[The World of Philip Pullman’s “Northern Lights” (2)]


We all have our daemons — but in Philip Pullman’s world they are literal daemons, and not inner daemons. The daemon is the most beautiful of Pullman’s conceptions in these books, and seizes the imagination from the very first entrance of  Lyra and her daemon.(ch.1) The word is used in the Greek sense, meaning a kind of spirit — as Socrates uses the word when he describes his own daemon as an inner voice that says No, or when in the Symposium he calls Eros not a god but a daemon, something between men and gods. The enchanting thing about Pullman’s daemons is that they are embodied, as animals, padding around or flying  with their people; as such they are reminiscent of a witch’s “familiar,” usually cats, close counsellors and companions for their people. Each human being has one daemon, and they cannot go far from one another. Most interestingly,these daemons talk, in language that is not cryptic or oracular and does not require interpretation.They are a little like pets, furry friends that one can hold for solace; but they are also like twins, who know each other’s minds and are in continual conversation both in words and in silences.

Before going on, we should thik about what Pullman’s daemons are not. Although they echo the “emanations” of William Blake (which are companion-projections), they are not projections of the repressed sides of us, the parts of us that are kept in darkness, like the Jungian Shadow or Anima. They are not intimidating, hostile, frightening, or even unknown to us; we are fully familiar with our own daemons. And they are not like gods, alien and powerful; nor are they like animals, who are locked within their own distinctive senses of things and have no language to make bridges from their worlds to ours. These daemons are friends, embodied soulmates with whom we are perfectly comfortable and always together. They are certainly not wild animals, from whom we expect no questions and answers. Later in the book we will find out why the Magisterium that governs this world considers these daemons a profound threat, and that is how they come to be seen as demonic in our sense of the word — but for now, they are a natural, unavoidable, and benevolent part of the human realm.

The daemon can be something like an inner counsellor. “You’re supposed to know about conscience, aren’t you?” says Lyra to her daemon Pantalaimon early on. (ch.1) But most of the time, Pantalaimon seems to be a bosom buddy to confide in and bounce thoughts off. The person and her daemon are so closely bound that one feels the other’s pain. When a golden monkey daemon attacks Pantalaimon, it is Lyra who screams with pain — “Don’t! Please! Stop hurting us!” (Ch.5) And when at one point Pantalaimon tries to move further away from Lyra than usual, the agony is worse than the one felt by a mother and child being forcibly separated: It was such a strange tormenting feeling when your daemon was pulling at the link between you: part physical pain deep in the chest, part intense sadness and love. And she knew it was the same for him. Everyone tested it when they were growing up: seeing how far they could pull apart, coming back with intense relief…He nestled in her arms, and she knew she would rather die than let them be parted and face that sadness again; it would send her mad with grief and terror. (Ch.11) Even to contemplate that one’s daemon might somehow want to leave for a happier life is sad and frightening, as when Pantalaimon briefly changes into a dolphin: He had to stay close to the ship, of course, for he could never go far from her; but she sensed his desire to speed as far and as fast as he could, for pure exhilaration. She shared his pleasure, but for her it wasn’t simple pleasure, for there was pain and fear in it too. Suppose he loved being a dolphin more than he loved being with her on land? What would she do then? (Ch.10) Here the daemon is a soulmate or a soul-friend, about whom insecurities of this sort can be tormenting. The daemon is thus a composite of different kinds of “familiar”: bosom buddy, counsellor, conscience, soulmate, soul-friend, twin sibling, child, pet.

A child’s daemon is still malleable and changes shape freely, but as people became adult, their daemons lost the power to change, and assumed one shape, keeping it permanently. (Ch.3) This is a beautiful way to express maturation into a stable personality, a settling into who we are; the daemon becomes the manifestation of our settledness, and not a compensation for it (as in a yet different imagined world where, as human beings stabilized into their mature characters, their daemons might become more feral, resisting them, pulling at them). In the middle of the book Lyra has this memorable conversation with a seaman:

   ” Why do daemons have to settle?” Lyra said. “I want Pantalaimon to be able to change forever. So does he.”

   “Ah, they always have settled, and they always will. That’s part of growing up. There’ll come a time when you’ll be tired of his changing about, and you’ll want a settled kind of form for him.”
   “I never will!” 

   “Oh, you will. You’ll want to grow up like all the other girls. Anyway, there’s compensations for a settled form.” 

   “What are they?”

   “Knowing what kind of person you are. Take old Belisaria. She’s a seagull, and that means I’m a kind of seagull too. I’m not grand and splendid nor beautiful, but I’m a tough old thing and I can survive anywhere and always find a bit of food and company. That’s worth knowing, that is. And when your daemon settles, you’ll know the sort of person you are.”
   “But suppose your daemon settles in a shape you don’t like?”

    “Well, then, you’re discontented, en’t you? There’s plenty of folk as’d like to have a lion as a daemon and they end up with a poodle. And till they learn to be satisfied with what they are, they’re going to be fretful about it. Waste of feeling, that is.”

   But it didn’t seem to Lyra that she would ever grow up. (Ch.10)
In this world, of course attachment to childhood would take the form of clinging to a changeable daemon, and for the rest of life one would remember fondly the time when one’s daemon was not yet fixed. Yet what a significant transition it is when the daemon settles! Unlike our own passage, puberty, which involves a shaking of self-certainty, the settling of the daemon means the discovery of the self. When your daemon settles, you know who you are. There is no mystery about it, because these daemons have logos and are not impenetrable to us; the challenge here is not to know yourself but to accept what you are. What would it be like to live as a being who knows what it is and merely has to be reconciled with it? Is this even a human being as we know it — since for us being human involves a long struggle to know ourselves? If the self is not a mystery to us, can we be tragic or philosophical? Pullman’s people are in this way not at all people as we know them in our world.

In Lyra’s universe, the externalization of the person as two beings brings with it some interesting inhibitions and prohibitions; to encounter a person as unfolded, as it were, into two, and not as an outside containing an inside, does not mean that there is no privacy or respect for an Other. It is taboo to touch another person’s daemon. In quiet moments when Lyra finds herself gazing at the exquisite fur of Mrs. Coulter’s golden monkey daemon,

She longed to touch that fur, to rub her cheeks against it, but of course she never did; for it was the grossest breach of etiquette imaginable to touch another person’s daemon. Daemons might touch each other, of course, or fight; but the prohibition against human-daemon contact went so deep that even in battle no warrior would touch an enemy’s daemon. It was utterly forbidden. Lyra couldn’t remember having to be told that: she just knew it, as instinctively as she felt that nausea was bad and comfort good. (Ch.9).

It is as primal as the incest taboo. When they find a little boy who has had his daemon cut away, the sight is heart-breaking:  Lyra knew that Pantalaimon’s impulse was to reach out and cuddle the little half-child, to lick him and gentle him and warm him as his own daemon would have done; but the great taboo prevented that, of course. (Ch.11) A daemon is like something naked, inviolable, not secret like sex organs but untouchable not only because it is seen as vulnerable and needing protection but because it is sacred to a person. In the more refined social circle of Mrs.Coulter, this primitive inhibition is extended to control over the gaze, just as in our world we would avert our gaze from the nakedness of someone who is not an intimate. When Mrs. Coulter bathes Lyra,

Pantalaimon watched with powerful curiosity until Mrs.Coulter looked at him, and he knew what she meant and turned away, averting his eyes modestly from these feminine mysteries as the golden monkey was doing. He had never had to look away from Lyra Pantalaimon watched with powerful curiosity until Mrs.Coulter looked at him, and he knew what she meant and turned away, averting his eyes modestly from these feminine mysteries as the golden monkey was doing. He had never had to look away from Lyra before. (Ch.4)
During the voyage to the north, a witch’s goose daemon appears on board, and even though everyone knows that it is a characteristic of witch daemons to be able to roam far away from their witch, the sight evokes an uncanny respect: the daemons of the men affected the extreme politeness of keeping their eyes modestly away from this singular creature, here without his body. (Ch.11) The phrasing is striking: a lone daemon is not like a naked body but like a naked soul, and thus should not be subjected to the direct gaze.

The relation of daemon to person is like that between soul and body, both of these being ensouled but the daemon somehow being more private, more personal, expressing in its very form the essence of the person. To come across a person without a daemon would, for us in our world, be comparable to meeting a ghost or zombie, an animated but soulless thing. When the Gyptian men contemplate a woman who had no demon: It was as if he’d said, “She had no head.” The very thought was repugnant. The men shuddered, their daemons bristled or shook themselves or cawed harshly, and the men soothed them. (Ch.10) When Lyra later finds the “severed boy,”

Her first impulse was to turn and run, or to be sick. A human being with no daemon was like someone without a face, or with their ribs laid open and their heart torn out: something unnatural and uncanny that belonged to the world of night-ghasts, not the waking world of sense. (Ch.13)

It is all the more interesting then that the armored bears have no daemons. Their king Iofur Raknison  would give anything to have one: “He wants a daemon! Find a way to give him a daemon, and he’d do anything for you,” exclaims the Palmerian professor(Ch.2) Lyra is moved to pity and wonder by this forlorn fact: How different it was to be human, with one’s daemon always there to talk to! (Ch.11) Later, observing Iorek: He had no daemon. He was alone, always alone. (Ch.11) She recognizes something uncomfortable, unheimlich, in this fact, as if this puts the bears beyong the pale of the anthropic; even though they talk, reason, feel, aspire, what they have is not a human intelligence, nothing like human, because of course bears had no daemons. (Ch.10)  When the magnificently heoroic Iorek, attempting to describe to Lyra the intimate relation of a bear to his armor, says “A bear’s armor is his soul, just as your daemon is your soul” (Ch.11), the comparison is poignant because of course the armor is mute and cannot talk back — but then an armored bear cannot possibly know what a daemon is for a human being, just as it cannot know what cold is.

With his parallel universe, Pullman is drawing us into a riddle, not to solve it, but to inhabit it — and this riddle, like all the best ones,  concerns human nature. The people of Lyra’s world are ceaselessly companioned, never alone; they know who they are, and in some sense they are complete. The embodiment of their daemons as animals is a wonderful conceit, for a bond with animals implies a bond with nature and a sense of being at home.  We, in our world, are less like these people and more like the armored bears: we are alone, and can make objects into substitutes for companions. Or we are like severed people — once at home in our world, feeling friendly presences in the form of pets or invisible friends, but in our adulthoods cut away from that intimacy. Does Philip Pullman’s image of the human being always accompanied with a speaking twin express a yearning for something in our world that is largely impossible, or is it an image of a comfort that we should be afraid of? — because in our world spiritual growth and maturing cannot happen without solitude, and it is loneliness that brings us face to face with ourselves. Lyra would have to lose Pantalaimon to grow: in her world, this would kill her; in ours, we would suffer and go on, functional but diminished. The people of Lyra’s world are fundamentally different from us — so how is it that we so naturally identify with Lyra and her daemon, and how is it that while reading the book we do not find it simply alien and weird?


4 thoughts on “Daemons 

  1. Krishnan,

    You said – “The word is used in the Greek sense, meaning a kind of spirit — as Socrates uses the word when he describes his own daemon as an inner voice that says No, or when in the Symposium he calls Eros not a god but a daemon, something between men and gods.”

    Shouldn’t it be used in its Latin sense of a ‘guardian spirit’ of a ‘daemon’. I always thought ‘dae’ implies ‘family’ and in Latin it is added at the end, as a suffix. But ‘dae’ in the ‘demon’ makes it a personal guardian spirit or demon. But my Latin is hopscotch at best.

    Do you know that when my natural mother died she came back for 7 days stuck on the wall above her bed head rest, as a gigantic (I think it is called) Raffles moth (black and white), the size of the palm of the hand of an adult.

    My late father on the ther hand came back as a 3 inch green grasshopper. He flew in and landed and stayed glued at the top of his coffin, above his head (there is a glass window where you see the head of the body). His wake lasted for 4 days because we had to wait for Son No 1 to come back. On the 5th day when the coffin was inserted into the back of the hearse (station wagon), the green grasshopper timing it to the last minute, flew off just as they were about to shut the back door of the hearse.

    So the Chinese have “daemon”s too, but more as their representative in this mortal world when they are gone but their soul has yet to cross over to the other side, and also for them to say their last goodbye to their family members and family home.

    And I can vouch for it on my honour or even the Bible!


    • Hi, Vince — The Roman sense of tutelary/guardian spirits came in later, but in classical Greek the word tended to have a wide range of possible meanings, sometimes even a “god.” Here is the entry from Liddell and Scott —


      Each appearance still has to be interpreted in context! The Latin ending -dae is the genitive ending, hence “of.”
      I love the story of moth and grasshopper! There’s a short story in that.
      By the way, these Philip Pullman pieces are a 14th birthday present for my daughter; this was a book we read and loved together. It is itself a coming of age novel. All my spare time is going into finishing this series of five essays. Best — K

  2. Krishnan,


    She is going to take after her Dad by the sound of things.

    I have not read Pullman’s Northern Lights but will soon in the near future. If if is suitable for your daughter I might get it for my 11 year old daughter whose birthday is on the 18th March.



    • It’s great for a precocious girl. The audiobook is truly wonderful too. It’s a very deep fantasy novel, where all the major characters are ambiguous — no simple good or bad. I was hooked because the novel is actually a very interesting reading of Milton, Blake, and Dostoievsky’s Grand Inquisitor. It can be enjoyed on many levels. K

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s