Daemons. They’re one of the things that make Lyra’s world in the His Dark Materials series notably different from our own. Everyone has an external representation of a part of their soul, usually in the form of an animal. In the books, we see plenty of different daemons, and get some glimpses into daemon lore. But as is often the case with this type of world-building, there are plenty of questions that are left ambiguous or unanswered. Let’s take time to explore some of those issues.
Inconvenient types of daemon
Having something like a horse or a donkey as a daemon could be pretty convenient – in essence, it’s your own personal mount. And a bear or a gorilla would probably be useful for intimidation and a bit of a heft for physical activities. But at some point, having a large daemon just becomes troublesome.
“The elephant in the room” takes on a very different meaning when that elephant is your daemon. Public transport is probably closed off to you – maybe a freight train is an option, but you’re never going to be taking a car or a bus anywhere. Most houses won’t have doors big enough to allow entrance, so your daemon is stuck outside a lot of the time, forlornly staring in the window. Sure, your daemon is huge and impressive, but is it worth the price of being a social outcast?
We know that daemons can be small – right at the start of the first novel, for example, Pantalaimon takes on the form of a moth. A tiny daemon is certainly convenient for carrying in your pocket or sending into an enclosed space – sure, most daemons can’t stray too far from their human, but if you’ve just locked your keys in your car, for example, they may be able to sneak in and retrieve them.
However, small daemons are also vulnerable – both to deliberate attacks like Boreal’s crushing of a butterfly daemon in episode two, and to accidents. Although animals and humans are supposed to be able to distinguish daemons from real animals somehow, would you really trust a hunting bird not to swoop down and grab your earthworm daemon before it realised its mistake?
And what if your daemon is not only tiny, but something truly disgusting? Does anyone want to have to live with a parasitic worm as their daemon? Presumably said daemon would have no choice but to use you as a host, which would be all kinds of creepy and wrong.
In one of the books, there is mention of a man with an aquatic daemon, who is subsequently forced to spend the rest of his life at sea. Anyone with a large water dweller as a daemon is pretty much doomed to the same fate – the best you can hope for is to set up shop on a beach or pier.
If your daemon is a smaller fish or a similarly portable beast, you might be in a bit more luck. Sure, carrying around your salmon daemon in a bucket is a bit unwieldy, but at least you get to be on land. And maybe you can kit out a nice aquarium for them at home.
Deep sea creatures
One particularly tricky subset of the last category are creatures that not only live in the sea, but make their home at the very depths of the oceans. These creatures need the high pressure environment of the deep ocean, and that means that any daemon that takes their form is stuck down there too. As a human, this pretty much confines to you to a diving bell or a submarine, and even then you’ll probably want top of the range equipment that’s able to withstand the crushing pressure. It seems unlikely that anyone trapped in such a situation would be able to live either a long or a happy life.
What forms can a daemon take?
I’ve started rereading Northern Lights, and although daemons mostly take the form of real animals, there are some exceptions. In the early chapters, Pantalaimon and Roger’s daemon Salcilia try taking on the forms of gargoyles, whilst Pan also becomes a dragon and a “miniature lion” at various points. And it’s not just children’s daemons that can take on these fantastic forms – in the crypt under Jordan College, we learn that one dead scholar had a basilisk daemon, while another had a “fair woman” daemon. What exactly are the limits here?
When Pan becomes a dragon, he and Lyra mock the other children for lacking the imagination to do the same with their daemons, so perhaps the form of the daemon is limited only by their human’s creativity. However, as most people tend become less fanciful and more pragmatic as they grow up, their daemons tend to settle into more basic animal forms. Only true free spirits and dreamers are likely to have their daemons settles as something really out there, such as a unicorn or a griffin.
How are daemons born?
This has never really been clear. Does the human mother also give birth to the daemon? Does a daemon spontaneously form when a human baby is born (and if so, at which point during the birth?) If a human gets pregnant, does her partners daemon do so at the same time (given that her daemon would like be male, whilst the partner’s daemon would be likely female?). Given that it’s probably a messy and logistically complicated process, perhaps it’s for the best that we don’t know the details.
What does the sex of a daemon even mean?
Apart from one exception (noted as rare) in the books, in Lyra’s world women have male daemons, and men have female daemons – one could theorise that these represent a person’s animus or anima. But what about gender?
Animals in our world don’t have gender, but daemons aren’t really animals – they look and act like animals a lot of the time, but they’re also sentient representations of an aspect of a human’s soul. What if that person is trans? Does this affect their daemon in any way? What about genderfluid people, or non-binary people? Do their daemons change with time? Is there such a thing as “daemon dysphoria” – perhaps not just for people with gender dysphoria, but people who feel their daemon settled into the wrong form?
Could an adult’s daemon ever change form?
The implication in the novels that a daemon settling into a single form is an important part of the passage into adulthood – the point at which your true self takes form and starts to emerge. But there are still extreme circumstances where someone’s personality could drastically change – perhaps because of a traumatic event, or a brain injury. Would this ever change the form of their daemon, or would it just affect the daemon’s mental state, but never their physical one?
Do you have answers to these questions? Perhaps you have daemon questions of your own. Comment below and let me know!