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Women in His Dark Materials

On his website, Philip Pullman wrote a note on the film, in which he praises Anand Tucker’s approach as a director:

But the best thing from the point of view of all who care about the story is his awareness that it isn’t about computer graphics; it isn't about fantastic adventures in amazing-looking worlds; IT’S ABOUT LYRA. 1

This is not the first time that Pullman stresses the importance of his central character. It is noteworthy that this central hero of the story is a heroine. This essay shall explore why this is important for the story and its message.

In Lyra’s world, which seems to lag behind our world in many respects, the feminist movement does not seem to have been able to strike yet. The Church plays an important role in this, as it promotes the suppression of women in every aspect of society it can control. There are no female priests in the Magisterium. Nuns only feature once in the trilogy, and these are nuns who are sworn to silence and fulfil only the task of taking the minutes during an inquiry at the Consistorial Court of Discipline. 2

These gender roles can be found in the very first chapter of the book, where the frame is set for the story and certain “basic rules” are laid out. When Lyra enters the Retiring Room at Jordan College, she may well be the first female ever to do that:

[O]nly Scholars and their guests were allowed in here, and never females. Even the maidservants didn’t clean in here. That was the Butler’s job alone. 3

There are some female scholars at women’s colleges in Lyra’s Oxford, yet Lyra’s rejection of them reflects what she has been taught by the male scholars at Jordan:

She regarded female Scholars with a proper Jordan disdain: there were such people but, poor things, they could never be taken more seriously than animals dressed up and acting a play. 4

The law in this England also represents a view of women that appears archaic, for they are, to a certain extent, considered their husband’s property.5 With this background, it is understandable that Lyra is surprised to find that the alethiometer leads her to a female scholar in Will’s Oxford:

“the alethiometer hadn’t said a man, and this was a strange world, after all.”6

In contrast to the seemingly dull female scholars, two characters are introduced that celebrate their femininity and sexuality, although in very different ways: Mrs Coulter and the witches. When Lyra first encounters Mrs Coulter, this contrast is very strongly demonstrated: they meet at a dinner at which female scholars are present, and it is in their presence that Mrs Coulter gets the chance to really stand out. She is described as young and beautiful. Throughout the books, Mrs Coulter succeeds in captivating people at first sight. She deploys both sides of her femininity: her sexuality and her motherliness. However, even in her motherly enchanting she is portrayed as a seducer. She charms Lyra with her youth, “glamour” (NL: 67), and with taking her seriously. In her role as the child abductor for the Oblation Board, she is neither very subtle nor especially original:

The monkey reaches out slowly. His little hand is black, his nails perfect horny claws, his movements gentle and inviting. The sparrow [the child’s dæmon] can’t resist. She hops further, and further, and then, with a little flutter, up on the monkey’s hand.

The monkey lifts her up, and gazes closely at her before standing and swinging back to this human, taking the sparrow-dæmon with him. The lady bends her scented head to whisper. And then Tony turns. He can’t help it.


“Hello,” says the beautiful lady. “What’s your name?”
“Where do you live, Tony?”
“Clarice Walk.”
“What’s in that pie?”
“Do you like chocolatl?”
“As it happens, I’ve got more chocolatl than I can drink myself. Will you come and help me drink it?”
He’s lost already. He was lost the moment his slow-witted dæmon hopped on to the monkey’s hand.7

Her strategy is the most common: luring children with sweets.8 A second tactic is asking for help: she asks Lyra to become her personal assistant and she asks the children she keeps in a warehouse cellar for their assistance.9 In Lyra’s case, this is unnecessary for she is already enchanted by Mrs Coulter – “She would have said yes to anything.”10 – and appealing to her good manners would certainly be futile, but this request aims at the helpfulness of children who were taught to help when they are asked to. Mrs Coulter’s effect on people is so powerful that even the children who are already held captive respond to it:

she was so gracious and sweet and kind that they felt they hardly deserved their good luck, and whatever she asked they’d give it gladly so as to stay in her presence a little longer.11

Her motherly side is made use of in the scene of Lyra’s rescue from the drugged sleep. Will sees his mother’s face in Mrs Coulter’s, loses his concentration and breaks the knife. Although Will’s mother’s appearance is not described in detail, it seems obvious that they do not look alike. Rather, Will must perceive a motherly charisma that triggers his feelings.

Far from motherly is the impression Mrs Coulter gives when she is dealing with men. She uses her femininity and sex appeal to make powerful men fall for her. This is hinted at when John Faa talks about the Master of Jordan College releasing Lyra into Mrs Coulter’s care:

“All I can guess is that she had some power over him.”12

This power can mean influential friends in the Magisterium; yet the wording is reminiscent of Mrs Coulter’s power over the children she abducted. The most obvious example is Lord Boreal (Sir Chares Latrom): he, who is intelligent, skilful and urbane enough to become influential in two worlds – as a Council of State in Lyra’s world13 and as a spy and CBE in ours14 – is deceived by Mrs Coulter. To her, he is a simple means to reach her goals, and when she does not need him any more, she kills him.15

This constellation represents a very conservative view of feminine sexuality: dull, decent scholars on the one hand and the negative figure of the femme fatale on the other. Philip Pullman does not leave it there, however. He introduces a third kind of female characters, the witches. These witches are not at all like the old mean women in fairy tales or Shakespeare’s bearded weird sisters. They are described as young and beautiful, and they celebrate their bodies, being alive, physical sensations and joys. Moreover, they even are able to experience more sensations than humans. The fact that they are only scantily clad despite the freezing cold in the North is explained by Serafina Pekkala as follows:

“We feel cold, but we don’t mind it, because we will not come to harm. And if we wrapped up against the cold, we wouldn’t feel other things, like the bright tingle of the stars, or the music of the Aurora, or best of all the silky feeling of moonlight on our skin. It’s worth being cold for that.”16

The fact that they are highly sexual creatures is not very subtly put forward by Philip Pullman in a scene in The Subtle Knife, when Ruta Skadi reports after her visit to Lord Asriel:

“[…] I made myself invisible and found my way to his inmost chamber, when he was preparing to sleep.”

Every witch there knew what had happened next, and neither Will nor Lyra dreamed of it. So Ruta Skadi had no need to tell, and she went on […] 17

Lyra’s femininity and sexuality is of central importance to the story. Her sexual awakening is portrayed18 but the scene of the actual “new Fall of Man” is omitted. What seems to be of more importance to Philip Pullman is what happens after the Fall. The most important twist to the Biblical story is the absence of guilt.

Philip Pullman’s portrait of sexuality is thoroughly positive, as is his depiction of femininity. He lets his story revolve around women: the heroine Lyra, the female tempter Mary, the female rebel angel Xaphania, Mrs Coulter. Male characters do play a big role as well, but it is in most cases the female figures that influence the story decisively. His most important point, however, goes far beyond this “positive discrimination.” With the help of the dæmons, he shows that both male and female sides are to be found in every human. The passage in which this is especially stressed is when John Parry/Dr Grumman describes his feelings on discovering his dæmon:

Can you imagine my astonishment, in turn, at learning that part of my own nature was female, and bird-formed, and beautiful?19

Despite the fact that most children’s literature – especially adventure and fantasy stories – is still dominated by male characters, a female hero is not a novelty. However, it can be argued that having a girl as a central character helped Pullman convey his message substantially; the same way that having a male character describe finding his female side in his dæmon is more daring and potentially more powerful than a female character finding her male side. Pullman appeals for a positive holistic human existence, and he emphasises that by stressing the female side.


1 http://www.philip-pullman.com/pages/content/index.asp?PageID=102; last accessed 13 Sep 2007

2 Pullman, Philip: The Amber Spyglass. London: Scholastic, 2001: 71. (Hence TAS)

3 Pullman, Philip: Northern Lights. London: Scholastic, 1998: 4. (Hence NL)

4 NL: 67; In this scene, it becomes clear that Lyra is categorised from outside - and sees herself - as a child, not a girl. It is very unlikely that the rebellious heroine would otherwise conform to these restrictions.

5 NL: 123

6 Pullman, Philip: The Subtle Knife. London: Scholastic, 1998: 87. (Hence TSK)

7 NL: 42f

8 A very interesting parallel to C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe can be seen here. In Lewis’ novel, the female antagonist also tempts children with sweets: “‘It is a lovely place, my house,’ said the Queen. “I am sure you would like it. There are whole rooms full of Turkish Delight […]’”. (C.S. Lewis: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. 1994: 40.) At first glance, this parallel is astonishing, since Philip Pullman repeatedly expressed his contempt for Lewis’ work, criticising among other things his allegedly misogynist portrayal of women. The differences between their respective female “villains” do not become clear before the third book in Pullman’s trilogy.

9 NL: 44

10 NL: 72

11 NL: 44

12 NL: 125

13 TSK:209

14 TSK:165

15 TSK: 326f.

16 NL: 313

17 TSK: 283; Although Ruta Skadi “had no need to tell,” Philip Pullman seems to feel he has to point out the message between the lines. However, one might argue that his concern was rather stressing Will and Lyra’s innocence.

18 TAS: 467f

19 TSK: 223

Comments (2) — Add Yours

Another way in which Phillip Pullman is superior to C.S. Lewis.

# Posted by KenBrasai on 18:17, 15 April 2008

KenBrasai's avatar

I quoted this article on my blog at http://masha.nightcity.co.za/blog/2008/12/07/girls-and-stories/

Thanks!  Hope you do not mind.

# Posted by klip on 16:54, 7 December 2008


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