The Universal Rite of Passage (short version)

The Universal Rite of Passage:

An Exploration of Maturity in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy

by: Wendy Jane Baker

The late comedian Mitch Hedberg joked that “every book is a children’s book if the kid can read” (BrainyQuotes). C.S. Lewis more eloquently stated: “a book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then” (qtd. in Kirk 38). While the comedian focused on the child’s ability to read, the scholar focused on the content that the child was reading. And herein lies the key difference between children’s literature and kid’s books: children’s literature must not only seek to entertain, but also to educate children as well as adults. Children’s literature is primarily read by adults to children (“Preface” xxxiv), meaning that quality material needs to appeal to a variety of ages and levels of knowledge. But juggling multiple levels of meaning is not the only standard for stories; they must also depict a “sense of values and of one’s place within society” (“Fairy Tales” 176). Children’s literature serves the higher purpose of education along with its ability to enchant and amuse. One theme commonly found in children’s literature is maturity or the “coming-of-age” story. While every story handles the rite of passage from childhood to adulthood differently, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy incorporates tangible elements—including daemons and the three dark material tools—to explicitly portray maturity and the role of knowledge throughout this rite of passage and adulthood.

Stories for all ages include all sorts of rites of passage within their pages; an “adult” rite of passage could be marriage, starting a family, or career movement. One of the most common rites of passage in children’s literature is that of maturity or the “coming-of-age” story. Margaret Meek writes that “children’s writers cannot avoid maturation” (40) because “most of the main characters in children’s fiction are wiser at the end of their narratives than they were at the beginning” (1). Meek asserts that this rite of passage is “often entirely implicit. Authors will indicate boundaries being unobtrusively crossed, private moments of inner growth, and quick volatile understandings—but they show these things… ‘without seeming to mention them’” (2). While Philip Pullman does include many of these implicit boundaries in the His Dark Materials trilogy, he also explicitly explores the difference between childhood and adulthood. Pullman’s trilogy is unique because of the tangible elements that he incorporates to represent maturity’s rite of passage.

Pullman views maturity as a significant part of a human life because it is the first stage of adulthood during which we discover critical knowledge about who we are as individuals and how we will act throughout the rest of our lives. When asked why he chose to focus on this time in his characters’ lives, he responded:

I’ve always thought it was one of the most interesting times of anybody’s life when they go through this change from innocence to experience, from childhood to the beginnings of adulthood. And it has the great advantage too, as far as writing is concerned, which is that everybody’s been through it or will go through it or is going through it. So it’s really a universal experience. (“Three Peas Podcast”)

Every aspect of the His Dark Materials trilogy relates to this rite of passage in some way, emphasizing it as the central theme. Mrs. Coulter, Lyra’s mother and supporter of the tyrannical Church, states in The Subtle Knife, “This is at the heart of everything, this difference between children and adults!” (176). The purpose of Mrs. Coulter’s Church funded organization, the General Oblation Board, is to discover the source of “this truth about human beings: that innocence is different from experience” (The Subtle Knife 248). In order to ascertain this truth, the General Oblation Board engage in the horrible affair of severing children from their daemons in attempt to halt puberty’s onset, thinking that if they can somehow stop it, then humankind will remain forever in innocence and that they will be able to undo Original Sin. The role of daemons is essential to the story’s plot and a unique portrayal of maturity.

From the very first sentence of The Golden Compass when Philip Pullman opens with “Lyra and her daemon” (3), it is obvious that this series takes place in a world different from ours and that these “daemons” are an imperative aspect of this strange world. A daemon is an anthropomorphic representation of a soul, and every person in Lyra’s world has one. While daemons serve many purposes throughout the novels, their most important role is how Pullman uses them to represent the difference between children and adults. During childhood, a daemon changes shape as it pleases, and, during puberty, it settles on the one form that it will assume for the rest of its life: “As people became adult, their daemons lost the power to change and assumed one shape, keeping it permanently” (The Golden Compass 44). In Lyra’s world, this aspect makes it quite easy to tell who has reached adolescence and who still lives in the blissful world of youth. The final shape that a daemon assumes also indicates a person’s nature: “when your daemon settles, you’ll know the sort of person you are” (The Golden Compass 147). Lord Asriel, Lyra’s father and adversary of the Church, has a beautiful, powerful snow leopard that can command a room just as well as her fierce owner can; servants’ daemons usually settle on dog forms. Daemons are just one of Pullman’s tangible representations of maturity though; he bequeaths three characters with tools that also symbolize this rite of passage.

Lyra’s dark material tool, the alethiometer, resembles a golden compass with symbols ringing the face and four hands similar to those of a watch. By moving the three longest hands to any combination of symbols, the wielder is able to ask any question imaginable, and the fourth, shorter hand then swings around the face, pausing on symbols, to reveal the answer. The alethiometer literally means “truth measure,” and it never lies when answering a question. The knowledge required to read it entails a lifetime of study; or so it was thought in Lyra’s world until she astounded everyone with her natural ability to read it.  Lyra reads the alethiometer by grace when she is a child and still mostly innocent. But after she has matured and stepped over the threshold between childhood and adulthood, the ability to interpret it by innocent grace has left her: “it had once been like running, or singing, or telling a story: something natural. Now she had to do it laboriously, and her grip was failing” (The Amber Spyglass 343). The angel Xaphania reveals the dualistic nature of the alethiometer to Lyra near the end of The Amber Spyglass; when Lyra asks why she cannot read the alethiometer anymore, Xaphania replies, “You read it by grace … and you can regain it by work” (440). Lyra had received the alethiometer’s knowledge freely, as a child would receive instruction from an adult, but now that she is no longer a child, she must learn to attain knowledge out of her own work and experiences. Xaphania comforts the now young adult by telling her, “but your reading will be even better then, after a lifetime of thought and effort, because it will come from conscious understanding. Grace attained like that is deeper and fuller than grace that comes freely, and furthermore, once you’ve gained it, it will never leave you” (The Amber Spyglass 440). Pullman encourages the continued pursuit of knowledge even after innocence is shed and adulthood has begun; this idea is associated with maturity throughout the series as an essential part of adulthood. While the alethiometer represents maturity in terms of how it is read, the subtle knife is dualistic in form and function.

Will, the other protagonist, who meets Lyra after accidentally leaving our world through a window in the air, is the wielder of the subtle knife. The subtle knife is the most powerful weapon ever created because it can cut through any material with ease—even the fabric between worlds. The “subtle” side of the knife, which appears to be made of shadows, can cut through what seems to be thin air and create “windows” into other worlds. The subtle knife is dualistic in its physical appearance and its purpose. It is described as a double-edged blade with one side being able to cut through any tangible material and the other side able to cut through the intangible. The “subtle” side of the knife represents experience because it allows for boundaries to be crossed and explored, a vital part of self-discovery and maturity. The ordinary side of the knife represents innocence because it deals only with the tangible aspects of the world. Much of childhood revolves around the tangible world because children need to learn everything about what they can see, touch, taste, hear, and smell before they can start to think about intangible matters like love, betrayal, hatred, and trust. Of course, we understand some of these intangible aspects of life when we’re young, but those comprehensions are more instinct than experience. The key to understanding the dual purpose and liminal essence of the subtle knife is not to focus on the action of the blade, but the object of that action which will reveal the intentions of each side. Lyra and Will both possess objects that not only aid them in their journey towards maturity, but also epitomize the boundary between innocence and experience that they are crossing. The last dark material tool is created and used by an adult, but still symbolizes an important aspect of maturity.

It is fitting that the last book of the series is named The Amber Spyglass because it is a tool that represents knowledge, and a child cannot mature into an adult without experience and knowledge. Dr. Mary Malone, a scientist from our world who befriends Lyra and Will, creates the amber spyglass from materials found in the world of the mulefa, creatures with diamond shaped skeletons that travel on wheels. The amber spyglass gives the wielder the ability to see Dust, the “magical” substance that powers the dark material tools and appears as golden sparkles when looking through the amber spyglass. Dust also prefers to gather around adults rather than children because it is attracted to self-aware, conscious beings; Dust is another indicator of maturity. The amber spyglass represents knowledge because after Mary is able to see Dust, she is able to observe it in a scientific way and understand it. With this dark material tool, Pullman creates the foundation for one of his strongest statements about maturity; although the greatest change between innocence and experience occurs during maturity, the end of this rite of passage should not also be the end of the desire for more knowledge. Mary, an adult and wielder of the amber spyglass, has already dedicated her career to life-long learning and exploring as a scientist, so Pullman takes her passion for learning further through the amber spyglass and its ability to help her understand the connection between knowledge and maturity. It is appropriate that Mary creates the amber spyglass in a world that is not her home world because Pullman utilizes foreign worlds to aid maturity’s rite of passage.

A boundary that Pullman toys with in his series is the balance between the home world and the foreign world. Pullman uses this foreign world experience to represent a space where children can learn lessons they might not have had the chance to discover in their own home worlds. Paul Simpson comments that through these foreign worlds that can only exist in fantasy, Pullman is able to reveal a truth about maturity that might be impossible to do in our own world: “He wanted his story to be about people… and about a universal human experience: growing up. For Pullman, the point was never to write fantasy. The point was to use fantasy to say something he thought was true about the way we live” (38-39). Exploring foreign worlds allows characters to have experiences and come to realizations that they would not have had the chance to encounter in their own home world: “then she found an adjustment being made in her mind, as the word creatures became the word people. These beings weren’t human, but they were people, she told herself; it’s not them, they’re us” (The Amber Spyglass 109). By choosing Mary, an adult, to have this change in perspective about the mulefa, Pullman makes a point through her realization that it is not only children that radically reshape how they think and view the world as they grow up, but adults also need to be open to new ideas and acceptance. While maturity is the difference between a child and an adult, the act of becoming aware and knowledgeable is not limited to one point in a human’s life, and people should constantly strive to be open to new experiences that expand their understanding of the world. Pullman is encouraging the use of the foreign world as a playground for learning and experimentation not just for children, but adults as well.

As perfect as life would be with the ability to travel the worlds as one may please, learning and growing from all the different experiences they have to offer before finding one to settle in, Pullman cautions against forgetting the home world. While the knowledge gained from the foreign world is something that may be impossible to attain in the home world, Pullman wants to emphasize that creatures need to stay in the world of their birth: “your daemon can only live its full life in the world it was born in. Elsewhere it will eventually sicken and die. We can travel, if there are openings into other worlds, but we can only live in our own” (The Amber Spyglass 325). After illustrating how beneficial the foreign world can be to the maturing process, it seems odd that Pullman would decide to bar this experience and knowledge from his characters, at least physically. His reasoning: “we have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere” (The Amber Spyglass 325). While foreign worlds have the ability to teach and expand knowledge, it is more important to strive for utopia in the home world. Part of growing up is realizing that problems must be faced and dealt with; people cannot merely move to a new world whenever they do not agree with what is happening in their home world. Being an adult in Pullman’s opinion means dealing with problems instead of running away from them. Pullman has left an important loophole though; while physically trying to travel or live in another world is impossible, people can still gain the same knowledge and experience of these foreign worlds through storytelling.

Storytelling and literature are mediums that have the remarkable ability to allow people to experience something that they might never have gotten the chance to in their own reality. Pullman states, “Stories are vital. Stories never fail us because, as Isaac Basevis Singer says, ‘events never grow stale.’ There’s more wisdom in a story than in volumes of philosophy” (qtd in Simpson 5). People can gain the same knowledge and lessons from hearing a story and experiencing the events with the characters that they would from experiencing it firsthand, so in this way, Pullman still emphasizes the importance of the foreign world for teaching and learning. He recognizes the value and importance of stories for children, expressing his opinion that “‘Thou shalt not’ is soon forgotten, but ‘once upon a time’ lives forever” (qtd in Simpson 21).  Through stories and literature, foreign worlds can still be accessed, and their lessons and experiences still taught to both children and adults. Pullman demonstrates how stories influence maturity when Mary tells Lyra and Will a story about falling in love:

As Mary said that, Lyra felt something strange happen to her body. She felt as if she had been handed the key to a great house she hadn’t known was there, a house that was somehow inside her, and as she turned the key, she felt other doors opening deep in the darkness, and lights coming on. (The Amber Spyglass 396)

As well as validating his own opinion that stories can assist the voyage through this rite of passage, Pullman also shows how knowledge is an exponential force that continues to build upon itself. Once Lyra has discovered this feeling inside of her, it brings about a whole world of new feelings and emotions. While listening to Mary’s story, Lyra’s reaction demonstrates how suddenly and unexpectedly maturity and understanding dawns on a person: “It was the strangest thing: Lyra knew exactly what she meant, and half an hour earlier she would have had no idea at all” (The Amber Spyglass 396). It is after Mary tells the children her stories that they wander onto the beach to be alone together, and Lyra uses her new knowledge to understand her feelings for Will. When they return to the mulefa camp, Mary immediately notices their change: “There was no need for the glass; she knew what she would see; they would seem to be made of living gold. … The Dust pouring down from the stars had found a living home again, and these children-no-longer-children, saturated with love, were the cause of it all” (The Amber Spyglass 421). Lyra and Will have grown up.

Even though Lyra and Will have grown up and shed the innocence of childhood, their work is not done. Pullman does not leave the story after Will and Lyra become adults because life goes on after maturity. Pullman does not want the reader to leave his story thinking that after we become experienced, we are set in our ways and no longer need to change—quite the contrary actually. Although the rite of passage from childhood to adulthood may be the most intense and dramatic change that human beings encounter, it should not be the only time that they change and grow in their lives. Pullman encourages a constant growth and passion for learning. Serafina Pekkala, a very wise and old witch, tells Kirjava and Pantalaimon that although their humans have changed “one thing hasn’t changed: you must help your humans, not hinder them. You must help them and guide them and encourage them toward wisdom. That’s what daemons are for” (The Amber Spyglass 424). Dr. Mary Malone is a strong example of Pullman’s positive feelings towards a life of continued learning because not only is she a scientist who has dedicated her life to seeking more knowledge, she is also able to adjust her views of the world when she meets the mulefa. This openness, acceptance, and urge to discover are traits that Pullman encourages throughout adult life, and Xaphania gives Will and Lyra a task along these very same lines:

… help everyone else in your worlds to do that, by helping them to learn and understand about themselves and each other and the way everything works, and by showing them how to be kind instead of cruel, and patient instead of hasty, and cheerful instead of surly, and above all how to keep their minds open and free and curious… (The Amber Spyglass 440-441)

Pullman is emphatic in illustrating that these values are not only important to leading a happy adult life, but absolutely necessary. Maturity is an important change in a human’s life, one that Pullman finds fascinating, but it is not the only change during life. It is only after a person has gained the experience and knowledge from maturity that he would be able to understand the importance of growth and change. And that is Pullman’s deepest message about the difference between innocence and experience.

Throughout Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Will and Lyra face many challenges and hardships. It is through these experiences that Lyra and Will are able to shed their innocence and gain experience—Pullman’s definition of maturity.  Though Lyra and Will are still very young at the end of the series, barely even teenagers, they have learned the most important lessons about how to live their lives as good, responsible adults. Even though they must be parted and face the painful experience of separation, they are grown-up enough to deal with the situation gracefully and courageously; they know that their duty is to teach the people of their own worlds what they’ve learned and to continue to spread knowledge, love, and acceptance. The angel Xaphania summarizes the entire trilogy and Pullman’s message with one simple sentence: “all the history of human life has been a struggle between wisdom and stupidity” (The Amber Spyglass 429). Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is an epic piece of children’s literature that seeks to teach both children and adults that while maturity is a significant change in a human life, there are so many more things to experience, lessons to learn, and adventures to be had after reaching adulthood, and we need to continually put forth effort to grow and attain as much knowledge as possible with the precious time we are given to be alive.

Works Cited

BrainyQuote: Famous Quotes and Quotation Topics. Mitch Hedberg Quotes. 2008. 6 Aug 2008 <;.

“Fairy Tales.” The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature: The Traditions in English. Ed. Jack Zipes, Lissa Paul, Lynne Vallone, Gillian Avery, Peter Hunt. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005. 175-184.

Kirk, E.J. Beyond the Wardrobe: The Official Guide to Narnia. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

Meek, Margaret, Margaret Meek Spencer, and Victor Watson. Coming of Age in Children’s Literature. New York & London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003.

“Preface.” The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature: The Traditions in English. Ed. Jack Zipes, Lissa Paul, Lynne Vallone, Gillian Avery, Peter Hunt. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005. xxvii-xxxv.

Pullman, Philip. The Amber Spyglass. New York: Ballantine Books, 2000.

Pullman, Philip. The Golden Compass. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995.

Pullman, Philip. The Subtle Knife. New York: Ballantine Books, 1997.

Simpson, Paul. The Rough Guide to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: The Books, the Movie, the Background. New York: Rough Guides Ltd, 2007.

“Three Peas Podcast: Featuring a conversation with Christopher Paolini, author of the Inheritance Trilogy, Tamora Pierce, author of the Bekka Cooper series, and Phillip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials series.” 2006. Podcast. Random House Children’s Books. Fall 2006. <;.

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