Today’s guest column comes via longtime LGG&F reader Kathryn Hemmann. Kathryn teaches classes on Japanese literature and cinema by day and diligently trains to become a Pokémon Master by night. She posts reviews of Japanese fiction in translation along with occasional essays about pop culture on her blog, Contemporary Japanese Literature.
Readers should be advised that this essay contains frank references to adolescent sexuality.
Part 2: Why I Wish the Protagonist Were Female
Last week I lamented the surprising dearth of narrative focus on female characters in the latter two books of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy. This week I explain how Lyra’s lack of interiority in particular makes it difficult for the reader to reconcile the plot of the story with its broader philosophical themes. This installation contains major spoilers for the series from the first paragraph onward, so consider yourself warned.
It turns out that Lyra’s ultimate destiny is to prevent the annihilation of existential awareness in all creatures in all universes that ever have been and ever will be. Dust, a symbol for the conflicted spiritual maturity that follows the innocence of childhood, is disappearing from the multiverse; and, when the last particles of Dust vanish, so too will the intelligent consciousness of all sentient beings. In order to prevent an eternal and presumably dystopic state of innocence, Lyra must reprise the role of Eve in an allegorical Garden of Eden. By choosing to allow Dust to remain in the multiverse, Lyra essentially ensures the continued existence of Sin, the goal toward which her father, Lord Asriel, has been striving in his war against the Kingdom of Heaven.
The closing plot developments are complicated and nuanced, as are the trilogy’s references to Biblical myths. What is neither complicated nor nuanced is how the twelve-year-old Lyra achieves self-actualization and thus saves the multiverse by means of epic sexytimes with thirteen-year-old Will.
What bothers me about the conclusion to the trilogy is not necessarily the idea that innocence turns into experience through the onset of adult sexuality, but rather that Lyra has sex with Will based on an attraction that is not alluded to in any way before the last quarter of the last book in the trilogy. Lyra spends a large portion of The Amber Spyglass drugged and unconscious. After she eventually emerges into the paradise that serves as the endgame setting of the novels, she proceeds to sleep for several additional days. On the day after she wakes up, Lyra has sex with Will. In a trilogy-closing novel of 560 pages, is it really too much to ask that the reader is given a glimpse of what is going on in Lyra’s head before she suddenly discovers that she has a vagina?
I don’t think that Pullman could have been any more creepy about describing the onset of a twelve-year-old girl’s sexual awakening without getting into serious trouble with his publishers. Here is one of the more innocuous examples:
It was the strangest thing: Lyra knew exactly what [Dr. Malone, who had just told Lyra a story about her first kiss] meant, and half an hour earlier she would have had no idea at all. And inside her, that rich house with all its doors open and all its rooms lit stood waiting, quiet, expectant.
—from The Amber Spyglass, Chapter 33
There are other instances of ickiness, but hopefully this one will suffice. I’m not trying to say that adolescent female sexuality should be a taboo subject for writers, regardless of gender, but rather that I find it strange that the point of an epic trilogy with deep and fascinating religious themes basically boils down to Lyra’s realization that she has a “rich house with all its doors open” between her legs. The conclusion of the His Dark Materials series, in which the salvation of all sentient life results from Lyra inserting her fingers in Will’s juice-stained mouth and Will petting Lyra’s furry and slick “daemon”, feels anticlimactic to me. I suppose I was hoping that Pullman would find a more interesting way to explore the transition from innocence to experience than to have Lyra suddenly realize that she wants Will to plunge his subtle knife into her golden compass.
Speaking of innocence and experience, I was troubled by the concept of the “settling” of daemons. According to Pullman, a person’s being is composed of three elements: a body, a spirit, and a soul. The spirit is what animates the body, and the soul is what makes a person intelligent, self-aware, curious, capable of moral judgment and aesthetic appreciation, and so on. In Lyra’s universe, the soul is not invisible but takes the form of a daemon, which is corporally tangible and can be seen and heard by other people. A child’s daemon is capable of instantly changing its form between one animal and another according to convenience and whim; but, at a certain point, the daemon will settle into one form and is thereafter incapable of ever changing its form again.
Lyra’s daemon settles into its final form not once she realizes that she is in love with Will but after she has sex with him. It’s not clear whether Lyra and Will have genital sex (the chapter in which they get physical with each other ends with a suggestive paragraph and then fades to black), but they certainly have daemon sex:
Will put his hand on hers. A new mood had taken hold of him, and he felt resolute and peaceful. Knowing exactly what he was doing and exactly what it would mean, he moved his hand from Lyra’s wrist and stroked the red-gold fur of her daemon.
Lyra gasped. But her surprise was mixed with a pleasure so like the joy that flooded through her when she had put the fruit to his lips that she couldn’t protest, because she was breathless. With a racing heart she responded in the same way: she put her hand on the silky warmth of Will’s daemon, and as her fingers tightened in the fur, she knew that Will was feeling exactly what she was.
And she knew, too, that neither daemon would change now, having felt a lover’s hands on them. These were their shapes for life: they would want no other.
—from The Amber Spyglass, Chapter 37
Keep in mind that neither of these children is more than thirteen years old. Through the process of having whatever sort of prepubescent sex they have, both of their souls are locked into their final forms, never to change again.
Perhaps Lyra and Will, who have matured quickly over the course of their adventures, are exceptions, but it is suggested elsewhere that almost everyone’s daemon settles in early adolescence. It’s also clear that there is a strong sexual element implicit in the settling of one’s daemon. This seems to be related to the onset of puberty, but part of it seems to be tied to a concrete sexual experience. I’m not sure what other factors are involved, but does this mean a cis girl’s daemon would settle at the beginning of her first period? What if a child develops early, before they even suspect that sex exists? What if a child doesn’t develop physically but develops emotionally? What if a child discovers how to masturbate at an early age? What if a child belongs to a culture in which arranged marriage or preadolescent sexual initiation is common practice? What if a child is forced into in a sexual situation that they don’t fully understand? What if a child is questioning their gender identity? What if not every child is as confident and self-assured about the onset of sexual maturity as Lyra and Will are?
In any case, the idea that a child’s daemon settles at the beginning of the period of their life in which they will undergo intense physical and emotional change is more than a little upsetting. Pullman touches on this issue in The Golden Compass when one of his characters relates anecdotes of sailors who can never return to land once their daemons settle into the forms of marine mammals; most of these people are miserable for the rest of their lives simply because they happened to be on a boat at the moment when their daemons settled. Usually, however, Pullman is almost fatalistic in his insistence that a person essentially is whatever form his or her daemon settles into. As Lyra explains to Will:
“And usually [daemons] end up something that fits. I mean something like your real nature. Like if your daemon’s a dog, that means you like doing what you’re told, and knowing who’s boss, and following orders, and pleasing people who are in charge. A lot of servants are people whose daemons are dogs.”
—from The Amber Spyglass, Chapter 35
Lyra is a somewhat unreliable narrator, but her statement is corroborated by multiple descriptions of daemons throughout the novels, including this one, which opens the trilogy:
As Lyra held her breath, she saw the servant’s daemon (a dog, like all servants’ daemons) trot in and sit quietly at his feet, and then the Master’s feet become visible too, in the shabby black shoes he always wore.
Then he smoothed the hair over his ears with both palms and said something to his daemon. He was a servant, so she was a dog; but a superior servant, so a superior dog. In fact, she had the form of a red setter.
The Butler bowed and hastened out, his daemon trotting submissively at his heels.
—from The Golden Compass, Chapter 1
The idea of daemons is wonderfully imaginative and thought-provoking. Still, a universe in which a person becomes a servant because servitude is the most essential part of his being seems overly simplistic and contrived, not to mention almost laughably ignorant of social and economic realities of even a fictional universe. Furthermore, the idea that a human being’s personality and ambitions and ultimate path in life are set at the moment that they reach puberty or undergo some sort of sexual awakening betrays a remarkably narrow understanding of the incredible range of human experience.
This is why I wish Lyra hadn’t been sidelined in The Subtle Knife and rendered unconscious for large stretches of The Amber Spyglass. As Pullman’s multiple William Blake epigraphs make expressly clear, so much of what happens in His Dark Materials is tied to the inseparable themes of innocence and experience, and understanding the interaction between the two themes can help the reader better grasp the religious symbolism and metaphysical implications of the novels. I therefore wish the transition between innocence and experience could have been narrated from the perspective of Lyra, who serves as their symbolic embodiment. If Lyra is so important that her sexuality effectively functions as the key both to the Garden of Eden and to the Kingdom of Heaven, not to mention as the key to the books themselves, then I want to know what’s going on in her head and in her heart, not just what’s going on between her legs. After all, it’s not exactly a divine mystery or a profound secret that most twelve-year-old girls have vaginas.