Philipp Pullman’s 1995 Northern Lights, was the first book in a trilogy that centres on Lyra and her daemon. Both Lyra and her daemon live in a world not unlike our own, only that there every person possesses a daemon. These daemons are not like our traditional understanding of the word, they follow their human around everywhere, taking the shape of animals that help humans get in (and out) of trouble. They act as an external conscience. When children – whose daemons’ animal shapes are not yet fixed, but changing – begin to disappear, Lyra must set out on a quest to rescue them. She quickly finds out that the General Oblation Board – referred to as Gobblers by the children – are attempting to sever children’s ties to their daemons. The Gobblers purport to want to save the children from ‘Dust’, an elusive, dangerous threat mentioned throughout the novel. In Pullman’s novel, Dust is the side effect of life, of having your daemon beside you, of listening to them, of acting on your desires and by cutting their ties to their daemons, the General Oblation Board wants to ‘protect’ children, by ultimately numbing them to themselves.
When I sat down to read Philipp Pullman’s Northern Lights I was pleasantly surprised by how welcome I felt on the page and how familiar the setting seemed. Not Jordan college, nor the infamous ‘North’ Lyra longs to see so much, far more familiar to me was the relationship between child and daemon throughout the story. It was reminiscent of the kind of relationship people have – or should have – with the voice inside their head. The friendly, sometimes punishing, thoughts that tell us when we’ve gone wrong and console us when we’re terrified. I was intrigued by Pullman’s decision to make this voice an external animal of some sort. And the decision to have this animal be different for every person, to have it in some way reflect upon their character, inspired something in me. It compelled me to take what I was reading and ask friends and family members what animal their daemon would be and what name it would have. This question invariably led to another: what if you could speak to yourself as though you were speaking to an animal always with you? What if you spoke to yourself less as a cruel parent and more as a struggling team, composed of human and daemon?
It’s common knowledge that how we speak to ourselves has become toxic, that the physical manifestation of people’s mental pains are not fluffy animals, but scars and eating disorders. We have become incredibly harsh and punishing to ourselves, saying things we would never say to a friend or a daemon.
Philipp Pullman establishes this sacred bond between daemon and human and then puts Institutions like the General Oblation Board in place that threaten to – quite literally – sever this bond. Institutions are enemies in Pullman’s novel, they symbolise conformity and fear. They are all-powerful and selfish, and their fear of ‘Dust’ causes them to literally sever people’s ties to themselves.
I see these daemons as metaphors for how we speak to ourselves, and how, over time, we are taught by Institutions to distrust these dialogs and navigate the world through others’ opinions, wants and needs. And in my personal opinion, the message I took from this book was a warning: don’t let the punishing Institutions take your friend from you. Be a companion to yourself, a kind one, a kinder one than you have been in the past. And, unfortunately, guard yourself against those whose fear would have you sever your tie to yourself.