Lyra, and Monkeys, and Bears, Oh My!, an Essay

By Connie Rockman, Children’s Literature Consultant, Stratford, CT

Twenty years ago, early readers of The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman felt that visceral thrill of experiencing a brilliant new piece of literature that would live in the imagination long afterward.  With that first book in His Dark Materials trilogy, Pullman gave us a wholly realized fantasy world, a universe parallel to our own, yet eerily familiar in its geography, along with a feisty young heroine in Lyra Belacqua.  But there was one element of this world that made it unique in fantasy literature and grabbed the attention of every reader.  Accompanying each human is a daemon, an animal spirit reflecting the individual’s personality. For children, until they reach puberty, the daemon is fluid and changes shape and size depending on the child’s mood and circumstances; but for an adult, the daemon assumes a constant form and provides a clue to that character’s true persona.  This imaginative motif gave readers a special insight into each character they encountered in the book and provided a whole new dimension to discussions about the story.

At the start of The Subtle Knife, the second title in the trilogy, we find ourselves in our own universe with a new character, Will Parry. But Will is soon catapulted into a disturbing alternate world where he encounters Lyra, who has found her way there by another route, and soon the reader is hopping between worlds with these two companions on a dizzying ride that tests our own powers of perception as well as their own. Lyra and Will share much in common with iconic children’s book characters of the last 150 years. Like Alice (of Wonderland fame), Wendy (in Peter Pan), Milo (in The Phantom Tollbooth), and Dorothy (blown off to Oz), they find themselves exploring strange new worlds and relying on their own resources, courage, and determination to survive. They receive occasional assistance from adults – and bears – who they come to trust, but they also have to learn quickly to recognize which characters mean them harm and how to extricate themselves from traps that are set for them.

The literature of fantasy can often be conduit through which young readers gain a sense of perspective on their own world, a world that sometimes feels senseless and threatening.  By identifying with a character close to their own age and following that character’s struggles, a reader can often develop the sense of empowerment they will need when they are faced with their own battles. Just as folktales and lore passed on orally through the ages helped pre-literate societies learn about human nature and the world around them, so may the rich fantasy stories of today help young readers to navigate their often puzzling and sometimes frightening journey to adulthood. In these stories, the message is subtle but deeply meaningful to young readers. Life is hard. Evil exists. There will be those who wish you harm. But if you choose your companions well, trust your friends, listen to wise elders, and show kindness to those less fortunate, you will survive and thrive. Hope in the future is the ultimate message of the finest fantasy writing, as it is at the heart of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. And it is hope and belief in the future that is the greatest gift any author can give a young audience.