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. 

Lyra and Her Dæmon

Lady with an Ermine Leonardo da Vinci

The first words of His Dark Materials are “Lyra and her dæmon,” and we know immediately that we are in a different world. Pullman said “Dæmons came into my head suddenly and unexpectedly, but they do have a sort  of provenance. One clear origin is Socrates’ daimon. Another is the idea of a guardian angel.” 

The notion of the human-dæmon bond, he adds, was strengthened by Da Vinci’s painting, Lady with Ermine.

mons in Lyra’s world are readily perceived. They take the form of animals, and children’s dæmons change until they reach adulthood. Then the dæmons settle. Narratively, they serve the purpose of allowing us to hear the internal debates a character has with herself. Dæmons may encourage their person to do something  — or not — but finally the dæmons and their people act as partners. One cannot live without the other.

In several passages, dæmons are equated to the soul. Breaking the bond between human and dæmon results in the release of tremendous energy. Even very brief physical separation is usually devastating (there are exceptions) to both human and dæmon.

Some in Lyra’s world believe that dæmons are “infected with Dust” (NL/GC 285). Its Book of Genesis says that Adam and Eve’s dæmons were unsettled in Eden, and one of the things Satan promised Eve was that she would learn its true — or settled — form. Knowing this brought “sin and shame and death” into the world (NL/GC 372).

Their physical status is odd. They have the abilities and nature of the animal whose form they appear in; birds fly, wolves are aggressive. One does not touch another person’s dæmon, but their dæmons can. They can feel pain, but they don’t eat or reproduce. They can communicate when their people are ignorant of each other’s language.

mons do not go through an infancy and growth period. On Twitter, a reader asked Pullman on her daughter’s behalf, if they are born with the person. He replied he’d never considered that, and some things are best kept private.

I think their dæmons appear with newborns’ first independent exhalations. That feels plausible to me.

mons pose a problem for translating the novels to a visual medium. Puppets have been used in stage productions. Movies favor computer-generated images. 

The problem for viewers like me is the animals in any scene get my attention. There’s a commercial that has been running on US television in 2019. A family of golden retrievers are driving, and then the three puppies in the backseat are let out and trudge onto obedience school. I have no idea if it is a car company or insurance commercial. I just want to watch the dogs.


Pictured above is a pine marten, one of Lyra’s dæmon’s favorite forms. US Fish and Wildlife Services (public domain).

Waiting for The Secret Commonwealth

A few nights ago, The New Yorker published on-line a phone interview about Philip Pullman and what to expect from the second book of The Book of Dust, The Secret Commonwealth, available tomorrow, October 3, 2019.

One thing that did not surprise me is that Lyra will be going to Turkey. Among the found materials at the end of Lyra’s Oxford is an ad and itinerary for an Aegean cruise, with the port call to Smyrna circled for Monday, May 11.

Smyrna is an ancient city and strategic port, sometimes Greek, and most recently Turkish. It is known now as Izmir.

The College of Izmir is mentioned in chapter 8 of Northern Lights/Golden Compass (132). Lyra conflates the story of Asriel’s near poisoning by the Master of Jordan College in a tall tale she tells the gyptians in which she claims a Turkish ambassador dies after poisoning Asriel’s drink. She says that as a show of friendship, the glasses were exchanged prior to the toast.

There are many older photos of Smyrna, (now Izmir) here.

Who she is going to see and why, I don’t know yet.

We also learn in the interview that Lyra is “marked by melancholy, and the reason for that, and probably one of the results of that, is she and Pantalaimon have suffered a rupture.”

They are not getting along.

Initially, this surprised me, but consider the end of The Amber Spyglass. She is he and he is she, but still, when she left Pan to cross fully into the World of the Dead, that had to have hurt. Knowing her parents died as they did, that too, hurt. And Lyra’s (and in turn Pan’s) lover is forever inaccessible in another world.