Dangerous women in His Dark Materials

[Note: this essay was originally published on March 22 2020 on my tumblr]

CW: Sexism, racism

Spoiler warning: spoilers for all of the His Dark Materials book series. Extremely tiny spoiler for The Secret Commonwealth.

In the opening pages of Northern Lights, we meet our heroine Lyra Silvertongue as she sneaks through the collage where she has grown up, to get access to a forbidden room. Her daemon Pan chides her to behave herself, which she, of course, does not listen to; as the lovely hosts of the podcast Girls Gone Canon are fond of saying when anyone says “Lyra, no”, her immediate response is “LYRA YES” (look, I tried to find a specific episode where they say this so I could reference that, but even though I love their podcast I didn’t want to relisten to hours of the podcast just to find that). In many ways, Lyra is perhaps the very definition of the word “willful”. Another early example that the reader gets of her willfulness is in the second chapter of Northern Lights when Lyra’s relationship to the scholars of Jordan Collage is described: “(…) they were men who had been around her all her life, taught her, chastised her, given her little presents, chased her away from the fruit trees in the Garden (…)” (Pullman 2011a, 19). That last part about chasing her away from the fruit trees in the Garden is particularly interesting since it clearly connects Lyra to Eve and the Garden of Even. Later in the story, we find out that Lyra is prophesised to play a sort of Eve 2.0 role, something the Magisterium dreads (Pullman 2011c, 68). I’ve previously written about the power relations in His Dark Materials and their connection to gender and sexuality here. In this essay I want to continue on a similar track, by analysing femininity and female sexuality specifically, and the Magisterium’s view on them.

But before we get into all of that, I want to return to our dear Lyra. When the reader is first introduced to her, she’s disobeying rules, and this is, of course, a theme that continues through the series. Throughout the books, she is constantly doing things she’s not supposed to do, no matter what the adults or institutions around her say. She is at different times described as “half-wild, half-civilised”, “fierce and stubborn”, and having “some nerve” (Pullman 2011a, 19 & 120; Pullman 2011b, 202). Now, this portrayal of a half-wild young girl sounds very similar to the idea of the “willful girl” that Sara Ahmed describes (2017). Ahmed writes that wilful girls show up in all sort of fiction, and one specific example that she gives is the Grimm story called The Willful Child. Ahmed quotes the story in her text, and since I think it is very illustrative of the point both she and I try to make I will do so as well:

Once upon a time there was a child who was willful, and would not do as her mother wished. For this reason God had no pleasure in her, and let her become ill, and no doctor could do her any good, and in a short time she lay on her death-bed. When she had been lowered into her grave, and the earth was spread over her, all at once her arm came out again, and stretched upwards, and when they had put it in and spread fresh earth over, it was all to no purpose, for the arm always came out again. Then the mother herself was obligated to go to the grave, and strike the arm with a rod, and when she had done that, it was drawn in, and then at last the child had rest beneath the ground. (Grimm & Grimm 1884, 125. Quoted in Ahmed 2017, 66)

As Ahmed points out, it is only when the willful child gives up her own will that she can become at peace. Furthermore, Ahmed writes:

Note that the rod, as that which embodies the will of the parent, of the sovereign, is not deemed willful. The rod becomes the means to eliminate willfulness from the child. One form of will judges the other wills as willful wills. One form of will assumes the right to eliminate the others. (Ahmed 2017, 67)

Now, if this doesn’t describe Lyra’s story, I don’t know what does. Ahmed also notes that willfulness is generally a trait which is assigned to girls, while boys are described as “strong-willed” instead, a more positive trait (ibid, 68). This is because girls are generally not supposed to have wills of their own. However, it’s not just girls who are not supposed to have wills of their own, of course. Ahmed also notes that a similar framing was used to describe enslaved and colonised people, who were often positioned as children, and was supposed to obey their master (ibid, 80). Continuing with the theme of the strong arm who breaks expectations, Ahmed references the famous speech Ain’t I a Woman by Sojourner Truth (ibid, 87). For those who don’t know, Sojourner Truth was a former enslaved black woman and abolitionist who in 1851 held a speech at a women’s convention in Ohio (there exist several performances of this speech that you can find online, I would especially recommend this one by Kerry Washington and this one by Alfre Woodard). There she criticised those who said that women should not have rights because they were the so-called weaker sex. It is said that during her speech, she bared her right arm to show her muscles and pointed out that as a formerly enslaved person she was hardly weak. I’ll return to this speech later, but here I’ll just reiterate the point that Ahmed makes: “The arms of the slave belonged to the master, as did the slaves, as the ones who were not supposed to have a will of their own.” (ibid, 87). This, I think, is a point that becomes clear throughout the His Dark Materials. The powerful claim the right to override the will of the marginalised, be it women, people of colour, or other groups. In previous essays, I have written about how this becomes clear with the illusions to eugenics, etc in the series, so I will leave that here for now. But it is important to remember how race and class interact with gender, and I think that if Lyra didn’t have white privilege and class privilege, she would have a much harder time getting away with being so willful.

Now, Ahmed notes in her text, that all of these stories in literature about willful girls really go back to the “first” willful woman, Eve (Ahmed 2017, 70). These other stories:

(…) becomes a thread in the weave of the stories of willful: returning us to Genesis, to the story of the beginning, to Eve’s willful wantonness as behind the fall from Grace. The wilfulness of women relates here not only to disobedience but to desire: the strength of her desire becoming a weakness of her will. (ibid)

Here we see another twist of the willful woman; the woman whose desires overpower her self-control. Having returned to Eve, which I previously noted is deeply connected to Lyra since she’s considered an Eve 2.0 of sorts, it feels necessary to look at how the Magisterium of Lyra’s world sees Eve. The Church in Lyra’s world (in a parallel to our own) teaches that when Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of knowledge in the garden of Eden, their daemons settled, and they start experiencing shame over their bodies (Pullman 2011a, 370). That is of course also the moment sin comes into the world, and the first humans are cast out of the Garden. I’ve previously written about how this has led to the Church wanting to control sexuality and sin (both in our world and Lyra’s world). If possible, they would eradicate sin from the world altogether. As Mrs. Coulter puts it in The Amber Spyglass: “If they could, they’d go back to the garden of Eden and kill Eve before she was tempted.” (Pullman 2011c, 205). The church here puts the blame for humanity’s sinfulness on the first woman, and much like in our world, I would argue that this has been transferred upon women as a whole. As for instance, Yolanda Betata Martín has written, in the middle ages, the church would generally describe female sexuality as particularly sinful, if not outright demonic (for instance by linking it to witchcraft). She writes:

First, the sexuality is perceived as an activity linked exclusively to reproduction and no to sexual pleasure. Second, female sexuality is projected symbolically as a phenomenon endowed with negative connotations and even destructive defined in terms of greed, insatiability and animality. Both beliefs are based more immediate ideological patristic discourse, i.e., in a Discourse of biblical inspiration that projects an image of women deeply misogynist based on the biblical figure of Eve and her role in the Edenic fall. (…) The Discourse gives patristic principles of rationality, morality and intellectuality to men so that women are defined, following the principle of otherness, as irrational, immoral and visceral. This view of feminine nature, supported ideologically on the supposed natural inferiority of women under the Edenic fall, is radicalized throughout the Middle Ages and especially from the thirteenth century. (ibid, 48)

Women are, therefore, simultaneously seen as potentially dangerous and inferior. Sounds familiar? This, I would argue, is not just how Lyra, but perhaps, even more, her mother Mrs. Coulter, is seen by the Magisterium in His Dark Materials.

Now, I’ve pointed out how Lyra most of the time outright goes against the wishes of the adults around her (with some notable exceptions of course, she is Lyra Silvertongue after all, and can be really sneaky). Mrs. Coulter, on the other hand, usually plays into the perception people have of her. In a world where she can only hold a limited amount of official power (she can’t become a priest in the church, and rise in the ranks in that way, for instance), she has been forced to rely on other means (Pullman 2011a, 372). In this patriarchal world it is quite clear that women are generally devalued, I mean, just look at the disdainful way Lyra describes female scholars at the beginning of Northern Lights (ibid, 71). Lyra is however transfixed by Mrs. Coulter’s charms, and to the reader who already knows how she kidnaps children, it is clear that these charms are dangerous too. But to Lyra, and quite a few other people in the story, they are not obviously sinister. Later, in The Amber Spyglass, Mrs. Coulter uses these same charms to trick Metatron (Pullman 2011c, 405). She seduces him, while simultaneously portraying herself as a weak woman. As a reader, you definitely realise by this point, that the Magisterium is right in fearing both Lyra and Mrs. Coulter. To quote Sojourner Truth (see, I said we’d return to her!):

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ‘cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them. (Truth 1851. Quoted in Women’s Rights National History Park n.d.)

Yes, these women will turn the world right-side-up again. They’ll create a world (more) free from religious control, and with more equality.

I want to note, that when Lyra sees the female scholar Dame Hannah Relf again, at the end of The Amber Spyglass, she thinks that Dame Hannah is much more clever, interesting, and kind than she thought before (Pullman 2011c, 515). Perhaps Lyra has just grown up, perhaps she has learned to value women more, I’m not sure. However, Lyra definitely has changed. Later in the same chapter, she is described as defiant but lost by Dame Hannah. I don’t quite have the space to go into Lyra’s changing character later in her life, mainly in The Secret Commonwealth, here but perhaps that’ll be a separate essay one day. However, I think it’s quite clear that Lyra has lost some of her wilfulness and daring (not all of it though). And, if she is to save the world again, then she must regain that. Perhaps that is part of Pullman’s message to his readers; be critical of authorities, be brave, be willful.

As we’ve seen throughout this essay, the patriarchal society in Lyra’s world is fearful of willful girls and women. This fear goes all the way back to their hatred and fear of Eve, and their resentment of her being responsible for humanity’s expulsion from the garden of Eden. As Sojourner Truth puts it, they’ve seen that women are strong enough to turn the world upside down. Therefore women, and their sexuality, must be controlled. It must be demonised, and women must be seen as inferior as to not get too much power. In a way, the Church’s fear is proven correct by the story; the women of the story are able to change the world again. This time to turn it right-side-up.


Ahmed, Sara. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Durham University Press.

Beteta Martín, Yolanda. 2013. “THE SERVANTS OF THE DEVIL. THE DEMONIZATION OF FEMALE SEXUALITY IN THE MEDIEVAL PATRISTIC DISCOURSE.” Journal of Research in Gender Studies Volume, 3:2, 2013, 48–66.

Pullman, Philip. 2011a. Northern Lights. London: Scholastic.

Pullman, Philip. 2011b. The Subtle Knife. London: Scholastic.

Pullman, Philip. 2011c. The Amber Spyglass. London: Scholastic

Women’s Rights National History Park. n.d. “Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I A Woman?” National Park Service. Accessed March 22, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/articles/sojourner-truth.htm

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