HORRORS OF… is a biweekly series exploring the overlooked darker elements of well-known media. SPOILER WARNING for major plot details below, as well as CONTENT WARNING for death and child abuse
The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, collectively known as His Dark Materials is a series of fantasy books by Phillip Pullman. Later the first book was made into a film (starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig) and currently a BBC One/HBO series. A personal favourite of mine, His Dark Materials follow the story of Lyra, an intensely curious and adventurous young girl and her dæmon Pantalaimon (Pan). Lyra lives in a world similar, but not quite the same as ours. She uses a device called the alethiometer (it’s the compass!) to guide her, asking it questions and it reveals the truth. Dirigibles are the main form of long-distance transportation, the religious group The Magisterium has a huge amount of power, there are witches and armoured bears and then… there’s the dæmons.
A dæmon (pronounced demon) is the physical manifestation of your soul in animal form. As a child your dæmon does not have a fixed shape, instead morphing into different species to play and learn and react with their human. When you reach puberty your dæmon’s form settles. Generally, the animal it becomes is a reflection of your personality. Lyra’s professor has a raven, soldiers usually have dog dæmons, and a fairly suspicious character has a snake. When The Golden Compass film came out they had a quiz to find out what yours would be and mine is a cat which feels fitting.
Considering how important having your soul walking around with you is, there are limitations and taboos to this. Your dæmon cannot be too far away from you; small distances are fine but too far and it will begin to hurt immensely. You are to never touch another person’s dæmon. Dæmons themselves can interact with each other, but touching a friend’s soul is too personal.
Lyra sets off on an adventure to rescue her friend Roger who has been kidnapped. It leads to a multi-dimensional epic tale involving angels, the underworld, and strange wheel-elephants (very curious how BBC will tackle these!) Now that I’ve set the stage let’s get down to the meat of it.
Lyra does eventually find the missing children, including a boy named Billy Costa far north in Svalbard. Venturing into an abandoned fishing village there’s an immediate sense of wrongness. Pan desperately tries to veer her away from a shed that the negative energy is coming from. The alethiometer told her there’s a “ghost” here. It’s not a spectre but Billy Costa, clutching a dead fish and mumbling to himself. His dæmon has been cut away leaving the boy a shell of his former self, and he soon dies. The image of this poor child clinging to something, anything to alleviate his pain and overwhelming loneliness have stuck with me for years.
When Lyra and the others find out what’s happening to these kids they’re disgusted beyond belief. It’s the ultimate cruelty to destroy people, children like this. Thinking about it as an adult made me realize the real-world parallel to this…lobotomization. Lyra herself is almost separated from Pan, locked in a glass chamber with a guillotine between girl and dæmon. It’s extremely tense and traumatic both in the books and adaptations.
To put it mildly, Lyra has some pretty terrible parents. Lord Asriel pretends to be her uncle for the first 12 years of her life and later murders Roger in front of her! It’s Mrs. Coulter’s behaviour that hits me personally though as someone with a difficult relationship with my mother. Marisa Coulter is a master manipulator, emotionally and physically abusive to those in her service and her daughter. In one instance her dæmon, a sinister golden monkey holds Pan down by the throat (which hurts Lyra as well) and commands the girl to be obedient or else.
At the beginning of The Amber Spyglass Lyra is being held captive by Mrs. Coulter, drugged into a coma to be taken care of and “kept safe”. Lyra goes in and out of consciousness and almost dies. During these, she dreams of her now-deceased friend Roger and how she is sorry she couldn’t do more for him. In actuality, Lyra is directly speaking to Roger’s spirit in the underworld. So she’s dying and coming back again and again which sounds like a horrible experience.
Above all else, Mrs. Coulter craves control. She even slaps and yells at her own dæmon. Lyra is rebellious and fiercely independent which only makes her mother angrier. Pullman created a truly vile woman when writing her. Bravo.
When Lyra and Will (wielder of The Subtle Knife, which can cut through dimensions) eventually make their way to the land of the dead they’re faced with a terrible decision. Charon tells the pair that they cannot cross into the underworld with Pan. Sobbing, Lyra leaves him on the shore. The physical heartbreak and pain as they are torn from each other are devastating. To add insult to injury the strain causes Will’s dæmon to become visible making her first moments full of suffering. They change rapidly as the agony overtakes them into the most pathetic and vulnerable animals they can to bring Lyra and Will back. I admit I’m not looking forward to experiencing this in the BBC series–I’m going to cry!
I’m skipping over a lot of details here but the God that the Magisterium worships–The Authority–is real. He was the first angel, a being of light who rules a floating city many believe to be heaven. He has aged and weakened, now barely a whisper of his former glory. The second-in-command Metatron took control long ago. Greedy, vain, oppressive and extremely powerful, Metatron is the true antagonist of the series.
A huge battle involving angels and humans takes place with Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter both present. Finally realizing how important Lyra is they tackle Metatron and tumble into an abyss, sacrificing themselves and essentially killing God. Not surprisingly this section and HDM’s anti-religious themes sparked backlash (although not as much as Harry Potter, released around the same time). Pullman stated in a 2001 interview that: “I’m not in the business of offending people. I find the books upholding certain values that I think are important, such as life is immensely valuable and this world is an extraordinarily beautiful place.”
Death Of Luis Gomez
Speaking of angels–two of the lower ranks (and rebels against The Authority) Baruch and Balthamos–are lovers. So jot that down. Angels are being made of light and energy and are fairly weak. You can barely see them unless you’re looking at the right angle. The duo meets up with Lyra and Will, hoping to get their aid in the war to come. Baruch tragically dies after being injured, his last words the name of his beloved.
Balthamos on the other hand continues to trail after the children. Still hunted by a member of the Magisterium. Luis stands in the woods with a rifle, ready to kill them. Balthamos appears, and they have a desperate struggle, Luis’s beetle daemon biting the angel multiple times. He rips them apart, severing their bond and then forcibly drowns the man in a river. While this is happening Will and Lyra are having a tender moment together, making a horrifying juxtaposition. Balthamos succumbs to his wounds and reunites with Baruch, both giving their lives for a future they believed in.
These are just a few of the many intense moments in His Dark Materials. It’s an extremely interesting series with some of the best world-building I’ve ever read. Currently, Pullman is writing another trilogy of books in the universe (two have already been released) so maybe I’ll be returning to Lyra’s world sometime.
If you’d like to read more of Lor’s work for Castle Of Chills, check out their other articles here