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. 

When Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison became Allies

There are two quotations which I think sum up best the characters of armored bear Iorek Byrnison and aëronaut Lee Scoresby. 

When Lyra asks Iorek if he is frightened as they watch witch armies approach Svalbard toward the end of Northern Lights, he responds, “Not yet. When I am I shall master the fear” (NL Chapter 12). He is the ideal warrior, who once he decides that by his own code physical fighting is required, enters it without second-guessing his decision.

Lee Scoresby’s values are similar, as he explains in The Subtle Knife: it”seems to me the place you fight cruelty is where you find it, and the place you give help is where you see it is needed” (p. 403). Together, as Lyra’s allies, they are a formidable team.

How the two met and formed their alliance is the subject of Once Upon a Time in the North, a novella Philip Pullman released in 2008, although it is set some 35 years prior to His Dark Materials.

Looking for work, Scoresby lands in a Muscovy oil town where corrupt officials have seized goods of a schooner captain and where it looks certain that the town will soon be run by a politician who despises armored bears and uses a paid assassin Scoresby bore witness against back in the Dakotas.

Scoresby, never one to avoid a confrontation with evil, takes on the role of ” guardian angel” for the captain, and Iorek offers his services on the grounds the captain’s enemy, the politician who despises bears, “is his enemy too” (51). And thus Iorek pledges his help to Scoresby.

Scoresby is not above spinning a yarn about being the captain’s attorney and fast talking the Customs officer with reference to plausible but fictional laws governing seizure of property. He is as slick a talker as he is fighter, and with Hester’s help, successfully defeats the assassins.

The townspeople prove to be relieved at the defeat of the seemingly popular politician; his stirring up feelings against the bears was aimed at getting into office so he could economically exploit the labor and resources of the town of Novy Odense. Nevertheless, they are happy to see the last of Iorek and Scoresby, who depart via balloon.

  • This is occasion during which Scoresby is given his Winchester in thanks by the captain after a gun battle with the politician’s assassin, whose dæmon is a rattlesnake.
  • Iorek declares Hester to be an Arctic Hare, meaning that Scoresby himself belongs in the Far North.

There are some found materials in the back, which tell us that

  • Lyra’s thesis for her M Phil is in Economic History is on Developments of Patterns of Trade in the European Arctic Region with Particular Reference to Independent Cargo Balloon Carriage (1950-1970).
  • One of her professors is Dr. Polstead (hero of La Belle Sauvage, I bet).
  • Other found bits include an illustration from The Elements of Aerial Navigation, which includes instructions on landing a balloon, and The ‘Shipping World’ Year Book.
  • John Lawrence is the illustrator, and there is a fold-out “board game,” “Peril of the Pole,” along with a spinner and game pieces, a snakes-and-ladders type of game of chance.

Once Upon a Time in the North: His Dark Materials