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.
Dæmons 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.
Dæmons 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.
Dæmons 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).