Between the years of 1995 and 2000, three critical fantasy series arrived. From 1996-2000, George R.R. Martin released three novels of A Song of Ice & Fire, from 1997-2000, J.K. Rowling released the “Thin Books” in the Harry Potter series. And from 1995-2000, Philip Pullman released His Dark Materials. This trilogy is as popular as Rowling & Martin in the U.K. Now, it’s coming to HBO, in a series portraying an alternative Earth. But this Earth has one big difference from ours: Daemons. So what are daemons on His Dark Materials? They are the souls of every person alive. Warning: Spoilers for His Dark Materials Season 1 follow.
That was Pullman’s conceit when he wrote the three books that make up His Dark Materials. Earth, just like ours, 2019, with an England and an America, and everything else just the same. The only difference is that people’s souls aren’t some mysterious thing people can’t see. They’re not a question to be debated between religious and atheistic scholars as to whether or not they exist.
They’re right there, and they talk. You can ask them.
“Do you exist?”
“Yes, actually, I do.”
Great, theology settled.
Daemons come in all forms, every animal. They represent who the person is inside. A sailor, for instance, might have a dolphin for a daemon, because they love the sea so much. An introverted writer might have a cat. But until a child reaches maturity and settles into who they are, their daemon can change form at will, into anything.
That’s where Lyra and her friend Roger are when Episode 1, “Lyra’s Jordan,” premieres. Both are orphans growing up in Oxford’s Jordan College, innocents, unaware of the world around them. But things start to change for Lyra when her Uncle, Lord Asriel, shows up. His daemon is a snow leopard, a beautiful but badass killer who loves the hunt. Asriel’s hunt is for knowledge, not prey. But the sentiment remains.
Lyra hopes Asriel will take her with him on his adventures in the North, but he refuses. Instead, Mrs. Coulter, another explorer, comes to visit Oxford. She takes a shine to Lyra, offering to take the girl North with her. Coulter’s daemon is a golden monkey, gorgeous to look at, but with eyes that are spying on everything.
But what audiences begin to realize by the end of the episode, this one *tiny* change of where souls reside has made a massive impact on society. It’s 2019, and there are no cell phones, no computers. Cars look like they drove right out of World War II, and fashions are stuck around mid-century as well. There are no airplanes, only zeppelins.
That’s because the Magisterium, the religious theocracy that rules all of Europe, deeply represses all scientific development. The result of being able to settle theology is that religion could insist no one argue with it, creating a single papal-like rule. Some are rebelling against the Magisterium, looking for answers and truth, like Asriel. But others are going North on the government’s behalf, for very different, and deadly, reasons.
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