'His Dark Materials' Explained: What's the Deal with Daemons?

Here's what you need to know about Philip Pullman's fantastical creatures.

Hisdarkmaterials
HBO

“This story starts in another world,” a line of text reads at the beginning of the HBO series His Dark Materials. “One that is both like, and unlike, your own.”

The most obvious difference between the show’s steampunk, 1920s-esque world and ours is the presence of daemons. These are animals who are physical manifestations of humans’ souls and exist beside them always. Yet even though they are physical manifestations of the human characters’ souls, the creatures also have their own thoughts, voices, and ideas.

In a 2008 BBC Radio webchat, His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman said of the concept from his books, “You have to remember that you [the person] and the daemon are not separate beings — you are one being in two bodies.”

Viewers of the show are told that “the bond between human and daemon is sacred,” but early episodes have done little to elaborate on that bond beyond some clunky expository dialogue. So, before venturing even further into the world of Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen), what do viewers need to know?

Well, if you’re curious about whether daemons are born at the same time as humans or appear at some point later, you won’t get a clear answer. Pullman, who is less concerned about painstakingly planned world-building than some of his literary peers, never originally thought to answer that question.

“I’ve never had to talk about how daemons come into being because I didn’t write a scene of a human character being born,” he admitted 11 years ago. “What I do know is about how they got their names: the parents’ daemons choose the name of the child’s daemon.”

The series confirms that daemons do exist alongside people during infancy with an opening scene in which Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) brings baby Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon (voiced by Kit Conner) to live at Oxford’s Jordan College.

In most cases, daemons are the opposite gender of their human counterparts. Because children’s personalities and beliefs are constantly evolving as they grow, their daemons have the ability to shapeshift into any animal. Thirteen-year-old Lyra is nearing adolescence when His Dark Materials begins, and although Pantalaimon (or “Pan” for short) still changes throughout the story, his preferred form is a white ermine.

Lyra’s daemon, Pantalaimon.

Upon reaching adulthood, daemons settle into one animal that best reflects their human counterparts’ personalities. Lord Asriel, an imposing nobleman who is fixated on the wilderness of the “north,” has a snow leopard daemon named Stelmaria (voiced by Helen McCrory). The river-dwelling Gyptian people are shown with bird daemons, indicating their nomadic lives. Members of the Magisterium, the totalitarian theocracy that controls this world, have bug and reptile daemons to signify corruption. 

The “settling” of daemons also gives the series an opportunity to better characterize the rituals and beliefs of the Gyptians, who are comprised of a found-family community of refugees and outcasts. In the first episode, “Lyra’s Jordan,” Gyptian teenager Tony Costa (Daniel Frogson) is shown enjoying a bar mitzvah-like ceremony to celebrate his daemon settling into the form of a hawk.

For both the HBO His Dark Materials series and The Golden Compass, the maligned 2007 film based on the first book, the perpetual presence of talking animals remains one of the most challenging aspects of adapting Pullman’s work. Daemons might be an expected, natural part of life in Lyra’s world, but without careful execution, they can come off as juvenile and cartoonish.

His Dark Materials executive producer Jane Tranter says, in a promotional featurette, that it was decided early on that the daemons would be photo-realistic CGI creatures, but that “the daemon animals had to give a performance, representing something of what the character is thinking or feeling.” To help the actors authentically act alongside their daemons, there were on-set puppeteers with puppets of varying detail, depending on the breadth of the scene. Later, these puppets were replaced by the CGI versions.

The sheer volume of daemons is an inherent problem given how expensive it is to create large numbers of CGI animals for each episode. Daemons’ constant presence alongside human characters makes their inclusion unavoidable. The show works around this issue, but it does lead to some plot holes with quick crowd shots in which they can’t insert a daemon for each person present.

An on-set daemon puppet.

His Dark Materials also runs into problems by simultaneously under- and over-explaining daemons in its early episodes, particularly in regards to the unnamed golden monkey daemon linked to the enigmatic Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson).

When Mrs. Coulter is first introduced as a beautiful, worldly woman who takes an interest in Lyra and offers her a job as her assistant, the girl has no clue that there’s anything malevolent about her. One of the first clues, though, comes in the form of Mrs. Coulter’s daemon, who is utterly silent and never referred to by name. Yet it’s extremely unnatural for a daemon to not speak.

Lyra  begins to mistrust her new guardian after Pan insists that he hears something crawling around in their apartment’s air vents in the middle of the night. When the pair investigate, they discover Mrs. Coulter’s monkey completely alone. In this world, humans and daemons are tethered together, and seeing them apart is akin to seeing a person without their head.

“How are you able to be so far away from your daemon? It’s too painful,” Lyra exclaims, horrified. “It’s not natural.”

Book readers, who already know that people and their daemons can’t go more than a few yards apart from each other without experiencing excruciating pain and shame, will be unsurprised by Lyra’s reaction. However, the series fails to show how essential human-daemon proximity is up until this point, so the scene makes little sense to the casual viewer.

Few daemons other than Pan have spoken much in the series due to the logistics of casting voice actors and animating new daemons, so the strangeness of the monkey daemon doesn’t come across so well, either.

Thankfully, the link between humans and daemons is emphasized later on, when the monkey daemon violently attacks Pan after Lyra disobeys Mrs. Coulter. Lyra writhes on the ground in shared pain, screaming at her guardian, “You’re hurting us!”

Daemon

Mrs. Coulter’s monkey daemon attacks Pantalaimon.

His Dark Materials has managed to set up other important daemon plot lines that will have major bearings on the story later. In the second episode, “The Idea of the North,” Lyra breaks into Mrs. Coulter’s office and discovers plans for a device that traps a child and their daemon in separate cages with a guillotine suspended above them.

Lyra becomes more alarmed when Mrs. Coulter throws a party later that day and a journalist named Adèle Starminster (Georgina Campbell) tells her that her guardian is the head of the “Gobblers,” a mysterious group who has been abducting children — including Lyra’s best friend Roger.

While the show hasn’t revealed why Mrs. Coulter and other adults are trying to separate these children from their daemons, the implications are suitably chilling. In a sequence that drives home how dangerous harming a person’s daemon can be, Mrs. Coulter’s associate Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) spots Adèle talking to Lyra. He then escorts the journalist out of the party and into a waiting car. He marvels at her fluttering butterfly daemon for a moment before crushing the creature and killing them both.

Lordboreal

Lord Boreal crushes Adèle’s butterfly daemon in his fist, killing them both.

With five episodes left of the first season His Dark Materials, viewers will have to wait to discover why children and their daemons are being taken north, as well as how Mrs. Coulter is able to wander so far from her daemon without a second glance. In the meantime, the show and its explanation of daemons will have to deal with growing pains of their own.

(Intern)

Culture journalist and Vox Magazine writer who hasn't been adopted by Paul Thomas Anderson and Maya Rudolph (yet).