The Soul in Popular Fiction: His Dark Materials Part 1

I’m back with the next big piece of my senior thesis (click “Thesis” on the sidebar for previous entries). What follows is the first half of my discussion of the His Dark Materials series, which focuses on the way the idea of the soul is conceptualized, with another entry on the implications of that portrayal soon to come. Let me know what you think.

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The Conceptualization and Ethical Implications of the Soul in Popular Fiction: His Dark Materials, Part 1

The His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman contains within it a very intriguing and unique portrayal of the human soul, but that uniqueness carries with it a heavy dose of confusion. Although the souls in His Dark Materials are very well defined, it is nevertheless unclear what exactly their function is, or even if the label “soul” really applies to them. Similarities between Pullman’s souls and the souls of several ancient religions can provide insight into His Dark Materials, especially the religion of ancient Israel. It is this connection with Judaic doctrines that underscores Pullman’s criticism of the pseudo-Christian society in which his stories take place.

Human souls in His Dark Materials are called “daemons” and are portrayed as external, corporeal animals, capable of speech and connected to their human by an invisible bond. All humans have daemons, although the daemons may not always be visible, depending on what world the human is from. It is possible to grow be able to see one’s daemon, either by forcing it out of the body, as Will does; by learning how to look for them, as Dr. Malone does; or by entering a world where daemons are normally visible, as John Parry does.[1] The daemons of children have the ability to shift from animal to animal depending on the child’s mood or on what animal abilities the daemon wants to have, but when the children reach puberty, their daemon will “settle” into a fixed animal form. The fixed form of a daemon is reflective of its human’s character or personality. For example, the daemons of servants are usually dogs: loyal and eager to please.[2] It is important to note that the form of the daemon is portrayed consistently as being reflective of the human’s character, as opposed to creating it.

The connection between daemon and human goes beyond its form and characteristics, however. Daemons can only go a certain distance away from their humans without both human and daemon suffering extreme discomfort.[3] Humans also share a physical and mental connection with their daemon: if one hurts a daemon physically, the human will also hurt. Although daemons and humans usually communicate through speech, they can also communicate telepathically. For example, at one point, the mood of the protagonist Lyra is substantially altered due to a very specific word of advice “thought” to her by her daemon Pantalaimon. The fact that Lyra and Pantalaimon were thinking and feeling separate things at that moment indicates that humans and daemons are independent emotionally and mentally, and yet Pantalaimon’s mental message shows that there is an open line of communication between the two.[4] It is more common, however, for the two to be feeling and thinking similar things, if only because they are good friends. The most crucial connection, however, is that of life: if either a daemon or a human dies, their counterpart will die also, with the daemon disintegrating, and the human being led by their death[5] into the afterlife.

Although the detailed conceptualization of the soul in His Dark Materials is fascinating and unique, it is nevertheless difficult to see what exactly the purpose of a daemon is. After all, a daemon can have an entirely different personality, conscience, and opinion than its human, and arguments between a human and their daemon are not at all uncommon. In what sense is a daemon a part of its human? Although a human and her daemon are undeniably connected, they resemble best friends more than a single being with two parts.

Lyra herself brings up the role of her daemon (as opposed to the rest of her) when she comments, “I can think about my body and I can think about my daemon– so there must be another part, to do the thinking,” and speculates that this third part is what goes to the land of the dead.[6] Her intuition is confirmed later, when Mrs. Coulter expresses every part of her being in terms of “body and ghost and daemon together.”[7] This trinity is very curious, seeing as the soul is conventionally thought of as either the “I”: the most central part of a human capable of self-awareness, or as the part of the human that survives death. In His Dark Materials both of these conventional conceptions are collapsed into the human’s ghost, which is distinct from the daemon.

One way of explaining the tension between daemons and what one would expect from a soul is to say that the humans in His Dark Materials have more than one soul, each performing a different function. The concept of multiple souls has roots in many ancient religions, notably including Egyptian beliefs, which Pullman may have had in mind when he named his class of river people “Gyptians.” The Egyptian concept that most closely parallels Pullman’s “ghost” is the ba, a “concrete entity, invisible during life,” which “dwelt in the body during life, but departed from it at death,” at which time it goes to another world not unlike our own.[8] Significantly, the ba was often portrayed in animal form. However, Egyptians also had the concept of the ka, which was “a man’s double…a corporeal comrade…He accompanied a man through life, as a sort of guardian genius.”[9] Although the ka did not posses an animal form, the similarities between the ka and daemons are striking. Based on the Egyptian model, it is possible that Pullman is employing the use of two different kinds of souls: one which guides and accompanies the body though life (the daemon), and one which indwells the body and upon death continues on to the land of the dead (the ghost). If this is the case, then the emphasis on the daemon as the soul rather than the ghost suggests that the current life is valued in the story more than the afterlife.

Not only is the daemon not the part that survives death, it may be the only part that does not survive: the body’s physical death is not a necessary requirement for entering the land of the dead with the mind (or the ghost), but daemons are not allowed in.[10] Upon death, the daemon does not go on to any afterlife, but its atoms scatter, becoming “part of everything.”[11] The very physical description of what happens to a daemon’s atoms signifies that the role of the daemon may be more material than spiritual. Such an interpretation is reinforced by the fact that daemons are repeatedly linked to a human’s sexual nature. For example, commentator Maude Hines notes that Lyra’s descriptions of what it feels like to have another person touch her daemon are quite similar to descriptions of rape, and the time at which a daemon’s shape settles is directly linked to arrival at sexual maturity.[12] The daemons themselves never display carnal or material tendencies any more than their humans do, but the daemons appear to be necessary in order for such tendencies to exist; they are quite literally a human’s animal nature. [13]

Viewing the daemons in terms of physical desires connects them to another ancient conception of the soul: from ancient Israel. The Hebrew word for soul, nephesh, is translated in many different ways, but one understanding of it is as “the center of longings and the source of desires,” or even as “the stomach.”[1] According to this view, the soul is merely the life of the body, not at all opposed to the flesh, and with no existence after death.[2] Although rare, there are also references in Hebrew literature to the soul existing outside of the body.[3] Pullman’s conception does have more of a sense of individuality than does the Hebrew vision of the soul- Pantalaimon most definitely belongs to Lyra and Lyra alone, which is not necessarily the case with the Israelite soul. Nevertheless, both conceptions stress the role of the bodily desires in making a person who they are.

Daemons are further and more directly linked to Hebrew literature in The Golden Compass when Lord Asriel[4] tells Lyra the story of the Fall, taken almost verbatim from the book of Genesis chapter 3 but for the inclusion of daemons.[5] In this version of the Fall, Adam and Eve’s shame at their nakedness is coupled with them realizing the true shape of their daemons. As Asriel puts it, “that is how sin came into the world… sin and shame and death. It came the moment their daemons become fixed.”[6] This connection between daemons and sin ties in nicely with the previous assertion that daemons represent bodily desires, but it adds the caveat that only a settled daemon represents those desires having been fulfilled; an unsettled daemon is more representative of a lack of experience than a lack of age. Thus, the settling of a daemon functions as a kind of coming of age or a signifier that the child now has a deeper understanding of the world, as underscored by the fact that Eve’s sin involved gaining knowledge of good and evil. The fact that daemons cannot change shape after they have settled, and that the settled form is representative of character, indicates that the fulfillment of physical desires is a defining moment for a person’s character: it shapes who they and everyone else understand themselves to be and there is no turning back.


[1] Daniel Lys, “The Israelite Soul According to the LXX” Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 16, Fasc. 2 (Apr.

1966), 204, 220.

[2] Lys, 182, 183, 199.

[3] Lys, 183.

[4] The name Asriel is also linked to the Hebrew idea of the soul: Azrael is the name of the angel in the Hebrew rabbinical tradition who separates the soul from the body at death. (Shelley King, “’Without Lyra we would understand neither the New nor the Old Testament’: Exegesis, Allegory, and Reading The Golden Compass” in His Dark Materials Illuminated, ed. Millicent Lenz with Carole Scott (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005), 111.)

[5] Pullman, Golden Compass, 371-372.

[6] Pullman, Golden Compass, 372.


[1] Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass, (New York: Knoph, Borzoi Books, 2000), 506, 282, 417; Philip

Pullman, The Subtle Knife, (New York: Ballantine Del Rey, 1997), 189.

[2] Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass (New York: Knoph, Borzoi Books, 1995), 5.

[3] There are ways around this, which will be discussed later.

[4] Pullman, Golden Compass, 281.

[5] Each human has a personified death which follows them around until they are ready to die, although the human may not be aware of their presence (Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 260).

[6] Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 166.

[7] Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 398.

[8] Encyclopaedia of religion and ethics. (New York: Scribner’s, 1955), s.v. “Soul (Semitic and Egyptian)”.

[9] Encyclopaedia of religion and ethics. s.v. “Soul (Semitic and Egyptian)”.

[10] Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 282.

[11]Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 319.

[12] Maude Hines, “Second Nature: Daemons and Ideology in The Golden Compass” in His Dark Materials

Illuminated, ed. Millicent Lenz with Carole Scott (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005), 42; Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 498.

[13] Before continuing, I would like to distinguish the various threads of religion that Pullman is utilizing, for they can easily bleed into one another, causing confusion. Lyra’s world is ruled over by an organization called the Magesterium which is clearly modeled on the Catholic Church: the priestly orders and structure of authority as well as scriptural and historical references make this clear. However, the Magisterium has a great deal more authority and influence than the present day Church, including authority over scientific research, called “experimental theology.” Additionally, the Magisterium centers around worship of the Authority who, from what we can tell from the books (which is not much) seems to have the same commandments as the God of Christianity, but actually has a very different history and different capabilities. Thus, although the Magisterium and the Authority may or may not be acting as a critique on the Church and on God, it is important to realize that they are distinct; criticisms from the books on the Magisterium may be extended to criticize the Church, but those criticisms must be modified to accommodate the differences between the two first. Additionally, Pullman is utilizing a very Jewish ethic, as will be explored below. Because Christianity and Judaism share a common scripture, Pullman’s references to those scriptures may have conflated meanings; he may reference a Christian theological term in order to make a Jewish point.

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~ by ntertanedangel on November 16, 2010.

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