Family Separation in His Dark Materials

It’s not unusual for the protagonists of children’s or young adult literature to be orphaned, a runaway, or otherwise making her way without a parent’s aid or interest. But the case of Lyra in The Golden Compass/Northern Lights is extreme. Her parents are alive but neither want her, and she is told they are dead. She discovers who her mother, Mrs. Coutler is, after the woman acts with deceit and cruelty. Her father, Lord Asriel, dumps her at Jordan College, and although he does see her when he visits, being with her is not his goal. When she knows who they are, it is soon after they engage in an act of unbearable brutality against Lyra’s best friend, one she blames herself for.

In a parallel universe, Will Parry has become his mentally fragile mother’s caretaker and effectively the head of the household out of fear they will each separately end up institutionalized, a fear that is heightened when his world’s authorities begin to harass his mother about his father’s fate.

What sets the events of His Dark Materials in motion is random family separation focusing on the poor, powerless, and minority populations. It’s a means of destroying people who are considered less than human by the rich and powerful. In American history, this abuse is continuing but not new. Auctioning of different family members to different plantations was a way to destroy family units during the brutal centuries when the slave trade was on-going. “To sell someone down the river” meant exactly that: to remove a slave from his or her group by selling to a distant plantation. Family separation broke Native American communities when the children were sent to boarding schools, forbidden to speak their own language, and had their hair cut and traditional dress forbidden.

From the opening chapters of Golden Compass/Northern Lights, the horror of family separation drives the plot. It is overshadowed by the ultimate separation, that of child and dæmon, but intercission would not be possible without the State and Magisterium’s kidnapping of children, mostly from poorer or marginalized communities.

The trauma felt by the children is shared by their families and communities, and those involved are dehumanized by their participation. In 2020 in the US, it isn’t hidden from view; it’s on the nightly news, as the political party in power, with the backing of self-proclaimed Evangelical Christians, attempt to end immigration and asylum seeking from Central America by punishing the parents seeking better lives for their children, scattering them in institutions across the country, the locations, numbers, and safety records kept secret.

When I see images of toddlers alone in courtrooms, images of nursing babies taken from handcuffed mothers, lines of preschool and school aged kids in camps with locations unspecified, when I realize these kids don’t share a common language and have no communication with their parents and no reunification plan, one word comes to mind: Bolvangar, an unknown number of Bolvangars with untold numbers of children. Even if some are eventually placed with family, the trauma is permanent, not altogether unlike being separated from one’s dæmon. Stories hit the news now and then but as soon as they do, they sink from sight. The overriding feeling is hopelessness.

And there is no John Faa on the way with gyptian fighters. There is no Iorek Byrnison to lead the charge. 

17 thoughts on “Family Separation in His Dark Materials

  1. David Arkin

    Too true, & this gets revisited in The Secret Commonwealth in a major way with more parallels to our own world, esp. with regards to the war in Syria.

    After reading that book, I started to think about how being separated from one’s daemon could be a metaphor for what happens when we internalize all that darkness & turn ourselves off from the possibilities of what could be , & instead just glumly accept things as they are. Its way too easy to get de-sensitized by the news when its seemingly always bad all the time. Yet another reason to encourage people to vote…(& to be kind to our inner daemon.)

    Back to the story. I think Lyra has hands-down one of the most dysfunctional families ever depicted in fiction, & what always stood out for me on re-reading it is how much Lyra & her mother Mrs. Coulter mirror each other. I think this was very well presented on the HBO/BBC adaptation in that great scene at Bolvangar after Lyra gets saved from intercission, then escapes from Mrs. Coulter’s quarters & she & her mother are screaming at each other on either side of the locked door. Both of them can separate from their daemons after all (well Lyra eventually can), & as shown in SC, Lyra becoming unhappy with her relationship with Pan mirrors Mrs. Coulter’s equally unhappy relationship with her golden monkey daemon. & Mrs. Coulter was never a happy person. Ambitious, cruel, scheming yes. But happy? No. When we see more of her family in SC we can guess why.

    Her father Asriel meanwhile is just so distant with her, he cares about her to the extent that he has to keep her hidden from the Magisterium, but is always distracted by his work & his eventual war against the Authority. & of course Lyra goes thru the wringer as you mentioned. Always alone or always losing people she cares about, which could also be seen as a metaphor for the plight of the disenfranchised.

    But don’t Asriel & Marissa ultimately redeem themselves when they engage in self-sacrifice fighting the Authority to save Lyra? Its the one unselfish thing they do together for her sake.
    & on that note, I think it will take some kind of sacrifice to overcome all the darkness we see around us now, but hopefully not quite as final. Maybe just a sacrifice of complacency. We can still vote, we can still write our representatives & senators in Congress, we can still protest. I don’t think our daemons would have it any other way.


  2. Laurie Frost

    I think that Lyra’s denial of Pan’s essential connection to her following her being seduced by the ultra-rationalist literature in SC brings to a head the fact that they haven’t resolved the bitterness and Pan’s deep hurt and Lyra’s guilt at having to leave him behind in the World of the Dead.

    She shares her mother’s determination, but Lyra has compassion, something lacking in Mrs. Coulter.

    I have mixed feelings about Asriel’s and Coulter’s ending. I think they never lost their passion for each other. However, whether they acted out of self-sacrifice, I’m skeptical.. They knew they were done for, and it is in character for them to decide to go down fighting. Lyra’s welfare might then be incidental.

    Point about Syrian children is well-spoken. I think that the effects of the trauma we knowingly inflict on children especially at home and abroad is horrendous, and I can’t help but wonder if the situation we are in now is the result of cumulative generations of denying damage to others’ souls.


    1. David Arkin

      Right. Lyra & Pan do argue quite a lot in SC & one of the things I wondered about in relation to that was that always in the background, in addition to the unresolved betrayal Pan felt (which was part of the witches’ prophecy of course) was the inevitable comparison to Mrs. Coulter’s ability to separate from her daemon, something I would think would be bothering Lyra quite a lot but maybe she’s not ready to go there… & of course Lyra never got any closure with her parents either, not that she had known them for long as being her parents in the first place.

      I wondered if the ultra-rationalist literature Lyra was obsessed with was a comparison to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism? I know the far right is obsessed with her books; once a relative gave me a copy of Atlas Shrugged to read & I couldn’t make it even halfway thru, just awful stuff. It was Pan’s comments about the selfishness in The Hyperchorasmians that reminded me of that, so I’m guessing that was what Philip Pullman was getting at. Not to mention the effect such things have on people’s thinking, including politicians of course.

      I totally agree about Lyra’s compassion, she’s at her best in SC when she puts other’s needs before her own (& its returned to her in kind).

      Wasn’t it stated that it was Metatron’s intention to kill Lyra? Asriel knew he was after Lyra & Will’s daemons, but it seemed like everything just came to a head at once & there was no other option at that point but self-sacrifice for Asriel & Marissa.

      Absolutely agree with your last comment. Our foreign policy has helped create nightmares like the current situation in Afghanistan, where there hasn’t been peace in over 40 years & several generations have grown up knowing nothing but war & suffering. Or the plight of child soldiers in many countries in Africa & elsewhere, which the world turns a blind eye to.


  3. Laurie Frost

    Ayn Rand is a good observation. And I need to check on the end of Amber Spyglass.

    I think Pan and Lyra both were fascinated by witches’ abilities to separate. But witches have other powers and traits like longevity that give them a perspective common humans lack. Perhaps it is a good thing we can’t be apart from our daemons: we tend to be fickle and not appreciate what we have until in danger of losing it.


    1. David Arkin

      Thanks. It just felt like that was what was being implied, that emphasis on selfishness vs empathy.

      Right, plus that great chapter in SC where Lyra discovers that Malcolm Polstead can also separate from his daemon. (Makes total sense that if one can do that, then working for an organization like Oakley Street would turn that into a real asset.) Also interesting to note that while things between Lyra & Malcolm are a bit strained, their daemons, Pan & Asta, get along very well.

      It would seem that the separating is becoming more common in Lyra’s world for various reasons: the “new & improved” intercission process; the poor in developing countries selling their daemons or those of their children out of desperation, & then adults just not getting along with their daemons. Lyra’s world is not a happy place! What with authors popular among the young denying the daemons’ very existence on top of everything else. No more General Oblation Board needed, people are virtually lobotomizing themselves & the Magisterium becomes even more powerful as everyone starts closing off their own perceptions.

      Totally agree with your last comment. I think the emphasis on the deck of storytelling cards that the alchemist tells Lyra about & which she inherits from a fellow passenger on the train kind of drove that home, tying into her losing her imagination.


    1. David Arkin

      Yeah, I wondered about that too, esp. since in order to use it, one has to place drops of it in one’s eyes in order to see the true nature of Dust…

      Also, & this is just pure guessing on my part based on a little digging that I did, that there’s a connection between Roses & the ability to read the alethiometer. We know that the alethiometer was invented by a Pavel Khunrath in Prague in the 17th century. & on the TV show’s opening sequence, there’s a brief closeup of the alethiometer hands where the name Khunrath is shown engraved on one & the year it was made (in Roman numerals) on the other. (One of the little details I love about the show!)

      In our world, there was a Heinrich Khunrath who was from Dresden, who also lived in the 17th century, & was a doctor & practicing alchemist who is considered to be a link between the alleged magical practices of Dr. John Dee & Rosicrucianism:

      The reason I bring him up is that in addition to his writings, he created a series of alchemical illustrations, & woodcuts, the most famous of which is called “The Cosmic Rose”. There was a whole series of them, & at least one bears more than a passing resemblance to the alethiometer.

      Also, turns out there was a kind of circular-shaped symbol reader in use in medieval Arab countries very similar to the aletheiometer, called a zairja. It was used to generate ideas & truths:

      & from the same part of the world that the special roses are from…


      1. David Arkin

        Thanks! I really like the way Philip Pullman brings in all these real world influences & plays around with them in his books.

        Speaking of books, don’t suppose you’re planning to do another definitive guide for the Book of Dust trilogy? Obviously we have one more book to wait for (so impatient!) but still…just wondering.


  4. Laurie Frost

    No. No plans. I would certainly learn a lot of geography from SC. The main thing is getting a publisher to commit. It is sort of an orphan project. That is, it isn’t a young adult book, and truly hard to sell. There are some serious readers who recognize its value. But there aren’t that many. I would if I did have an offer try to keep it briefer, but not being thorough isn’t in my approach. La Belle would be fairly easy but not SC. As it is, Lyra’s Oxford and once upon a Time on the North need doing.


    1. David Arkin

      Hmmmm….Maybe after the 3rd book in the trilogy is published & the TV series covers TSK interest will pick up some more? I saw somewhere that HBO/BBC & Bad Wolf were seriously thinking about adapting the rest of the books, assuming ratings stay good, so…there could be a demand for it in the future. There’s a good chance Once Upon a Time in the North will be done as a Xmas special regardless.


      1. Laurie Frost

        It’s a pity all the windows have been closed and we won’t see more of Will. But Once upon a Time would make a good action feature.


    1. Laurie Frost

      It’s a pity all the windows have been closed and we won’t see more of Will. But Once upon a Time would make a good action feature. Good news in that link.


  5. Dave Arkin

    Dear Ms. Fost:

    I don’t know if you ever check back at this blog or if you’ll read this, but I wanted you to know that I sincerely hope you & yours are safe healthy in this crazy era we now live in. Doing OK myself, for now at least. Stay safe! May the Dust Be With You!


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