Pullman is creating.
A moth is as much like a will-o’-the-wisp or a fairy (think of Tinkerbell on stage, a formless pinpoint of light) as an animal.
And yet before we even learn Pantalaimon’s form we learn of his strong, clear human-like personality: “You’re not taking this seriously,” says the ephemeral little nothing of a presence like a brother scolding a sister, or a servant chiding his young mistress, or the more sensible friend admonishing the reckless one. “Behave yourself!”
Thus our first understanding of Pantalaimon is of a personality not bound by form.
And however many other forms we see him in, however large or solid they may appear, our reading of him retains some of that primal sense of mothiness given us at the start.
The only adaptation so far to really engage with this sense has been the stage play. I’m going to get into its adaptation of dæmons in more detail in part III, but suffice to note here that its use of half-literal puppets controlled by visible puppeteers communicates the same idea of a living personality not bound by form.
Meanwhile the screen adaptations do rather the opposite. They make an apparently competent, even obvious, move, and deliver to us a Pantalaimon with whom we may immediately sympathise and engage visually. But in their nervous need to make us like the image of the little guy straight away, they close down rather than open up the imagination. Pantalaimon loses definition as a character because his personality no longer leaps out in bold contrast to his physical aspect. He becomes un-intriguing.
Again and again the screen adaptations make decision which are safer and clearer without seeming to quite realise that they are in fact adding up to a much smaller, less interesting and moving idea. Dæmons are made of storytelling, and if the storytelling is made small and safe and tropey and clear, the idea reduces with it
Why dæmons take the forms they take
“”Oh, this was in the seventeenth century. Symbols and emblems were everywhere. Buildings and pictures were designed to be read like books. Everything stood for something else; if you had the right dictionary you could read Nature itself.”” (Dr. Lanselius in NL, ch.10)
I’ve spent rather a lot of time on the moth form because it is, as our first and prime introduction of the idea of dæmons at all, vitally important for understanding the game Pullman is playing.
And you may notice that I talked much about what the form does for the story and had nothing to say about what the form means in-universe about Lyra, her nature of her state of mind. As I've what forms a dæmon takes has little of real interest to communicate about a character from an 'inner life' angle.
I mentioned before that in fact ‘dæmons reflect your inner nature’ is essentially as piece of fanon, or a piece of valid surmise which gets mistakenly treated as stated fact. The idea that dæmon-forms are significant to character is valid; more than that, I think it’s one Pullman deliberately leads us to. But he doesn’t state is as settled fact and it’s not the system by which he orders dæmons' forms.
What does it mean, after all, about Ma Costa that her dæmon is a hawk? Or about Lee Scoresby that his dæmon is a hare? Nothing very obvious.
So if dæmon forms aren't being selected on a basis of creating illuminating totems of characters' natures, on what basis are they chosen?
There are a great many types of animal in the world, and many of them neither appear nor could appear in the story that is Northern Lights. There is a certain category of creature that may appear as a dæmon in this text, and it is not a category defined by anything animal or geographical. It is something quite human: art.
Pullman draws from the aesthetic of medieval and Renaissance art. It is that semantic field which dictates what forms we see dæmons in. We see ermines and serpents and hawks not primarily because they have something important to communicate about their human counterparts but because those are the creatures of medieval and Renaissance art.
Famously two Renaissance paintings helped inspire the idea dæmons, helped them become animal-formed:
The programme for the National Theatre's originating production of the His Dark Materials play notes, “Philip Pullman considers that previously unrecognised dæmons have appeared in portraits throughout the ages” and includes several examples, presumably provided by Pullman, in its pages. Two of them are those above.
I should here note that Pullman hasn't only named Renaissance sources of inspiration here. He also notes a painting by Giambattista Tiepolo (who belongs to the late 17th/early 18th century but who is firmly in the Rococo school rather than the Renaissance), as well as woodcuts from the 15th century which again, don't really belong to the traditions I'm going to discuss below in any way other than happening to be from the same broad sweep of time, and a painting by 18th century artist William Hogarth, in which personally I can't see the dæmon spirit but then Pullman is clearly fond of pugs in a way I am not.
But despite these partial outliers, I am convinced that the key to the portrayal of dæmons is firmly in the traditions of animal symbolism that began within heraldry, tapestry and other art/crafts in the late medieval period and developed in the emergence of the Renaissance in the 15th century (classically the Renaissance period is considered to be the 15th and 16th centuries, but some advocate for us to consider a 'long Renaissance', which includes the 14th and 17th centuries).
Northern Lights is of course steeped in other ways in the history and aesthetic of this period and movement. The alethiometer is in-universe a creation of the 17th Century; Lyra grows up within Oxford University, a creature of the English Renaissance (though its history stretches back much farther); the biggest themes of the trilogy, established here, concern theology and humanism, preoccupations of the period; the major textual inspiration is Milton’s Paradise Lost. In the passage in chapter three that takes us up the Isis/Thames to London, we take in 'the house of the great magician Dr Dee". In our world, Dr Dee is a figure of the early 17th century (and as well being a magician, he was also a mathematician, astronomer and spy-master to Queen Elizabeth I. Talk about a 'hyphen career').
In the quote at the head of this section the character of Dr. Lanselius is explaining the use of symbols on the alethiometer. It’s an invented device but a real description of the concerns Renaissance art and craft.
Renaissance portraitists sometimes included animals in portraits to say something about the sitter. But it was not the sitter's individual inner nature they were concerned with. We must remember this was a period with very different priorities and ways of understanding people than by modern psychology, or the totemic understanding of spirit of some other cultural traditions. What concerned the rich, powerful and artistic of the 15th and 16th century was, well, wealth and power, spiritual resonance and (especially when it came to female sitters) virtue.
Animals, real and imaginary (and the boundaries between the two categories were still hazy), were symbolic of all sorts of things via direct and indirect means. The 'dictionary' to understanding what it all meant was an expensive education by which one could decipher meaning via an as-yet-inseparable mix of scientific understanding and theological, classical, mythological and folk associations.
So, for instance, pelicans were self-sacrificing and thus a bit Jesus-y because it was believed they would feed their young on their own blood; the phoenix died and was reborn from the ashes and symbolised resurrection and eternal life (also Jesus-y); the ermine had a dazzlingly white fur much coveted as a trim and was believed to be so fastidious it would sooner die than soil its coat and so stood for purity and nobility; the serpent was of course wise and cunning and Lucifer-y; dogs could be betraying curs associated with Judas or symbolise fidelity and marriage as in Van Eyck’s famous wedding portrait; rabbits were for docility and could symbolise Mary by way of Virginal birth, because it was commonly believed that rabbits were capable of this feat; monkeys started out as evil but came to be more symbolic of clever, folly-prone humanity often in a slightly satirical way etc etc.
Pullman even alludes to one of these symbolic understandings of animal imagery directly in Northern Lights: when discussing the meaning of the chameleon pictogram on the alethiometer, Farder Coram says, "it stands for air because they don't eat nor drink, they just live on air.". Clearly in Lyra's world the ideas of our 15th and 16th century still have currency.
Rich and aristocratic families would in the Middle Ages and beyond, of course, often have their own established family animal symbolism via their coats of arms, and this would often be referenced in portraiture. There were orders of honour to reference too; it is possible that Da Vinci included an ermine in his portrait above because the sitter’s father had recently been awarded the Order of The Ermine. Or then again it might have been a weak pun on her name which sounded a little like the Italian for ermine.
So animal symbolism, whether heavy-duty or jokey, was everywhere. But it wasn’t the kind of individualistic and totem-like. And neither is Pullman’s writing of dæmons.
Apart from anything else, as I have previously touched on, in a story it would be impossible to go via a system of individual applicability because most characters are not rich complex figures with imagined inner lives to reflect; they are brief notes or a few bars of counter-melody, contributing their flavour – to mix a metaphor – to a wider piece.
Pullman doesn’t issue the curious lady in the London cocktail party scene a macaw dæmon to reflect anything to specifically do with this brief character any more than he decides she should use a lorgnette based on a deep pondering on who this lady is at her core. But neither does he give her a dæmon which reflects her superficially. Her dæmon isn't a shallow reflection of a posh and nosy nature. In fact it has to do with the Flemish Renaissance.
But lets take a step back. Firstly, to note that all this drawing on medieval and Renaissance symbolism plays most heavily in the English-set opening part of the novel - which makes sense as that is when Lyra is in the territory of this symbolism; Europe.
What is more, each society she moves through within that English setting has its own sub-category or place in medieval/Renaissance art to draw from.
Jordan and the Medieval
In Northern Lights Oxford’s medieval streets and colleges are, logically, peopled particularly with the creatures of medieval tapestry and arms: ravens, leopards, ermines, snakes. When dog forms are mentioned by specific breed the reference is to ancient breeds of hunting hounds: red setter, deer-hound.
Even the partial exceptions help pin this principle down. Lord Asriel has a snow leopard. Since the creature was unknown to European science until the 1700s snow leopards have no place in medieval/Renaissance art. But leopards in general do and a prominent if complex one. I'll go into it a little here because it's something I am going to talk about in my final section. Quite what medieval Europeans meant when they said leopard, 'pard' or 'ounce' is often unclear, both when they were discussing the real animals seen in bestiaries, and especially so as pertained to artistic use. Sometimes in heraldry 'leopard' actually meant lion but portrayed in a particular stance. Sometimes it meant a spotted cat which actually resembled a leopard or cheetah.
(One interesting side-note is that the word 'ounce' was a medieval synonym for all such creatures. In the modern day it has become particularly attached to a species they didn't know about at all - these days 'ounce' is synonymous with 'snow leopard'.)
And all this alligns with the pattern neatly: Lord Asriel both belongs and doesn’t to the world of Jordan. The leopard symbol gives him prestige within the world of medieval imagery but the specific type coming from outside that world, belonging to a newer scientific knowledge, denotes that he is not contained by Jordan. He belongs to a more modern set of values, and a broader field than Western tradition, too.
What really definitively ties the world of Jordan to the world of medieval animal artistic symbolism are the few mentions of dæmons whose forms are not those of real animals at all.
When Lyra and Roger explore the crypts at Jordan and discover the plaques on the coffins with images of the passed dæmons on, these include – in the first edition - ‘a fair woman’ and ‘a basilisk’. In subsequent editions the ‘fair woman’ has been removed; by this point Pullman, having written his way into the idea and returned to edit, has decided that dæmons definitely have no place taking human form at any point in the narrative. But ‘basilisk’ remains.
And so does the reference a few pages later to Pantalaimon and Salcilia “changing shape to look like gargoyles, each trying to be uglier than the other.”
Most tellingly, in the same chapter, when squaring up to some Gyptian kids, “Pantalaimon, contemptuous of the limited imagination of these Gyptian dæmons, became a dragon the size of a deer-hound.”
That’s quite the semantic payload of medieval artistic imagery. A dragon – especially a small dragon – is in itself of course a very medieval image. A deer-hound is an ancient and defunct breed which is essential the Platonic ideal of the medieval hound, depicted across the art and craft of the time, from tapestry to brooch.
There’s a kind of smoking gun of imaginative thought here, because dæmons as mythological beasts is a note which rather disappears as the story goes on, but which also has not been edited out.
If proof of a medieval ordering of animal symbolism was needed ‘a dragon the size of a deer-hound” is it.
Equally telling is the visibility of an editing process at work, because it shows us what Pullman considered and kept in. As I mention, "a fair woman" is edited out from every edition after the first. He also gets rid of a minor inconsistency, where Ma Costa's dæmon is given two different forms at two different points. And Pullman might have equally chosen to edit out these few early mentions of mythical-creature dæmons. After all they disappear from the page as the story goes on. But he does not. He apparently wanted the images of these beasts remaining part of the writing of the writing of the dæmon idea, he wanted the space they carved out in the reader’s imagination and associations they planted.
And Pullman is a writer happy to prioritise implication above literalness. He once said in response to a tweet asking him about some logistical issue around dæmons, “don’t force a metaphor to do the work of a fact”.
(I think the screen adaptors haven't always followed that advice.)
Maybe by the time we get into the later chapter of this book dæmons can’t take the forms of mythical beasts any more. But they can at the start. That’s not a plot-hole, that’s stoytelling.
Mrs. Coulter’s London and the Flemish Renaissance
As the story moves away from the world of Jordan, so steeped in tradition and ancient establishment, and moves to the modern, glamorous world of fashionable, exciting London alongside Mrs. Coulter, the semantic field stays within the broad traditions of medieval/Renaissance art but leaves heraldry behind and moves into the world of the Flemish Renaissance.
The Dutch having the big trading/colonisation links with the East and America in the relevant centuries, their art was full of exotic animals that the Renaissance of Italy , Germany etc mostly lacked. The Flemish school was accomplished, educated, knowledgeable, fresh and modern compared to the formal Italian or German schools, inclusive of a capacity for light, airy humour.
And it had a lot of monkeys.
Though the period spent in Mrs. Coulter’s world is brief, the handful of dæmon-forms mentioned clue us in to the connection too. At Mrs. Coulter’s party we see a serpent dæmon, the aforementioned scarlet macaw and a butterfly. The snake and butterfly belong generally renaissance art, but the parrot is Flemish again, a frequent subject and symbol for Flemish painters like Van Eyck and Flegel. Parrots were popular to include in depictions of the Madonna and child, and to include in portraits of women to allude to their purity by association.
To be clear I’m by no means certain that Pullman was deliberately, specifically invoking the Flemish Renaissance but the deliberateness of the connection is not the point.
We can be certain, I think about the broader connections to the medieval and Renaissance art. And we also know that Pullman was somewhat preoccupied with Dutch culture and history in other ways in this book – the Dutch-flavoured culture of the Gyptians, New Denmark replacing the United States etc. And we know that Pullman knows his art.
Interestingly in the short and very art-themed story from the His Dark Materials universe, The Collectors, Marisa’s maiden name is given as Van Zee. The context of the story makes it unclear whether that’s the character’s real name or a pseudonym but the point is that when it comes to Marisa, Pullman’s imagination goes to the Flemish.
The Gyptians and the un-portrayed
So much for powerful and rich quarters of society. Between Jordan and fashionable London, we can see that the rich, powerful and classically educated appear throughout their lives in Lyra’s world as the rich and powerful have only ever appeared in portraits in our world: accompanied by an animal symbol which is made of the same stuff as them, embodying a shared level of human meaning.
In fact I would adopt that as a shorthand way of explaining to newcomers what dæmon are, instead of the inaccurate and reductive (and honestly slightly twee-sounding) "your soul in an animal form that reflects your inner nature" one, if it didn't sound a little bit pretentious: "a dæmon is a companion and signifier like the animals you see in Renaissance portraits".
But what about the kinds of people who don’t appear in portraits?
Servants and peasants and poor citizens have too been painted over the ages (going into the Baroque period some of them even got humanising focus, from painters like Vermeer and Rembrandt) but these are figures without family or power or personal supposed virtues of the kinds artists are interest in talking about. It is of no interest to Renaissance art whether the milkmaid is pure or self-sacrificing as it is with the queen.
But the low classes are still often surrounded by animals and their symbolism. Often such lowly human figures are treated as being part of the symbolism, more symbolic object than human subject. An urchin is as low and animal as a cunning rat. A cook’s drunken carelessness is illustrated by a cat stealing the milk. The ever-present closeness of corruption is symbolised by a common mouse running over a fine carpet or amid a sumptuous still-life of food.
Pullman doesn’t import the connotations of 17th century value judgements – corruption, poverty as immorality, humbleness etc – but he imports the aesthetic and associations.
For example, the forms taken by the dæmons of penurious, uneducated Tony Makarios are the sparrow and mouse of the kitchen or garden scene, her name, Ratter, recalls both rats and working cats.
Perhaps it's overstating the connection to say that Pullman uses the historical artistic associations to reinforce the sense of division between the world of Mrs. Coulter and the world of their victims, but it's certainly in sympathy with the story. We might not consciously recognise the respective sets of dæmon-forms of the two sets of people as springing from an artistic tradition but centuries of portraying one set of animals as denoting power, admiration and particularity, and one set of animals as denoting objectification, humbleness and mundane has soaked into the European consciousness. I think we understand straightaway that Ratter's forms as mouse and then a sparrow relate her to a very different place in the world than the golden monkey's form does him.
The Gyptians meanwhile might be disenfranchised but they are not humble or without nobility, education and tradition.
The tradition their dæmons seems to pull from is the boundary-crossing. The Costas have hawk-dæmons, most seen in Renaissance art in more literal form than the previously-mentioned symbolic creatures of portraiture. They are used to denote wealth and class but by way of their use in sport or work - in falconry.
John Faa and Farder Coram have dæmons whose form is not tied clearly to any particular class; a crow and a cat respectively. In Renaissance art, a cat might appear equally in a kitchen scene or a portrait of a scholar.
If things are more vaguely tied to Renaissance symbolism and depiction in the Gyptian-set part of the book, it's also because by the point they come to prominence the story is beginning to move away from the section of the story which was concerned – though subtly – with teaching us the framework by which to understand dæmons as a general concept and accept them as a natural part of the world we are inhabiting.
As events pick up pace and stakes, and the story moves into less populated settings, we leave the need for a connective aesthetic or framework largely behind the storytelling around dæmons focuses more in on the particular pair of Lyra and Pantalaimon. There is just one last secondary character whose introduction is significant to this topic.
That is Lee Scoresby, and his dæmon's form once again signposts how much more formative is the medieval/Renaissance semantic field than the urge to reflect individual character.
Lee Scoresby is from Texas, and has a hare. The only species of hare in Texas is called not a hare but a jackrabbit. But Hester is called a hare, is a hare, an Arctic one, as confirmed in Once Upon a Time in the North. Because hares belong in Renaissance art - while jackrabbits do not.
Lyra and Pantalaimon
Lyra and Pantalaimon, as the book's protagonist/s, move in their own way amid the sets of unspoken guides and symbols of the world of dæmons, like the answering needle of the alethiometer, darting about to direct our attention to this or that thought.
One of the jobs Pantalaimon's mentioned forms do is to show how Lyra relates to the evironments she moves through. So as a creature of Oxford and someone who regards it as "her world and her delight" (NL, ch. 3), Lyra is expressed via Pantalaimon in forms that subscribe closely to the school of medieval prestige described above. It is Pantalaimon who takes those most medieval of forms, of a series of gargoyles and "a dragon the size of a deer-hound". With regards to the latter, he does so explicitly as apart of a college-children versus Gyptian-children fight and with "contempt for the limited imagination of these Gyptian dæmons". Pantalaimon has a medieval imagination because he belongs to Jordan.
For myself I read that imagination as only a partially conscious choice. Later, considering the beautiful cat dæmon of Farder Coram, the narration notes "when Pantalaimon was a cat he was lean and ragged and harsh" (NL, ch. 9), hinting that there is something of the form dictated by something other than conscious choice. In the above line about the dragon-form there's the same sense, to my mind. If one dæmon becomes a dragon, mightn't all the other dæmons copy it at once to cancel the advantage? I may be skirting perilously close to "making a metaphor do the work of a fact" here, but I feel that has the sense of an in-universe version of what I have been talking about. Like so many things about human 'nature' perhaps dæmon-form has a lot to do with nurture. My sense is that a dæmon can mostly only emulate what it sees modelled and learns about, in much the same way that children can only really imagine themselves into career paths that they have contact with in their lives. This theory begins to account for details of Lyra's world the story comes into contact with like the servants all having dog-dæmons, or the Tartar guards all wolf-dæmons.
On that note, remember how Pantalaimon plays at emulating the form of Mrs. Coulter's dæmon on their first day in her care.
But while many of Pantalaimon’s forms are Jordan-y, especially while they are still living there, others inhabit their own singular relationship to the world of artistic symbolism, marking Lyra and Pantalaimon out as separate from the patterns that define the societies they move through. We see Pantalaimon as the aforementioned ermine, moth, dragon, mouse, bat, owl, firmly seated in the world or worlds of artistic symbolism we have discussed. But we also see Pantalaimon favouring forms like polecat, wildcat, petrel, which feel contiguous tonally but have no particular history of depiction.
I have now spent about 14,000 works looking at how Pullman did what he did with dæmons in Northern Lights, and I could go on for another 140,000 and still not have exhausted the angles. But I have established what I need to and it's time to look at what some other creative have done in order to take his work and bring it to new media. It's time to talk about the triumphs and failures of dæmons in adaptation.
Next time: dæmons at the National Theatre!