The Universal Rite of Passage

The Universal Rite of Passage:

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

The late comedian Mitch Hedberg joked that “Every book is a children’s book if the kid can read” (BrainyQuotes). While this was most likely followed by a hilarious and inappropriate story, he does have a glimmer of intelligent insight in that first statement. C.S. Lewis said something similar, but more eloquent and precise: “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. The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature notes that unfortunately “the ubiquity and popularity of children’s literature were reasons why it was largely shunned and undervalued at the university level” (“Preface” xxx). Many college professors would most likely stay away from teaching such books like the Harry Potter series and stories by Ursula Le Guin, Tamora Pierce, and Philip Pullman. The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature addresses this issue as well, stating, “the problematic nature of children’s literature is underscored not just by the concerns about defining childhood … but also by the increasing tendency of distinctions between child and adult cultures to dissolve” (“Preface” xxxi), and continues with the thought that 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.

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is an ambitious work of children’s literature that seeks to retell John Milton’s great English epic Paradise Lost. Pullman says that he chose to retell Milton’s narration of the fall of mankind as a child’s book because “there are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book” (qtd. in Simpson 20). But instead of focusing on the fall of humanity and the expulsion from paradise, Pullman tells a story of how humanity gets a second chance and succeeds. While it may appear that Pullman is not retelling Paradise Lost at all because the outcome of the temptation is different between the stories, it is in fact the same plot and ending with simple modifications applied to the perspective. In both stories, the heroes are tempted and give in to this temptation and acquire knowledge. However, Milton’s Christian themed epic stresses the punishments and consequences of that fatal decision while Pullman’s high fantasy story celebrates the awareness, comprehension, and maturity that stem from giving in to the temptation for knowledge. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy delves into the universal topic of maturity and focuses on exploring the boundaries that must be crossed to complete the rite of passage between childhood and adulthood—innocence versus experience. Pullman explores many boundaries such as home, death, and love, and the experience gained from investigating these boundaries is the difference between childhood and adulthood—the rite of passage often called maturity. The two main characters of the His Dark Materials trilogy, Lyra and Will, both mature through the course of the story with the help of their tools, observing adults, and their friendship with each other.

Philip Pullman views maturity as a very 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. This self-awareness is the result of worldly experience and maturity. Pullman marks this transition between child and adult with the human’s daemon settling into its final form; during childhood, a child’s daemon, an anthropomorphic representation of a soul, changes shape as it pleases, and during puberty 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).  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”)

Pullman does not try to disguise the fact that his trilogy explores this rite of passage; in fact, the difference between children and adults is mentioned in the first chapter of the first book and thoroughly discussed until the last chapter of the last book. Mrs. Coulter even states in The Subtle Knife, “This is at the heart of everything, this difference between children and adults!” (176), and the General Oblation Board’s purpose is centered around “this truth about human beings: that innocence is different from experience” (The Subtle Knife 248). As well as having a person’s daemon act as an external indicator of childhood, Pullman also creates a substance known by several names but mainly referred to as “Dust” to mark his central theme of maturity.

Lord Asriel explains to Lyra at the end of The Golden Compass: “when Rusakov discovered Dust, at last there was a physical proof that something happened when innocence changed into experience” (327). Because a child’s daemon settled and attracted Dust around the time of puberty, the General Oblation Board, funded and back by the Church, engage in the horrible affair of severing children from their daemons to try to prevent Dust from settling, thinking that if they can somehow stop it, then human kind will remain forever in innocence and that they will be able to undo Original Sin. Lyra’s self-assigned task throughout the series is to discover what Dust is and to save it. The angel Balthamos tells Will at the beginning of The Amber Spyglass that, “Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself. Matter loves matter. It seeks to know more about itself, and Dust is formed” (28). Without knowing it, Lyra and Will set out to save maturity. And Pullman is not without a sense of irony; Lyra and Will remain children throughout most of the series and struggle through many trials and hardships to try to save something that they don’t even fully understand. They are trying to save Dust simply because the people they consider wicked want to destroy it. And Lyra’s innocence is crucial to everything: “But she must fulfill this destiny in ignorance of what she is doing, because only in her ignorance can we be saved” (The Golden Compass 154). Lyra and Will innocently fight throughout the novels to save the ability to shed that very same innocence and mature; they seek to understand the very matter that enables them to be conscious and acquire knowledge. So not only does Pullman set maturity at the heart of his epic by having Will and Lyra go through this rite of passage, but also by making their ultimate destiny saving the very experience that they are going through. But this rite of passage is not something that just happens at random during a person’s life; innocence must somehow be stripped away and experience must take its place. This change evolves from certain events a child must face that awaken consciousness and self-awareness; children must experiment with boundaries in order to gain insight and understanding of the world around them. As well as having the two main characters explore some of these boundaries, Pullman gives each of the children a tool which embody a balance and represent the difference between innocence and experience.

As Lyra and Will embark on their journeys and endure incidents that push them out of innocence and into experience, they acquire tools that symbolize this same boundary. Both the alethiometer and the subtle knife can be used in innocent and experienced ways. The alethiometer is more easily recognizable than the subtle knife in its dualistic function because Will, Lyra, and the angel Xaphania have a conversation about it 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 is able to read 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 read it by innocent grace has left her. Now that she is experienced, she must work for her knowledge. Lyra 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.

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: one side is used for killing and destroying, the other for creating and revealing. But it is hard to tell which side represents experience. While one side creates Specters and the other kills them, that same side that creates evil also reveals new worlds and opens up boundaries for exploration and discovery. So the “subtle” side of the knife, the one that creates the windows, is the side of experience because it allows for boundaries to be crossed and explored, a vital part of self-discovery and maturity. The destructive side of the knife would then have to represent innocence because it deals only with the tangible aspects of the world. Much of childhood revolves around the tangible world because a child needs to learn everything about what it can see, touch, taste, hear, and smell before it 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 knife seems more complicated and harder to fit into solid categories of “innocence” and “experience” than the alethiometer mainly because the literal word “knife” brings with it the connotations and implications of death, destruction, violence, and pain. These are all matters that no one would readily associate with innocence. 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.

Although maturing is a universal experience, the events that bring about this change from innocence to experience are different for every person, and Pullman chooses to exaggerate these experiences for Lyra and Will. Many of the maturing experiences in Pullman’s story are much more elaborate than those that a normal person would ever have to face: a child most often experiences death through the passing of a loved one or animal instead of seeing a best friend murdered by a father figure or literally traveling to the world of the dead. The use of these exaggerated events is appropriate not only because the story is set in a fantasy world where these events could actually take place, but also because of Will’s and Lyra’s childhoods. When Lyra is first introduced in the story, she is described as a “half-wild, half-civilized girl” (The Golden Compass 17) as well as a barbarian in many ways (The Golden Compass 31). When Will makes his first appearance in The Subtle Knife, one of his first actions is murdering an intruder in his home to protect his mother. Neither of these main characters had a conventional upbringing and both were essentially orphans, forced to grow up too soon in many ways, but also stunted in many others. Because of these special circumstances surrounding the characters’ lives, they have already lost much of the innocence that characterizes a typical childhood, and it would take a much more intense experience to strip them of whatever innocence that they have left. By exaggerating these boundaries that they explore, Pullman makes it particularly easy to understand how these events change both children and lead them to a greater understanding of the worlds they live in.

One of the first boundaries that Pullman toys with in his series is the balance between the home world and the foreign world. Pullman uses this foreign world experience in much the same way that C.S. Lewis does in The Chronicles of Narnia; they 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). When The Golden Compass opens with the phrase “Lyra and her daemon” (3), the reader receives the first indication that this story will be set in a different world from our own. As the series progresses, Lord Asriel rips apart the sky to create a bridge from Lyra’s world into an unknown world, later discovered to be the world of Cittàgazze. It is in this world that Lyra and Will meet and begin their journey together through numerous worlds for various reasons. These foreign worlds that Lyra and Will travel through are necessary because they allow the children to encounter the other boundaries that force them into adulthood.

By creating completely new worlds, Pullman is no longer restrained by the rules of our own familiar world and is able to play with other boundaries for Will and Lyra to face, including the difference between human and not human. Although the children encounter several intelligent life forms that are not human, such as the Gallivespians and the armored polar bears, it is Dr. Mary Malone that learns the most from the experience with a non-human. This difference is not as difficult for Lyra as it is for Will and Mary because Lyra is familiar with the idea of creatures other than humans being intelligent, having encountered and grown attached to the armored bears of her own world. Will and Mary come from the same world as us, so their shock over talking daemons and other intelligent creatures is better understood and related to by the readers.  While Will and Lyra both confront this difference, Mary is the character that has a life-changing realization while in the world of the mulefa: “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). The sudden comprehension that Mary has is quite similar to what Lyra feels when she too realizes that she is beginning to see things differently. Even though this boundary is tackled by an adult, Pullman uses the occurrence to broaden the reader’s mind about acceptance and the value of openness; if a human can accept a creature with a diamond shaped frame that swings its trunk and clicks to communicate as a person because it is intelligent, then it should be quite easy to accept every human as a person despite race, age, religion, or culture. Pullman also makes a point with this 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. So it seems that 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 decides that this is a boundary better left alone. 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). It seems acceptable that the characters would have to deal with being limited to traveling other worlds and not being able to live in a foreign world, but Pullman pushes his point a step further by having the angels close all the windows between worlds at the end of the series. After illustrating how beneficial the foreign world can be to the maturing process, it seems odd that Pullman would decide that this is a boundary better left uncrossed, 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. Another 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 the home world. Being a “good” adult in Pullman’s opinion means trying to fix the home world and dealing with problems instead of running away from them. Even though it seems that he has closed all the windows to other worlds and decides against breaking down the boundary between home and foreign, Pullman has left an important loophole. While physically trying to travel or live in another world is barred, 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 experience 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. Just because a person experiences something through a story, does not mean that it is any less powerful than if she experienced it in real life. 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).  But storytelling also comes with a boundary, like everything else in all the worlds, and it is the delicate balance between truth and lies. As the ghosts leave the world of the dead through the window that Will opened for them into the world of the mulefa, Mary hears a ghost whisper, “Tell them stories. They need the truth. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well. Just tell them stories” (The Amber Spyglass 386). The difference between true stories and lies becomes crucial as the series progresses and Lyra begins to mature.

In addition to stressing the importance of storytelling, Pullman also addresses the fine line between truth and lies. Lyra once boasted to Will that she was the best liar there ever was (The Subtle Knife 91), but she wields an instrument that can only tell the truth and forces her to not only tell the truth but recognize the power of truth and knowledge. He illustrates the importance of truthful storytelling within His Dark Materials when Lyra and Will seem to be stuck in the world of the dead and Lyra tells the ghosts a story about the great battle of the claybeds in Oxford, and the harpies are stilled and listen as well. Earlier, when Lyra began to tell a story to the harpies about Will’s and her adventures, they attacked her because it was lies. Will confronts them about why they attacked her the first time and not the second, and one of them replies: “Because she spoke the truth. Because it was nourishing. Because it was feeding us. Because we couldn’t help it. Because it was true. Because we had no idea that there was anything but wickedness. … Because it was true” (The Amber Spyglass 284). One of the ways that Lyra grows the most throughout the series and the trait that is the most distinguishable after her maturity is that she is an advocate of truth. Her alethiometer and stories are what brought about this turnaround in her character by giving her unlimited and effortless access to the truth and to knowledge. It is because Lyra learns the value of truth and knowledge that makes it possible for Will and her to conquer another boundary: death.

Another fundamental boundary that needs to be examined or recognized during maturity is the barrier between life and death. The innocent do not dwell on thoughts of death for long because they do not fully realize that someday they will have to face it themselves; the young believe that they are immortal. It is only those who have experienced death in some manner who can truly understand their own mortality and cherish life because of that understanding. Some parts of death are not meant to be experienced by the still living; Iorek tells Lyra, “While you are alive, your business is with life” (The Amber Spyglass 174). But she is still a child and does not fully comprehend the meaning of death even though she saw her father murder her best friend: “if I have to die to do what’s proper, then I will, and be happy while I do. … Then me and Roger can play in the land of the dead forever” (The Amber Spyglass 237). To Lyra, death is just another world that Will can cut through to with his knife. It is only after the boatman tells her she must leave Pantalaimon behind that “for the first time Lyra truly realized what she was doing” (The Amber Spyglass 250). In order to journey to the land of the dead to apologize to Roger, Lyra must leave her soul behind, for no souls are ever allowed entry into the world of the dead. Lyra feels that she must make amends, so she leaves her precious companion alone on the dock and “thus the prophecy that the Master of Jordan College had made to the Librarian, that Lyra would make a great betrayal and it would hurt her terribly, was fulfilled” (The Amber Spyglass 254). Through Lyra’s need to experience death and apologize to Roger, she ends up experiencing true and intentional betrayal. She was warned by several adults not to tamper with the boundary between life and death, but she did not listen and blindly continued onward. Of course, without stumbling into this predicament innocently, she would not have learned about the power of storytelling, how truth is more powerful than lies, and, most importantly, the value of life.

While Pullman knows that having experience and being aware of death is vital to becoming a mature adult, he also cautions against becoming preoccupied with mortality and the afterlife. When a person worries so much about where he will go in the afterlife, oftentimes he misses out on all the experiences that life has to offer: “When we were alive, they told us that when we died we’d go to Heaven. … And that’s what led some of us to give our lives, and others to spend years in solitary prayer, while all the joy of life was going to waste around us and we never knew it” (286). No one knows for sure what happens after our bodies die in this world, so why waste the precious little time that we’re given to be alive worrying about death? While Pullman encourages accepting death as something that will eventually happen, that acceptance should be an experience that makes humans treasure life, not agonize over the unknown. The only way to secure a miserable, dingy afterlife in Pullman’s series is to not experience everything that life has to offer. A ghost must tell the harpies in the world of the dead true stories about its life in order to be guided to the window that allows them rejoin the world of the living. The harpy No-Name tells Lyra, “If they live in the world, they should see and touch and hear and learn things. We shall make an exception for infants who have not had time to learn anything, but otherwise, if they come down here bringing nothing, we shall not guide them out” (The Amber Spyglass 285). While most people do not physically trespass this boundary, as Lyra and Will do, Pullman warns against the mental crossing of this dangerous barrier. He is an advocate of living life in the present, experiencing everything possible, and the living busying themselves with the affairs of life, not death. However, his opinion that this barrier must be avoided seems to only apply one way.

While the living are told to occupy themselves with life, the dead can only cling to the memory of life before Lyra and Will give them a way to return to the world of the living. Although the dead don’t get to actually rejoin the living and be alive again, their conscious ghosts drift apart and that consciousness becomes a part of everything that is alive:

But your daemons en’t just nothing now; they’re part of everything. All the atoms that were them, they’ve gone into the air and the wind and the trees and the earth and all the living things. They’ll never vanish. They’re just part of everything. And that’s exactly what’ll happen to you… You’ll drift apart, it’s true, but you’ll be out in the open, part of everything alive again. (The Amber Spyglass 286)

It appears that Pullman agrees with one aspect of Christianity, the very passage that Dust got its name from in Genesis 3, “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (The Golden Compass 327). Because the dead get to rejoin the world of the living, it makes it easier for the living to enjoy the present and not worry about the next life since they know what will happen to them when they die; Farder Coram expresses this very idea as he stands watching the ghosts pour out of the open window into the beautiful world of the mulefa: “To go into the dark of death is a thing we all fear; say what we like, we fear it. But if there’s a way out for that part of us that has to go down there, then it makes my heart lighter” (The Amber Spyglass 450). Pullman only makes this boundary apply in one direction because knowing that death will lead to a pleasant end eases the mind of the living and makes it less tempting to dwell on the afterlife. The more people know about something, the less they have to worry over the unknown; knowledge and experience give people the ease of mind to enjoy life.

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 creates the amber spyglass from sap lacquer, a bamboo shoot, and oil from the seedpod trees. The oil is the essential part of the spyglass because without it, it would be just like any other telescope. But with the oil that the mulefa claim give them wisdom and is the center of their thinking and feeling (The Amber Spyglass 115), the amber spyglass gives Mary and any other creature that uses it the ability to see Dust. 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. It is in this book, appropriately titled with the dark material representing knowledge, that Will and Lyra finally complete their rite of passage and become responsible, mature adults. They have been through many hardships and experiences with different worlds, different creatures, and death which have helped to strip away all of their innocence, and these experiences have given them the knowledge needed to be self-aware and conscious of the world around them. But with all they’ve been through, they still remained innocent in one way. It is the last experience that finally removes the remnants of childhood: love.

Unlike other boundaries and situations that Lyra and Will face, Pullman does not have the contradicting views on love that he has with home and death, indicating that they need to be experienced to grow, but ultimately it is best to leave them be; love is pure and good, and it is a boundary that must be crossed in order to complete the rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. Although it is not clear whether or not Lyra and Will consummate their love, in the end, it does not really matter because their love is pure and strong, and they consider themselves lovers. It is a point that Pullman refuses to clarify because it is inconsequential: “My imagination withdrew at that point about the kiss—that’s what I knew happened. I don’t know what else they did. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. I think they were rather young to but still…” (qtd in Simpson 61). By Pullman admitting that even he does not know whether or not they consummated their love, it clarifies the idea that it is irrelevant to the point he is trying to make. Sex is not necessary to feel love, despite everything that the media reflects about our culture today. By just being in love with each other and becoming aware of love, both of the children become sexually aware. By making this the last experience that Lyra and Will go through before completing their rite of passage, he gives a lot of emphasis to how important love is in the maturing process. Pullman feels that love is something that is absolutely necessary to grow up.

In order to make Pullman’s opinion that love is a vital experience needed to grow up more convincing, he also reveals the Church’s view on love. Pullman’s view makes it painfully obvious that the Church is against growing up because they believe that childhood is innocent while adulthood is sinful, so in showing how the Church perceives love and sex, it should be quite clear that their opinion on love values innocence instead of experience. Mrs. Coulter tells Lyra in The Golden Compass, “your daemon’s a wonderful friend and companion when you’re young, but at the age we call puberty … daemons bring all sort of troublesome thoughts and feelings” (248). The Church sees feelings of love as “troublesome.” Of course, when love is not fully understood, these feelings can be very troublesome because it is frustrating to deal with emotions that are not understood. If this negative attitude toward experienced love was not enough, the Church even considers sexual self-awareness wrong. At the beginning of The Golden Compass, Mrs. Coulter teaches Lyra how to wash her hair and properly bath herself while “Pantalaimon watched with powerful curiosity until Mrs. Coulter looked at him, and he knew what she meant and turned away, averting his eyes modestly from these feminine mysteries as the golden monkey was doing. He had never had to look away from Lyra before” (69). Pantalaimon is part of Lyra; he is her soul. It is shocking to think that the Church would think that there are parts of a person that even she should not explore. The Church tries to teach children through subtle acts, such as the look that Mrs. Coulter gives Pantalaimon, that nakedness is shameful and anything sexual is sinful. By illustrating the absurdity of the Church’s view on love, Pullman strengthens his own opinion that it is a necessary part of maturing and needs to be explored in healthy and safe ways.

Pullman gives the daemon an important role in experiencing love. It is a private and sacred part of a person and there is a great taboo in Lyra’s world that prevents a person from ever touching another person’s daemon: “it was the grossest breach of etiquette imaginable to touch another person’s daemon. … It was utterly forbidden” (The Golden Compass 126). Lyra first experiences the breach of this universal rule in Bolvangar when the scientists are forcing her and Pantalaimon into the cages to be severed from each other: “It was as if an alien hand had reached right inside where no hand had a right to be, and wrenched at something deep and precious…One of the men was holding Patalaimon… She felt those hands… It wasn’t allowed…Not supposed to touch… Wrong…” (The Golden Compass 241). This experience sounds very similar to molestation, and Pullman is very clear about making the entire situation feel wrong and harmful, which only makes the great taboo seem inarguably correct. This contact was completely unwanted and traumatic to Lyra, but just like sexual experiences, while they can be negative and damaging, they can also be positive and nourishing. When Will was struggling to learn to use the subtle knife, he reached a point where he simply felt that he could not go on; it was at this point that Pantalaimon comforted him without Lyra’s permission. But even though she was not fully in control of this situation, the circumstances were quite different from those at Bolvangar: “it was right of Pantalaimon to do what he’d done, though it had felt so strange to her” (The Subtle Knife 162). This encounter between Will and Pantalaimon shows Lyra that not all human-daemon contact experiences are bad, and it is the start of her being open to the possibility that maybe the taboo does not always apply.

Now that Lyra and Will know that not all human-daemon contact is wrong, they have enough experience in the matter to be able to discover a deeper truth about love, one that finalizes their journey from innocence to experience. Although they have realized their love for each other and flourished in the experience, their daemons are still able to change shape. By fully exploring their love and trust for each other, their daemons assume their final shape and Lyra and Will are no longer innocent. This final act of love occurs when Will touches Lyra’s very soul:

Knowing exactly what he was doing and exactly what it would mean, he moved his hand from Lyra’s wrist and stroked the red-gold fur of her daemon. … her surprise was mixed with pleasure… 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. And she knew, too, that neither daemon would change now, having felt a lover’s hands on them. These were their shapes for life: they would want no other. (The Amber Spyglass 447)

Pullman makes this final experience of love the one thing that tips the scales between innocence and experience. Will and Lyra were so close to adulthood; all it took was a simple, kind gesture, filled with love and received with trust to settle their daemons and complete their rite of passage. It was appropriate for Pullman not to clarify whether or not Lyra and Will consummated their love; this small gesture was a completely pure version of sexual intimacy.  Will and Lyra have grown up.

But now that Lyra and Will have grown up and shed the innocence of childhood, their work is not done. Pullman does not leave the story after its main goal of Will and Lyra maturing and saving Dust has come to an end, 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 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:

And if you 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… Then they will renew enough to place what is lost through one window. So there could be one left open. (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. The only way that the window between the world of the dead and the world of the mulefa can stay open is if humankind is good to one another and embraces knowledge and experience. It is only through experience and self-awareness that enough Dust will be created to leave that window open so that the afterlife is a blissful experience. 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 in their quest to save Dust. It is through these experiences with different worlds, different cultures, death, love, truth, trust, betrayal, and countless other events and ideas 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 so that Dust, consciousness, will flourish and life can continue. 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).  With everything that Lyra and Will had to struggle through, the greatest lesson they learned, the one that completed their rite of passage, was love.  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.

“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. <;.

One response to “The Universal Rite of Passage

  1. Reading your essay made me analyze certain aspects of the novels in a way I hadn’t thought of before. Of course your paper analyzes the transition between childhood and adulthood, innocence and experience, but what I started to think about was the nature of innocence and the nature of experience. As children, the daemons have no fixed form and can therefore become anything. This is similar to stem cells, that have the potential to become any kind of cell, but while they are stem cells they cannot function as anything. Children are the same. They have the potential to grow up and become any kind of adult: clergyman, politician, scientist, etc, but while they are children they cannot fully function as any of these. Once a stem cell has differentiated into a specific cell type, it cannot reverse, this is similar to a daemon taking its final form. The daemon’s final form is telling of the nature of its person and thus Pullman says that there is some fundamental differentiation that occurs in puberty (e.i. maturation). Instead of using a biological parallel, one could look to Daoism and the power of indifferentiation. There is great potential in indifferentiation, but the power and purpose are achieved after differentiation. In this way indifferentiation is equivalated to innocence. When the dead pass through the openning into the world of the Mulefa, they become dust again and have the potential to become a part of anything and everything. If indifferentiation is being equilivated to innocence, it follows then that the most basic form of innocence IS dust. Dust leads to maturity/experience, so the height of maturity is to rediscover innocence. Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained. Many eastern philosophies have another way of saying this called “beginner’s mind.” To truly learn and experience something, you must approach it with the mind of a beginner, or child. What Lyra could do so easily in her innocent grace, she must later learn how to do. She must learn innocence. But, there is something more powerful about innocence wrought through work and than that achieved by grace, understanding. That which is given is not understood nor valued the same as that which is earned. I believe at the end of the Amber Spyglass Lyra is told that it will take her a lifetime to read the alithiometer as easily as she once did, but the answers she receives will be much richer and more fulfulling (of course I paraphrase, my copies of the book are 12 time zones away). I’m sure there’s a doctoral thesis in comparing the His Dark Materials trilogy to Daoism, alas I am lazy and don’t feel like writing a disertation anytime soon.

    Another point of interest that I realized about the novel was how expendable children are to the adults. Lord Azreal had no qualms killing Roger to open the gate, because Roger was a child and therefore expendable. The Church took no issue with the emotional mutilation of countless children in the pursuit of innocence. They were killing innocents to find innocence.

    (I’m sort of thinking as I type, here goes another.)
    Pullman has established a flow chart, if you will. Innocence without experience => Experience without innocence => Innocence achieved through experience, i.e. maturation. (There is a hidden sub-step between the second and third, and that is “understanding.” You must understand what you have experienced to reach maturation.) One of the signs that psychologists have of the intellegence of a creature is the knowledge of its own mortality, knowing that one day it will die. You mentioned in your essay how children do not comprend this. Adults do, which fuels their fear of dust, because to them dust, being sin, is a harbinger of eventual death. In the end, the mature person accepts that he will die, but it does not bother him. He has returned to the blissful state of the innocent child where death is no longer a fearful mind preoccupation, but unlike the child he now has an understanding of death and therefore more richly enjoys life in a way the child cannot. Now there is another flow chart that relates to the previous: Ignorance => Fear => Maturity. Innocence without experience yields ingnorance. Experience without innocence yields fear. You need both, and understanding of both, to achieve maturity. Once achieved, maturity yields bliss.

    Okay, I’ve written enough. I don’t know if you can actually follow what I’ve spewed all over your blog. Perhaps we should have a Phillip Pullman discussion date when I’m back in the states and when you (hopefully) visit Indiana during the winter holidays. Loves!

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