The Soul in Popular Fiction: His Dark Materials Part 2

Only 2 more sections to go! Here’s the section part of my Thesis discussion on His Hark Materials (part 1 and all previous Thesis entries can be found by clicking “Thesis” on the sidebar). This part looks at the ethical implications of the soul portrayal in the His Dark Materials books. Let me know what you think.


The Conceptualization and Ethical Implications of the Soul in Popular Fiction: His Dark Materials Part 2

Based solely on the above interpretations, one might be tempted to view daemons as a negative thing: linked to materiality, sin, and an animal nature. However, Pullman consistently portrays daemons as a positive, even glorious aspect of humanity. This is nowhere more apparent than in his treatment of those humans who have no daemons. In The Golden Compass, an organization called the Gobblers takes children and puts them in a device which severs the bond between the child and their daemon without killing either. Lyra later encounters one such child separated from his daemon, and reacts by thinking that “A human being with no daemon was like someone without a face… something unnatural and uncanny that belonged to the world of night- ghasts, not the waking world of sense.”[1] There are also reports of daemonless men, called “zombis,” who “have no fear and no imagination and no free will and they’ll fight till they’re torn apart.”[2] To be free of a daemon is to be free of desires, and thus of the will to see those desires carried out and the pleasure of seeing those desires fulfilled. To try to separate oneself from one’s animal nature is portrayed as not only dangerous, but “unnatural” and disgusting. The necessity and value of material instincts, as symbolized by the daemon, is a further echo of Judaic doctrines in which the body is greatly valued:

Sin is caused by the evil inclination (yezer ha-ra), the force in man which drives him to gratify his instincts and ambitions. Although called the ‘evil inclination’ because it can easily lead man to wrongdoing, it is essential to life in that it provides life with its driving power.[3]

Despite the fact that, according to Lord Asriel, daemon settling is a result of sin, daemons are still a valued and necessary aspect of humanity because without them humans would cease to be vibrant, active creatures and would be zombies instead: they may as well be dead.

Daemon corporeality, animal form, and their link to carnal desires all indicate that they are intensely material beings. Yet they do have a mystical quality to them via their changeability and mysterious link to their human. Perhaps by portraying such a traditionally spiritual concept like the soul in very solid terms, Pullman is saying “that such ‘spiritual’ qualities are manifested only through material, incarnate existence,” or even perhaps that the material existence trumps the spiritual one.[4]

The sheer amount of emphasis placed upon daemons in His Dark Materials speaks to the story’s ethics. Of course, much of the story revolves around interactions between Lyra and Panatalaimon, but Pullman often goes to great lengths to emphasize the daemons of minor characters, or to reinforce the notion that all humans have daemons, even if they are not visible. For example, in the first chapter, nearly every time a character is mentioned, even if they are never mentioned again, Pullman also tells of the form and activities of their daemon. In the final chapter, Mary Malone has a lengthy discussion about her own invisible daemon, even though said daemon never contributes anything to the plot.[5] If I am correct in my hypothesis that the daemon represents the desires of the flesh, the focus on daemons reinforces the importance of having such desires; that they are part of what makes us human, and that even if they are not apparent to all, they are still a vital part of who we are.

The emphasis on daemons as a part of one’s nature is not merely a statement that desires are good, but also that failing to adhere to one’s animal nature is wrong. For example, according to Iorek Byrnison, bears have no daemons, but instead their soul is in their armor.[6] It is unclear what exactly he means by this, as bears’ armor does not function in the same way as daemons do, and the bears are able to live without their armor, but it is clear that bears have no need for daemons in the same way that humans do. However, the usurper king of the ice bears, Iofur Raknison, wants a daemon. When Iorek challenges Iofur to mortal combat, his accusation is not about usurping the throne but about being un-bear-like: “Iron is bear metal. Gold is not. Iofur Raknison has polluted Svalbard. I have come to cleanse it.”[7] Iofur’s unnatural behavior proves to be his undoing: “You could not trick a bear, but, as Lyra had shown him, Iofur did not want to be a bear, he wanted to be a man; and Iorek was tricking him.”[8] Iofur and the rest of the bears, with the exception of Iorek, had played a minimal role in the story prior to this moment, and Iorek’s victory is incidental to the plot, so this moment means very little on a personal or plot level. It would appear that the momentousness lies primarily in the symbolism of a return to natural or normal living, without the artificial “ideal” getting in the way. This symbolism could be interpreted a number of different ways. One possibility is a criticism of the body images portrayed in the media (a glorification of what is artificial), but the theme is repeated in the idea of the Oblation Board, and that storyline has a much clearer message.

The General Oblation Board, or the Gobblers, is an organization being led by Ms. Coulter with the approval of the Magisterium which takes children to a secret compound where they are put in a machine which severs the link between child and daemon. This is an attempt to stop the child from developing evil tendencies before their daemon settles: “Dust is something bad, something wrong, something evil and wicked. Grownups and their daemons are infected with Dust so deeply that it’s too late for them. They can’t be helped. But a quick operation on children means they’re safe from it.”[9] This attempt to remove sexual desires is an attempt to escape from the results of original sin, which introduced carnal desires into the world. Thus, the Gobblers have a typically Catholic stance in that they view original sin, and the effects that such sin has on the flesh, as a bad thing. The process horrifies Lyra specifically because it is a human intercession: as previously noted, when she first meets a child who has been severed from his daemon, she recoils from the unnaturalness of it.[10] When she voices her objection to Mrs. Coulter, her appeal is to biological nature, saying that if adults normally mature and have Dust (which is later defined as “original sin.”[11]) settle upon their matured bodies, then it cannot be a bad thing.[12] Lyra does not know at this point what Dust is or how it works, but for her, anything which normally happens and is generally accepted cannot be evil.

The fact that Gobblers are run by the Church or the Magisterium and the fact that their aim is to stop children from expressing original sin acts as a direct criticism of organized religion, and Lyra’s objection vocalizes it: the Magisterium’s attempts to keep people, and especially children, from physical desire goes against nature— against what is both biological and common to all creatures — and is therefore wrong. Lord Asriel connects the practice to castration, suggesting that removing a daemon in the hopes of removing sin is both a physical and a sexual violation.[13] This objection is that what the Church has defined as sin is a part of who we are, and that by attempting to remove people from their natural desires, organized religion does more harm than good.

By vilifying the Church’s attempts to remove the effects of original sin, Pullman underscores Lyra’s role as the new Eve, as she is prophesied to be.[14] She is portrayed as a sort of counter-Christ (not to be confused with anti-Christ): an alternate answer to sin, or to Dust, as the case may be, and is said to have made a decision which will affect the world in a manner similar to Eve’s decision. There are two decisions that Lyra makes which might qualify as an echo of Eve’s pivotal choice: her idea to cut a hole through the land of the dead to allow the ghosts to leave and then disintegrate, and her declaration of love to the character Will. The first act undermines the Authority, the story’s stand-in for God, and introduces death in the form of non-existence. Both versions of Eve allowed death to enter the world, but with different outcomes. The second act involves a “serpent” figure in the form of Mary Malone, undermines the Magisterium’s restrictions, and somehow causes Dust, or the effects of original sin, to stay in the world.[15]

Both acts relate to daemons. By allowing the ghosts to enter the land of the living and subsequently disintegrate, Lyra is opening up the possibility for people to end their existence in the same manner that their daemons do.[16] By causing Dust to remain in each world, Lyra preserves the possibility of Dust (which represents carnal desires) settling on a person, allowing their daemon to choose a permanent shape. In both instances, the connection and identification between a person and her daemon is strengthened, or at least prevented from weakening. By linking Eve’s act of altering humanity’s relationship with God to Lyra’s acts that strengthened the connection between persons and their animal nature, Pullman appears to be simultaneously rejecting the importance of a human’s relationship with God and further valuing the animal nature.[17] However, one should be careful in applying this conclusion beyond the story because Pullman’s version of God, the Authority― despite the similarity of religious structures surrounding him― is not the same as the Christian God. The Authority is a usurper, not omnipotent and not eternal, and thus while Pullman may be using the Authority to comment on the God of Christianity, the rejection within the story of the importance of a relationship with a deity applies only to the Authority.

Pullman’s reinterpretation of the Fall may also be reflected in his portrayal of grace, which is linked to daemons. Once Pantalaimon settles, Lyra loses her unique ability to easily read the truth-telling device, the alethiometer, which others have to study in order to read. No specific explanation is given beyond that Lyra is growing up, and growing up causes her to view the world differently, but the angel Xaphania gives this insight: “You read it by grace…and you can regain it by work… But your reading will be even better then, after a lifetime of thought and effort, because it will come from a conscious understanding. Grace attained like that is deeper and fuller than grace that comes freely, and furthermore, once you’ve gained it, it will never leave you.”[18] To what extent Pullman is drawing on the theological definitions of grace is unclear, but because the theological connection between sin and grace is so close, the possibility should be considered. According to Lutheran and Calvinist views, all grace is freely given, and if a reward is given for hard work, it does not qualify as grace. However, Xaphania’s explanation makes it seem that, if by working one achieves the same effects previously gained through grace, then those rewards also qualify as grace. This usage of grace is very curious. It may be that Pullman is conflating theological terms with the more vernacular use of “grace” to describe something with fluid and beautiful movement: grace becomes something added and undeserved but humanly achievable. At any rate, under Pullman’s definition, since grace can be attained, and since attained grace is apparently better than given grace, there is no need for an outside redeemer: no need for Christ. This fits with the portrayal of Dust as something positive and life-giving, as opposed to something we need to be saved from. In Pullman’s world, human effort and accomplishments creates their own grace: their own redemption, and in doing so, they are better off because they do so with their own knowledge.

It should be noted that Pullman’s glorification and focus on the animal nature is not without its qualifications. There are many characters who indulge in their desires who are portrayed as evil or corrupt, perhaps most notably Mrs. Coulter. Mrs. Coulter is very much accustomed to getting what she wants, and is also very much aware of the power that her sexuality has over others: she has turned her own animal nature into a way of life and an art. And although her character does receive redemption (of sorts), that redemption comes in spite of, not because of her focus on desire. At one point she confesses, in the very act of using her desires to manipulate the desires of others, that there is nothing good inside of her.[19] However, the animal nature itself is never condemned by Pullman, but rather it is the way in which Mrs. Coulter’s desires are used that makes her contemptible. She never pursues her desires openly and for their own sake, but rather manipulates others in her pursuit of her desires and uses others desires against them. What is contemptible in Mrs. Coulter is not her unbridled pursuit of what she wants, but rather her dishonesty in doing so. Thus, the fact that Mrs. Coulter has an animal nature or a daemon is a good thing. However, her daemon happens to have a particularly malicious character; this goodness can be misused.

Thus far, the role that daemons play in shaping the ethics of His Dark Materials has centered on creating a value system: daemons are important and they represent desires, thus desires are important. Yet, there have been few situations calling for a moral response to which the daemons provide an answer. However, there is one scene which is presented as a major ethical dilemma regarding Lyra and her daemon. When Lyra gets on the boat which will take her to the land of the dead, she is told that she must leave Pantalaimon behind.[20] This dilemma is very distressing to both Lyra and Pantalaimon, but she is determined to continue, and ultimately she does leave him on the shore, feeling “raw anguish.”[21] Her decision is so momentous that it was apparently prophesied. Yet, despite causing Lyra immense sadness and making Pantalaimon resentful, it is not clear what exactly the significance of this moment is.[22] According to the boatman, it is of no consequence that Lyra is still alive, and according to the witches she was also not the first to leave her daemon in another world.[23] The most significant upshot of Lyra’s time in the land of the dead is for her to convince Will to cut a way out of it, thus freeing the dead. Yet that decision came almost as a whim; the more difficult (and prophesied!) decision has little ultimate significance, whereas the decision that changed the very way that people die came as just a good spontaneous idea.[24] Her decision to leave Pan behind is further confused by the fact that Lyra’s motivations for going to the land of the dead in the first place are very weak: she wanted to apologize to her friend Roger and had promised him in a dream that she would.[25] For a character practically defined by her dishonesty to be so bound by a promise in a dream that she leaves behind her soul– most likely never to see him again– is an extreme and uncharacteristic act, and yet one that Lyra feels she must do. What, other than plot reasons or the need to complete the Hero’s Journey, causes Lyra to make this decision, especially as it is the only major dilemma that she faces in the series? I am honestly perplexed by this, and until I come across a good explanation I will consider it a weakness in the series. However, the very fact that Lyra’s first significant moral decision is a personal matter between her and her daemon simply further underscores the value system of the series which places extreme emphasis on one’s animal or physical nature.

His Dark Materials does not use daemons to present a systematic ethical system, but the role of daemons does help define what is valuable in this particular fictional universe: having human desires expressed honestly and justly. If these desires are pursued in the correct manner, then according to Pullman’s story, there is no need for an external savior or an afterlife. This assertion challenges certain Christian notions of sexuality and agrees instead with the Jewish view of the sexual nature as something good—even holy—and not unclean.[26] It is perhaps ironic that Pullman promotes such a secular, earth-bound philosophy using the concept of the traditionally spiritual soul, but in doing so, he appears to be suggesting that there is something special and wondrous about the terra firma.

[1] Pullman, Golden Compass, 214.

[2] Pullman, Subtle Knife, 176.

[3] Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed., s.v. “Sin”.

[4] King, “Exegesis, Allegory, and Reading The Golden Compass”, 116.

[5] Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 505-506.

[6] Pullman, Golden Compass, 196.

[7] Pullman, Golden Compass, 349.

[8] Pullman, Golden Compass, 353.

[9] Pullman, Golden Compass, 282-3.

[10] Pullman, Golden Compass, 214.

[11] Pullman, Golden Compass, 375. Pullman’s use of Dust as original sin is problematic if the sin is original at birth. It may make more sense to think of the sin as being original at puberty instead.

[12] Pullman, Golden Compass, 283.

[13] Pullman, Golden Compass, 374.

[14] Pullman, The Subtle Knife, 278.

[15] How exactly Lyra’s love for Will accomplishes all of this is incredibly vague in the text. Suffice it to say that Pullman draws a direct line between Lyra and Will’s declaration of love, as inspired by Mary Malone, to the shift in Dust’s flow.

[16] One potential objection to Lyra’s act of allowing the possibility of a complete erasure of existence after death is that doing so is not natural in the way that the story seems to prize. The function of ghosts is, at least partially, to exist after death. By changing the naturally occurring order of existence, Lyra could be accused of committing crimes just as heinous as the Gobblers, although, of course, Lyra is not forcing any ghost to leave the land of the dead whereas the Gobblers severed daemons by force.

[17] It should be noted that in his portrayal of the Fall as a redemptive and not a condemning act, as well as in the positive portrayal of his Eve-figure, Pullman allies himself with many feminist theologians (see Pat Pinsent, “Unexpected Allies? Pullman and the Feminist Theologians” in His Dark Materials Illuminated, ed. Millicent Lenz with Carole Scott (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005), 199-211.). In this light, it may be argued that Pullman is not attempting to undermine humanity’s relationship with God as much as to reframe it from a feminine perspective. This is a valid interpretation as regards the Fall and Lyra, but based on other portrayals of the Authority, I am hesitant to embrace it.

[18] Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 491.

[19] Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 398.

[20] Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 281.

[21] Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 286.

[22] Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 285.

[23] Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 287, 472.

[24] Of course, travelling to the land of the dead also has important symbolic significance: it is a major step in the Hero’s Journey, involves Lyra literally dying to her desires, and makes her something of a Christ figure since she comes back. However, none of this symbolism explains the extreme focus placed on Lyra’s decision to leave Pantalaimon behind.

[25] Pullman, Amber Spyglass, 165-166.

[26] Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai, (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1990), 190.


~ by ntertanedangel on December 3, 2010.

2 Responses to “The Soul in Popular Fiction: His Dark Materials Part 2”

  1. Hiya,

    I came across your blog while researching for my Ph.D. I also have a short section on His Dark Materials and Harry Potter (I’m looking at depictions of adoelscence), and was wondering have you published anything yet that I could take a look at? I’d be interested in reading more!



    • Hi Charlene, Thanks for your interest. No, I don’t have anything published yet. I would recommend looking at the books listed in my footnotes, although I don’t recall any material examining portrayals of adolescence. I hope that helps. Good luck!

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