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The meaning behind the Daemons in His Dark Materials explained

Pan, or Pantalaimon, who is Lyra's daemon
Pan, or Pantalaimon, who is Lyra's daemon

Thanks to His Dark Materials, the nation has been sunk into a small-screen world full of daemons. Alice Vincent explains the history and magic of Philip Pullman’s most magical creation

Warning: contains mild spoilers for His Dark Materials

It is difficult to read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy without, perhaps quietly, wondering what one’s daemon (pronounced “demon”) might be. Pullman’s most alluring creation was introduced with the fourth word of Northern Lights, the first book in his trilogy (“Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall”). It was somewhat inevitable, then, that the animal familiars would become spotlight-stealers in the book’s recent BBC adaptation.  

They may seem like fantastical gimmicks, but daemons are actually integral to His Dark Materials and the themes explored within the novels. They allow Pullman to explore grand concepts, such as innocence, childhood, Dust and religious fervour, in a way accessible and exciting to his young readers. 

If the first episode introduced the adorable Pan (short for Pantalaimon) in-tow with his human, Lyra, along with Lord Asriel’s imperious snow leopard-daemon Stelmaria (voiced by Helen McCrory, no less), the second instalment of His Dark Materials delved deeper into daemon-lore. Lyra is baffled by Mrs Coulter’s ability to be separated from her sinister golden monkey before discovering grim plans for a machine that appears to divide human and daemon. The episode closes with the death of a woman, who remains untouched while her butterfly daemon is crushed.

These are the kind of scenes that conjure pertinent questions: why do daemons become certain kinds of animals? Why do humans suffer when daemons are subjected to pain? What do daemons tell us about the humans they accompany?

Even those who read the books when they were first published, between 1995 and 2000, or indeed since, could probably benefit from a refresher. 

What is a daemon? 

Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson) with Ozymandias, her golden monkey daemon

The common answer is a soul – specifically, the physical manifestation of it. But over the years Pullman’s definition has been a little more vague than that. Caught somewhere between a helpful narrative device (in the books, as in the television adaptation, Pan frequently represents Lyra’s voice of reason) and an exploration of humanity, daemons are a means of exploring complicated concepts within something frequently cute and furry. “I will say that the daemon is that part of you that helps you grow towards wisdom,” Pullman has said.

Like the rest of Pullman’s writing, daemons are also inspired by culture that has preceded him. By the creature familiars spotted in Renaissance art (Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Lady with the Ermine and Holbein’s The Lady and the Squirrel among them) and Socratean concepts. Socrates, according to Plato, had a “daimon” that “always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything”. Pullman has said that “The word and the basic idea, I suppose, came from the Greek idea – Socrates talked about his ‘daimon’. I found it a very fruitful metaphor.” 

There are traces of daemons to be found in Pullman’s pre-Dark Materials work, too. Another children’s book, Spring-Heeled Jack, introduces a mournful moth that exists as the villain’s conscience. In 2007, the former teacher spoke about adolescence to Intelligent Life magazine, saying: “I’d been teaching children of the same age as Lyra, children who were themselves going through this physical, intellectual and emotional change in their lives. The biggest change we ever go through really.” 

In exporting some of Lyra’s questioning, reasoning and conscience to Pan, whose animal state transforms from moth to ermine and from dolphin to lion, Pullman is able to express the intensity of puberty. Or, as Pullman explained a couple years later: “There is a big difference between the daemons of children and adults, because the story as a whole is about growing up, or innocence and experience.”

But then, we may be overthinking it a little too much: “Daemons just came to me, I'm afraid – I can't be more specific than that,” Pullman told The Guardian in 2002.

What are the basic daemon rules?

A puppeteer operates the makings of Ozymandias, CGI is added in post-production

While external to humans, they are not other to them – rather, daemons are part of the human, hence the use of “we”, rather than “I”, by both parties. Daemons can talk, and they occupy the opposite gender to that of their human in the majority of cases – hence, Pan is a male daemon, and Stelmaria is female. Pullman has, however, hinted at some fluidity over this in recent years. As Russell Dodgson, the visual effects supervisor of His Dark Materials explains of his brief: “It became clear very quickly they weren’t interested in cartoony magical animals, but very real, grounded animals. The intent was to make real animals talk rather than making animals talk like humans.”

Why so cute, and why do they keep changing?

They take the shape of animals. There are a couple of instances of mythological daemons in the books (Pan, at one point, is a hound-sized dragon), and occasional evidence to show that daemons can take the form of people, but both are fairly rare. 

In childhood, daemon-form is fluid. That’s why when Lyra runs, Pan turns into a bird; when she needs him to be deft, he becomes a moth. But when a child nears adulthood the daemon settles – this is what we see being celebrated by the Gyptians in the first episode of His Dark Materials. It’s also what Roger and Lyra are discussing in the crypts. 

Over the years there has been much discussion over what form daemons take. The matter is addressed in Northern Lights, by a seasick sailor who chose his profession when his daemon settled as a dolphin. He tells Lyra: 

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.

Pullman has echoed this, saying in a 2000 interview: “You can't choose your daemon. You have to make the best of whatever you turn out to be.” Since then, though, he has suggested that humans do have some agency in choosing their daemons, even if they aren’t fully aware of it. “You're always free to choose,” he wrote on Twitter. “Your dæmon is an indication of your nature, not your destiny.”

What can we understand from daemon forms?

The Master of Jordan College, whose daemon is a raven

By now, viewers will have noticed that daemons are fairly good indicators of Pullman’s goodies and baddies – as well as the morally ambiguous murk in between (Asriel’s snow leopard has a chilling demeanour; Mrs Coulter’s monkey has an infamously cruel expression, although the television adaptation expresses his capability for more confounding emotions very well). The snivelling villains of the Magisterium (the equivalent of the Church) are followed around by snakes, flies and cockroaches. Asked recently what form Donald Trump’s daemon would take, Pullman said: “something utterly repulsive. If he had to go everywhere accompanied by a loathsome toad or something similar, it would help us all a bit.”

The journalist who attempts to ally with Lyra in exchange for information, meanwhile, has a butterfly daemon – beautiful and nimble, but ultimately fragile. Intriguingly, the conflicted Master of Jordan College has the same daemon that Pullman believes he would have – a raven: “She's a scruffy, grim-visaged old bird that's cynical and sharp-beaked, but she's quite wise, and she's seen a lot, and she's fundamentally kind underneath. But she'd never let you know that.”

There are other signifiers, too: in Pullman’s books, the servants tend to have dogs (the guards at the Magisterium are flanked by German Shepherds). This doesn’t mean, however, that dog daemons indicate a human in servitude nor a future in service, but simply, he has clarified, “that if you're a servant, you'll be a good one.” The theatrical polymath Lin Manuel-Miranda, for instance, who appears as balloonist Lee Scoresby later in the series, is quite fond of his dog “daemon”.

Surely this isn’t entirely practical

'We shouldn’t notice them unless they’ve got something important to do': Daemons in the second episode of His Dark Materials

Well, certainly not in filming the BBC version, it hasn’t been. Pullman admitted as much after observant fans clocked the lack of daemons spotted attending extras in, say, the kitchens of Jordan college. Pullman said their absence was down to “Budget partly but mainly for storytelling reasons. We shouldn’t notice them unless they’ve got something important to do, otherwise the screen would be cluttered with the little brutes.”

“It could turn into Dr. Doolittle very quickly — which isn’t the goal on the show,” Dodgson added in a separate interview. “What we wanted to do is to make sure we had enough daemons to retain the concept of a world where people have these animal daemons, but really focus our time and attention on making sure they’re there to assist the narrative and emotions or perform actions that are important to the story. 

“It’s a big world-building exercise, and if you distract everyone with a monkey running around you’re probably not doing your job right.” The daemons on the show were also made from puppets, with CGI layered on top. A kitchen full of either trained dogs or puppeteers does not an easy film set make.

The infant Lyra with a tiny Pan: daemons appear at birth - just don't ask how

Pullman has been wise to dodge queries that stretch the remits of his fictional world. When asked if there was a size limit on daemons – could, for instance, someone have an elephant? – he has replied: “I’ve never seen one”. Similarly, when the notion of a flea daemon was posited Pullman remarked: “It would be very inconvenient.” Do daemons eat? “Dunno”, came the answer. As for whether they were born or made, Pullman has repeatedly insisted that “daemon gynaecology is a sacred mystery into which I dare not enquire”. Daemons are named by the daemons of the human’s parents, however.

Can humans feel daemon pain?

Yes. Daemons are a part of the human, hence why they can’t be too far removed from one another, either. The sacred bond between human and daemon is integral to the plot of the His Dark Materials trilogy, as are the ways in which different forces try to investigate and deconstruct that connection.

Ozymandias approaches Pan

We first see this properly in episode two of the television adaptation. Mrs Coulter punishes Lyra by setting her monkey daemon, Ozymandias, on Pan. When they fight, Lyra cowers in pain. Dodgson explains more: “It’s basically child abuse, but she keeps her hands clean and lets the monkey do the dirty work”. 

While daemons can touch one another (Ozymandias’s cautious stroking of Pan – a rare moment of Mrs Coulter’s tender feelings for Lyra – is particularly nuanced), it is deeply taboo for a human to touch another human’s daemon. The exception, however, is in those fleeting moments when humans embrace their inner animal instincts, such as at times of great passion or violence. Humans in the throes of great intimacy, for instance, will touch one another’s daemons, as those who have read Pullman’s full trilogy will know. But during fight to the death, as depicted in La Belle Sauvage, daemons can also come into human fray. Gobblers, largely considered inhuman, will also touch others’ daemons.

I would quite like a daemon

You’re not alone: I’ve been nurturing that desire for decades now. The good news is that Pullman believes that all humans have daemons – it’s just in certain worlds, like this one, they’re not visible. Go on, give them a pat, nobody’s looking.