“A human being with no daemon was like someone without a face, or with their ribs laid open and their heart torn out; something unnatural and uncanny that belonged to the world of nightghasts, not the waking world of sense.” — Northern Lights/The Golden Compass
The His Dark Materials trilogy starts off in a world much like our own, with one glaring exception: every human — from the moment they are born to the moment they die — is accompanied by an animal known as a daemon. And if you don’t have an animal companion following you around at all times, author Philip Pullman describes in his first novel Northern Lights (titled The Golden Compass for the states), you are grotesque and unnatural.
Before Pullman introduces fantastical airships, armored bears, and flying witches; before we learn about Dust, the alethiometer, and parallel dimensions; before the adventure really begins, we first meet Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon and a few of the intricate rules surrounding daemons.
With the BBC and HBO’s adaptation of the books bringing the series to television for the first time on Nov. 4, daemons are at the forefront of our minds. But what’s the deal with daemons? What are they really? What kind of animals can they be? Are they just like Patronuses or what?
Let’s peel back the layers of our memories, dive back into the His Dark Materials trilogy (and associated spin-off novels), and revisit the wonderful world of daemons.
What are daemons?
In Lyra’s world, every human being has a daemon companion which takes the form of an animal. Daemons are usually the opposite sex of their human. Cases where daemons are the same sex may be due to sexuality, psychic gifts, gender, or something else entirely. Pullman said in an interview, “There are plenty of things about my worlds I don’t know, and that’s one of them.”
Okay, but what are daemons?
To put it simply, physical manifestations of the soul! That’s right, baby. When [Ed. note: spoiler for the end of Northern Lights/The Golden Compass] Lyra eventually leaves her world and goes to a world that’s more in line with ours, humans don’t have visible daemons. This freaks her out for a bit, but she gets used to it.
We later learn that even when humans in parallel universe don’t have visible daemons, they’re still there. In fact, Will Parry, the eventual deuteragonist of the series who is from “our” world, ends up getting a daemon of his own after he and Lyra pass through the land of death. His soul is severed from his body and forms into a physical presence upon his return. Yes, His Dark Materials is regularly classified as a Middle Grade series.
How do you pronounce daemon?
Unfortunately, it’s just “demon.” (You can still say day-mon in your head if you want).
What kind of animals can they be?
In childhood, daemons shapeshift at will and can be literally any type of animal. Once a person reaches adolescence, their daemon picks an animal and sticks with it. This is supposed to signify the stabilizing of one’s personality into adulthood. Usually, a person’s daemon reflects their personality: for instance, a lot of servants have daemons shaped like dogs because they’re obedient (which, uh, probably kinda classist), whereas witches — more on that in a second — who fly through the air on brooms typically have birds.
Do people choose what animals their daemons become?
Nope. And sometimes, they don’t even pick a form that their human particularly likes. In The Golden Compass, an old sea captain tells Lyra about a dude he knows who’s daemon took the form of a dolphin, so he can’t ever go on land for long periods of time. That’s rough, buddy. He goes on to tell her more about people whose daemons don’t pick a form they like:
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.
Since daemons reflect one’s personality, it’s likely that the reflection of one’s personality is not necessarily a preferred, cuddly animal.
Do they just … appear when a person is born?
Yeah, pretty much. Unlike some other children’s fantasy authors, Pullman doesn’t go through and put a detailed canonical explanation on every lingering detail. He never really answered this one. Now that The Secret Commonwealth is out, Pullman has the last book in the companion trilogy to tell us if daemons pop out from the Mother Daemon.
How do they get their names, then?
In an interview with BBC Radio 4, Pullman did clarify that the parents’ daemons name the baby’s daemons. How sweet.
Can daemons just go off and have a good time without their humans?
Uh, can your soul just go off and have a good time without you? Absolutely not. For most everyone in the world, daemons cannot go more than a few yards away from their humans. Some people are able to push this limitation a little further, like when Mrs. Coulter sends her monkey daemon into a separate room to rifle through Lyra’s stuff, but for regular ol’ humans, the process of a daemon doing so causes intense physical and emotional pain.
Because seeing humans with daemons is the norm, when Lyra pops into our world in the later books, she’s totally thrown off for a second, since it’s just unnatural not to have a daemon. Most of the time, if a human and daemon separate, both will die.
There are, however, a few ways humans and daemons can be separated. One is a big spoiler for the show, so we won’t mention it, but let’s just say involves a special guillotine.
The other exception, however, are witches, who do exist in Lyra’s world. When coming of age, witches undergo a ritual where they journey across a barren wasteland that separates them from their daemons. This does not kill either party and upon reuniting, they regain their same intimate bond — with the added bonus that they can now be apart for great distances. This is similar to what happens to Will and Lyra in The Amber Spyglass, when they journey through the land of the dead.
Are there any other weird daemon rules?
There is the matter of touching.
It is totally taboo to touch another human’s daemon — even in the heat of battle. Daemons can, on occasion, touch other daemons, usually when their respective humans are physically touching: they nuzzle when their humans embrace, they fight when their humans are fighting, etc. But it’s considered a huge violation to touch a daemon that is not your own.
The exception is the moment Lyra and Will stroke each other’s daemons in this sort of sexual awakening allegory, so perhaps daemons are part of sex, but we don’t know for sure because they are 13 in the books and these books are for kids. But we do get this rather interesting passage towards the end of The Amber Spyglass:
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.
So...what happens to your daemon when you die?
They just cease to exist, basically disintegrating into nothingness. We see this happen in action during the events of The Golden Compass, in the midst of a pivotal battle, swarmed with humans, daemons, witches, and armored bears.
A wolf daemon leaped at [Iorek, the armored polar bear]: he slashed at her in midair, and bright fire spilled out of her as she fell to the snow, where she hissed and howled before vanishing. Her human died at once.
The His Dark Materials books are pretty damn grim about the reality of life and death.
Is there an official HBO “What daemon would you have?” quiz?