Power relations in His Dark Materials

[Note: this essay was originally published on December 1st 2019 on my tumblr]

TW: racism, eugenics, sexism, ableism

Spoiler warning: The main His Dark Materials novels, minor spoiler for La Belle Sauvage.

In the His Dark Materials novels power is a quite a central theme. Who has power, what do they do with that power, how can you fight power? This is of course also salient in our own world, which is why social theorists have been trying to explain power and power dynamics pretty much as long as social theory has existed. In this text I therefore want to look at some of these ways of explaining power and see if they can tell us anything about the universe of His Dark Materials (focusing on Lyra’s world). This will also dovetail with an analysis that I wrote a while back of the Nordic influences on His Dark Materials, especially regarding the history of racism and eugenics in Sweden and Scandinavia in general. Reading that text is not necessary to understand this one, but in the end of it I wrote:

Another thing I want to highlight is the comparison between the severing of children and dæmons, and sterilisation. In the books, children’s bond to their dæmons (their soul) are severed by the GOB [General Oblation Board] in order to prevent “Dust” settling on the children (Pullman 2007, 275). Dust is considered dangerous and sinful, something that according to the church started infecting humans after their fall from the garden of Eden. Sterilisation in our world, on the other hand, took place in order to make the population “cleaner” and of “better” stock. Groups who were in different ways considered degenerate were targeted, including women who were perceived as promiscuous/sexual transgressors. In Lyra’s world a spiritual connection is severed by the Church in order to curb sinfulness. In our world a biological connection is severed by “scientists” (in collaboration with the Church at times) to control sexuality and reproduction. There is a definite similarity here. (Lo-Lynx 2019)

In this text I want to further that argument by analysing the way sex, gender, sexuality and power functions in Lyra’s world. I want to thank the lovely gals over at Girls Gone Canon for helping inspire me to write both of these texts, and especially with this one because when Eliana mentioned Foucault in their latest episode a light went off in my head and I knew that I had to write this analysis (Girls Gone Canon 2019).

So, Foucault. Michel Foucault is perhaps one of the most influential theorists in contemporary social theory. His stuff props up everywhere. That unfortunately does not mean that it’s easy to understand. Here I want to explain some of his theories and concepts, and then apply them to the universe of His Dark Materials. One of the theoretical works that Foucault is most know for is his analysis of the history of sexuality (in the Western world) (2002). Foucault writes that contrary to the popular belief of sex being oppressed and tabu, people have always talked about sex, just not always outright. For instance, he writes about how admitting one’s sexual actions have become institutionalised first through confession (in church) and later by explaining ourselves to doctors/psychologists/scientists (Foucault 2002, 77). By confessing we feel that we become free, our secret truth has been let into the light. Foucault also claims that through these institutionalised confessions we contribute to the discourse about sex: “One pushes the sex into the light and forces it into discursive existence.” [my translation] (Foucault 2002, 56) Part of this discourse is that if we understand the “truth” about sex, we understand the truth about ourselves (Foucault 2002, 80). Sex is in this discourse considered a vital part of who we are. Now, what exactly does Foucault mean by discourse? Discourse, according to Foucault, describes the way society talks about a phenomenon but also how it does not talk about said phenomena (2008, 181). What is left unsaid. What is possible to say. Foucault also describes discourse analysis as a scientific method and claims that by analysing discourses one can understand why one statement was made in a situation, and not another one (2013, 31). He also claims that when we can see similarities between different statements, we can find a discursive formation (ibid, 40). Further he also writes that when analysing discourses, one should analyse who speaks (who has the authority to speak), from which institutions the discourse gains its legitimacy, and which subject positions individuals are placed in (ibid 55-57). Which position a subject is placed in effects their ability to inhabit different spaces (ibid, 58). Now, in his writing about discourses, Foucault mostly saw power as something unpersonal. Power existed in power relations between individuals in the discourse, and the discourse affected how individuals acted. Power as something unpersonal was a view that he kept, but in later writings he would analyse it further.

So, how does this apply to His Dark Materials? Like I explained previously, I see a definite parallel between how the Church/the Magisterium in Lyra’s world approach Dust, and how sex has been viewed in our world. The Church explains Dust by linking it to original sin. In their version of the Bible, when Adam and Eve eat from the apple of knowledge, they do not only become aware of their nakedness, their demons also settle (Pullman 2007, 358). And when demons settle (in puberty) Dust starts sticking to people. This can be compared to how the church of our world during the 5th century started propagating that the reason for human’s expulsion from the garden of Eden was because they had fallen prey to carnal desire (Mottier 2008, 19). Therefore, intercourse was tainted by original sin. In this way Dust is both linked to forbidden knowledge, sex, and sin. Like sex in our world, Dust is something that the Magisterium feel the need to investigate even though they find it dangerous and sinful (Pullman 2007, 361). If we use Foucault’s theory here, this is understandable. If Dust is a result of original sin, then it explains the inner nature of humans. Just as sex is considered to be a secret truth inside of us, Dust can be considered the same in Lyra’s world. Dust is something sinful, something that needs finding out, so it can be destroyed. But, when the scholars of Lyra’s world investigate Dust, they need to be careful to not commit heresy. I think heresy in this case could be considered to be the limit of the discourse. When scholars and others discuss matters of science and theology, they constantly need to act in relation to what would be considered heresy. Now, in our world the limits of discourse usually aren’t as overt, and at least in democratic countries you won’t be punished in the way the scholars risk being punished when they commit heresy. But in the way certain characters challenge the discourse around Dust, we can see what Foucault might call a discursive struggle. On one hand we have the discourse around Dust that gains its legitimacy from the Magisterium. On the other hand, we have challenges to this discourse from for instance Lord Asriel. He doesn’t have the same sort of legitimacy as the Magisterium of course, but in the beginning of The Golden Compass when he has his presentation at Jordan Collage, he tries to make his views legitimate by presenting scientific evidence (Pullman 2007, 26). Here one could say that he tries to appeal to the legitimacy of science, which seems appropriate when talking to scholars. Asriel here resist the power that be (the Magisterium), but he also resists the power in the discourse. Just as Foucault says, where there is power there is also resistance. It is through just these kinds of discursive struggles that Foucault sees society changing. Yet, the scholars of Jordan are notably scared of the Magisterium finding out about their part in this resistance. This leads us in to another theme in Foucault’s writings that I want to explain: surveillance.

One way that Foucault furthered his theoretical exploration of power was through did his writing on surveillance. He explains how surveillance works in modern society by likening it to a prison where one guard can observe all the prisoners from a guard tower, but where the prisoners can’t see the guard (Lindgren 2015, 357). Therefore they can never know when they are under surveillance. He calls this a panopticon, based on the description of such a prison by the philosopher Bentham. Foucault claims that the result of this is:

Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce the inmate in a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection in power should render its actual exercise unnecessary… (Foucault 2012/1975: 315)

That is to say, the prisoner feels like they are constantly under surveillance, even if this is not actually the case. In that way the prisoner will obey the powers in charge, so that practical/physical power is not necessary. Foucault claims that this is the case in society as a whole; we know that we could be under surveillance all of the time, and therefore we behave in accordance with that (Lindgren 2015: 359). This turns us into docile bodies that can be used productively in society, since we unconsciously behave like the power wants us to (even when the power isn’t a clear individual or group). Other writers have also used Foucault’s theory on surveillance and his concept of docile bodies to analyse how this affects the gendered body, specifically the feminine body (Bartky 2010).

In Lyra’s world this surveillance is perhaps even more overt than in our world. People are seemingly very aware that their every move could be watched by the Magisterium. This theme is even more present in Pullman’s novel La Belle Sauvage that also takes place in Lyra’s world (Pullman 2017). I won’t spoil that novel too much, so I won’t go into that theme further now, but parts of it very much paints society as a panopticon. Now, what consequences does this have? Well, it mostly makes most people in Lyra’s world just go along with what the power wants. Some does it because they are aware of the constant surveillance, others have internalised this surveillance and does it unconsciously. One aspect of this that I want to explore further is the way it effects gender and gender expression in Lyra’s world. In the chapter in The Golden Compass when Lyra first meets Mrs Coulter, she contrasts Mrs Coulter to other women academics that she has met (Pullman 2007, 69). In comparison to them Mrs Coulter seems refined, glamorous, precisely what a woman in Lyra’s world should be. Women should be pretty, and, tellingly Lyra thinks the female scholars are both boring and less fashionable. The materiality of the body is here connected to other assumptions of gender, such as women scholars being less accomplished than men. In the patriarchal world of His Dark Materials, women who try to integrate themselves in male institutions are very frowned upon. Later, in The Subtle Knife, when Lyra has learned that all that glitters isn’t gold (such as golden monkeys), she still has this internalised view of what a women’s body should be like. When she has to find new clothes to wear and Will suggests some pants she refuses, claiming that girls can’t wear pants (Pullman 2018, 56). Here she has internalised the surveillance of the power structure that effects how women will behave. No one from Lyra’s world is there to tell her that she, as a girl, can’t wear pants, she monitors her own behaviour. This is just one example of many where one can see how the constant surveillance makes people in Lyra’s world, just as our own, internalise that surveillance.

One final part of Foucault theories that I want to explain is the concepts of biopower and biopolitics.  Foucault writes that while at previous times in history regents such as kings and queens have had the power over their subjects’ life or death directly (such as by capital punishment), today the state’s power more lies in the power to support lives or let them perish (Foucault 2002, 137 & 140). He describes our current time as one of biopower, where the state controls our bodies to make them as efficient/productive as possible for capitalism (ibid, 142). Foucault also writes that because of this, norms has in part replaced the law, or rather that the law has become the norm, and therefore people doesn’t always have to be threatened by legal consequences in order to behave (ibid, 144). A state that wants a productive population doesn’t want to have to threaten them with death every time it wants to control them. This can obviously also be thought of in terms of the panopticon and surveillance that I described above. But Foucault also writes that since sex is considered so important in society, that is also one of the most controlled things (ibid, 146). This control takes place both on a micro level by doctor’s appointments, psychosocial tests etc, and on a macro level by statistical measurements etc. If this sounds similar to the way eugenics tried to control the” health” of the population, that is no coincidence, Foucault cites this as the most extreme example of these biopolitics (ibid, 148). It might also be worth noting here how other theorists has expanded this by writing about for instance “the bio-necropolitical collaboration”, and how inclusion or exclusion of certain bodies/people in society indirectly produce life and death (Puar 2009). Certain bodies get support to live and thrive, while other bodies (such as disabled bodies or bodies from the global south) is not considered worth to invest in.

Now, if we have established the link between Dust, sex and sexuality, then we could apply Foucault’s analysis of biopolitics on the Magisterium’s attempt to control Dust. In the Golden Compass we can see this through the General Oblation Board’s work on severing children, to make them not infested with Dust (Pullman 2007, 275). Like I’ve previously mentioned, one can see a link here to sterilisations, one extreme form of biopolitics that are aimed at controlling the sexuality of the population. It is also interesting to note here which children, which bodies, are being experimented on. Like I established in my other analysis, this is mostly lower-class children and children of ethnic minorities. This seems like a clear example of how the bio-necropolitical collaboration that Puar writes about decides which bodies should be protected, and which are disposable. Another example of biopolitics can be found in The Amber Spyglass when The Magisterium tries to prevent Lyra from being an Eve 2.0. Like Mrs Coulter says:

My daughter is now twelve years old. Very soon she will approach the cusp of adolescence, and then it will be too late for any of us to prevent the catastrophe; nature and opportunity will come together like spark and tinder. (Pullman, 242)

They need to control Lyra’s blossoming sexuality in order to control Dust, and the possibilities of free thinking. Mrs Coulter prevents The Magisterium to take control over Lyra, because as she says:

If you thought for one moment that I would release my daughter into the care, the care! , of a body of men with a feverish obsession with sexuality, men with dirty fingernails, reeking of ancient sweat, men whose furtive imaginations would crawl over her body like cockroaches, if you thought I would expose my child to that, my Lord President, you are more stupid than you take me for. (Pullman, 243)

Here we again see the connection between controlling Dust and sexuality, specifically female sexuality. Such a focus on female sexuality often existed within our world’s eugenics as well, since women were often seen as the reproducers of the nation (Mottier 2008, 90). Statistics show that 90% of sterilisations being carried out was on women in both Switzerland and Sweden. As Mottier writes:

Female bodies were a particular source of eugenic anxiety, as indicated by the gender imbalance in the removal of reproductive capacities. Reflecting traditional associations of reproduction with the female body, women were also seen as particularly important targets for the eugenic education and state regulations that eugenicists called for. As sociologist Nira Yuval-Davis has pointed out, ideas of the ‘purity of the race’ tend to be crucially intertwined with the regulation of female sexuality. (Mottier 2008, 92)

That it is specifically a girl’s sexuality that the Magisterium wants to control seems depressingly fitting in this light.

So, in conclusion we can see that the Magisterium considers Dust to be something that needs to be controlled. This partly happens through discourse, partly through surveillance, and partly through biopolitics. In many ways we can see how this parallels the way sex/sexuality is conceived in our world. Now, I’m not sure how much of this was deliberately put there by Pullman. Perhaps he didn’t intentionally make Dust a metaphor for sex/sexuality. But the way he connects it to original sin, puberty, temptation etc, makes me think that at least some of it was on purpose. Lyra’s world is not that different from our own after all.


Bartky, Sandra Lee. (2010). “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Pathriarcal Power.”, pp. 64-85 in Weitz, Rose & Samantha Kwan (eds). The Politics of Women’s Bodies, New York: Oxford University Press.

Foucault, Michel. (2002/1976). Sexualitetens historia 1: Viljan att veta. Translated by Birgitta Gröndahl. Göteborg: Bokförlaget Daidalos AB [This is the Swedish translation of L’Histoire de la sexualité I :La volonté de savoir/The History of Sexuality I: The Will to Knowledge]

Foucault, Michel. (2008). Diskursernas kamp. Eslöv: Brutus Östlings bokförlag Symposion.

Foucault, Michel. (2012/1975). ”Discipline and Punish”, pp. 314-321 in Calhoun, Craig, Josepth Gerteis, James Moody, Steven Pfaff & Indermohan Virk (eds), Contemporary Sociological Theory (3rd edition). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Foucault, Michel. (2013/1969). Archaeology of knowledge. New York: Routledge

Lindgren, S. (2015). ”Michel Foucault och sanningens historia”, pp. 347-372 in Månsson, Per. (eds.), Moderna samhällsteorier: Traditioner, riktningar, teoretiker (9th edition). Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Lo-lynx. (2019). “The Nordic influences in His Dark Materials” Accessed: December 1, 2019. https://lo-lynx.tumblr.com/post/189230180712/the-nordic-influences-in-his-dark-materials

Mottier, Véronique. (2008). Sexuality: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Puar, Jasbir K. (2009). “Prognosis time: Towards a geopolitics of affect, debility and capacity,” Women & Performance: a Journal of Feminist Theory, 19:2, 161-172

Pullman, Phillip. (2007/1995). Guldkompassen. Stockholm: Bokförlaget Natur och Kultur [this is the Swedish translation of The Golden compass]

Pullman, Philip. (2018/1997). The Subtle Knife. New York: Scholastic.

Pullman, Phillip. (2001). The Amber Spyglass. New York: Random House.

Pullman, Phillip. (2017). La Belle Sauvage. New York: Knopf.

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