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How Philip Pullman Develops the Characters Lyra and Will in His Dark Materials


Philip Pullman is a storyteller, who believes that stories are an integral part of human nature. Although he is not a fantasy writer, Pullman realised that His Dark Materials would have to be a fantasy story. Like fairytales, fantasy is often a good medium for younger audiences to connect with anxieties, moral issues and emotions they may struggle with, as Bruno Bettleheim expresses in his book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.

In the trilogy of His Dark Materials, Pullman explores the idea of losing innocence to gain wisdom, something everyone must do in order to grow up. This essay explores how the development of the characters Lyra and Will represents Pullman’s main underlying theme of the trilogy: innocence versus experience. The trilogy has been compared to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, but Pullman feels quite strongly that the message in Narnia is that the children do not have to face the pains of growing up, and instead are sent straight to heaven. This is almost the opposite of Pullman’s work, as it celebrates life and shows the necessity of the process of adolescence.

The journey that Lyra and Will take illustrate the change from childhood to adolescence. This is shown metaphorically by dæmons, which are a part of the self in animal form. Dæmons are able to change form during childhood, but settle to one form around adolescence. Their settled form reflects aspects of the person, and is nearly always the opposite gender.

The other important metaphor for the story is Dust. The reader can consider it akin to Dark Matter in our universe, but these mostly unseen particles are conscious. During adolescence Dust begins to settle around humans, simultaneous with the settling of dæmons. According to the Genesis of Lyra’s world, when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, their dæmons’ true forms were revealed, and they attracted Dust much more strongly. The church therefore considers this Original Sin, and wants to prevent it from recurring when they discover the prophecy regarding Lyra. She was to be “Eve, mother of all – who disobeyed.”[1]

Through Lyra and Will’s story, Pullman expresses his view that Adam and Eve were not the downfall of humankind, but the first to take the step towards knowledge and experience. Like William Blake, Pullman believes that the Fall is an event that happens to all of us during adolescence, and that it is necessary to gain wisdom.

Lyra and Will

At the beginning of the story, Lyra is an impulsive, slightly wild girl growing up in an Oxford College. She is accustomed to running around the streets with her ragamuffin friends, showing off and making up stories. In spite of this she also feels that a part of her belongs to the grandeur of Jordan College, and her rich and powerful uncle Lord Asriel. Lyra was told her parents were killed in an aëronautical accident when she was young, so she grew up with fewer limitations, and without the love or guidance of parents. Pullman notes that “getting rid of the parents”[2] in children’s literature is a problem – children generally have to be free to go on their adventures on their own. For Lyra, discovering the identity of her parents had the effect of her placing less trust in either of them. She had grown up independently, and despite a yearning for parents she did not need them as much as other children might.

Lyra adapts easily to new and different situations, and is at ease talking to strangers. She is also a practised liar, a trait which helps her many times early in the story; although later it is nearly her downfall. As a child she rarely considers how she appears to others. It is not until she meets an armoured bear that she thinks that she must seem like “a young prattling cub”[3]. Generally, however, she is a very confident child, albeit inexperienced. Before travelling to the north Lyra has little idea of the complexities of the world, nor its evil. But she is courageous, and to prove this almost always wants to appear tough. She rarely cries from physical pain, as Will notices when they meet for the first time.

Courage is something Will also has; when Lyra first meets him he is defiant and unafraid. But he also has a sense of weariness, which he notices in Lyra’s expression too. Although there are many similarities between the two children, initially Will appears to be more sure of himself, perhaps because he has a clearer idea of what he is aiming for. He has dealt with responsibility for much of his life, whereas Lyra has only had to worry about herself. Because of his mother being unwell, Will learnt to be inconspicuous, care for them both, and also to defend himself. He does not like violence, but knows that in a fight, you only have to be willing to hurt the person more than they are hurting you. He does these things out of love for his mother, and fear that they would be separated. The most vital reason he wants the knife to be repaired after it breaks is so that he can get back to her; he refuses to abandon her like his father inadvertently did.

There are aspects of Will’s personality that frighten even the witches; for instance Serafina Pekkala admits she had “not dared to look in his eyes”. When a witch kills his father, his rage is so great that the witch felt “this young wounded figure held more force and danger than she’d ever met in a human before”[4]. Will is driven by love for those he cares about, not unlike Lyra.

Role of Dæmons

Dæmons were not in the story originally, but Pullman found that the story flowed more easily if conversations could occur when there was only one person in the scene. Because narratives written in the third person are much more flexible, this was an advantage.

Dæmons are really souls in animal form, and are one of three parts of a person - ghost, body and soul. William Blake also considered the relationship between body and soul, and life and death in his Songs of Experience.

The idea of having a guiding spirit comes from the Ancient Greeks. Good and bad spirits were called 'eudaimons' and 'cacodaimons' respectively. Good daimons were like guardian spirits, “giving guidance and protection to the ones they watched over.”[6] as no more than evil spirits.

In the story, dæmons form an inevitable part of the growing up process. Children’s dæmons are able to change shape, which reflects the changing, quick thinking nature of children. Because Lyra is an imaginative child, her dæmon Pantalaimon might become a dragon in a fight rather than something less creative like a wildcat. At adolescence dæmons settle their form, symbolising maturity and representing their human’s personality.

Dæmons are lifetime companions, and the love between a person and their dæmon is the closest bond imaginable. This is evident when Lyra and Pan were nearly separated at Bolvangar, as the thought of being cut away from each other was unbelievably distressful. Lyra’s betrayal of Pan, as she leaves him behind to journey to the world of the dead, is the most painful experience of her life. However, the name Pantalaimon means ‘all forgiving’[7], and he does forgive Lyra in time.

Pan is often the more sensible side of Lyra, helping her to make decisions and warning her of danger. His judge of character is often better than Lyra’s; he is wary of those who are not trustworthy, but also can tell those who are virtuous and will help them. He also pushes her to do things that are necessary but daunting, for example approaching Iorek.

Pan also seems to be more aware of how important Will is before Lyra does. He breaks the great taboo, touching Will when he is wounded; giving the affection his dæmon would were she visible, to help calm him. Although it feels strange to her, Lyra understands it was the right thing to do.

When Lyra met Will she was initially shocked that he did not have a dæmon, but decided that it must be internal. It was not until the pair journey to the world of the dead that she was born, after being “torn from away from his heart”[10] It was noted by Laurie Frost (Frost, L. 2006; p 56) that it is not surprising that Will’s dæmon should take the form of a cat, after the roles his pet cat Moxie and later the stray that led him into Cittàgazze played. Her fur is clearly representative of the knife, as Will was the last bearer of it, and perhaps has many different sides to his personality, just as Kirjava and the knife blade have many colours.

As Will did not meet Kirjava until some time after leaving the world of the dead, when they were reunited it was a completely new and different feeling for him, being able to see a part of himself visually for the first time. This was another step towards maturity for Will, being able to see a part of his nature clearly.

Pan and Kirjava continue to hide from Lyra and Will when they reach the world of the Mulefa as a punishment, but are convinced by Serafina Pekkala to return to their humans with the knowledge they have gained. She admonishes them, reminding them where they should be. “You must help your humans, not hinder them. You must help them and guide them and encourage them towards wisdom.”[11]

Through their travels the dæmons learnt many things, which in itself was unusual, as before only witches had the ability to be so far away from their dæmons. The most important thing they learned was what the true effects of the subtle knife were. They discovered before Lyra and Will that all the windows must be closed, and therefore that they would not be able to visit each other in their respective worlds, but be confined to one. They return their humans with this painful knowledge, although not yet aware that they could not live in a world that was not their own.

Soon after their return the dæmons settle forms, signifying the maturity Lyra and Will have reached. Kirjava was now able to fulfil the role of a dæmon by being there for Will, to help him in many ways as a lifetime friend. She knows that he must now think of Lyra when breaking the knife, as opposed to his mother. It is love that can break the knife, and the change from feeling simply a love for a mother to romantic love for Lyra illustrates his emotional maturity and entry into adolescence.

The manner in which Lyra and Will’s dæmons revealed their final forms was perhaps more unusual than most. Already having discovered their love for one another, Lyra and Will discovered the wondrous feeling of touching each other’s dæmon. “These were their shapes for life: they would want no other.”[12]

Pantalaimon’s form of a pine marten, elegant and flowing, is a reflection of the grace that Lyra would have once she was fully-grown. As a child, Lyra did not want Pan to settle, but when she sees him as a pine marten, she realises that she would not mind if he stayed like that. This is another representation of the feeling most children have of ‘not wanting to grow up’, and the fact that once they grow up, they would not want it to be any other way.

The Church and Dust

Pullman uses many Biblical allusions in the story, predominantly the story of Adam and Eve. He used it to illustrate his opinion that the Fall was a significant step towards wisdom, as opposed to the downfall of humankind. The idea of Dust, conscious matter, is something strongly linked with the Fall, and an obsession of the Church in Lyra’s world.

“Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself,”[14]

Humans begin to attract Dust more strongly when they reach adolescence, and Pullman shows how this is the time that humans become self-conscious and understand more of the world around them. The characters in the story - particularly initially - do not really understand what it is or what it means. It is through this lack of knowledge and fear in Lyra’s world that the Church (known as the Magisterum) enables the Oblation Board to be formed. Their kidnapping of children is what sends Lyra north in the first place, and when Lyra discovers what happens there, she is horrified. This provokes her to act, to fight against what the Magisterum and ‘Gobblers’ are doing. She decides that Dust must be good, as there are so many people wanting to destroy it; and so goes in search of it. This quest is what leads her to the other worlds and ultimately the fulfilment of the prophecy.

Lyra suspects earlier in the story that what the Oblation Board is investigating is indeed Dust, and also that it is responsible for making the alethiometer work. It is an interesting contrast that Lyra often lies, but yet relies so heavily on the truth that the alethiometer gives her.

According to the Magisterum, the first effects of Dust can be found in the Genesis of Lyra’s world. The name came from the older, more formal translation of what God says to Adam after eating the forbidden fruit – “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”[15] In Lyra’s world the Church took this to be a good word for the mysterious particles, and named it Dust.

When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they became self-conscious and attracted Dust. In Lyra’s Genesis their dæmons’ also settled form. Pullman sees this as a good thing, because it is a necessary step towards wisdom. But the Church regards the Fall as evidence of original sin, and therefore condemns Dust. They would prefer to live in what they consider ‘paradise’, a world with no sin, although that would also mean no true wisdom. As the angel Xaphania says, “…the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep [minds] closed.”[16] When they find out that Lyra is to be in the position of Eve, they see the opportunity to prevent another Fall. This is why the prophecy regarding Lyra is one that terrifies the Church.

As instructed to do so by the Shadows, Mary Malone is the tempter, although she does this without realising it, similar to how Lyra must act if she is to succeed. Lyra’s childhood lacked the love and affection most children have, and when hearing Mary talk about when she first fell in love, it awakens something in Lyra she does not quite understand. She realises that she is in love with Will, and this knowledge is what enables her to become self-conscious. She and Will attract Dust in vast amounts, as Adam and Eve would have done upon eating the Forbidden Fruit. But contrary to what the Bible teaches, Pullman sees this as a positive step. “[Lyra and Will] would seem the true image of what human beings always could be, once they had come into their inheritance.”[17]

It is the moment when Lyra and Will realise their love for one another that is the fulfilment of the prophecy. As Mary Malone said, this was the tiny pebble - carefully placed - that diverted the course of a mighty river of Dust. It stops it flowing out of the worlds and into nothingness, enabling self-conscious beings to remain self-conscious.

What the Church does not that Dust leaving the worlds would be detrimental to all conscious beings. It would leave the worlds without thought, feelings and wisdom. Most characters come to understand that Lyra must be able to fulfil the prophecy, or life would cease to exist as they know it. There is not an unlimited supply of Dust, it is created and renewed by conscious beings. As the angel Xaphania explains, “…all the history of human life has been a struggle between wisdom and stupidity.”[18] Lyra and Will discover this, and vow to create enough Dust to replace what is lost from one window. They do this as a selfless act, showing their maturity and wisdom that they have gained from experience.

Lyra and Will…. revisited

As the story progresses, the reader can observe how Lyra and Will gradually mature. The setting of different worlds puts the characters in challenging situations where they will inevitably learn more about themselves from the experience. This is clearly shown as their actions become more thought out and their reasoning more ethical. Their commitment and loyalty to each other also becomes more evident as they travel, such as when Will goes to rescue Lyra from Mrs Coulter. They get to know each other in detail, and as Lyra realises; “The fact was that where Will was concerned, she was developing a new kind of sense, as if he were simply more in focus than anyone she’d known before.”[19] Will feels that Lyra is the best friend he’s ever had, and she thinks the same about him. They support and learn from and about each other, and can trust the other more than almost anyone else in their lives. Lyra ceases to feel the need to appear tough, or hide her feelings as much; she lets herself cry in front of others. She admits her true fears to Will, in particular before they journey to the world of the dead. Will realises that he is the only person in the world who she would confess this to.

Going to the world of the dead was an essential journey, for Lyra to apologise to Roger, for Will to find his father again, and to fulfil the prophecy that “death is going to die”.[20]

Freeing ghosts from an eternal afterlife was a powerful strike against the Authority, which the two children did from the innocent good intentions that most children have. This is in contrast to the decision they later make much more consciously, to close all the windows and live separately for the good of sentient beings.

Another important lesson of experience Lyra learnt during this time was the value of truth. In many places she could only survive by lying, but here the harpies condemn her for making up stories. It is only when they hear her telling her own true story that they are truly ‘nourished’, and agree to lead the ghosts out in exchange for their stories. This importance that the harpies place on stories portrays how Pullman feels about them; that human beings have a perpetual need for stories, to describe and explain everything around us.

There are several links to Greek Mythology that come across as Lyra and Will travel to the world of the dead. To get to the Greek underworld the deceased crossed the River Styx, taken by the reticent ferryman, Charon[22].

For Will, finding his father was the completion of the task he had originally set out to do. Being able to spend a little more time with his ghost enabled Will to find out just enough to satisfy his need for a father that he felt throughout his life, and allowed him to move on from the anguish he had felt in relation to his family circumstances.

When Lyra is climbing up out of the world of the dead, it is evident that she is becoming more self-conscious of how others see her. “She was Roger’s Lyra, full of grace and daring; she didn’t need to creep along like an insect.”[26] This may be what Lyra and Will aspire to in building the republic of heaven.

Falling in love often marks the coming of age, or completion of the growing up process. As mentioned above, for Lyra it was the fulfilment of her destiny. This and the events preceding it culminated in the decision she and Will made to live in their own worlds, without the other. Despite their recently found feelings for one another, it is a mark of their maturity that they make their choice for the well being of all conscious life and not for themselves. As they are coming to this decision, one thing Will is told by Xaphania is that he has important work to do in his own world. He resists the urge to ask what it is, deciding instead that he would be better off deciding for himself, not influenced by any notions of fate. Xaphania tells him, “Then you have already taken the first steps towards wisdom.”[2]

Upon her return to Jordan College, it is obvious to the Master how much Lyra had grown and matured. He sees that her “unconscious grace had gone”, but that it would soon return in a different sense, as she became a woman. She is anxious to ensure he and Dame Hannah understand that the story she would tell them was completely true, despite the reputation she previously had for telling made up stories. She had learnt the value of truth, amongst many other things.


Through their experiences, Lyra and Will gain a better understanding of themselves and of the differences between innocence and experience. Their actions become focused on others, and not themselves. As author Laurie Frost writes, “Will and Lyra learn to love and trust and make sacrifices for each other, and for the general well-being of all conscious beings.”[28]

One of the main messages Pullman conveys through the story is that the so-called ‘fall’ is an event that occurs frequently. This situation is something that happens to everyone as they grow up, and it is not the fall of humankind so much as the first steps towards wisdom, as William Blake also believed. Blake wrote his Songs of Innocence and Experience to convey the differences between each characteristic, of which Pullman was strongly influenced by when writing the trilogy. Lyra and Will’s journey showed this idea in a powerful and moving way, using the advantages that fantasy often has in communicating to younger readers.

Amongst other things, what Pullman tried to do was to show “how extraordinarily precious and wonderful the physical world is”[29]. He essentially does not believe in any God like figure or afterlife, which is one reason why his writing conveys that life should be lived and celebrated to the full. Just as John Parry tells Lyra and Will, they must build the republic of heaven where they are.


  1. Pullman, P. (1997) The Subtle Knife. Scholastic Ltd: London; p 580
  2. Pullman, P. (2003) The Southbank Show. Interview of Philip Pullman by Melvyn Bragg
  3. Pullman, P. (1995) Northern Lights. Scholastic Ltd: London; p 175
  4. Pullman, P. (1997) The Subtle Knife; p 586
  5. Hefner, A. G. Daimon. Retrieved 15/12/2006, from http://www.pantheon.org/articles/d/daimon.html
  6. Altered spelling, now commonly used, developed from the Greek word ‘dæmon’
  7. (cite meaning of pantalaimon)
  8. Pullman, P. (2000) The Amber Spyglass. Scholastic Ltd: London; p 979
  9. (cite meaning of kirjava)
  10. ibid. p 999
  11. Pullman, P. (2000) The Amber Spyglass. p 979
  12. ibid. p 1000
  13. ibid. p 622
  14. Pullman, P. (2003) The Southbank Show. Interview of Philip Pullman by Melvyn Bragg
  15. Pullman, P. (1995) Northern Lights; p 305
  16. Pullman, P. (2000) The Amber Spyglass; p 983
  17. ibid. p 976
  18. Pullman, P. (2000) The Amber Spyglass; p 983
  19. Pullman, P. (1997) The Subtle Knife; p 575
  20. ibid. p 309
  21. Greek Mythology
  22. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orpheus
  23. Pullman, P. (2000) The Amber Spyglass; p 886
  24. ibid. p 994
  25. Pullman, P. (2002) English Society forum. Balliol College, Oxford University
  26. Book on Blake
  27. Pullman, P. (2000) The Amber Spyglass; p 998
  28. Frost, L. (2006). The Elements of His Dark Material: A Guide to Phillip Pullman's Trilogy. Buffalo Grove: The Fell Press; p 127
  29. Belief Interview with Pullman

Comments (1) — Add Yours

i loved following the development of the characters (will and lyra). I particularly like how you see lyra’s development from a wild, naughty child into a wonderfully deep and moving character, and by the end of the last book (the amber spyglass) i had completly fallen in love with the characters Pullman had created and i adored how well written the end was written and i could feel the pain of the characters because they had been developed so well!
i must also say that the idea of daemons in the book was wonderful and everyone i know who has read these books has wished for a daemon of their own!

# Posted by blondballetboy on 20:22, 23 July 2009


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