Asriel’s revolution- a Marxist analysis

Spoilers for the His Dark Materials books and show. Some light spoilers for The Secret Commonwealth.

Shot from season 3 episode 7 of His Dark Materials (His Dark Materials 2022e).

Quite early on in the His Dark Materials books, it becomes evident that Lyra’s world is an unjust one. The class differences in the story are stark, which becomes clear from the start when Lyra is running through Jordan College and Oxford as a whole, meeting different people. And then children in the lower classes start disappearing… As I’ve discussed before, the way lower-class children are targeted by the Magisterium shows both a disregard for the lives of those children and a willingness to control the (sexuality of the) lower classes and marginalised groups in general. Much of this cruelty and injustice is justified by religion, and the Magisterium has an iron grip on society. Then Asriel comes along, threatening the Magisterium’s rule and getting ready to attack and dethrone God himself. Asriel starts his revolution, gathering forces from all over the worlds to fight tyranny and injustice, to gain freedom.

As I was watching the third season of the BBC/HBO adaptation of His Dark Materials recently, I couldn’t help but think about how parts of Asriel’s rhetoric reminded me of other revolutionary movements. Specifically, parts of his revolutionary ideals reminded me of Marxist theory. Now, Karl Marx is of course seen as many as a political figure, the father of Marxism and the inspiration of both Socialists and Communists worldwide. But he was also an academic and is often considered one of the founding fathers of sociology. He wrote theoretical texts, analysing society and trying to understand how unjust structures were upheld. That’s Marxist theory. It’s through that lens I want to look at Asriel’s revolution, to see what is similar but also what is different to Marxist theory. In that way, I hope to examine both the strengths and flaws of Asriel’s revolution as well.

Asriel’s revolution- ideology and goals

To begin, I thought it best to look at what we know about Asriel’s revolution, its ideology, and its goals. Here, I’ll look at both the book and the show because while there are some differences between the two, I think Asriel’s plot and motivations are mostly similar. The two media together create a clearer and fuller picture of him and his revolution. In the books, one of the clearest explanations of the revolution and its goals comes from Ugunwe as he talks to Mrs Coulter about it. Ugunwe explains that the Authority has been oppressing angels and humans since he came into being, and that he is not the creator, but that this has only been a myth meant to give him more power and discourage rebellions. He continues to say:

“It shocked some of us too to learn that the Authority is not the creator. There may have been a creator, or there may not: we don’t know. All we know is that some point the Authority took charge, and since then, angels have rebelled, and human beings have struggled against him too. This is the last rebellion. Never before have humans and angels, and beings from all the worlds, made a common cause. This is the greatest force ever assembled. But it may still not be enough. We shall see.”

“But what does Lord Asriel intend? What is this world, and why has he led us here?”

“He led us here because this world is empty. Empty of conscious life that is. We are not colonialists, Mrs Coulter. We haven’t come to conquer, but to build. (…) Mrs Coulter, I am a king, but it is my proudest task to join Lord Asriel in setting up a world where there are no kingdoms at all. No kings, no bishops, no priests. The kingdom of heaven has been known by that name since the Authority first set himself above the rest of the angels. And we want no part of it. We intend to be free citizens of the republic of heaven.”

(Pullman 2011, 210-211)

We learn some key things from this. One is that the Authority took charge and has been oppressing other beings ever since. Another is that Asriel’s revolution seeks to set up a republic and that there in this republic will exist fewer (if any) hierarchies. No kings, no bishops, no priests. Fewer class structures if you will. It is also very noteworthy that they point out that they are not colonisers, in my opinion (I’ll come back to this). This quote is one of the very few mentions of what life in the republic of heaven would be like, besides general talk about a place with more freedom. In the show, the fact that Asriel fights for freedom of thought and expression is focused on a lot. We hear it both from Asriel himself:

“This is but one world among many. In every single one of them, the same thing. Children, mutilated. Science, learning, criminalized, and whole civilizations covering under the sky.”

(His Dark Materials 2022a, 42:03-42:13)

And from the Authority’s side, as the angel Alarbus tells Asriel what Metatron wants:

“The end to this! Dust is not for you to understand. Conscious beings have become dangerously independent. He will lead a permanent inquisition into every world, on every being. Until they understand complete obedience. And with it, we will bring an end to freedom of thought and will, and control Dust once and for all.”

(His Dark Materials 2022b, 19:02-19:28)

The show do also seems to imply that there would be more equality in the republic of heaven, similar to the books. One such instance is in Asriel’s big speech at the end of season 2:

“My fight is with the Authority and those doling out cruelties in His name. Those who seek to divide in order to control. And who have built worlds founded on privilege and divine right rather than care and need. I fight for freedom of knowledge, and in place of deceit, intolerance and prejudice… I fight for the possibilities of understanding truce and acceptance…”

(His Dark Materials 2022, 41:00-41:35)

This definitely implies that Asriel wants to build a world that is based more on care and compassion, not power and hierarchy. There’s less of this explicitly in season three.  And it’s not really focused on how this more equal society would be achieved. Something that is noteworthy, however, is how Mrs Coulter continually criticises the idea that Asriel could create equality. She says it to his face in episode 3:

“They worship you, don’t they? Ogunwe, the witch, the insect. Will they bow, do you think, when you finally put yourself on the throne?”

“I’m not putting myself on a throne, woman, I’m trying to defeat one.”

“You know, it fascinates me. How enamoured you are with your own power that you’ve come to embody the very thing you most despise.”

(His Dark Materials 2022c, 35:05-35:22)

She brings up it again later to Ugunwe when he says he can’t make a decision without council approval:

“Oh come on. Let’s not pretend. The only vote that counts around here is Asriel’s and he acts purely in his own interests. You should do the same.”

(His Dark Materials 2022d, 21:59-22:12)

Now, Mrs Coulter isn’t always a reliable narrator. She’s often trying to manipulate circumstances and people. But she’s not necessarily wrong here, Asriel is the one in charge. It’s his revoulution. And it’s not clear if his republic would truly lead to equality. I’ll unpack that more later, but before moving on I want to add one more quote about how Asriel’s actions impact other groups. This one from when Asriel meets up with Iorek, on a melting Svalbard:

“I’m greatly saddened to see the damage my work has done to your land.”

“My bears starve because you blew a hole in the sky!”

(His Dark Materials 2022d, 24:36-25:44)

As I have said before, both regarding the show and books, Asriel’s man-made climate change has consequences.

Another very prominent part of Asriel’s ideology and politics is of course how he criticises the way religion is used to oppress people. He continually brings up how religious doctrine is used to control people and push down freedom of thought. One key aspect of this is how religious institutions (and the Authority) use the threat of hell and the promise of heaven to control people. As one of the people Lyra and Will meet in the land of the dead puts it:

“When we were alive, they told us that when we died we’d go to heaven. And they said that heaven was a place of joy and glory and we would spend eternity in the company of saints and angels praising the Almighty, in a state of bliss. That’s what they said. 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. Because the land of the dead isn’t a place of reward or a place of punishment. It’s a place of nothing. The good come here as well as the wicked, and all of us languish in this gloom for ever, with no hope of freedom, or joy, or sleep or rest or peace.”

(Pullman 2011, 320)

When Lyra and Will set the dead free, they help weaken the Authority’s control. Xaphania says so outright in the show, that after Lyra and Will destroyed “Metatron’s purgatory”, his control is weakened. She seems to mean this literally, that he is somehow physically weaker now, but it’s true in more senses than that. Asriel points out as much in his big war speech:

”Some of us will die today. The Authority wants you to be afraid of that. And why not? We are all of us here mortal. Whether our lifespans are three or 300 years, our time down here in the Earth is finite. So we cower. We cower under the tyranny of an authority who calls himself Creator… Who tells us that hell awaits those who disobey him. And that paradise exists only for those who obey. This is a lie. A lie that has prevented us from living our lives to the utmost. Today is our chance. It is our chance to tell him that our lives are beautiful and precious, and that we should be allowed to experience all they have to offer without the fear of retribution. Because if we don’t fight until the end, we will lose everything. So, yes, today, some of you will die. But thanks to my daughter… thanks to Lyra… We need no longer fear that fate. For from today, death is no longer an ending, but instead a journey back into life. So, from today, the Authority has no power over us. Today, life confronts death, and our light shines through the darkness. Today we will tell him that our children shall experience paradise, but they will know it down here, in the earth. Today, we are free!

(His Dark Materials 2022e, 10:42-12:42)
Shot from season 3 episode 7 of His Dark Materials (His Dark Materials 2022e)

So, Asriel fights his war. He and Mrs Coulter kill Metatron. Lyra and Will accidentally kill the Authority, and then they Fall. But as anyone who has read The Secret Commonwealth knows, this isn’t the end of oppression. Because as John Parry says, we can’t flee to another world and build a perfect society there:

“And this is the reason for all those things: your deamon can only live its full life in the world it was born in. Elsewhere it will eventually sicken and die. (…) Lord Asriel’s great enterprise will fail in the end for the same reason: we have to build the republic of heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere.”

(Pullman 2011, 364)

So, having looked at the goals and some of the results of Asriel’s revolution, let’s look at revolutionary theory.

Marxist theory

A basic tenant of Marxist theory is that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” (Marx & Engels 1848) This struggle is between the “haves” and “have-nots”, those controlling the means of production and those who do not. By means of production, Marx and Engels mean for instance factories, companies, land, etc. Those controlling the means of production in modern society are capitalists, while those selling their labour to the capitalists are the proletariat. In such a system, capitalists hold power over the proletariat. I won’t go further into specifics in Marxist economic theory here, but instead, I want to focus on how Marx theorised such unequal systems are upheld. In A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx writes:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

(Marx 1859)

This is a complex way of saying that the modes of production, and relations of production, determine how we think and understand the world. If we live in a capitalist society, our political, scientific, and religious philosophies etc will be based on such a system. Marx further argues that the dominant “ideas” (political ideology, scientific thought, legal writings, religious doctrine, etc) of an era will support the dominant class:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that, thereby generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one ruling class one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. (…) For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interests as the common interests of all the members through its aim, to represent its interests as the common interests of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones.

(Marx & Engels 1845)

That is to say, the ruling class makes use of ideas (philosophy etc) to uphold their rule. To make the status quo seem natural, the only reasonable way for things to be. One way of looking at this is through the concepts of “superstructure” and “base”. The base is the means of production and relations of production, the material reality, while the superstructure is the ideas on top of it. One way of illustrating this is:

Picture from Wikipedia.

Marx would argue that the base is dominant because the superstructure exists because of it. There is a need for ideology to justify the relations of production and its injustices.

One type of ideology that I think is worth looking closer at is religion. One of Marx’s most famous quotes is probably that religion is “the opium of the people,”  but that quote is seldom shared in context. So here is the context:

“The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.”

(Marx 1844)

So, what Marx really says is that religion is often something people turn to in order to seek solace in a dark and harsh world. And this is then used by those in power in order to stay in power. If you can have people striving for happiness in the afterlife, you don’t have to provide for them materially in this life. So what Marx is really saying is that he wants to change the conditions where people need to turn to religion as their solace. What he is critical of is people using religion to not change material conditions. Another way of putting this comes from Swedish-American labour activist (and Marxist) and songwriter Joe Hill in his classic protest song “Long Haired Preachers”:

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
But when asked how ‘bout something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet:

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die. (…)

Holy Rollers and Jumpers come out,
And they holler, they jump and they shout
”Give your money to Jesus,” they say,
”He will cure all diseases today.” (…)

If you fight hard for children and wife,
Try to get something good in this life,
You’re a sinner and bad man, they tell,
When you die you will sure go to hell.

(Joe Hill 1911)

This is the core of the Marxist critique of religion, that it is used by those in power to uphold injustices. While I don’t have the space to go into that right here, it should still be noted that many have combined Marxism and religion, for instance in Liberation Theology. But in those cases, religion (specifically Christianity) is used as an idea/philosophy specifically to challenge the dominating ideas and structures.

Having described some Marxist theory, it is worth noting that what makes Marx (and Engels) dissimilar from many other intellectual thinkers of the time is that they were not just content to describe society, they also wanted to change it. This is of course clearest in Manifesto of the Communist Party (Marx & Engels 1848). Marx and Engels hoped that the proletariat could overthrow the capitalist class and create a more equal world, where the workers controlled the means of production and where society was governed by the principle of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” (Marx 1875) A state actually governed by those ideals has not (yet) existed.

Before moving on, I would like to touch on how Marxist thought has been developed both within academia and without, specifically relating to other power structures such as race and gender. While both Marx and Engels were critical of colonialism, slavery, and women’s place in society (all of this is brought up in Manifesto of the Communist Party), this wasn’t their focus. Although, it should be mentioned that Engels wrote Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State where he discusses the oppression of women (Engels 1884). Still, many Marxist feminists would later expand upon how the oppression of women is inextricable from class oppression and how both oppressions must be fought simultaneously (eg. Mitchell 1966). Similarly, others have pointed out how deeply intertwined oppressions based on patriarchy, heteronormativity, racialisation, and colonialism are with class oppression (eg. Bannerji 2020; Davis 2020). That is to say, even as Marxist theory is still used today and is the foundation for a lot of theoretical work, many would argue that it needs to be seen as just that, a foundation that other theoretical perspectives (feminism, post-colonialism, critical race theory etc) are added onto. Otherwise, the true inequality of society cannot be understood, and those inequalities cannot be addressed and changed.


Looking at Asriel’s revolution from a Marxist lens, some similarities immediately jump out. The main is the criticism of religion, and how it’s used to control the people. As stated both in the show and the books, the Authority and its institutions (like the Magisterium) uphold their power by threatening the people with hell and by promising them heaven. If people follow the rules set out, if they obey, and if they don’t question the power structures, they’ll get into heaven. If you try to fight for something better in life, you’re doomed to hell. In this way, power structures are upheld. As I explained above, Marx explains the power structures and injustices of our world in the same way. Those in power use “ideas” (such as philosophy, religion, science, etc) to justify the status quo and make it seem the only possible way for the world to work. Religion often plays a specific role, with certain doctrines arguing that you need to work hard and be obedient in life to then experience paradise after death.

Promotional picture for season 3.

Asriel challenges this view, arguing that from now on “our children shall experience paradise, but they will know it down here, in the earth.” People will no longer need to wait for the afterlife to experience happiness and pleasure, they will experience it in life. This approach allows people to fight for equality and justice in their society, in this life.

In general, Asriel wants a freer world. One where more ideas can exist than those of the ruling class. As mentioned above, he’s keenly aware of how ideas, philosophy, religion, etc are used to oppress people. But while he seems to want a more equal world, one based on “care and need” instead of privilege and divine right and one without bishops and kings, it’s still unclear what this would mean exactly. We can assume some more equality in a republic as opposed to a kingdom, and throughout the series, we have seen that less religious dogma seems to be good for women’s equality for instance (this is also brought up in the show, where teenage girls from Ugunwe’s world mention that they can have an actual life in resistance). But still, Asriel often seems to be focused on the bigger picture, and the superstructure rather than the base. While this makes sense in the story, you have to defeat Metatron if you want the chance to do anything else, it also leads to the flaws in his revolution. In the books, Ugunwe says that they are not colonisers, and that’s why they’ve set up camp in an empty world. But Asriel is still very willing to sacrifice people to win his war, whether they be innocent kitchen boys, witches, or the homeland of the pansarbjørne. As I’ve argued elsewhere, in these series (books and show) we see a tendency from both Asriel and the Magisterium to be more willing to sacrifice people who are from lower classes or ethnic minorities. This is part of the colonialism of that world. On one level, this shows how Asriel definitely isn’t a Marxist (they tend to care about the lower class and working class). But as many Black, Anti-Colonial, and Feminist Marxists have pointed out, traditional Marxism also tends to disregard many issues related to racism, colonialism, and sexism.

But in the end, even if Asriel did win against Metatron, the war wasn’t fully won. Because as John Parry tells us, we have to build the republic of heaven where we are. Which means paying attention to the base, not just the superstructure. And it means fighting the fight in every world, to achieve equality and justice everywhere. The fact that Asriel didn’t (or if we’re being a bit generous to him, didn’t have time to), means that even after attacking and dethroning God, the Magisterium remains. The consequences of that become evident in The Secret Commonwealth. It also becomes evident that defeating God doesn’t necessarily get rid of inequality based on for instance class. So, I guess the message, to paraphrase Marx, should be:

Workers in every world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!


Bannerji, Himani. 2020. “Himani Bannerji.” In Revolutionary Feminisms, edited by Brenna Bhandar & Rafeef Ziadah, 95-118. London: Verso.

Davis, Angela Y. “Angela Y. Davis.” In Revolutionary Feminisms, edited by Brenna Bhandar & Rafeef Ziadah, 203-216. London: Verso.

Engels, Friedrich. 1884. Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. . [I have used the version published in Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume Three, published by Progress Publishers 1970]

Hill, Joe. 1911. “Long Haired Preachers”. Retrieved from:

His Dark Materials. 2020. “Æsahættr.” HBO. December 22, 2020.

His Dark Materials. 2022a. “The Enchanted Sleeper.” HBO. December 5, 2022.

His Dark Materials. 2022b. “The Break.” HBO. December 5, 2022.

His Dark Materials. 2022c. “The Intention Craft.” HBO. December 12, 2022.

His Dark Materials. 2022d. “The Abyss.” HBO. December 19, 2022.

His Dark Materials. 2022e. “The Clouded Mountain.” HBO. December 26, 2022.

Marx, Karl. 1844. A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.[I have used the version published in Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), published by Cambridge University Press in 1970]

Marx, Karl & Fredrich Engels. 1845/2008. “The German Ideology.” In Classical Sociological Theory, edited by Craig Calhoun, Joseph Gerteis, James Moody, Steven Pfaff & Indermohan Virk, 82-85. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Marx, Karl & Fredrich Engels. 1848/2008. “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” In Classical Sociological Theory, edited by Craig Calhoun, Joseph Gerteis, James Moody, Steven Pfaff & Indermohan Virk, 96-111. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Marx, Karl. 1859. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy [I have used the version published by Progress Publishers 1977]

Marx, Karl. 1875. Critique of the Gotha Programme. [I have used the version published in Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume Three, published by Progress Publishers 1970]

Mitchell, Juliet. 1966/2012. ”Kvinnorna: den längsta revolutionen.” [Swedish translation of “Women: The Longest Revolution”] in Kvinnopolitiska nyckeltexter, edited by Johanna Essevald & Lisbeth Larsson, 184-193. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Pullman, Philip. 2011. The Amber Spyglass. London: Scholastic Childrens’ books.

Pullman, Philip. 2019. The Secret Commonwealth. London: Penguin Books.

Marisa Coulter: power, femininity, and shame

Content warning: sexism, violence against children

Spoiler warning: spoilers for all His Dark Materials books.

In preparation for the final(?) season of His Dark Materials, I wanted to take a moment to reflect upon one of the main characters of the show, Marisa Coulter. I will do so from a book perspective, but much of her book journey is of course relevant to the show as well. In either format, Marisa Coulter is someone to be reckoned with. From the moment we first meet her, we realise that this is someone extraordinary that we are dealing with.

A lady in a yellow-red fox-fur coat, a beautiful young lady whose dark hair falls shining delicately under the shadow of her fur-lined hood, is standing in the doorway of the Oratory, half a dozen steps above him. It might be that a service is finishing, for light comes from the doorway behind her, an organ is playing inside, and the lady is holding a jewelled breviary. (…) The young lady’s daemon is moving out from behind the fox-fur coat. He is in the form of a monkey, but no ordinary monkey: his fur is long and silky and of the most deep and lustrous gold.

(Pullman 2011a, 42)

Who is this beautiful lady, surrounded by luxuriousness and holy light we might ask? Well, we soon find out that she is a child trafficker who is conducting unethical experiments on marginalised children, partly in order to gain power. I’ve previously analysed these events from a few different points of view, so here I wanted to approach Marisa and her actions a bit differently. Specifically, I want to analyse how Marisa’s relationship to gender, class, shame, and power impacts the way she approaches the world.

Promotional shot from the His Dark Materials tv-show, retrieved from this article.

We don’t know too much about Marisa’s background, except that she wasn’t from the same social standing as either Asriel (or presumably her husband Mr Coulter). This is made clear in Northern Lights when John Faa explains to Lyra how Asriel and Marisa met:

When he was a young man, Lord Asriel went exploring all over the North, and came back with a great fortune. And he was a high-spirited man, quick to passion, a passionate man. And your mother, she was passionate too. Not so well-born as him, but a clever woman. A scholar, even, and those who saw her said she was very beautiful. She and your father, they fell in love as soon’s they met.

(Pullman 2011a, 122)

Here we learn a few crucial facts about Marisa. First, that she wasn’t exactly “well-born”, and second that she was considered both clever and beautiful. She was also a scholar, something the reader already knew, but it’s interesting that it’s pointed out in this passage when describing her social standing. Asriel has a lordship and “a great fortune”, and Marisa has her beauty and some academic acclaim. We don’t know as much about Mr Coulter, but it is stated that he was a politician and someone who was raising in power. It makes sense then that Marisa might marry him to gain a better social standing herself. As Asriel says later in Northern Lights:

You see, your mother’s always been ambitious for power. At first she tried to get it in the normal way, through marriage, but that didn’t work, as I think you’ve heard. So she had to turn to the Church. Naturally she couldn’t take the route a man could have taken- priesthood and so on- it had to be unorthodox; she had to set up her own order, her own channels of influence, and work through that.

(Pullman 2011a, 372)

So, she tried to gain power by marrying up, so to say, but that didn’t work. So to start, I’d like to analyse that strategy of hers and what made it fail. To do so, I’ll have to go into some theory…

I think one way of understanding Marisa’s actions is by looking at them through the theoretical perspective of two sociologists: Beverley Skeggs and Pierre Bourdieu. Skeggs has done a lot of writing about working-class women, and while I don’t think Marisa grew up lower-class (just not upper-class), I still think a lot of this applies. When writing about class, Skeggs makes use of the work by Pierre Bourdieu and how he conceptualises class. As he argues, someone’s position in society isn’t just caused by their economic capital, but also social capital, cultural capital, and symbolic capital (1987). One’s position in what he calls social space is furthermore dependent on not only the volume of one’s capital, but also the composition of said capital, and one’s trajectory. This essentially means that it matters how much capital you have, how much of each type of capital in comparison to each other you have, and where you started in the social space and where you have moved. Economic capital refers to, as one might guess, the amount of money one has. Social capital on the other hand refers to what social connections one has, which networks one has access to etc.  But cultural capital is perhaps the most interesting one and one that becomes very relevant for this analysis. Cultural capital refers to for instance education, knowledge of culture (books, movies, music, etc.), and general taste (in clothes, décor, etc). As Bourdieu argues, different type of cultural capital is valid in different social spaces. If we apply this to His Dark Materials, we might consider how at Jordan, tokay is served after dinner, while with the Gyptians one can expect jenniver. You can make similar comparisons about what is seen as good taste in décor, for example when Lyra arrives at Marisa’s apartment:

She had seen a great deal of beauty in her short life, but it was Jordan Collage beauty- grand and stony and masculine. In Jordan Collage, much was magnificent, but nothing was pretty. In Mrs Coulter’s flat, everything was pretty. It was full of light, for the wide windows faced south, and the walls were covered in delicate gold-and-white stripped wallpaper. Charming pictures in gilt frames, an antique looking-glass, fanciful sconces bearing anbaric lamps with frilled shades; and frills on the cushions too, and flowery valances over the curtain-rail, and a soft green leaf-pattern carpet underfoot; and every surface was covered, it seemed to Lyra’s innocent eye, with pretty little china boxes and shepherdess and harlequins of porcelain.

(Pullman 2011a, 76)

Both Jordan and Marisa’s apartment are described to have this sort of luxury beauty, albeit in different ways. It’s interesting to consider how this contrasts with what is valued in the Gyptian community, where the Costa family’s boat is described as “brightly painted” (Pullman 2011a, 37), and the family is “noted for the grandeur and sumptuousness of their boat (ibid, 54). We hardly get a view that the Gyptians’ boats are luxuriously decorated in the same sense that Jordan is, the painting is most likely not as expensive as whatever decorations they have in Jordan, yet the Costas’ boat is still considered one of grandeur in this community, based on what they value. It thus contributes to them having a higher standing in that community. Yet, it would not be recognised as a legitimate form of cultural capital in other spaces. This can be explained by another Bourdieu concept, symbolic capital. Symbolic capital refers to the form the other capitals take when they are deemed legitimate. An example of this would be how a university degree (especially from a “fancy” university) makes one’s cultural capital (in this sense education) legitimate, and thus it functions as symbolic capital. As Bourdieu notes, for capital to matter, for it to wield any power, people need to believe that it does.

The power of words and commands, the power of words to give orders and bring order, lies in belief in the legitimacy of the words and of the person who utters them.

(Bourdieu 1979, 83)

Symbolic capital is therefore crucial to make the other types of capital matter.

Thus far, I’ve mainly talked about class and capital in isolation, not considering other social structures, but as many (eg. Skeggs 2005) have noted, social structures such as gender and race most definitely impact class and capital. As mentioned above, Beverley Skeggs is one scholar whose work regarding this I think is especially interesting. When discussing class and gender, Skeggs have noted how the working class has often been seen as dirty, dangerous, pathological, and lacking respect (2002). As she notes, one strategy that the working class (especially working-class women) have employed to counter this perception is striving for respectability. Achieving respectability then becomes a form of cultural capital, which can compensate for one’s lack of other capital (eg. economic, social, and symbolic). To achieve respectability, one needs to utilise femininity correctly. Femininity thus becomes a tool to achieve more capital and a higher standing in the social room. This can include using femininity when pursuing heterosexual relationships and gaining status through these. But while performing femininity correctly might lead to one gaining more capital, there is also the risk that one will perform it incorrectly, for instance by dressing or behaving in a way that is seen as trashy/promiscuous/slutty will further cement one’s place in the social room. And, as Skeggs note, for someone who does manage to make it out of the classed space they grew up in, it often feels like one is always waiting to mess up. For the other shoe to drop. One can often feel afraid of saying the wrong thing, behaving in the wrong way, dressing in the wrong way etc, because one wasn’t brought up with the social codes that come for granted for everyone else.

While not all of this applies to Marisa, I do think that thinking about her actions through the lens of capital, respectability, and femininity sheds some light on what she was trying to do early in her life, and why it failed. It seems as if she attempted to use her femininity as capital to better her station, particularly through her marriage which became a way to gain more cultural, economic, and social capital. Yet this all obviously got (at least partly) ruined when she had an affair with Asriel and got pregnant with Lyra. In the public perception, she wasn’t a respectable woman anymore, having deviated from the norms surrounding sexuality. No longer a respectable and proper wife, she lost a lot of cultural and symbolic capital. As Marisa puts it herself, having this child outside of marriage has been shameful:

“My child, my own child, conceived in sin and born in shame, but my child nonetheless, and you keep from me what I have every right to know!”

(Pullman 2011b, 37)

It is interesting how Marisa uses the word shame here, in a context where the Magisterium is discussing Lyra and the prophecy around her. As the reader learns later, Lyra is destined to repeat the role of Eve, committing “original sin” again. I have in a previous essay discussed both Lyra and Marissa in relation to Eve, so here I would just like to note how according to the bible (in our world and Lyra’s world) humans started to feel shame over their bodies due to Eve’s actions. Again, shame is connected to women’s sexuality.

Promotional shot for the His Dark Materials tv-show, retrieved from this article.

This connection between femininity, sexuality, and shame is also something Professor Ulrika Dahl has written about (2014). Dahl describes womanhood as more or less a connotation to the affect of shame. This can mean being shamed, but also shaming others, for instance shaming one’s family by “inappropriate” actions. According to Dahl, the way femininity is so closely bound up in shame leads to the two concepts often reinforcing each other.

Maybe shame is the connective tissue that embodies femininities and their relations, that which forever associates femininity to that which is called womanhood and defines the subordination of that which we call the second sex.

(Dahl 2014, 325) My translation from Swedish.

Furthermore, Dahl also argues that this is all tied to social class. Shame prevents us from taking certain paths in life because it reminds us of where we come from, and how we are perceived. Like Dahl says:

Shame moves between us, it spreads, sometimes like wildfire between downcast eyes in a subway cart when someone speaks too loudly, dresses inappropriately, or is harassed. Shame sticks between bodies and things, it’s a form of inherited connective tissue which links you to your class background, your barn, your family’s reputation, your lack of family, it precedes you when you arrive at school or your workplace, in the same way your people’s reputation might precede you when you arrive to a (new) nation. Shame is a repeated movement away, down, and in, an instinctive reaction, shame slides over bodies like sticky slime, and it’s not just the fault of slimy men; it can make us reject the one we love the most or at least the one who wants to love us, shame leaks out of bodies in the form of sweat and tears. Shame holds us in its grip, our private lives and our feelings, our relationships and our way of moving through life and it’s not always possible to deconstruct or intellectually dismiss how shame operates in individuals and collectives. Shame orients us in certain directions and not others. Shame stops us from speaking, questioning, it’s used to silence, not in the least women and feminists (…) Shame is to be exposed and the exposure of your shame is even more shameful. Look down. Know your place. Do not make claims and do not show interest.

(Dahl 2014, 326) My translation from Swedish.

I think this description of shame and how it affects people, especially feminine folk, provides a very clear explanation of Marisa’s actions. The exposure of her “shame”, in having a child out of wedlock, affected her so deeply because the shame was so associated with her position as a woman. And being a woman is already inherently shameful, especially in her world. It’s already associated with sin, the sin of Eve. Marisa’s actions made this association even clearer. She probably, therefore, felt like she had to separate herself as much as possible from the shame, move away from and reject the child she loved out of shame. As Dahl says, shame orients us in this world and Marisa’s shame strongly affected the future steps she would take to regain power.

Another aspect of Marisa’s decision to reject motherhood as she strove to gain more power is of course the difficulty of combining motherhood and a career, even today. And in Marisa’s world, it’s probably even more difficult. As many second-wave feminists pointed out as early as the mid-20th century, an obstacle to true equality for women was that even when women were given access to the labour market, they were expected to put their role as mothers first (eg. Moberg 1961). To handle this, and the shame her extramarital affair had brought, Marisa seems to have tried to separate herself as much as possible from motherhood and sexuality. While still being feminine in her appearance etc and making use of that cultural capital, she devotes her whole career to fighting against sexuality and sin. In her work in investigating Dust and severing children she essentially rejects all that she risks being associated with due to her previous “shameful” behaviour. She also has access to a lot of her previous cultural, economic, and social capital as we can see during for instance the cocktail party in Northern Lights. She’s still (somewhat) respected as a woman of high society, with the social connections to prove it. And she doesn’t hesitate to show off her status through her clothing and decorations in her apartment. Yet, it seems clear that even though she has amassed some power through her forms of capital and her position and the Magisterium, part of why she has been able to do that is that she’s seen as a disavowable asset by the Magisterium. As a woman, and a woman with her past, she can be used by the Magisterium to do unsavoury tasks, but she can also be cut off if necessary.

In conclusion, it becomes clear that Marisa has several different strategies to gain different forms of capital and power. She has tried to use social capital and cultural capital to gain economic capital and symbolic capital, to rise above the class position she was born into. As part of that, she tried to use her femininity to be seen as respectable and gain more cultural capital. But that ability was damaged when she had an extramarital affair and a child out of wedlock. She wasn’t seen as respectable anymore. Her actions brought shame upon her. And this shame was especially connected to her femininity and sexuality. As such, this shame oriented her going forward, for instance rejecting motherhood and building a career in policing sin. Throughout this, it is clear that Marisa’s power is very much tied up with class, shame, and femininity. Both her goals, her means, her limitations, and the consequences of her actions are inextricable from the social structures around her. That’s part of what makes her a fascinating character. She does absolutely terrible things, but she’s also such a clear example of what power and social structures can do to someone. The shame of the patriarchy has burned her, but instead of burning it down in return she for the most part works within it to gain power. Until she doesn’t. Until she becomes part of conservative men’s worst nightmare.


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1979. “Symbolic Power.” Critique of Anthropology 4(77): 77-85.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1987. “What makes a social class? On the theoretical and practical existence of groups.” Berkley Journal of Sociology, 32: 1-17.

Dahl, Ulrika. 2014. Skamgrepp. Femme-inistiska essäer. [”Dirty trick. Femme-inist essays.”]Stockholm: Leopard.

Moberg, Eva. 1961 [2012] ”Kvinnans villkorliga frigivning.” [”The woman’s conditional liberation.”] In Kvinnopolitiska nyckeltexter [”Key texts in women’s politics”],eds. Johanna Essevald & Lisbeth Larsson, 164-173. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Skeggs, Beverley. 2002. Formations of Class & Gender- Becoming Respectable. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Skeggs, Beverley. 2005. ”The Re-Branding of Class: Propertising Culture.” In Rethinking Class: Culture, Identities & Lifestyle, eds. Fiona Devine, John Mike Scott & Rosemary Crompton, 46-68. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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

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

His Dark Materials season 2 episode 7, a feminist analysis

Oh damn, what an episode. What a season. It’s been such a joy watching, and writing about, this marvellous season. For this final analysis of the season, I will once again split up the text into the subsections; general thoughts, feminist thoughts, and dusty thoughts, but I will also attempt to take a look at the whole season throughout the text. Like previous weeks, the general thoughts and feminist thoughts will contain spoilers for the main three books in the His Dark Materials book series, while the dusty thoughts will contain spoilers for the outer books such as The Book of Dust as well.

General thoughts

Since this is such a sad episode, I wanted to start with some happy moments, specifically Mary’s storyline this episode. In comparison to everything else, her story in Cittàgazze has been so wholesome. It’s lovely to see her being a caretaker to the children, just like last episode, and then continuing on her journey through the beautiful landscape. I like the detail of the blue petals that she’s following, the ones that most likely coming from the window into the Mulefa world. I’m a bit disappointed we didn’t get to see her reach the window and step through, that would’ve been a nice closing of her story. I get that they didn’t want to show the Mulefa world, because they probably hadn’t come up with it yet, but it would have been nice to see her reach the window at least. It still worked alright though, and I think the tone for her story in these last two episodes will nicely transition to her plot in season three (WHICH IS CONFIRMED!!!!!). Her time with the Mulefa is (on the whole, with some exceptions of course) very peaceful and wholesome in many ways, so this tone feels very similar to that.

Now on to the sad parts… As someone who has read the books, I obviously knew that this was coming, but Lee and Hester sacrificing themselves to protect Lyra still broke my heart. I’m not sure what else can be said really, except that it was beautiful, and their last stand was essentially perfect. Hester telling him where to aim felt like a perfect call back to the first episode they appeared in last season, where they got into a bar fight and Hester was advicing Lee and cheering him on. Like that time, they lost this fight, but with much more severe consequences this time. Their last moments together are heart-breaking too, and when Hester says the line from the book, “We’re a-helping Lyra”, I fully broke down crying. The sadness then continues with John and Will’s meeting, and goodbye. I really liked them giving them a bit more time to talk before John’s death, but it also made it almost sadder. Will questioning his dad on why he didn’t come back also felt important, and very similar to Lyra’s confrontation of Asriel in the end of the last season. Just as Asriel, John is more focused on the bigger picture, but he at least has a bit more of a heart when talking to his child. I do wonder if Asriel’s death in the end of the next season will seem like a parallel to John’s death after the case, the two of them do have a lot in common. Will and Lyra are both continuing on their fathers’ mission, Will literally picking up his fathers’ mantle. As Will noted in the episode, this is their journey now. This whole season has, in some way, been about Will and Lyra learning to trust each other and growing close. Asriel might be making a huge war, and reqruiting angels, but it’s these two children and their goodness who will end up saving the world. And as John Parry said, the night is full of angels who will guide Will.

(I wish we would have seen these angels (or gayngels as my friend @ELSmith1994 would say), but I suppose we’ll just have to wait for season three for now.)

Feminist thoughts

Speaking of the sadness that is John Parry’s death, I appreciate that the show changed it, so it wasn’t a spurned witch who killed him. I’ve noted before that the way the witches are portrayed in the books almost make them seem like some sort of mythological creature who have to take revenge by some sort of magical rule. But it also plays into a quite sexist idea of the “crazy” spurned woman. The way the show changed it, with the Magisterium soilder killing John Parry worked much better in my opinion. As I noted last week, the show has really played up the visual connection between the Magisterium and Nazi Germany, and that only continued this week with the soldiers’ uniforms (note the similarity to the SS sentry).

(Side note: yes, Hugo Boss designed them, read more here). The Nazis weren’t exactly known for being kind to political opponents, so it makes sense for someone sort of Nazi coded to go after this revolutionary (John Parry).

Speaking of revolutionaries, Asriel’s speech at the end of the episode was very interesting. To quote it in full:

I have struggled through many worlds to arrive here. But you know this. I have sacrificed things. Things I did not want to. My fight is not with you. But you are the last obstacle between me and my enemy, and if I must, I will raise arms… again. My fight is with the Authority and those doling out cruelties in His name. Those who seek to divide in order to control. And who have built worlds founded on privilege and divine right rather than care and need. I fight for freedom of knowledge. And in place of deceit, intolerance and prejudice I fight for the possibility of understanding, truth, and acceptance. But I cannot win these things alone. I will need help and support from you, and all those who have rebelled. Let us be united in heart, soul, and deed, and together we can build a republic of heaven above and a republic of ideas below. Worlds in which the scars of history may be healed. Better worlds, where the privilege of freedom becomes the right of all peoples. But I tell you this now. There is no neutral ground, you are either for me, or you are against me. Now which is it? (His Dark Materials 2020, 40.20 min)

Now, Asriel’s speech here can certainly be analysed in several different ways, but something that stuck out to me is how it almost sounds Marxist. I’ve discussed Marxist theory earlier this season, when analysing the Alchamists of Cittàgazze, so it feels appropriate to return to it when talking about the big conflict of the story. Briefly, Marxist theory (as in the sociological theory, which is not necessarily the same as Marxist or communist politics) argues that in all society there exists a class struggle between the haves and the have-nots, and this has been the case for all of history (Marx & Engels 1848). Furthermore, the rule of one class of people at any given time is supported by the ideologies of the time (what Marx called “superstructures”) (Boglind et al. 2014). One can understand the superstructures by looking at the “base”, which is the means and relations of production. For instance, if you have a feudalistic society with a king at the top and the peasants at the bottom producing the food and other resources that the nobility needs, then the ideologies of the time will argue that this is the correct order of things. These ideologies can include politics, religion, science, art, etc. In the case of feudalism, kings often argued that their right to power came from God himself. This is, by the way, in the context one should understand Marx’s famous statement that religion is opium for the people. What he means is that religion is used as a justification for social inequality, as well as a lure, something to focus on instead of material physical realities. Really, socialist singer Joe Hill summed it up best in his famous 1911 song “The Preacher and the Slave”:

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
But when asked how ‘bout something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet:

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

In my opinion, this is view that religion is used to uphold and defend social inequality is essentially the same as what Asriel argues when he says:

”My fight is with the Authority and those doling out cruelties in His name. Those who seek to divide in order to control. And who have built worlds founded on privilege and divine right rather than care and need.”

This last part of the quote, that worlds should be built on care and need, also reminds me of the quote often attributed to Marx (but really precedes him): “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” (Marx 1890). That is to say, in an equal society, everyone should contribute according to their ability, and get resources according to their need.

One last part I want to note regarding Asriel’s speech, is how he implores the angels for support on the basis that they have rebelled before. He also notes that his fight is not with them, but that in this war there is no neutral ground. This is reminiscent of the Marxist idea of how change happens in a society when those outside of the ruling class realise that they have more in common with each other than the ruling class, and thus form a class consciousness. Marx noted himself that an obstacle to this is when those oppressed are put against each other by for instance ideology. An example of this in our times could be how workers of different races/ethnicities are often put against each other (for instance by the idea of immigrants coming to steal jobs), instead of working together to get more rights and equality. Either way, Marx argued that if a class consciousness is formed, then society can be changed both in the “base” and the “superstructure”:

This whole semblance, that the rule of a certain class is only the rule of certain ideas, comes to a natural end, of course, as soon as class rule in general ceases to be the form in which society is organised, that is to say, as soon as it is no longer necessary to represent a particular interest as general or the ‘general interest’ as ruling. (Marx & Engels 1845, 85). 

This seems to be close to what Asriel wants too, with him arguing that they should build a Republic of Heaven above, and a Republic of Ideas below. It should be noted, however, that while this goal is admirable, the way Asriel goes about it has massive side-effects. During his very speech in the episode, we see the ice continuing to melt on Svalbard as a cause of his man-made climate change. I discussed this further earlier this season, so I won’t go into it anymore here, but I do feel that we should note the consequences of Asriel’s war.

In a contrast to Asriel, we have Marissa Coulter, who in large part tries to keep the status quo going, while improving her own position. Throughout this season, we see how she’s been hurt by society, but seems to in many ways have internalised it. As I noted when analysing episode three, Mrs Coulter seems to have a lot of internalised misogyny, perhaps stemming from her own trauma. This, I think, can be seen in episode seven too, when she decides to make sure Lyra, unlike Eve, won’t fall. In general, Mrs Coulter seems to try to deal with her trauma through a need to control everything. This can perhaps also be seen in her constant attempts to gain more power. For instance, she’ll travel all over her own world and other worlds, but seemingly mainly to get what she can use and exploit. This could be seen in the last episode when she, upon seeing a person having been attacked by spectres, noted that she could learn from this. As Girls Gone Canon pointed out in their breakdown of that episode, this is in stark contrast to how Mary approaches science and exploration. In this episode Mrs Coulter continues to use the resources she’s found in Cittàgazze (the spectres) to gain more power and control, even using them to kill. At no point does she use her power of control over them to help the people of Cittàgazze however, for instance by removing the spectres, or teaching others how to control them. This, in combination with the fact that she’s once again wearing clothes that reminds one of some sort of colonial explorer, very much reminds me of white women’s roles in colonialised countries. As I wrote in my essay about colonialism in His Dark Materials when discussing Coulter’s position:

In many ways it reminds me of the way white European women would attempt to get power in colonies, where they (at least sometimes) could get more freedom/power. Feminist researcher Sara Mills for instance notes that British women in colonial India could find more freedom from restrictive social conventions than they did in their homeland (2003). One example of this that Mills mentions is how British women might find freedom in travelling and “exploring” colonies, and how some of these women in travel journals describe the way they felt freer on their journeys than in their homes. As Mills rightly points out, this is of course a stark contrast to the life of many of the people they colonized whose freedom was restricted by colonialism. One cannot help but think of Marisa Coulter’s travels here, and how she found freedom by making use of an oppressive system. (Lo the Lynx 2020b)

Coulter here makes use of an unequal society (Cittàgazze), which in large part is unequal due to unfair division of resources (as I discussed here), to gain more power. But she does nothing to help the people of that society. I appriacte how the show has handled this, the show makes it clear to the viewer that Coulter has suffered by the society she lives in, but that she in the end doesn’t do anything to make it better. It’s been a very interesting storyline to follow this season, and I look forward to how they adapt her story going forward.

Dusty thoughts

The first thing I want to mention here, just briefly, is that I love the detail of Lee putting his hat on a rock during the fight, as a decoy. This seems to be a deliberate reference to a similar move that he makes in Once Upon a Time in the North, where he sticks up his hat on a stick to let it be shot at, and therefore be able to judge where the shots are coming from. I love how they’ve incorporated this novella into the show, both this season and last (with his speech to the sysselman being very similar to Ouatitn.

The main dusty thing I thought about in this episode, however, was how Coulter’s relationship with her daemon seems similar to Gerard Bonneville in La Belle Sauvage. Girls Gone Canon discussed the parallels between these characters in their latest episode on LBS as well, and how they both seem quite broken and toxic (2020a). As Girls Gone Canon noted, Pullman has himself said that Bonneville’s behaviour towards his daemon could be described as domestic abuse. Coulter’s behaviour in this episode seems very similar, with her several times hurting him while telling him to not complain, and then being sweet to him afterwards. This feels similar to the way an abuser might act, first being violent and then being nice and sweet. Their relationship is definitely very toxic, and painful to watch.

Well, that’s it for this season. Wow. Well, I’m not going anywhere, I’ll continue writing book analysis on this blog, and posting HDM related things on my twitter if anyone wants to follow me there.

Until, bye, and don’t forget to tell them stories.


Boglind, A., S. Eliaeson och P. Månson. 2014. Kapital, rationalitet och social sammanhållning (Edition 7:1). Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Girls Gone Canon. 2020a. “The Book of Dust Episode 4 – La Belle Sauvage Chapters 9-11.” December 18, 2020.

Girls Gone Canon. 2020b. “His Dark Materials Series 2 Episode 6 – Malice.” December 21, 2020.

Hill, Joe. 1911. “The Preacher and the Slave.” Available online:

His Dark Materials. 2020. Æsahættr.” HBO, December 22, 2020.

Lo the Lynx. 2020a. “The rulers of the forest: The witches of His Dark Materials and Scandinavian folklore.”

Lo the Lynx. 2020b. “Colonialism in His Dark Materials.”

Lo the Lynx. 2020c. “His Dark Materials season 2 episode 3, a feminist analysis.”

Lo the Lynx. 2020d. “His Dark Materials season 2 episode 4, a feminist analysis.”

Lo the Lynx. 2020f. “His  Dark Materials season 2 episode 6, a feminist analysis.”

Marx, Karl & Friedrich Engels. (2007/1845). ”The German Ideology.” In Classical Sociological Theory, eds. Calhoun C., J. Gerteis, J. Moody, S. Pfaff & I. Virk, 82-85 Theory. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing

Marx, Karl & Friedrich Engels. 1848. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Available online here:

Marx, Karl. 1890. Critique of the Gotha Programme. Available online:

Mills, Sara. 2003. ”Gender and colonial space.” In Feminist postcolonial theory: A reader, eds. Lewis, Reina & Sara Mills. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University.

Romano, Nick. 2020. “His Dark Materials renewed for season 3 to adapt The Amber Spyglass.” Entertainment Weekly, December 22, 2020.

His Dark Materials season 2 episode 6- a feminist analysis

Another excellent episode of His Dark Materials! So, just as I’ve done previous weeks, I’m here to analyse this episode! I will split this text into three parts: general thoughts, feminist thoughts, and dusty thoughts. The two first sections will contain spoilers for all the main His Dark Materials books, while the last one will contain spoilers for the companion books too, including The Book of Dust.

General thoughts

This episode was another great one for Mrs Coulter! Her controlling of the spectres was very exciting to see, and the last scene between her and Boreal was just fantastic. Her killing Boreal at the end and noting how he was never her equal provided a good end of the storyline of equality from last episode. Another very interesting part of Mrs Coulter’s plot this episode was of course the way she approached spectres throughout the episode, for instance in how commented on how they could learn from the way spectres sever people. But the most significant scene in that regard was of course how she could control the spectres by suppressing her own humanity. As I’ve noted before, this could possibly be an ability she’s learnt as a way of dealing with trauma. Her fascination with daemons, severing, and Dust could possibly also be related to this. This season of the show has definitely focused on her connection to her daemon (and therefore soul) in either case, which is very interesting.

Another part of the episode that really stood out was the added scenes with Angelica, Paula, and the rest of the kids. As Girls Gone Canon have pointed out (2020c), there are a lot of parallels between these kids and The Lord of the Flies, but I feel like the show has humanised them more than the books really does. You can’t help but feel deeply sad for them when they talk about how their future was essentially taken away from them with them losing the knife. The scene between Angelica, Paula, and Mary is even more heart-breaking. It really makes you realise that they are still just kids, and kids who want an adult to take care of them. This somewhat parallels Lyra in this episode, and how it seems like she wants a guardian in Serafina. This is interesting given that Mary will end up being Will’s guardian at the end of The Amber Spyglass, and Serafina says she’ll keep an eye on Lyra. I very much enjoyed Serafina and Lyra’s interactions in this episode, but it was weird to remember that they haven’t technically talked in the show before, since they have in the books. That took me out of the moment a bit at first, but it was nonetheless an excellent scene.

Speaking of influences on children, I found the way Mary was portrayed in this episode very interesting in general. As we all know, Mary is going to be the serpent, tempting Lyra. But throughout the episode we see her being protected by angels, being safe from the spectres thanks to this angelic grace. We clearly see that the angels (at least some of them) are on her side, and on Asriel’s side. This is a clear contrast to how MacPhail claims that he has heard the word of God, and is doing the work of God, when he quite obviously isn’t.

Feminist thoughts

A significant event in this episode is when Fra Pavel reveals to Cardinal MacPhail that the alethiometer has revealed that Lyra is known by another name in prophesy and that:

The name is her destiny. It foretells that she will be in the position of the one that brought about our downfall. Mother of us all. Cause of all Sin. (His Dark Materials 2020, 25.05 min)

Her name is not explicitly revealed in this episode, but readers of the books know that it’s Eve. Just like in our world, the church of Lyra’s world blames original sin on Eve. So, the idea of Lyra being an Eve 2.0 of sorts of course makes the Magisterium very concerned, since they have been trying to control sin and Dust for centuries. Blaming original sin on a woman has also, similarly to our world, led to seeing women as inferior and a demonising of female sexuality. According to the Magisterium, women should be obedient and innocent, not tempted by either forbidden knowledge or desires. Strong willed women are seen as willful and dangerous (or arrogant as Boreal put it in the last episode). The figure of the willful girl is something feminist researcher Sara Ahmed has written about (2017), noting that in literature girls are generally seen as willful while their boy counterparts are seen as strong willed (a much more positive trait). As Ahmed notes, a willful girl is a sinful girl, because she won’t respect (the) authority. Ahmed writes that these stories of willful sinful girls:

(…) 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 willfulness of women relates here not only to disobedience but to desire: the strength of her desire becoming a weakness of her will. (ibid)

Willful girls are sinful girls 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 has been used to describe enslaved and colonised people, who was often positioned as children, and was supposed to obey their master (ibid, 80). As an example of this, 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 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.” (Ahmed 2017, 87)

That the Magisterium sees Lyra, the willful sinful girl, as a threat becomes clear when Cardinal MacPhail says:

The Magisterium, over which I am Cardinal, has a new direction. Fra Pavel has brought me information of a threat so grave in nature that the world has only seen it once before. Well, under my leadership, we will do whatever is necessary. We have sent troops through the Anomaly, to face that threat. In the name of the Authority, we will not waiver. And the first to partake in this great sacrifice will be the child, Lyra Belacqua. (His Dark Materials 2020, 27.50 min)

We see here, clearly, how the Magisterium is completely fine with sacrificing a child in their effort to control Dust and sin. As I’ve written before, the Magisterium’s attempts to control Dust often bear resemblance to eugenic efforts in our world. In the Magisterium’s case they try to control Dust and sin through for instance the severing of daemons, in our world people have tried to control sexuality and sin through for instance forced sterilisations. In our world eugenic efforts were often focused on female sexuality, since women often were 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 for instance. 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)

In light of this, it seems depressingly fitting that the Magisterium of Lyra’s world is so focused on controlling the sin of a young girl. Another thing I’ve noted in these Magisterium scenes is the similarity between their logo and uniforms to those worn by Nazi during World War Two. This is something I mentioned in Girls Gone Canon’s episode one breakdown (2020d) , but I would also like to note it in this scene where Cardinal MacPhail talks about sacrificing Lyra. Here’s how he’s dressed, with the Magisterium’s cross in the background:

As a comparison, here’s the symbol of the Luftwaffe (Nazi Germany’s airforce), and a picture of different Nazi uniforms. Note the SS uniforms in particular.

(Side note: yes, Hugo Boss designed them, read more here)

The nazi uniforms and the Magisterium’s clothing isn’t exactly the same, but I wonder if they’re meant to invoke them, given how obsessed the Magisterium is with sin, sexuality, and pureness. As I discussed in my episode two analysis, what the Magisterium did to the witches was essentially a form of ethnic cleansing, and now they are arguing for killing a child to stop her from infecting others with sin. The parallels are quite clear.

The last point I want to make here is that, as mentioned above, religious leaders have used religion as a reason to persecute women and other marginalised people for centuries, all the while being scared they would fight back. This is why marginalised people have been shut out of institutions, including educational institutions, as was mentioned in last week’s episode of His Dark Materials. This is why the powers that be have tried to demonise us, devalue us, dismiss us. But as Sojourner Truth said back in 1851:

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.)

Lyra, our Eve 2.0, shows us that we can turn the world right side up again.

Dusty thoughts

I thought it was interesting that Will had fever dream in this episode! He’s been having many similar types of visions in this season, seemingly sent to him by his dad. I discussed this on Girls Gone Canon’s first episode of this season, and the possibility of Will learning to spirit travel like his dad. In that first episode, Will was sitting next to a tree while having the visions, and I noted then that this might be an allusion to Yggdrasil of Norse mythology. The tree Yggdrasil is the connection between the worlds, with the different roots leading to different worlds, perhaps a bit similar to Cittàgazze and its subtle knife as well. Either way, Will seems to have several ways of travelling through worlds, and as Chloe of Girls Gone Canon has mentioned several times (2020a; 2020b), this might hint at him returning for the third Book of Dust through some sort of spirit travel. Chloe has also talked about how the roses and rose oil that’s brought up in The Secret Commonwealth might be significant to this plot somehow (2020f). In general, it seems like plants in Lyra’s world might be a bit more magical than in our world or in Cittàgazze, which is also something the witches note in this episode when they try to create the spell to heal Will. I’m not sure what this all will amount to, but it feels like they’ve sprinkled in some interesting hints of Will’s ability to spirit travel throughout this season.


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

Girls Gone Canon. 2020. “Joining Worlds – A Dustcussion on The Secret Commonwealth Ft. Her Dark Materials & The Dark Materials Podcast.” Published March 6, 2020.

Girls Gone Canon. 2020. “His Dark Materials Episode 13 – The Subtle Knife Chapters 9 and 10.” Published May 29, 2020.

Girls Gone Canon. 2020. “His Dark Materials 13- The Subtle Knife Chapters 9 and 10.” Published June 26, 2020.

Girls Gone Canon. 2020. ”His Dark Materials Season 2 Episode 1 – The Magpie City featuring Lo the Lynx” November 16, 2020.

Girls Gone Canon. 2020. “The Book of Dust Episode 4 – La Belle Sauvage Chapters 9-11.” December 18, 2020.

His Dark Materials. 2020. “Malice.” HBO. December 15, 2020.

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

Women’s Rights National History Park. n.d. “Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I A Woman?” National Park Service. Accessed March 22, 2020.

His Dark Materials season 2 episode 5, a feminist analysis

It feels very appropriate to write a feminist analysis of what is probably the most explicit feminist episode of this season of His Dark Materials! Just as I’ve done previous weeks, I will split this text into three parts: general thoughts, feminist thoughts, and dusty thoughts. The two first sections will contain spoilers for all the main His Dark Materials books, while the last one will contain spoilers for the companion books too, including The Book of Dust.

General thoughts

A major theme in this episode was the contrast between worlds, Will’s world on the one hand and Lyra’s world on the other. I found the way Boreal described it in the beginning of the episode quite telling, in Will’s world there is less faith but more consumerism and double the corruption. This world might be less overtly controlled by ideology than Lyra’s world, but it’s no less entrenched in it, just in different ways. Like Boreal says, it’s a culture of consumerism, a world controlled by money essentially. When we cut back to The Magisterium later, we see a somewhat different world view, where religion is used to legitimate power, and Father Graves is arrested due to ostensibly not being faithful. It seems as if Cardinal MacPhail really tries to crack down on dissidents. I also want to note that the people in the meeting with him are concerned about what information the witches will bring back with them from the new world they’ve travelled through. For a governing body that tries their best to limit the access to information and knowledge, especially for women, this must be concerning indeed. I’ll return to this later on!

One part of the episode that I feel like I have to mention, if only briefly, is the scene where Lyra, Pan, and Will run into Angelica, Paula, and Tulio. The scene of the two sisters grieving the life their brother could’ve had is absolutely heartbreaking, and shows the very real human costs of the structural problems I discussed in last week’s analysis. I talked then about how the very structure of Cittàgazze’s society is so deeply flawed and unequal, and in this episode we clearly see how it rips families apart. All the actors in that scene did an amazing job too, it was brilliantly acted and so very sad to watch.

On another sad note, a very interesting, if tragic, part of this episode is Mrs Coulter’s relationship to her daemon. She can obviously not simply be extra far away from him, but seems to be able to completely separate, similarly to the witches. It seems as if this is hurting at least him though, with him being visibly upset when she leaves him behind to go visit Mary Malone. As I argued in my analysis of the third episode this season, one way of understanding this separation between Mrs Coulter and her soul is that it’s been her way of dealing with childhood trauma. I wonder if this is why she’s so interested in Dust, daemons, and the change that occurs with puberty. In the episode it’s shown that she’s very intrigued when learning that in Cittàgazze, the spectres only attack adults, which is in line with what she says in The Subtle Knife when learning of this:

‘What? I must know about this, Carlo,’ said the woman, and Will could hear her passionate impatience. ‘This is at the heart of everything, this difference between children and adults! It contains the entire mystery of Dust!’ (Pullman 2011, 199)

Now, obviously Mrs Coulter also has a scientific curiosity and interest in this matter, but I wonder if it’s also influenced by her own experience.

Related to this, the fight scene between Lyra and her mum was amazing and heart-breaking. Seeing Lyra becoming a bit more like her mother, the toxic side of her, like this was so sad, and my heart broke for her. The moment afterwards, when she’s talking to Will was also beautiful and sad. I loved how Lyra said that she didn’t want to be like her parents, but rather like Ma Costa and Lee, and how Will then said that she didn’t have to be like anyone else but could just be herself. Beautiful! We also get a lot of good moments with another one of Lyra’s mentors, Mary, in this episode. Mary is told that she needs to play the serpent, which will essentially mean giving Lyra access to forbidden ideas and knowledge. The Magisterium would quite obviously not want this sort of thing to happen, which is why they do their best to limit women’s access to education (as Mrs Coulter mentions in the episode). I talked more about The Magisterium’s fear of strong women and femininity in this essay.

Feminist thoughts

Continuing on with the theme of women lacking access to education, a lot of what Mrs Coulter brought up in this episode about the lack of rights for women in her world reminded me of some of the early feminist writing from our world. One of the perhaps most famous of such writings is A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft, published in 1792. In that text she argued against the idea that women are by nature less rational and intelligent, and for education for women. She argues that we cannot compare intellect and ability to reason between groups who have such different starting points:

I am continuing to avoid any direct comparison between the two sexes collectively; I do frankly acknowledge the inferiority of woman according to the present appearance of things. And I insist that men have increased that inferiority until women are almost sunk below the standard of rational creatures. Let their faculties have room to unfold, and their virtues to gain strength, and then determine where the whole sex must stand in the intellectual scale. (…) If women are really capable of acting like rational creatures, let them not be treated like slaves, or like lower animals who depend on the reason of man when they associate with him. Instead, develop their minds, give them the salutary, sublime curb of principle, and let them attain conscious dignity by feeling that they depend only on God. (Wollstonecraft 1792, 24)

Essentially, she argues, that if women had access to the same education as men, they would have opportunity to show that they’re not the lowly animals that they were treated as a lot of the time. Women, just as men, should depend only on God, not on men. For the 18th century this was of course quite revolutionary, and definitely a text The Magisterium should read. Now, education and academia are hardly equal even today in our world, but there are at least fewer formal obstacles than in Lyra’s world where Mrs Coulter could apparently not gain a doctorate because of her gender. Now, this is not entirely consistent with the books where we see several female doctors, including dame Hannah Relf who is a doctor and runs St Sophia’s collage. Said collage is a women’s collage however, which seems to indicate that Lyra’s world is still far from being equal.

Another point alluded to in the episode is how Mrs Coulter was not able to be a mother (especially of a child conceived out of wedlock) at the same time as having a career. This shows that, as feminists have argued for ages, for any sort of emancipation of women to actually occur, change must occur on several levels. Formal rights (to vote, to study, to work etc) is not enough. One issue that much focus has been put is specifically the family, and how women should not be burdened with the whole responsibility of childrearing and housekeeping (eg. Myrdal & Myrdal 1934; Moberg 1961; Mitchell 1966)(see note on the Myrdals at the end of this text). Juliet Mitchell put it quite clearly when she argued that for equality to actually be reached structural change must happen on the following levels: production (the labour market, economic equality), reproduction (reproductive rights/justice), childrearing, and sexuality. This perspective unfortunately neglects to consider other social structures, such as race, and how that impacts women. As for instance Angela Davis rightly points out, for black women for instance the path to equality and justice is much longer, something white feminists have rarely acknowledged (1981). But for Mrs Coulter, a white woman, Mitchell’s theory works quite well. We can see that she does not have equality on the production side (not access to education nor ability to rise the top of The Magisterium due to her gender), seemingly no support in childrearing, and she’s stigmatised due to her sexual “missteps”. That last part could possibly be connected to reproduction too, one would imagine that in a more equal society she would have had more support with this unexpected pregnancy. I imagine contraceptives and abortions are hard to come by in Mrs Coulter’s world as well, even if it’s unclear if she would elect to have an abortion even if she could get a safe one. The way the episode portrays it, is that she wants to be a mother to Lyra, but she also wants to have a career and power. One does wonder how her life might have been different if she had lived in a society where that would’ve been possible.

Another point I want to discuss is the different approaches to science Mrs Coulter and Mary Malone has. In the episode Mary asks Mrs Coulter about her describing herself as an experimental theologian, saying: “Where would you say theology comes into science?” and Mrs Coulter responding, “Where does it not?” (19:15 min). Now, at first blush this might seem like another example of the differences between worlds, and how The Magisterium is involved in everything in Lyra’s world. But I think it also raises a bit of a flaw in Mary’s worldview, that is how she tends to divide everything into religion or science. Lyra and Mary discuss a similar point in The Subtle Knife, with Lyra saying:

‘But what I want to know is, why do people in my world hate it? Dust, I mean, Shadows. Dark matter. They want to destroy it. They think it’s evil. But I think what they do is evil. I’ve seen them do it. So what is it, Shadows? Is it good or evil, or what?

Dr Malone rubbed her face and made her cheeks even redder than they were.

‘Everything about this is embarrassing,’ she said. ‘D’you know how embarrassing it is to mention good and evil in a scientific laboratory? Have you any idea? One of the reasons I became a scientist was not to have to think about this kind of thing.’

 ‘You got to think about it,’ said Lyra severely. ‘You can’t investigate Shadows, Dust, whatever it is, without thinking about that kind of thing, good and evil and such.’ (Pullman 2011, 96)

As Lyra points out, if you don’t think about good and evil when doing science, you could end up doing the sort of science that The Magisterium is up to. Now, Mary seems to be aware of ethnics to the degree that she doesn’t want her research to end up with the military. What she doesn’t seem to consider though is how things like religion, philosophy, politics, and ideologies in general can never truly be separate from science. Since we as human live in a society filled with these ideologies and are impacted by them, we can never fully separate ourselves from them when conducting scientific research. This is something that a lot of feminist critique of science has focused on, and here I’ll just quote researcher Lynda Birke because she puts it really well:

Not surprisingly, then, one major area of feminist critique pf science has focused on objectivity. Science, the story goes, epitomises the pursuit of objective truth, the exercise of supreme rationality; it seeks to tell the truth about the world out there. But we can challenge this tale, insisting that what scientists produce is culturally and socially embedded. That is not to say that the knowledge of science is pure social construction; for many of us taking part in those challenges, what needs to be understood is how our understandings, and their social embeddedness, relate to the world ‘out there’ that we seek to describe, and vice versa. As feminist philosopher of science Sandra Harding has argued (1991), no one can completely distance themselves from their social and cultural context (…) Meanwhile, denial of human agency in science, and insistence on what Donna Haraway has called the ‘god’s eye view’ of the world (Haraway 1991c), predominate. Things get done in scientific reports: no one, it seems, actually does them. Like other scientists, I had to learn how to write like that, to remove myself from active participation, to emphasise reductionist conclusions and omit the messier details. And that god’s eyes view was protective: it at least meant that I did not overtly have to admit what I well knew- that my feminist interests were involved in my choice of research topics (see Birke 1995). Science is never disinterested: it is just written up as though it is. (Birke 2000, 14)

As Birke points out here, as humans we can’t just turn off our interests and values when doing science. In fact, looking through history it becomes very clear how science has been used for great evils even under disguise of objectivity (see for instance this essay of mine). Even less overtly evil things have been labelled as objective science, when in fact it’s clearly influenced by for instance assumptions about for instance gender and race. One such example is that researchers have noted that medical research often uses male patients, which skews results (Grahm & Lykke 2015, 80). In the case of heart disease research, this has led to researchers missing differences in symptoms between men and women, leading to treatment not working optimally. This topic is something I talk about even more in this essay where I argue that it is necessary to talk about politics even when talking about fiction, because these ideologies and structures are everywhere. So, in conclusion, Mary might want to think that she can leave religion, good and evil, etc out of science, but it’ll probably always be there. Better to deal with it than ignore it. This can perhaps also be seen as a connection to what Boreal talks about in the beginning of the episode, that Mary’s world is a culture of consumerism, not faith, but with twice as much corruption. Even if influences like faith/religion isn’t as overt in this world as in Lyra’s world, this is still a world of corruption, which surely influences science and academia as well.

Dusty thoughts

The last thing I wanted to discuss in this analysis of episode five is the parallels between Mrs Coulter’s relationship to her daemon here, and Lyra and Pan’s relationship in The Secret Commonwealth (Pullman 2019). There Lyra and Pan suffers from being able to separate, and it severely strains their relationship. Furthermore, Lyra also poses as a witch at times when she’s apart from Pan, a bit similar to how Mrs Coulter compares herself to a witch in this episode. This season has really made me think of these parallels a lot more, it’s very interesting! But, like I’ve said before, I hope Lyra and Pan can reconcile unlike their mother and her daemon.


Davis, Angela. 1981. Women, Race and Class. New York: Vintage books.

Birke, Lynda. 2000. Feminism and the biological body. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Grahm, Jessica & Nina Lykke. 2015. “Ontologi och epistemologi i feministiskt tänkande”, in Feministiskt tänkande och sociologi: Teorier, begrepp och tillämpningar, eds Hedenius, Anna, Sofia Björk & Oksana Shmulyar Gréen, 77-95. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Mitchell, Juliet. 1966/1996. “Kvinnorna: Den längsta revolutionen.” In Kvinnopolitiska nyckeltexter, eds. Essevald, Johanna & Lisbeth Larsson, 184-193. Lund: Studentlitteratur. [this is a translation of Mitchell’s article Women: The Longest Revolution]

Moberg, Eva. 1961/1996. “Kvinnans villkorliga frigivelse.” In Kvinnopolitiska nyckeltexter, eds. Essevald, Johanna & Lisbeth Larsson, 164-173. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

**Myrdal, Alva & Gunnar Myrdal. 1934/1996. “Kris i befolkningsfrågan.” In Kvinnopolitiska nyckeltexter, eds. Essevald, Johanna & Lisbeth Larsson, 136-144. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

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

Pullman, Philip. 2019. The Secret Commonwealth. London: Penguin Books.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. 1792. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. Available online:

**I want to make a note on Alva and Gunnar Myrdal, and my referencing of them in this text. Alva Myrdal was a Swedish sociologist, politician, and diplomat who among other things was prominent in the disarmament movement, for which she received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1982. Her husband Gunnar Myrdal was a sociologist and economist, who in turn received a nobel prize in economic science. His work studying race relations in the US was very influential in the US Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v Board of Education. I can recommend reading more about both Alva and Gunnar, they were involved in a lot of interesting work. Their text that I’m referencing here, Kris i befolkningsfrågan (”Crisis in the Population Question”), was very influential and important in Swedish welfare politics, for instance when it came to gender equality and equal access to daycare. That’s why I reference it here, to show that this is a topic that’s been discussed for a long time. However, I cannot in good conscious neglect to mention that this book also expresses support for eugenic ideas about how the Swedish race could be improved if those of lesser stock were not allowed to reproduce. The Myrdals actively supported sterilisation programs in this book. Here’s an article discussing the double legacy of this book, Kris i Befolkningsfrågan.

His Dark Materials season 2 episode 4, a feminist analysis

His Dark Materials keep providing excellent episodes this season, so I’m continuing my analyses of them! Just as I’ve done these previous weeks, I will split this text into three parts: general thoughts, feminist thoughts, and dusty thoughts. The two first sections will contain spoilers for all the main His Dark Materials books, while the last one will contain spoilers for the companion books too, including The Book of Dust.

General thoughts

My first thought upon seeing the beginning of the episode was that surely the scene covering the history of the knife must be a deliberate reference to Lord of the Rings and the opening scene of the first movie when the history of the ring is presented. It was almost a bit on the nose, but I also thought it worked quite well to give the viewers the necessary information. I’m also guessing that the voice doing the presenting of the history is Xaphania, just as the beginning of episode one which I discussed on Girls Gone Canon. It makes sense that they’re trying to expand her role more and add her in throughout this second season. Speaking of angels, I would also guess that it’s her voice we hear when Mary is talking to the Cave in this episode. That scene is also brilliant, Simone Kirby continues to be amazing as Mary. The scene where Mary immediately refuses Boreal’s founding of their research because he hints at defence funding is perfect, and I love her for it.

Another part of the episode that I adored was Will and Lyra’s interactions throughout. They were funny and cute, and their dynamic in general is just perfect. My only minor complaint was the scene when Pan is comforting Will by stroking his head against Will. In book Lyra’s reaction to this is more subtle, and she doesn’t go into this explanation of how daemons generally don’t touch other humans. That whole part of the scene, the explanation, sort of took me out of the moment and the very specific mood of that scene (tenderness, caring, empathy, vulnerability). But except for that, the scenes with Will and Lyra were brilliant.

Speaking of daemons, the interactions between Lee and Hester while they were travelling via boat to find Grumman were brilliant. Hester trying to keep Lee’s mood up, Lee complaining about the environment, and the mosquitos especially. As someone who have spent a lot of summers in the north of Sweden (my family’s from there), which is quite similar to this landscape both in looks and in number of mosquitos, I can relate. I really appreciated Lee in general in this episode, and his conversations with Grumman/John Parry were very interesting, well-written, and moving. I look forward to their interactions going forward. John Parry also provides an interesting perspective on Asriel, saying that regardless of if you like him personally, he’s doing important work. I imagine I’ll have cause to return to this quandary later on in the season, but I’m not sure if I agree that we should focus on the greater good entirely and forget Asriel’s bad actions. 

Feminist thoughts

Continuing on this discussion of John Parry, one thing I noticed in this episode was how the show seemed to downplay some of John Parry’s connection to Tartar culture. While he in the books is seated in a what seems to be a traditional wood-framed, skin-covered hut, filled with different cultural symbols, and the Tartars around him show him clear reverence, in the show he’s alone in his little cabin. In The Subtle Knife describes the scene like this:

The headman stopped outside the wood-framed, skin-covered hut. The place was decorated with boar-tusks and the antlers of elk and reindeer, but they weren’t merely hunting trophies, for they had been hung with dried flowers and carefully plaited sprays of pine, as if for some ritualistic purpose.

‘You must speak to him with respect,’ the headman said quietly. ‘He is a shaman. And his heart is sick.’ (Pullman 2011, 209)

Later in the same chapter, when Lee and John Parry leave, the villagers “came out to touch Grumman’s hand, to mutter a few words, and to receive what looked like a blessing in return.”(Pullman 2011, 217) None of this is part of the show, there John Parry lives alone in a quite ordinary cabin, even if he seemingly has some form of tribal tattoos etc. This is an interesting choice in my opinion. My friend and fellow analysist of HDM (and ASOIAF), Aemy Blackfire has written about John Parry and the Tartars in her essay about Orientalism in HDM, which we also discussed this together in this video. Aemy writes about how the Tartars, unlike the Magisterium, don’t think that Dust is sinful, but have instead found ways of increasing their absorption of it, through trepanning. Aemy then goes on to write:

In this way, the Tartars have a kind of mysticism and knowledge that the West does not possess. This is reminiscent of the exoticization of Middle Eastern and Asian peoples, seeing them as having some kind of “ancient wisdom.” Will’s father, John Parry, is himself an orientalist trope. He meets with different Arctic peoples, and eventually meets the Yenisei Pakhtars, a Tartar tribe. He learns their mystical ways and becoming a shaman, is given an Asianized name (Jopari), and becomes a Tartar “by initiation,” being trepanned. This trope of the white man learning the mystical secrets of Asian peoples is widespread in popular culture. We see this in the movie The Last Samurai (2003) as well as the Netflix show Marco Polo (2014), and in accounts from Westerners who traveled to the East such as Marco Polo’s writings and the book Seven Years in Tibet (1952), which was later made into a movie (1997). These fictionalized and semi-fictionalized accounts give Western audiences a window into exotic and otherwise incomprehensible cultures. These accounts also reinforce confidence in Western (men) to learn the secrets of the East and take what is useful from it. (Aemy Blackfire 2020)

I think the show manages to mitigate this harmful trope a bit by not connecting John Parry’s shamanism as clearly to this other culture, and not having this other ethnic group essentially worship him. On the other hand, it completely erases the Tartar people from the narrative, which is unfortunate. The only view the viewer gets of them is from season one, when they kidnap Lyra. To have a bit more of a nuanced view of them would had been nice, but preferably one less exoticized than the view the books present.

The next part of the episode I want to discuss is the backstory of the subtle knife that is presented, as well as the story of the guild of the alchemists. As the person/angel/being narrating that opening sequence says about the alchemists’ usage of the knife: “They kept its powers secret but had a choice. Use this Knife for the benefit of all existence, or just for the benefit of their own.” (His Dark Materials 2020, 1.16 min) Essentially, the alchemists used this one resource to get more resources for themselves, dooming the rest of the people in their world in the process. When I guested on Girls Gone Canon’s episode about episode one of this season, I compared what the alchemists did to colonial capitalism, gathering resources for their own ruling class while exploiting other worlds and not caring what happens to those around them. I then compared this to theoretical writings by Jasbir Puar (2009), who I’ll write a bit more about further on in this text. But watching this week’s episode, and hearing this quote, also reminded me of some more classic critical theory; Marxism. Now, before anyone goes ahead and yell at me for supporting communism and the Soviet Union or whatnot, I want to make clear that Marxist theory is not necessarily the same as communist politics. While the politics are (supposedly) based on the theory, far from everyone who uses Marxist theory would support a communist society (especially not those supposed communist societies which became corrupted and authoritarian). Marxist theory has been incredibly influential for most social sciences, Marx was a sociologist after all, and his writings analysed society and social situations. While not all of his theories can be applied to a contemporary society, and should not, a lot of it is still useful for analysing power differences in society, especially class based such. At its core, Marxist theory argues that in a capitalist society, the capitalists exploit the workers to make as much profit as possible (Boglind et. al. 2014). At the same time, those in power (the capitalists in a capitalist society) shape the ideologies (politics, religion, science, art etc) to support this status quo (Marx & Engels 2007/1845, 84). This is why different forms of unequal societies can persist, despite their seemingly obvious flaws. An example of this Lyra’s world would be that their church argues that since they’re working according to God’s will, and support Him, they should be in charge. Similarly, one can imagine that the Alchemists had a high position back in Citàgazze’s golden age, and that their seeming wisdom legitimised their power. But just as the continuous expansion of capitalism in our world hasn’t been without consequence, so was it for the alchemists and Cittàgazze. Their invention of The Subtle Knife and travelling to new worlds to steal treasure (from those who had actually worked and produced them), created a crisis; the spectres. This reminds me of what Marx and Engels wrote about how capitalism continually creates new crisis for itself:

Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. For many a decade past the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeois and of its rule. It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly. (…) The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented. (Marx & Engels 1848, 17)

Just as the sorcerers and capitalists in this example, the alchemists of Cittàgazze bring down the system by the very tools they create to control it. The fate of Cittàgazze shows that a society with such an unequal distribution of power and resources is ultimately doomed.

A more contemporary scholar writing about capitalism and power is Jasbir Puar (2009). A central aspect of her writing is how patterns of inclusion and exclusion produces life and death for different peoples and groups. She calls this the “bio-necropolitical collaboration” and argues that this process works to strengthen or weaken certain bodies in society, and thus gives bodies different “prognosis time”. Basically: what kind of resources you have, and which resources society will make available to you will determine how long you can expect to live, how long your prognosis time is. At the same time, your value for society (especially in a capitalist society) is dependant on your prognosis time since this determines your “capacity” (how much work you can do, essentially). Your capacity might increase if you get support from society, if you get more resources for instance. On the flip side, if you don’t get that sort of support, you instead get increasing debility, as Puar calls it. Essentially, if you get support you get increasing capacity (and are seen as more valuable), if you don’t get support you get increasing debility (and are seen as less valuable). This then impacts your prognosis time, your lifespan essentially. Now, who gets more support in this world of bio-necropolitical collaboration is of course not random. It’s generally white rich able-bodied cisgendered heterosexual men in the Global North (or some sort of combination of those social categories). If you’re a white cis man who’s a CEO for a big American company for instance, you will get a ton of support and access to medical care etc if you need it. But if you’re a woman in Bangladesh, working in a sweatshop to produce the products that this white man’s company sells, you’ll not get the same support when your body is worn down by the tough working conditions. This same type of logic becomes incredibly clear in HDM in Cittàgazze. The Alchemists have the subtle knife which protects them from the spectres, the plague that they’ve released on their world in their search for more resources for themselves. By intending to give themselves a bigger capacity for a long luxurious life they have sentenced the rest of their world to ever increasing debility. They have significantly shortened the prognosis time for the rest of the populace in this process. And then Asriel comes around and shortens that prognosis time even more with his multi-world man made climate change.

Dusty thoughts

I don’t have that many dusty thoughts this episode, but something that I happened to notice was a parallel between Mary’s conversation with the Angels and a part of The Secret Commonwealth (Pullman 2019). In The Secret Commonwealth, when Lyra meets the Furnace Man he tells her about how his father would have conversations with immortal spirits, and he then goes on to tell Lyra that he knows who she is because she’s famous in the world of the spirits. Lyra then asks what spirit is, and he replies that “spirit is what matter does” (Pullman 2019, 416). This is strikingly similar to the response Mary gets when talking to the angels (a form of immortal spirits). From the episode: “From what we are, spirit. From what we do, matter.” (45.08 min) The same quote appears in the The Subtle Knife too, when Mary has this discussion. I do wonder what this is supposed to tell us about what the Alchemists (such as The Furnace Man’s father) are up to. But they seem to be up to something spirit and Dust related.


Aemy Blackfire. 2020. “Orientalism in His Dark Materials.” Aemy Blackfire’s blog. November 15, 2020.

Boglind, A., S. Eliaeson och P. Månson. 2014. Kapital, rationalitet och social sammanhållning (Edition 7:1). Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Girls Gone Canon. 2020. ”His Dark Materials Season 2 Episode 1 – The Magpie City featuring Lo the Lynx” Podbean, November 16, 2020.

His Dark Materials. 2020. ”Tower of the Angels.” HBO, December 1, 2020.

Marx, Karl & Friedrich Engels. (2007/1845). ”The German Ideology.” In Classical Sociological Theory, eds. Calhoun C., J. Gerteis, J. Moody, S. Pfaff & I. Virk, 82-85 Theory. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing

Marx, Karl & Friedrich Engels. 1848. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Available online here:

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

Pullman, Philip. 2019. The Secret Commonwealth. London: Penguin Books.

His Dark Materials season 2 episode 3, a feminist analysis

When I first watched the third episode of this season of His Dark Materials, I was first unsure about how much there was really to write about it. As Chloe of Girls Gone Canon said in a chat on their patreon discord, this episode is a bit of a filler episode. But the more I thought of it, the more interesting rabbit holes did I find to dive down. So here I am with another review/analysis! Just as I did last week, I will split this text into three parts: general thoughts, feminist thoughts, and dusty thoughts. The two first sections will contain spoilers for all the main His Dark Materials books, while the last one will contain spoilers for the companion books to, including The Book of Dust.

General thoughts

While I didn’t think this episode was as strong as last week’s episode, there were still a lot of good moments! Once again, I really loved Lyra and Pan’s interactions, with Pan generally serving as the angel on Lyra’s shoulder so to say. He was also just generally cute, especially in the cinema when poking his head out of Lyra’s bag. The daemons were generally very good in this episode, with Pan, Hester, and Mrs Coulter’s daemon all bringing forth complexities in their human. I will return to Hester and Mrs Coulter’s daemon later!

Another very strong point in this episode was once again Mary Malone. I loved her protectiveness of Lyra, and the way she kept interrupting DI Walters during his interrogation of Lyra. Her helping Lyra escape that situation was also very well portrayed. I really do love how protective and caring she is, while clearly also being independent and clever. Her interactions with her family were also adorable, and I love that she’s clearly the cool aunt. When the children first turned up, I was worried for a millisecond that they were her children, which I would’ve hated, because I really like that she doesn’t have children. But them being her niece and nephew, and her being so great with them was wonderful.

A final thing I want to mention before moving on to the next section, is that I thought the scene with John Parry summoning Lee was very interesting. They’re making his magic a bit more explicit early on, which is probably a good idea. I think this might lend some credence to the idea I put forth on Girls Gone Canon’s episode one breakdown, that it was John Parry that sent the premonition Will got of the knife. In either case, it’s interesting that both father and son are so clearly connected to magical dreams etc.

Feminist thoughts

I want to start where I left off last week, with the burning of the witches’ homeland. In last week’s analysis I wrote about the witches’ parallels to the indigenous Sami people, and how their land has been destroyed historically (and currently) by colonial and religious forces. Something I neglected to mention, however, that the excellent podcast Girls Gone Canon reminded me of, was the history of bombing specifically Finnish Sápmi and forced migration of those Sami people during World War II. This included areas around Lake Inari (our world’s version of Lake Enara from His Dark Materials) where around 90% of the buildings were destroyed (Seitsonen & Koskinen-Koivisto 2018). When reading about this historical event after watching this latest His Dark Materials episode, one quote especially stuck out to me:

Many people mentioned a twofold feeling of shock and joy when returning to a demolished homeland, but simultaneously catching the first glimpses of familiar landscapes, such as the iconic – and for the Sámi holy – Nattaset fjells next to Vuotso: ‘Seeing Nattaset brought tears to my eyes. They were still there, even if the houses were gone’. (…) Our informants emphasised that despite the dramatic loss of material property and lives, what mattered most was that they still had their land (…) into which the traditional stories, beliefs and ancestral spirits securely tied them through the personified and lived-in landscape biographies. (Seitsonen & Koskinen-Koivisto 2018, 430)

This description of grief when seeing ones destroyed home, but still having parts of that landscape which has been so sacred, very much reminded me of the grief we can see in the witches’ eyes in this episode when seeing their bombed land. Similar to the Sami in Finnish Sápmi during World War II, these witches’ lands are being destroyed in a war that many of them wanted to stay out of. Another group whose lands we see destroyed in this episode is the Pansarbjørne, whose lands are literally being destroyed by man made (Asriel made) climate change. I have previously written in several essays about how we can see the bears as a parallel to indigenous people in our world. One aspect I’ve discussed is how it’s not uncommon that indigenous people are affected by climate change first and often hardest, with much of their culture often being affected. In our world this has happened with the Sami for instance (WWF n.d.). I think it’s interesting that they’re choosing to show the similarities between the bears and the witches’ situation in the show, with them both being horribly affected by the Magisterium and Asriel’s war.

The next topic I want to discuss is Magisterium, heresy, discourse, and surveillance. In Lee’s storyline this episode we see how tightly the Magisterium controls the knowledge production in this world, with them labelling anything out of line as heresy. This is something I touched on when I guested on Girls Gone Canon, comparing it to work done by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Something that Foucault was very interested in was the ways we as a society talks about different social phenomena, and what that can tell us about the way society functions. He mainly did this by writing about and analysing discourses. 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. 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 (2013, 55-57). Which position a subject is placed in effects their ability to inhabit different spaces (ibid, 58). I have previously argued that in Lyra’s world, the Magisterium and their power very harshly limits the existing discourse. To challenge the discourse around for instance Dust will have extremely severe consequences. Nonetheless, as Foucault would argue, where there is power there is also always resistance (2002/1976, 103). In this episode of His Dark Materials we see this in how Grumman has been deemed a heretic. Unfortunately for Lee, this means that when he goes around asking about Grumman he is seen as guilty by association. This also touches on another one of Foucault’s theories that I think might be relevant, that is, his writing about surveillance. Foucault explains how surveillance works in modern society by comparing 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 if they are under surveillance or not. Foucault calls this a panopticon, based on the description of such a prison by the philosopher Bentham. He argues 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, and 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). In Lyra’s world, with the authoritarian Magisterium in charge, this is perhaps even more clear that power and surveillance works this way, as I’ve argued previously. One instance of this is of course how when Lee starts asking about Grumman, he immediately gets reported and ultimately arrested. In the end of the episode Mrs Coulter warns him to trust no one in his search for Lyra, and in a way brings home the lesson of this episode for Lee, someone could always be watching and reporting. As he says himself after shooting the scientist in the observatory: “Is there any place left that the damn Magisterium hasn’t infiltrated?!” (23.29 min) The answer is that no, in this panopticon there truly isn’t.

Speaking of Lee, I next want to turn to the scene(s) in the episode that perhaps shocked fans the most, the scene(s) between Lee and Mrs Coulter. When I first watched the scene and saw Mrs Coulter be so vulnerable, I was honestly quite shocked and almost a bit sceptical. Afterall, this is the same character who essentially argued for genocide last episode. Did they make her too sympathetic in this scene? After a few re-watches though, I think I’m more at peace with the scene. It makes sense for Mrs Coulter character to have this horrible backstory in many ways, it’s clear that she has some sort of baggage. I’m not a psychologist or anything similar, so I will not attempt to diagnose her trauma in any detail. But I did consult my friend Rohanne ( @cyrilwoodcock on twitter) who is both a therapist and someone who has done a lot of thinking and writing about Cersei from A Song of Ice and Fire, who I would argue has many similarities to Mrs Coulter. Rohanne argued that for women who has experienced trauma, a common response is to try to gain the sort of power that will make sure that does not happen again. This could entail attempts to separate themselves from their emotions and/or experiencing internalised misogyny. I’m going to take Rohanne at her word here, when it comes to the psychological perspective, and instead move on to ground I’m more confident on, i.e. feminist theory. I think something we can see with Mrs Coulter is this internalised misogyny and attempt to gain power through proximity to maleness. That which Adrienne Rich has called “male identification- the casting of one’s social, political, and intellectual allegiances with men.” (2003/1980, 25) Mrs Coulter seems to have decided that in order to not be hurt again she must gain power, and to gain power she must ally with men and the patriarchy. She must use violence, so violence can’t be used against her. This also reminds me of a quote by bell hooks, when she talks about how white women might often step on the backs of more marginalized people to reach closer to the top of the power pyramid. As hooks puts it:

As a group, black women are in an unusual position in this society, for not only are we collectively at the bottom of the occupational ladder, but our overall social status is lower than that of any other group. Occupying such a position, we bear the brunt of sexist, racist, and classist oppression. At the same time, we are the group that has not been socialized to assume the role of exploiter/oppressor in that we are allowed no institutionalized “other” that we can exploit or oppress. (…) White women and black men have it both ways. They can act as oppressor or be oppressed. Black men may be victimized by racism, but sexism allows them to act as exploiters and oppressors of women. White women may be victimized by sexism, but racism enables them to act as exploiters and oppressors of black people. Both groups have led liberation movements that favor their interests and support the continued oppression of other groups. Black male sexism has undermined struggles to eradicate racism just as white female racism undermines feminist struggle. As long as these two groups or any group defines liberation as gaining social equality with ruling class white men, they have a vested interest in the continued exploitation and oppression of others. (hooks 1984, 14-15) [my bolding of text]

This is something we see continually with Mrs Coulter. She attempts to gain power, to stop herself from being vulnerable, but she does so by stepping on the backs of more marginalised people in society, from the children at Bolvangar to the witches’ whose land she suggested be destroyed. So, while we might sympathise with Mrs Coulter occasionally for the things she’s gone through, I don’t think we’re supposed to forget the horrors she puts other through.

Dusty thoughts

To continue on the topic of Mrs Coulter, but with some more Dust added in, as someone who has read The Secret Commonwealth, it’s not surprising to learn that her upbringing was terrible. In The Secret Commonwealth, we learn more about her family, and meet both her brother and mother, and the mother hardly seems like a caring and loving parent (2019). But something else related to The Secret Commonwealth that this scene with Mrs Coulter reminded me of was Lyra’s relationship with Pan in that book. Lyra and Pan’s relationship in The Secret Commonwealth is obviously very strained, going back to their separation in The Amber Spyglass. Can we perhaps understand Mrs Coulter’s relationship with her daemon similarly? Girls Gone Canon have several times speculated that she learnt how to separate herself from her daemon, perhaps to close herself off from her emotions. Maybe she decided to do this specifically after whatever trauma she experienced in her childhood/teenage years. The way that they’ve focused on the daemon relationships this season of the show, showing Pan and Lyra’s closeness as well contrasting the closeness of Lee and Hester with the distance of Mrs Coulter and her daemon, really highlights the tragedy of breaking that bond. Hopefully Lyra will repair her relationship with her daemon, unlike her mother.


Girls Gone Canon. 2020a. “His Dark Materials Season 2 Episode 1 – The Magpie City featuring Lo the Lynx.” Podbean. November 16, 2020.

Girls Gone Canon. 2020b. “His Dark Materials Series 2 Episode 2 – The Cave.” Podbean. November 23, 2020.

His Dark Materials. 2020. “Theft.” HBO Nordic. November 24, 2020.

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.

hooks, bell. 1984. Feminist theory from margin to center. Boston: South End Press.

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 the Lynx. 2020a. “Power relations in His Dark Materials.” Lo the Lynx. August 27, 2020.

Lo the Lynx. 2020b. “Colonialism in His Dark Materials.” Lo the Lynx. August 27, 2020.

Lo the Lynx. 2020c. “Serpentine- preliminary thoughts.” Lo the Lynx. October 21, 2020.

Lo the Lynx. 2020d. “His Dark Materials season 2 episode 2, a feminist analysis.” Lo the Lynx. November 20, 2020.

Pullman, Philip. 2019. The Secret Commonwealth. London: Penguin Books.

Rich, Adrienne Cecile. 2003/1980. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980)”. Journal of Women’s History, 15:3, 11-48.

Seitsonen, Oula & Eerika Koskinen-Koivistoz. 2018. “‘Where the F… is Vuotso?’: heritage of Second World War forced movement and destruction in a Sámi reindeer herding community in Finnish Lapland.” International Journal of Heritage Studies, 24:4, 421-441.

His Dark Materials season 2 episode 2, a feminist analysis

Last week I had the privilege of recording a podcast episode with Girls Gone Canon about episode 1 of season 2 of His Dark Materials, and I had so much fun that I knew that I had to continue analysing this season of the show. My plan at the moment is to put up one text per episode within the week of the episode releasing, but that might change depending on how much time I have on my hands any given week. These analyses will be split into three sections: general thoughts, feminist thoughts, and dusty thoughts. The two first sections will contain spoilers for the main His Dark Materials trilogy, while the last one will have spoilers from the other books in the His Dark Materials universe, including The Book of Dust. If you’re unfamiliar with my blog, the reason I’m specifically including feminist thoughts in this analysis is that that’s sort of my thing. This whole blog is dedicated to feminist analysis of literature and other popular media. I specifically always attempt to have an intersectional feminist perspective, and generally don’t just consider gender in my analysis but also class, race, ability, sexuality, nation, etc. I think that will become clear in this text.

General thoughts

Something I noticed in both the last episode and in this one is how they focus a lot on Pan and Lyra’s relationship, and on Pan being super cute. I was very glad to see the return of the cute red PAN-da for instance. Setting up this relationship properly and really highlighting their closeness will be very important for the moment when they separate to really hit. Speaking of sadness, I really loved that they set up the Botanical Gardens and their importance for Will and Lyra. It also very much made me cry. Will and Lyra’s relationship was interesting to watch in this episode, from being mostly very sweet in episode one it became somewhat strained in this one. But the way that was portrayed made sense, Will was obviously stressed and worried about returning to his world, something Lyra didn’t fully understand.

Lyra and Will’s separate adventures in Oxford were also interesting! It was fun (and sad) to actually get to see Will’s grandparents, and infuriating that his grandpa only thought that Elaine had sent Will to get money. I would like to get more of a grasp on that backstory, but I doubt we’ll get more. It does seem that Will’s dad came from quite a bit of money, and it seems like his parents didn’t entirely approve of Elaine, maybe from a combination of racism and ableism. That’s not explicitly said, but I get the feeling that they didn’t think that well of her. It’s incredibly frustrating that they called the police on Will too, and I imagine that he will feel incredibly betrayed by that. As a black teenager he must be aware of how much extra danger he would be in from the police, in a way that Lyra wouldn’t be for instance. This likely enhanced his stress throughout the episode.

Lyra on the other hand got to meet Mary Malone, and I’m incredibly happy with Simone Kirby’s performance as her. She looks and behaves just right, from her clothes to her standing in a window watching birds when Lyra arrives. The Cave also looks great, and I’m very excited that we get a confirmation of that it’s the Cave we see in the intro, which I speculated on during the Girls Gone Canon episode. It’s also super cool that the Dust we see on the Cave’s screen look the same as the Dust we see forming things/symbols in the intro! I also very much enjoyed that Mary had what looked as a block of amber in one of the scenes with her at the Cave, specifically when she describes the first time she got a proper reading from connecting herself to the Cave, when she was lost in thoughts. That definitely seems like foreshadowing for the amber spyglass.

Feminist thoughts

As you may have noticed in that “general thoughts” section, I didn’t mention he Magisterium or witch plot at all. That’s because I want to do a deep dive into that here. If you had the chance to listen to my appearance on Girls Gone Canon discussing last week’s episode, you probably heard me discuss how the witches in HDM have some parallels to the Sami people in our world. That’s also something I discuss in this essay. Something I also talked about on that episode of Girls Gone Canon is that it’s interesting that we get to see Lake Enara in the show, especially given these parallels to Lake Inari in our world, which has traditionally been part of the land where the Inari Sami of our world have lived. I also brought up the fact that several of the islands in Lake Inari have held special importance in Sami culture, for instance the island Hävdieennâmsauálui which a burial ground and the island Äijhsuáluia which has been a sacred site used in religious rituals. In the show we get a sense that these lakes have great cultural importance to the witches too, for instance Martin Lanselius mentions being raised there, and it’s suggested that striking at the lakes would be striking the witches where it would hurt. In my essay about colonialism in His Dark Materials, I discussed how the Magisterium’s attempt to take control over the north can be seen as a parallel to the Swedish colonialization of Sápmi (the Sami land).

While I mainly discussed that colonialism in a historical perspective in that essay, I want to be incredibly clear about the fact that this process of claiming and using indigenous land is hardly over. Just this week one could read about how the Swedish government own logging company Sveaskog planned to harvest a large part of the forest by the Sami reindeer herding district Loukta-Mávas, something that Sami community as well as other Sami people and climate activists argued against. For more information on that, read for instance this text (you have to scroll down a bit for English) (Baer & Burnelius 2020). Sami activist Timimie Märak also has a lot of information on their Instagram (in both Swedish and English).

So, to go back to the historical perspective on colonalisation of Sápmi, and the parallel to His Dark Materials. One thing that I’ve mentioned in previous essays that is relevant here is the motivation for that colonialization in our world. That’s because while the colonialization was partly financial (the state wanted control over natural resources), it was also very much religious. As the website which is run by Sametinget, the governmental body of Swedish Sami, put it:

In order to force the Sami to abandon their religion and instead attend church services and church education, the Church used different forms of punishment: fines, prison, or death penalties. The holy sites were defiled and drums [used in religious rituals] were burned.

During centuries the Sami religion had been able to live side by side with Christianity. But from the 17th century onward, the attempts to Christen the Sami went hand in hand with the Crown’s attempt to conquer the land in the north. When religion became a means of power, the Sami were made to suffer many forms of abuse, just as has been the case with other indigenous people throughout the world. ( n.d. ) [my translation from Swedish]

This is of course similar to the methods used by other colonial governments when trying to force indigenous people to become Christian, as the text on mentions. This seems very similar to the Magisterium’s approach in HDM. In the show, the reason given for destroying the witches’ homeland (besides it being a power play by Father MacPhail) is that their way of life doesn’t conform to the ideals of the Magisterium, and that they need to be controlled. One extremely clear instance of this is how when Martin Lanselius argues that “Witches see the mysteries, and the beauty of this planet in ways men cannot see.” (20.52 min), the men of the Magisterium immediately scream that this is heresy, since it goes against their teachings. Their solution to this is apparently to bomb the witches’ homeland in an attempt to harm them and their culture. Later in the episode another Magisterium person even reassures Father MacPhail that this was necessary because “The witches need cleansing.” (41.00 min) This obviously makes the viewer think of the ethnic cleansing. Altogether, I would argue that it’s clear that the Magisterium is attempting to act as a colonial force here, gaining control over a geographical area, while also forcing the native population to convert to their religion and culture. As I’ve argued previously in other essays, this is very in character for the Magisterium, who I would argue functions as a colonial force in Lyra’s world.

Now, while the stated reason for bombing the witches’ homeland is that they won’t conform to the Magisterium’s teachings, there is of course also another reason for this. As Mrs Coulter tells Father MacFail MacPhail, him ordering this will help him in getting elected as cardinal. But what Mrs Coulter actually plans is to get him elected, in order for her to be able to use that fact in furthering her own plans. Watching her reveal that to him and then walking out of the room all confident is definitely a powerful moment. As is discussed elsewhere in the story, Mrs Coulter can’t gain power in a traditional way in the Magisterium since she’s a woman, so she has to use these unorthodox channels. In the books, Asriel describes her setting up the General Oblation Board as another such channel:

‘You see, your mother’s always been ambitious for power. At first she tried to get it in the normal way, through marriage, but that didn’t work, as I think you’ve heard. So she had to turn to the Church. Naturally she couldn’t take the route a man could have taken- priesthood and so on- it had to be unorthodox; she had to set up her own order, her own channels of influence, and work through that. It was a good move to specialize in Dust. Everyone was frightened of it; no one knew what do to; the Magisterium was so relieved that they backed her with money and resources of all kinds.’ (Pullman 2011, 372)

So, there we see Mrs Coulter conducting experiments on children, mainly children from marginalised communities, in order to gain power (something I’ve compared to the history of eugenics in for instance Sweden). Here, in this season, we see her suggesting the bombing of another ethnic group and their lands, again to gain power. As I’ve argued previously, one can feel some sympathy for Mrs Coulter for living in a patriarchal world that limits her so much, but given that her solution to this isn’t to uplift other women and marginalised groups, but instead step on them in order to come closer to the top, such sympathy is limited. Her actions here in particular, in suggesting the destruction of the witches’ land, specifically reminds me of this quote from Cinza Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser when describing the limits of white liberal feminism:

But there is nothing feminist about ruling-class women who do the dirty work of bombing other countries and sustaining regimes of apartheid; of backing neocolonial interventions in the name of humanitarianism, while remaining silent about the genocides perpetrated by their own governments; of expropriating defenseless populations through structural adjustment, imposed debt, and forced austerity. In reality, women are the first victims of colonial occupation and war throughout the world. They face systematic harassment, political rape, and enslavement, while enduring the murder and maiming of their loved ones, and the destruction of the infrastructures that enabled them to provide for themselves and their families in the first place. We stand in solidarity with these women-not with warmongers in skirts, who demand gender and sexual liberation for their kin alone. To the state bureaucrats and financial managers, both male and female, who purport to justify their warmongering by claiming to liberate brown and black women, we say: Not in our name. (2019, 53)

This is so very similar to what Mrs Coulter does. No, she doesn’t purport to justify the bombing by claiming it’s a way to free other women (which is often the case with neo-colonial interventions in current times in our world), but she shows that women can be just as much part of the patriarchal colonial regime. All in all, I think that the show really hammers home the idea that the Magisterium and its actors function similar to how a colonial regime might in our world. There are of course not exact 1:1 parallels but the structures are similar.

Dusty thoughts

I am currently re-reading The Secret Commonwealth, and watching Lyra be so close with Pan in this episode hits especially hard when remembering how their relationship is so broken in The Secret Commonwealth. In this episode Pan can tease Lyra lovingly about her ability to be truthful (when talking to Mary), in The Secret Commonwealth he calls her “stupid cow” (Pullman 2020). If the show ever covers The Book of Dust, I imagine that this contrast will become very stark, and heart-breaking.

The main thing that pertains to the other books in the HDM universe, however, has to be that Martin Lanselius was born of a witch and spent his childhood by the lakes. If this is book canon too, that’s very interesting considering that he has apparently managed to separate from his daemon, according to Serpentine. I also wonder about the fact that according to that book, well, at least according to Pan in that book, Serafina Pekkala and Martin Lanselius are lovers. It’s of course unclear when they started such a relationship, but I regardless they seem relatively close in the present of the show, so I wonder how she’ll react to him being arrested. In general, I’ll be very interested in what direction the show takes Lanselius.


Arruzza, Cinzia, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser. 2019. Feminism for the 99 percent- a manifesto. New York: Verso.

Baer, Lars Anders & Lina Burnelius. 2020. “INDIGENOUS PEOPLE’S ANCESTRAL LAND THREATENED BY EUROPE’S LARGEST LOGGING COMPANY.” Árvas Foundation. November 19, 2020.!/luokta-mavas-vs-sveaskog/

Girls Gone Canon. 2020. ”His Dark Materials Season 2 Episode 1 – The Magpie City featuring Lo the Lynx” Podbean, November 16, 2020.

Lo the Lynx. 2020. “Colonialism in His Dark Materials.”

Lo-Lynx. 2019. The Nordic influences in His Dark Materials. November 22, 2019. This essay is also available here:

Märak, Timimie.

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

Pullman, Philip. 2019. The Secret Commonwealth. London: Penguin Books.

Pullman, Philip. 2020. Serpentine. London: Penguin Books. n.d.I Guds tjänst” [In the service of God]. Samer. Retrieved August 11, 2020.

Serpentine- preliminary thoughts


I just finished reading Philip Pullman’s latest book in the His Dark Materials/The Book of Dust universe, Serpentine, and felt the need to write down some of my thoughts. This text will be less rigorously researched and structured than my usual essays, but I am unfortunately terribly busy at the moment, yet wanted to write something about the things revealed in Serpentine. I will begin my mentioning some of the things I found interesting from a sort of (intersectional) feminist perspective, and then go on to discuss some of the revalations, and what they could mean for the final instalment of The Book of Dust. When it comes to that latter discussion, I am heavily indebted to Chloe of Girls Gone Canon, and the yelling discussions we’ve had via Twitter DMs. She’s brilliant.

Firstly, one of the things I noted immediately in starting to read the story was how there is still lasting effects in the North of the change of climate caused by Asriel’s opening of worlds. As the book puts it:

The curse of Bolvangar had been lifted, but the northern lands had still not recovered from the climatic devastation Lord Asriel had caused. However, the retreat of the snows and loosening of the permafrost meant that all kinds of archaeological work was possible (…) (Pullman 2020, 2)

So, while some of the Magisterium’s direct involvement in the North has decreased, the effect of powerful people’s warring and messing with natural resources has still devastated the climate in this region. As I noted in this essay, one could read the Magisterium as a colonising force in many ways, including in the ways they try to take power in the North. I also argued in that essay that the Pansarbjørne in the story can be read as a sort of indigenous people in the area, who are displaced by colonial forces. As we find out in the story, the bears are forced to migrate from their native lands due to this drastic change in climate, and as Serpentine we learn that the climate is still affected. One could compare this to how many indigenous people are some of the first to suffer from climate change in our world, including in our North where Sami people have been heavily effected (WWF, n.d.)

Secondly, I thought the focus on separating from your daemon and having to keep that secret was very interesting. The book describes Lyra’s reaction to finding our Dr Lanselius knew she and Pan could separate like this: “she and Pan relaxed. It was something they had to be on their guard about all the time.” (Pullman 2020, 10) This is of course very similar to much of the plot of The Secret Commonwealth, where Lyra has to constantly be on guard because she doesn’t have her daemon with her. I’m planning on writing a longer essay about this topic at some point, but it very much reminds me of the writings of many cultural and/or feminist geographers. For instance, researchers Linda Sandberg and Aina Tollefsen writes about this when analysing the fear of violence in public felt by people of different genders and ethnicities. They refer to this as the geography of fear and writes: “It has been shown how women restrict their uses of public space more than men as a consequence of fear (…) Research on the geography of fear has demonstrated how fear is related to gendered power relations in space, and is produced in the gender practices of everyday life.” (ibid, 4) Sandberg and Tollefsen then goes on to discuss how ethnicity also plays a role in this, with people of colour often fearing racist violence. This sort of fear often effect people’s movement through public space, and their behaviour in such a space. A somewhat similar study is one made by Lubitow, Carathers, Kelly, and Abelson which analyses trans and gender non-conforming people’s experience of using public transport in Portland, Oregon (2017). They noted that:

Trans women, trans-feminine, and visibly gender nonconforming riders reported higher incidence of violence overall, with trans riders of color and disabled individuals being especially vulnerable to harassment from other riders and even TriMet staff. Drawing on an intersectional perspective, we show how participants’ experiences can be shaped by their multiple marginalized identities. Thus, appearing to be white, gender conforming, masculine, and able-bodied seemed to offer some protection for gender minority transit users. (Lubitow et al. 2017, 1413)

So, several types of marginalisation can put one at risk of violence and harassment in the public space. Lubitow et al. also notes that the fear of violence makes those who fear it likely to change their behaviour. For instance, people might change the route they take to work, or in the case of trans people modify their gender expression so they’re not visibly trans/gender nonconforming. While this is not a perfect parallel to what Lyra goes through, this modifying of behaviour and appearance in public in order to not face harassment seems similar. I hope to return to this topic more in depth in a future essay.

Thirdly, lets get into some possible implications the future of the story, and some theorising… One huge thing mentioned in this book is that in order for a witch to life a full “witch-life” they need to go through with separating from their daemon. Now, this could mean “witch-life” in the sense of a life truly being a part of that culture. But it could also mean “witch-life” in the sense of living a life the length of a witch’s life. I think there’s a clue that this might be the case in The Secret Commonwealth when Fader Coram tells Lyra this story about a man who could separate:

‘That was in Muscovy. He’d been to Siberia, to the place where witches go, and done what they did. It nearly killed him, he said. He was the lover of a witch, and he thought that if he could separate like them, he’d live as long as they did. Only it didn’t work. His witch didn’t think no more of him for doing it, and he died soon after in any case.’ (Pullman 2019, 288)

So, the idea that separation would lead to long life didn’t work for this man, but it also seems like the separation killed him (although there is some ambiguity there). What does this mean for Lyra? Did she get as long a life as a witch when she separated from Pan? We’ve seen other people who can separate in the books, and there is no indication that they are essentially immortal. Do you only get a long life if you’re a witch who separate from your daemon? Does it matter that Lyra has “witch oil” in her blood (according to Ma Costa in Northern Lights)? Does it matter that she drank fairy milk as a baby? I’m not sure. I want to note that many of these thoughts are the result of discussions with Chloe of Girls Gone Canon, I can definitely not take credit for all of it. Another thing we have discussed, and that Chloe has also talked about on this and this episode of Girls Gone Canon is the idea that Lyra and Will are going to meet again in the last The Book of Dust installment, through the spirit world. As we know, Will’s father learnt how to travel the spirit plane, and at the end of The Amber Spyglass there is a hint that Will could learn this too. As we read in Serpentine, there are some places in Lyra’s world where one can access the spirit world more easily, that same place where witches go to separate from their daemons. Dr Lanselius describes it like this:

‘In central Siberia there is a region of devastation. Thousands of years ago there was a prosperous city there, the centre of an empire of craftsmen and traders that reached from Novgorod to Mongolia. But they made war with the spirit world, and their capital was destroyed by a blast of fire. Nothing has lived there since- plant, insect, bird or mammal’

Lyra thought she knew what the spirit world meant. It meant another universe, like Will’s, or like the world of Cittàgazze. If there had been contact between this universe and another, thousands of years ago, long before the way of cutting through one universe to another with the subtle knife had been invented, that was very interesting and she wanted to know more (…) (Pullman 2020, 13-16)

Now, the way this place is described seems very similar to The Blue Hotel in The Secret Commonwealth. That place is described as:

‘A thousand years ago, maybe more, it was a great city: temples, palaces, bazaars, parks, fountains, all sorts of beautiful things. Then one day the Huns swept down out of the steppes- that’s the endless grasslands they have further north, what seem to go on and on forever- and they slaughtered all the people in that city, every man, woman, and child. It was empty for centuries, because people said it was haunted, and I en’t surprised.’ (Pullman 2019, 225)

Now, this is incredibly similar. Furthermore, we know that the Blue Hotel is where daemons who have been separated from their people go, and we get descriptions of a similar area to the one in Siberia where daemons can’t go. So, is the Blue Hotel similar to the place in Siberia too in that it’s closer to the spirit world? What could that mean for the story? Chloe has previously talked about how it’s possible that Lyra and Will will meet each other in the spirit world in the last book in The Book of Dust (again, see Girls Gone Canon). She has also discussed how this might parallel the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. In that story Orpheus of course tried to get his wife Eurydice back from the underworld and made a deal with Hades. The deal entails that Eurydice must follow Orpheus while walking out to the light from the underworld, and he cannot look at her until they emerge, or he will lose her forever. Orpheus is unable to hear her footsteps as they go, and he begins to fear he was being fooled by Hades. So, with a few feet left to the exit, Orpheus loses faith, and turns to look at his wife, and her shade is whisked back among the underworld, trapped forever. Chloe has theorised that this could be similar to what happens with Lyra and Will, Lyra will see Will in the spirit world but she won’t be able to bring him back with her in the end. This could also parallel the retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story in the 2019 movie Portrait of a Lady on Fire. In that movie the characters discuss the Orpheus and Eurydice story, and one character speculates that Orpheus made a choice to turn around and live with Eurydice’s memory instead of attempting to bring her back. Another character speculates that Eurydice told Orpheus to turn around, to give him closure and a chance of a life without her. Chloe discusses how this could be similar to Lyra and Will’s end too. Personally I think that they will have to once again (similar to the end of The Amber Spyglass) decide to let each other go, maybe as a parallel to Eurydice telling Orpheus to let her go.

These has been some preliminary thoughts on Serpentine! It’s truly a fascinating book, setting up a lot in The Secret Commonwealth, from the climate change and migration, to Lyra navigating a geography of fear, to possible spirit world journeys in the future. I hope to have opportunity to go more in depth into these topics in the future.


Girls Gone Canon. 2020. “Joining Worlds – A Dustcussion on The Secret Commonwealth Ft. Her Dark Materials & The Dark Materials Podcast.” Published March 6, 2020.

Girls Gone Canon. 2020. “His Dark Materials Episode 13 – The Subtle Knife Chapters 9 and 10.” Published May 29, 2020.

Lo the Lynx. 2020. “Colonialism in His Dark Materials.” Lo the Lynx. August 27, 2020.

Lubitow, A., J. Carathers, M. Kelly & M. Abelson. 2017. “Transmobilities: mobility, harassment, and violence experienced by transgender and gender nonconforming public transit riders in Portland, Oregon.” Gender, Place & Culture, 24(10): 1398-1418.

Pullman, Philip. 2019. The Secret Commonwealth. London: Penguin Books.

Pullman, Philip. 2020. Serpentine. London: Penguin Books.

Sandberg, L. and A. Tollefsen. 2010. “Talking about fear of violence in public space: female and male narratives about threatening situations in Umeå, Sweden.” Social & Cultural Geography 11(1): 1-15.

WWF. n.d. “Is Climate Change Threatening the Saami way of Life?” WWF. Retrieved October 20, 2020.

Colonialism in His Dark Materials

[Note: this was originally published on August 11th 2020 on my tumblr]

CW: racism, sexism, sexual violence

Spoiler warning: all the books in the His Dark Materials series, as well as La Belle Sauvage, The Secret Commonwealth, and Once upon a Time in the North


His Dark Materials takes place in a world like our own, but not quite like our own, which is evident in everything from daemons to their use of anbaric light instead of electric light. It’s also evident in the way national borders have evolved in their world, as is clear if one looks at the map of Lyra’s world:


 (Source: His Dark Materials Wiki)

It should be noted that while this map is to my understanding an official in-world map, it doesn’t seem to include every country, for instance there is no mention of Norroway which is mentioned in Northern Lights (Pullman 2011a, 170). I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how the North in this world functions and compares to our world in this essay, and the parallels one can see to the history of our North. Furthermore, a while back the excellent podcast Girls Gone Canon pointed out that in The Subtle Knife Lee Scoresby meets someone who he describes as a Yoruba man (2020a). This is interesting, since in our world, the Yoruba people are split across several different nations (mainly Nigeria, Benin, Togo, and Ghana) as a result of colonial borders. As Girls Gone Canon said, this makes one curious about the colonial history of Lyra’s world, was there a British (and French, Spanish, Dutch etc) empire in the same way as in our world? It’s clear that racism and xenophobia exists in Lyra’s world, for instance there are several instances of disparaging remarks about the Gyptians, Turks, and the Tartars. The Tartars are described as dangerous and brutal throughout Northern Lights, for instance in regard to their practice of scalping and trepanning enemies (Pullman 2020a, 26). We later of course find out that they don’t trepan their enemies, but that it’s a ritual reserved for those the Tartars esteem (ibid, 228). We also hear of Turk children kidnapping children (ibid, 105), and as I will expand upon further later, the gyptians are often looked down upon by landlopers (non-Gyptians). For instance there’s this quote from La Belle Sauvage, when Malcom tries to pass on Fader Coram’s warning about a flood coming to his teachers who think: “It was nonsense- it was superstition- the gyptians knew nothing, or they were up to something, or they were just not to be trusted.” (Pullman 2018, 277) But it’s also clear that while there is racism in Lyra’s world just as in our own, the history of Lyra’s world is different than ours, as can be seen in how the national borders have been constructed. So, one might assume that the systems of colonialism, and how coloniality still effects Lyra’s world is different as well. In this essay I will argue that the Magisterium plays a similar, if also different, role to the colonial powers of our world. I will specifically focus on three aspects of this; the gyptians’ situation and the Magisterium’s treatment of them, the Magisterium’s attempted control/colonialization of The North, and the Magisterium’s control/colonialization of Asia Minor.

So, what do I mean by saying colonialization and coloniality? Well, as feminist post-colonialism researcher Chandra Talpade Mohanty writes:

[T]he term ‘colonialization’ has come to denote a variety of phenomena in recent feminist and left writings in general. From its analytic value as a category of exploitative economic exchange in both traditional and contemporary Marxism (cf. particularly such contemporary scholars as Baran, Amin and Gunder-Frank) to its use by feminists of colour in the US, to describe the appropriation of their experiences and struggles by hegemonic white women’s movements, the term ‘colonization’ has been used to characterize everything from the most evident economic and political hierarchies to the production of a particular cultural discourse about what is called the ‘Third World’. However sophisticated or problematical its use as an explanatory construct, colonialization invariably implies a relation of structural domination, and a discursive or political suppression of the heterogeneity of the subject(s) in question. (1988, 61)

As she writes, the effects of colonialism can be seen on several different levels in society. When analysing coloniality in His Dark Materials, I’m attempting to move between a discursive level and material level. That is to say, I consider both the colonial/white supremacy discourse, and its material consequences (and the way the material aspects contributes to the discourse). Another aspect that I think is relevant to consider is how colonialism effects the way we move through different spaces, and indeed through the world at large. Feminist and critical race theorist Sara Ahmed describes it like this:

Colonialism makes the world ‘white’, which is of course a world ‘ready’ for certain kinds of bodies, as a world that puts certain objects within their reach. (…) I want to consider racism as an ongoing and unfinished history, which orientates bodies in specific directories, affecting how they ‘take up’ space. Such forms of orientation are crucial to how bodies inhabit space, and to the racialization of bodily as well as social space. (2006, 111)

A crucial point here is how racism and colonialism is an ongoing and unfinished history, and that it continually effects people, bodies, and spaces. Ahmed further describes that bodies who do not fit into this white world are deemed strangers and stopped in different ways. These bodies cannot move through the white world smoothly. As an example, she describes how she, even though she has a British passport, are stopped at airports because her last name sounds Muslim. This makes her stand out in a white place, and as such she is stopped and questioned about her being in this space.  This way of describing racial/ethnic others as, well, others, as strange strangers, is central in how a nation and national subjects are created (Ahmed 2004). We gain a sense of who we are, who our group is, and who “belongs” in our community and nation by making clear who doesn’t belong. As Ahmed writes about white supremacy groups: “Together we hate and this hate is what makes us together.” (2004, 26) Ahmed further writes about how such instances of racist hatred is both created by histories of racism, and creates the groundwork for future similar situations:

[A] white racist subject who encounters a racial other may experience an intensity of emotions (fear, hate, disgust, pain). That intensification involves moving away from the body of the other, or moving towards the body of the other in an act of violence, and then moving away. The ‘moment of contact’ is shaped by histories of contact, which allows the proximity of a racial other to be perceived as threatening, at the same time as they create new impressions. (Ahmed 2004, 31)

That is to say, racist encounters on the microlevel (between people) are influenced by historical structural racism and ensures that such structural racism can continue. Having established this background, I now want to move on to a group in His Dark Materials who are continually seen as strangers by the rest of society and mistreated for it; the gyptians.

The Gyptians

We first meet the gyptians in Northern Lights when Lyra mentions their children being part of the war the children of Oxford wage against each-other: “The other regular enemy was seasonal. The gyptian families, who lived on canal-boats, came and went with the spring and autumn fairs, and were always good for a fight.” (Pullman 2011a, 33) Later we are introduced to Ma Costa specifically in this manner:

It was about the time of the Horse Fair, and the canal basin was crowded with narrow boats and butty boats, with traders and  travellers, and the wharves along the waterfront of Jericho were bright with gleaming harness and loud with the clop of hooves and the clamour of bargaining. (…)

‘Well what have you done with him, you half-arsed pillock?” It was a mighty voice, a woman’s voice, but a woman with lungs of brass and leather. Lyra looked around for her at once, because this was Ma Costa, who had clouted Lyra dizzy on two occasions but given her hot gingerbread on three, and whose family was noted for the grandeur and sumptuousness of their boat. They were princes among gyptians, and Lyra admired Ma Costa greatly (…) Lyra was frightened. No one worried about a child gone missing for a few hours, and certainly not a gyptian: in the tight-knit gyptian boat-world, all children were precious and extravagantly loved, and a mother knew that if a child was out of her sight, it wouldn’t be far from someone else’s who would protect it instinctively. But here was Ma Costa, queen among the gyptians, in terror for a missing child. (ibid, 55)

I want to highlight a few things here, firstly the way the gyptians’ tradition of moving around through the year (on their boats) and visiting during fairs (specifically horse fairs), secondly that the Costas are described as princes among gyptians, and thirdly that we are introduced to them with a child going missing. As I will argue here, the gyptians are quite clearly inspired by our world’s Roma people, and there exist a lot of racist stereotypes about Roma stealing children. Here instead, the gyptians’ children are the ones getting stolen. I will lay out further parallels, but before doing that, I want to note an interesting aspect of their name. In the English versions of His Dark Materials, the name for the gyptians seems to be a reference to the word g*psy (considered a slur by some Roma people, which is why I have chosen to not use it). G*psy in itself comes from the belief that Roma people originally came from Egypt (Amnesty 2020). In the Swedish translation of Northern Lights, which is the one I read as a child, gyptians are translated to “zyjenare”. This is very similar to a Swedish word for Roma which is most definitely a slur, the His Dark Materials word has only swapped the i to a y and the g to a j. So, I’ve always thought it was very obvious that the gyptians were essentially Roma. I recently found out that in the Swedish version of La Belle Sauvage this translation has changed, and gyptian is translated to “gyptier” instead (which is a sort of Swedish-ification of the English word, it can be compared to the word for Egyptian which is “egyptier”). I do not know the reason for this but would guess that it’s because the original translation is uncomfortably close to a racial slur (they’re pronounced the same).

Moving on from name similarities, I want to look at how the gyptians’ lifestyle is described similarly to that of Roma people, and then look at the similar racism facing the two groups. Firstly, it bears mentioning that Roma people aren’t an ethnic homogenous people. Roma is usually used as a broad term to describe a variety of ethnic groups, including Romani, Sinti, and other Travellers. But as Colin Robert Clark points out in his PhD thesis ‘Invisible Lives’: The Gypsies and Travellers of Britain: “The reality is that for the last century and longer all Travellers, whatever their ethnic status, have been labelled as ‘criminals’, ‘deviants, ‘vagabonds’ and asocial.” (2001, 46). In the mind of the populace, all these groups are usually seen as the same. Therefore, I will refer to them as a group as Roma here, even if I’m aware that there are differences within that broad category. As Clark points out, among Roma in the UK there are a lot of similar traditions (2001, 125). Traditionally many will travel throughout the year, and do different seasonal work, while wintering in one place. Many meet up or gather at different fairs, including horse fairs. This, I think is similar to the gyptians in His Dark Materials. As pointed out in the quote I quoted above from Northern Lights, the gyptians tend to travel throughout the year, and turn up in Oxford for horse fairs. Another clear similarity is of course that Roma traditionally live and travel in caravans, while the gyptians of His Dark Materials travel on canal boats. As Clark points out, this is often central both in Roma’s cultural identity, and in the governmental oppression facing them:

[W]e need to recognise the fact that many Gypsies and Travellers in Western European countries, whether travelling or settled, are nomads. This is a ‘state of mind’ and their economic status and social identity are often defined and mapped-out by their nomadic life-style and culture, even when, out of choice or through policies of social inclusion and normalisation, they are permanently or temporarily sedentarised. For this reason, it is perhaps through their predisposition towards nomadism, rather than (or as well as) their ethnic identity, that they are perceived as a threat by states and governments. (2001, 55)

This seems similar to the nomadic gyptian lifestyle, which is occasionally threatened by authorities. Another clear similarity between Roma people and the gyptians seems to be the racist stereotypes surrounding them. A main one is of course the way Roma are seen as criminal and untrustworthy in different ways (Clark 2001, 72). As mentioned above, this stereotype seems to exist regarding the gytians as well, as Malcom recounts in La Belle Sauvage (Pullman 2018, 277). Another similar instance is that Malcom’s friend Erik claims that he’s been told by his father that gyptians always have a hidden agenda. Related to this, perhaps, is the way Roma are often connected to occultism, including fortune telling (Clark 2001, 70). This seems the case with the gyptians as well, which becomes especially clear in La Belle Sauvage and The Secret Commonwealth. In La Belle Sauvage, as mentioned, Fader Coram warns Malcom about the upcoming flood (which other characters dismisses as superstition), and in The Secret Commonwealth Lyra learns about different creatures from the secret commonwealth from Master Brabant (Pullman 2019, 224). Another stereotype about Roma people that seems to have been influenced Pullman when writing the gyptians is what Clark calls “internal nobility” (2001, 69). Clark quotes the following from Liegeois (1986: 58-63):

The ‘King of the Gypsies’ is a figment of the imagination of the gadze (non-Gypsies), and neither Roma as a whole nor any of the subgroups have a formal leader. … These terms … do not reflect a social hierarchy, but were an instance of superficial adaptation to local conditions and customs. (Liegois 1986, in Clark 2001, 69)

Clark goes on discuss how this might have been a way to interact with local nobility during historical times, and gain some sort of legitimacy in the eyes of the rest of society. He specifically brings up an example which I think is very relevant for His Dark Material, which is how an ‘Egyptian’ was granted certain powers by James V of Scotland:

which granted considerable privileges to John Faw, ‘lord and erie of Litill Egipt’ … enjoining all those in authority in the kingdom to assist John Faw in executing justice upon his company, ‘conforme to the lawis of Egipt’ and in punishing all those who rebelled against him. (Fraser 1995, 118, in Clark 2001, 70).

Now, this seems like it quite obviously could be the inspiration for the gyptian character John Faa, lord of the western gyptians. It seems as if in the world of His Dark Materials the gyptians do have some sort of internal nobility, or at least ruling structure. It also seems relevant to point out how Lyra thinks that the Costa family are princes among the gyptians. Now, one stereotype that it seems less certain if it applies to the gyptians as well, is the stereotype that Roma are black and/or tawny (Clark 2001, 67). We very rarely get descriptions of the gyptians appearance in the books, what we do get is that Fader Coram is brown-skinned (Pullman 2018, 221), and that Lyra’s blond hair stands out (Pullman 2011a, 133). In either case, it doesn’t seem that such a stereotype exists, that judges the gyptians negatively based on their looks. Another stereotype that doesn’t exist in His Dark Materials is that of the Roma stealing children. Instead, as mentioned above, the gyptians children are the ones being stolen. That seems like it might be a deliberate contrast.

Now, let’s look at some similarities between how Roma people have been oppressed by governments, and how the gyptians are treated by the Magisterium. I first want to turn to a quote from an Amnesty report about the situation for Roma in Europe:

The Roma are one of Europe’s oldest and largest ethnic minorities, and also one of the most disadvantaged. Across the continent Romani people are routinely denied their rights to housing, health care, education and work, and many are subjected to forced eviction, racist assault and police ill-treatment. (…) Millions of Roma live in isolated slums, often without access to electricity or running water, putting them at risk of illness. But many cannot obtain the health care they need. Receiving inferior education in segregated schools, they are severely disadvantaged in the labour market. Unable to find jobs, they cannot afford better housing, buy medication, or pay the costs of their children’s schooling. And so the cycle continues. All this is not simply the inevitable consequence of poverty. It is the result of widespread, often systemic, human rights violations stemming from centuries of prejudice and discrimination that have kept the great majority of Roma on the margins of European society. (Amnesty 2020, 3)

Now, one aspect that I think is relevant to highlight here when considering similarities to the gyptians of His Dark Materials is that this situation is “not simply the inevitable consequence of poverty.” It is a result of systemic governmental discrimination and oppression. One part of this that I want to consider is housing. For instance, in the UK there have been many instances of the government prohibiting caravans being parked on lots of land for a variety of reasons (Clark 2001, 217). One example of this was The Caravan Sites (Control of Development) Act of 1960, which made it difficult for Roma to buy plots of land to winter on, since said act forbade land being used as a caravan site unless the owner of the land had a site licence. And to get a site licence one had to jump through several bureaucratical hoops that had the effect of it being hard for Roma to get such a license, and also made private landowners unwilling to let people stop on their lands, even if they had let them do that previously. In 1968 the Caravan Sites Act was enacted, which was supposed to provide more official sites for caravans where Roma and Travellers could stop, instead of having to stay on private land. This did not work very well in practice since very few such sites were actually created, leading to Roma and Travellers actually having fewer options on where to stop. This all sounds very similar to what the gyptians of His Dark Materials have had to face, as John Faa outlines when describing what Lord Asriel has done for the gyptians: “It were Lord Asriel who allowed gyptian boats free passage on the canals through his property. It were Lord Asriel who defeated the Watercourse Bill in Parliament, to our great and lasting benefit.” (Pullman 2020a, 136) We’re not told exactly what this Watercourse Bill entiled, but from context it sounds like it would limit the gyptian’s ability to travel and live on the water. That paired with them being grateful that Asriel let them pass through his property makes it sound like there might have been legal battles surrounding the gyptians travelling, similar to that of the Roma in our world. There is one big difference though, the gyptians have the Fens. The Fens seems to function as similar to a winter site might for Roma in our world, but for the whole gyptian community, where they also have some sort of autonomy. It is pointed out on several occasions that the Magisterium does not have jurisdiction there, for instance:

The gyptians ruled the Fens. No one dared enter, and while the gyptians kept the peace and traded fairly, the landlopers turned a blind eye to the incessant smuggling and occasional feuds. If a gyptian body floated ashore down the coast, or got snagged in a fish-net, well- it was only a gyptian. (Pullman 2011a, 113)

It also becomes clear here that the police in His Dark Materials do not care about gyptians, which is similarly often the case regarding Roma in our world (Amnesty 2020, 5). In His Dark Materials this also becomes evident when the police at first doesn’t care about the poor and/or gyptian children going missing; “Children from the slums were easy enough to entice away, but eventually people noticed, and the police were stirred into reluctant action.” (Pullman 2011a, 45). That brings me to the last form of government oppression that I want to mention, and that is the taking of children and control over reproduction. One instance of this in our world was the Norweigan Omstreifermisjonen, which roughly translates to “The Travellers mission”, a Christian organisation which with the backing of the Norweigan state practiced forced assimilation of Travellers during the 20th century (Selling 2013, 26). This was practiced by forcibly putting children in boarding school like facilities and the adults in labour camps. Some argued for similar practices in Sweden at the turn of the century:

Vicar Hedvall in Malung shared the view that ‘[Swedish slur for Roma] and [Swedish slur for Travellers]’ generally raised their children to begging, promiscuity and crookedness. He argued for ‘reformatory schools’ for the children and labour camps for the adults, as well as changing the law so that the child welfare committee would ‘have the power to, without too extensive procedures, take the children into their care.’” (Selling 2013, 49). [my translation from Swedish]

We can see here that Roma and Travellers weren’t seen as suitable parents for children, who would in some instances be taken from them. Slightly later in history many Roma people would be forcibly sterilised for similar reasons (Selling 2013, 59). I’ve written about the Swedish history surrounding that in this and this essay, but it bears mentioning here too. As is of course the horrific genocide of Roma by the Nazis where approximately between 250 000 and 500 000 Roma was killed (Amnesty 2020). As I’ve argued previously, this history of eugenics feels similar to how gyptian children in His Dark Materials are kidnapped to clean them of Dust:

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)

Among the people who were specifically targeted historically in our world were Roma, because they were considered degenerate (and thus shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce) and/or unfit as parents (and thus shouldn’t be allowed to raise children). The control of the lower classes and gyptians’ sexuality through the control of Dust feels very similar. It should of course be noted that this kind of practice did not just happen in the North in our world, sterilisations and other eugenic measures has taken place in many places. For instance, in countries that were colonised by European countries this was often the case, and here as well the church were often involved (Stoler 1997). Sexual control was in fact often central in creating and upholding racial boundaries in colonies.

We can thusly see that the way the gyptians are treated in His Dark Mateials is similar to the treatment of Roma in our world. I would furthermore argue that their status as “strangers” in the country where they live functions as a way to uphold racial bounderies and hierarchies, similar to how Ahmed describes it (2004). By being thought of as suspicious and “up to something” they are continually othered and seen as lesser than society at large. Their treatment by the Magisterium is also similar to how Roma have been treated in many places in Europe, and a clear example of how nation of white hegemony/a colonial state might treat racial others inside of its borders.

The Magisterium’s controlling/colonizing of the North

I now want to turn to how the Magisterium in the books attempts to take control of the North, and how it can be seen as a colonial state’s attempt to do so. To do that I want to first give a brief historical background of a similar process of colonization in the North, but the North of our world, that is the Swedish colonization of Sápmi. Sápmi is the land inhabited by the Sami people, and it includes land in contemporary Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia. The colonization of Sápmi was highly tied up in the Christening of the Sami, who traditionally practiced their own religion. The website which is run by Sametinget, the governmental body of Swedish Sami, puts it like this:

In order to force the Sami to abandon their religion and instead attend church services and church education, the Church used different forms of punishment: fines, prison, or death penalties. The holy sites were defiled and drums [used in religious rituals] were burned.

During centuries the Sami religion had been able to live side by side with Christianity. But from the 17th century onward, the attempts to Christen the Sami went hand in hand with the Crown’s attempt to conquer the land in the north. When religion became a means of power, the Sami were made to suffer many forms of abuse, just as has been the case with other indigenous people throughout the world. ( n.d. a) [my translation from Swedish]

One motivation for the Swedish Crown to claim Sápmi was access to natural resources there, such as silver and later iron ( n.d. b). During the industrialisation of Sweden, even more parts of Sápmi became settled in order to open more mines, mainly iron mines. As I’ve written about in this essay, soon after this, new laws surrounding schooling of Sami children were put into place. This new law stated that teachers would wander around the mountainous regions in the summer. There, the youngest schoolchildren would be taught in the family’s cot for a few weeks each year during the first three school years. The rest of the school time consisted of winter courses in regular schools for three months a year for three years. The teaching would only cover a few subjects and it had to be at such a low level that the children were not “civilized”. Children of nomadic Sami were not allowed to attend public primary schools. It was often in collaboration with schools for Sami children where much eugenic “scientific research” later took place. As I wrote in my earlier essay:

In 1922 The State’s Race Biological institute (Statens rasbiologiska institut) was created in Uppsala in Sweden, by the “scientist” Herman Lundborg (Hagerman 2016, 961). He wished to research the Swedish race, and the mixing of races in Sweden. This was done in several ways, both by looking at records of marriages and birth (often supplied by church officials who had access to so called “church books” that recorded this), and physical examinations of people. He, and other “scientists”, travelled around Sweden to examine the Sami people and other groups that were considered inferior (such as Finns, Roma people, Jews, disabled people etc). The physical examination of Sami people often happened in collaboration with local churches or schools (Hagerman 2016, 984). Another part of the eugenics movement in Sweden that is worth mentioning here is the forced sterilisations that took place during this time. (Lo-lynx 2019)

Now, the reason I think it is relevant to consider the colonialization of Sápmi, as well as the eugenic practices toward marginalised groups, is the parallel it makes to what the Magisterium is up to in His Dark Materials. Consider for instance this quote from Martin Lanselius in Northern Lights:

‘Well, in this very town there is a branch of an organization called the Northern Progress Exploration Company, which pretends to be searching for minerals, but which is really controlled by something called the General Oblation Board of London. This organization, I happen to know, imports children. This is not generally known in the town; the Norroway government is not officially aware of it.’ (Pullman 2011a, 170)

There are some definite parallels here to the colonising of Sápmi, and colonising of other places too. A government/governmental agency comes looking for natural resources (or at least claiming to) and ends up doing medical experiments and take eugenic measures. I furthermore find it interesting that Lanselius in the above quote mentions that the Norroway government is not officially aware of what the GOB is doing, that indicates that the GOB (and the Magisterium as a whole?) is an outside influence taking control in this area of the North. I will return to the Magisterium’s taking control in other contexts later but wanted to note this here. We also learn that Marisa Coulter attempted to set up a similar facility as the one in Bolvangar on Svalbard, because there are less laws to consider there, as the bear Søren Eisarson relays:

‘There are human laws that prevent certain things that she was planning to do, but human laws don’t apply on Svalbard. She wanted to set up another station here like Bolvangar, only worse, and Iofur was going to allow her to do it, against all the custom of the bears; because humans have visited, or been imprisoned, but never lived and worked here. Little by little she was going to increase her power over Iofur Raknison, and his over us, until we were her creatures running back and forth at her bidding, and our only duty to guard the abomination she was going to create…’ (Pullman 2011a, 356)

This leads me to the next aspect I wanted to consider; Svalbard and the pansarbjørne.

In Northern Lights we first learn of a Svalbard ruled by the pansarbjørne Iofur Rakinson, who attempts to gain power by letting the Magisterium into Svalbard and conforming to human culture. This is very much a contrast to Iorek, the rightful king, who wants a return to true beardom. Now, of course, the pansarbjørne are bears, but they are talking bears with a culture of their own, and I would argue that they are often portrayed as similar to indigenous people. This is also something Girls Gone Canon (2002b) discusses in their episode on the novella Once Upon a Time in the North. One point that they make in that episode is that the whole of the Once Upon a Time in the North is very much written like a Western, even if it takes place in the cold north. Some aspects of this that they mention is that the protagonist, Lee, who is sort of the cowboy of the story, comes into this new town, and by the end has a shootout. There’s also clearly a resource war going on, and the bears play similar roles to that of Native Americans in traditional Westerns. In the episode, Girls Gone Canon also makes note of how the bears are described as “noble savages” by the character Oskar Sigurdsson, clearly a racist trope that exist in our world as well. Sigurdsson describes the bears like this:

‘Worthless vagrants. Bears these days are sadly fallen from what they were. Once they had a great culture, you know- brutal, of course, but noble in its own way. One admires the true savage, uncorrupted by softness and ease.’ (Pullman 2017, 12)

It is in the story unclear if the bears are confined to Svalbard before or after the events of this story. As Girls Gone Canon puts it, did the bears have a great kingdom that included Novy Odense and were later displaced by humans, or did they come from Svalbard but weren’t afforded rights in other places? In either case, it is clear that there are a lot of racial tension in the story, and that is exploited by the character Poliakov who tries to gain political power. He is apparently in league with the company Larsen Maganese who are supposedly looking for oil. This again reminds one of Westerns. I would argue that the “wild” North is in many ways similar to the “wild West”, since, as I outlined before, it has been seen as an unexplored land filled of resources to be claimed ( n.d. b). The role the hunt for resources plays in the story is extremely relevant to the story, and to our own times. Girls Gone Canon put it like this:

A lot of this reminds me of private military companies in general, Iraq and Somali are decent examples of this, but maybe on a smaller scale, depending on some of our before speculation about the series and what exactly Poliakov is looking for, besides this local government power(…) the talk of oil is being loudly said, but Lee notices that there is no big trade happening. So, it kind of seems to be a cover for something, and, maybe he was mining for a resource, but it wasn’t just oil? I don’t know, but I know other governments who have hired armies as contractors who wouldn’t have to face local laws wherever they deployed those armies, you know? As a grey area. And because of that they committed atrocities. While they were saying they were doing it to stop terror instead. But they were really just like, you know, putting colonialism down real hard on the table and exploiting the place. (Girls Gone Canon 2020, 43:08 mins)

I’ll return to this notion of governments using terror as an excuse to go after resources later in this essay, but it is definitely clear that there’s colonial undertones in this claiming of resources and fearmongering about other races.

Before moving on from the Magisterium’s colonialism in the North, I want to discuss one specific character, namely Marisa Coulter. Coulter’s position in the world of His Dark Materials is interesting in many ways. As a woman in a patriarchal world, she has had to find alternative ways to power, because as Lord Asriel says:

‘You see, your mother’s always been ambitious for power. At first she tried to get it in the normal way, through marriage, but that didn’t work, as I think you’ve heard. So she had to turn to the Church. Naturally she couldn’t take the route a man could have taken- priesthood and so on- it had to be unorthodox; she had to set up her own order, her own channels of influence, and work through that. It was a good move to specialize in Dust. Everyone was frightened of it; no one knew what do to; the Magisterium was so relieved that they backed her with money and resources of all kinds.’ (Pullman 2011a, 372)

What this passage essentially says is that when Coulter couldn’t get power the way a man would, she decided to get it by making use of the very same oppressive system that tried to stop her. In many ways it reminds me of the way white European women would attempt to get power in colonies, where they (at least sometimes) could get more freedom/power. Feminist researcher Sara Mills for instance notes that British women in colonial India could find more freedom from restrictive social conventions than they did in their homeland (2003). One example of this that Mills mentions is how British women might find freedom in travelling and “exploring” colonies, and how some of these women in travel journals describe the way they felt freer on their journeys than in their homes. As Mills rightly points out, this is of course a stark contrast to the life of many of the people they colonized whose freedom was restricted by colonialism. One cannot help but think of Marisa Coulter’s travels here, and how she found freedom by making use of an oppressive system. Her life also very much speaks to a point raised by bell hooks; that white women might often step on the backs of more marginalized people to reach closer to the top of the power pyramid. As hooks puts it:

As a group, black women are in an unusual position in this society, for not only are we collectively at the bottom of the occupational ladder, but our overall social status is lower than that of any other group. Occupying such a position, we bear the brunt of sexist, racist, and classist oppression. At the same time, we are the group that has not been socialized to assume the role of exploiter/oppressor in that we are allowed no institutionalized “other” that we can exploit or oppress. (…) White women and black men have it both ways. They can act as oppressor or be oppressed. Black men may be victimized by racism, but sexism allows them to act as exploiters and oppressors of women. White women may be victimized by sexism, but racism enables them to act as exploiters and oppressors of black people. Both groups have led liberation movements that favor their interests and support the continued oppression of other groups. Black male sexism has undermined struggles to eradicate racism just as white female racism undermines feminist struggle. As long as these two groups or any group defines liberation as gaining social equality with ruling class white men, they have a vested interest in the continued exploitation and oppression of others. (hooks 1984, 14-15) [my bolding of text]

Now, one might argue that hooks leaves out some power structures here, such as ableism and homophobia, but her point about white women’s complicity in white patriarchy still stands. Coulter is, in my opinion, an extreme version of this. She attempts to gain power as a woman in a patriarchal world, which might garner sympathy, but she does it by exploiting children, mainly children from marginalised groups in society. Feminist scholars Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser describe rich white women’s actions in the context of neo-colonial actions (a context which I will return to further on) like this:

But there is nothing feminist about ruling-class women who do the dirty work of bombing other countries and sustaining regimes of apartheid; of backing neocolonial interventions in the name of humanitarianism, while remaining silent about the genocides perpetrated by their own governments; of expropriating defenseless populations through structural adjustment, imposed debt, and forced austerity. In reality, women are the first victims of colonial occupation and war throughout the world. They face systematic harassment, political rape, and enslavement, while enduring the murder and maiming of their loved ones, and the destruction of the infrastructures that enabled them to provide for themselves and their families in the first place. We stand in solidarity with these women-not with warmongers in skirts, who demand gender and sexual liberation for their kin alone. To the state bureaucrats and financial managers, both male and female, who purport to justify their warmongering by claiming to liberate brown and black women, we say: Not in our name. (2019, 53)

Another relevant point to raise here is Coulter’s connection to the zombi. We first hear about these people in Northern Lights, where Lord Asriel explains:

[S]he’s travelled in many places, and seen all kinds of things. She’s travelled in Africa, for instance. The Africans have a way of making a slave called a zombi. It has no will of its own; it will work day and night without ever running away or complaining. (Pullman 2011a, 373)

In the same passage Asriel explains that it was from things like these the GOB arose, and it seems like the zombi soldiers were also made use of by the Magisterium. They are mentioned again in The Subtle Knife when the Magisterium is mustering an army in Trollesund, and it seems like they might have been brought on an “African” ship (Pullman 2011b, 41-42). Then it is later noted that Coulter are using men that have undergone intercision as her personal bodyguards/slave soldiers, which one might assume is the same as these zombi (ibid, 199). She is using her power to gain protection by having these slaves, once again climbing to power on the backs of those more marginalised than her.

The Magisterium’s control and colonization of Asia Minor

Moving on from the Magisterium and Marisa Coulter’s attempts to control the North, I now want to consider the Magisterium and Marcel Delamare’s attempts to control parts of Asia Minor in The Secret Commonwealth. In The Secret Commonwealth we are introduced to Marisa Coulter’s brother Marcel Delemare, who just as his sister is trying to gain power in the Magisterium. His way of doing this is through the organisation La Maison Juste, and by reshaping the Magisterium itself by making use of recent “troubles” in Asia. The reader gets several hints that he himself might be responsible for these troubles by the text saying that he was very aware of these “men from the mountains” (Pullman 2019, 212), and then Oakley Street thinking that these men might come from closer to Europe, rather than from further east in Asia (ibid, 243). In either case, Delamare uses these “troubles” to argue for more centralised control from the Magisterium (ibid, 270), a power that he then gets sole control over. Another telling moment is when the director of Oakley Street has this discussion with a friend of the organisation about why the Magisterium is assembling a strike force:

‘To invade Central Asia. There’s talk of a source of valuable chemicals or minerals or something in the desert in the middle of some howling wilderness, and it’s a matter of strategic importance for the Magisterium not to let anyone else get at it before they do. There’s a very strong commercial interest as well. Pharmaceuticals, mainly. (…)’

‘They can’t invade anywhere without an excuse. What’ll it be, d’you think?’

‘That’s what all the diplomacy’s about. I heard that there is or was some sort of science place- a research institute or something- at the edge of the desert concerned. There were scientists from various countries working there, including ours, and they’ve been under pressure from local fanatics, of whom there are not a few, and the casus belli will probably be a confected sense of outrage that innocent scholars have been brutally treated by bandits or terrorists, and the Magisterium’s natural desire to rescue them.’ (Pullman 2019, 592)

As I discussed in the previous section about Once Upon a Time in the North, this practice of using terror as an excuse to invade a region to (partly) get access to natural resources definitely have parallels to our world.

A longstanding justification for colonialism is that “civilised” society shall save the “barbaric” other from itself, and as scholar Margret Denike points out, that has in current times turned into a justification for foreign intervention by for instance the US (2008).  As she puts it:

I look to the narratives of progress and human rights triumphalism, and their concomitant campaigns of fear against an allegedly lawless and evil other, as performative gestures in and by which the very distinctions between civilized and uncivilized states are constituted; and the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their public acts of violence are forged. Relating these processes to the politics of gender and racial colonization, I consider how the utilization of human rights discourses, in conjunction with the language of self-defense, relies on and reinforces the selective and strategic denial of humanity and citizenship to the very groups of people-such as Muslim women and refugees-that have been made to symbolize its cause (Chinkin, Wright, and Charlesworth 2005, 28). There is a certain political economy to the strategic deployment of human rights discourses by colonial and imperial states that have sights set on the profits of war, the operations and effects of which can be mapped through a resurgence of new modalities state sovereignty. (2008, 97)

As Denike further points out, religious (specifically Christian) arguments are often just right below the surface in such discourses about saving the racial Other from evil. Furthermore, it is very common that women specifically are in focus in such arguments, playing on the old trope of “white men saving brown women from brown men” (Denike 2008, 105). This can for instance be seen in the US’s (and the EU’s and NATO’s) “war on terror” where much focus was put on liberating Muslim women. She writes:  

Indeed, the fact that ‘daily security for women has been reduced’ in the aftermath of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq throws into relief the sad irony of the tale that this has been a “war for women” (Chinkin, Wright, and Charlesworth 2005, 19) and clarifies the gendered politics of Western imperialism’s investment in so-called security. As a counterpart to the docile bodies of veiled and tormented women appears the monstrously demonic, lawless, male terrorist looming larger than life in the fairy tales of triumph against evil. In the talk of the ‘terrorists’ of our time, relatively powerless Muslim and Arabic refugees and immigrants are ascribed, with utter credulity, the powers of mass destruction and plots of imminent nuclear attacks and marked as marginal by racial, religious, or ethnic difference, made to bear the cost of the (seemingly justified) demand for retribution. (2008, 106)

Another aspect I want to raise here, is which lives are sacrificed in such invasions. Which lives are mourned, which lives are acknowledged as human lives at all? Writing about the “war on terror” as well, feminist scholar Judith Butler notes that:

Our own acts of violence do not receive graphic coverage in the press, and so they remain acts that are justified in the name of self defense, but by a noble cause, namely, the rooting out of terrorism. At one point during the war against Afghanistan, it was reported that the Northern Alliance may have slaughtered a village: Was this to be investigated and, if confirmed, prosecuted as a war crime? When a bleeding child or dead body on Afghan soil emerges in the press coverage, it is not relayed as part of the horror of war, but only in the service of a criticism of the military’s capacity to aim its bombs right. We castigate ourselves for not aiming better, as if the end goal is to aim right. We do not, however, take the sign of destroyed life and decimated peoples as something for which we are responsible, or indeed understand how that decimation works to confirm the United States as performing atrocities. Our own acts are not considered terrorist. (Butler 2004, 7)

One might very well wonder the same when the Magisterium sacrifices the lives of thousands to gain power in Asia.

I also do not think it’s a coincidence that we learn of private (Western) corporations’ interest in resources in both The Secret Commonwealth and Once Upon a Time in the North. As Arruzza, Bhattacharya and Fraser note, capitalist interest are often very much intertwined with neo-colonial interventions: “Throughout the world, leading capitalist interests (Big Fruit, Big Pharma, Big Oil, and Big Arms) have systematically promoted authoritarianism and repression, coups d’etats and imperial wars.” (2019, 52) Perhaps the worst instance of capitalism interest in this area in The Secret Commonwealth is the trafficking of daemons, and essential enslavement of their humans (mostly Tajik people, who seem to be a marginalised ethnic group). As the priest that Lyra meets puts it:

‘It’s poverty,’ he said. ‘There’s a market for daemons. Medical knowledge here is quite advanced, unlike other things. Big corporations are behind it. They say the medical companies are experimenting here before expanding into the European market. There’s a surgical operation… Many people survive it now. Parents will sell their children’s daemons for money to stay alive. It’s technically illegal, but big money brushes the law aside… When the children grow up, they’re not full citizens, being incomplete.’ (Pullman 2019, 660)

This practice obviously reminds the readers of what the Magisterium and the GOB was doing at Bolvangar, but here it is done by big corporations being able to skirt the law by means of their money. It also seems like the companies doing it are European, since it’s stated that they are experimenting here before expanding to the European market. It also bears a similarity to how the Magisterium and Coulter used zombi as slave soldiers. In general, in The Secret Commonwealth we see how the world of His Dark Materials are not simply full of corrupt religious authority, but also corrupt capitalist corporations who are often collaborating with the religious organisations. Another thing this reveal about the way the Tajik are treated does is make clear that the East is “bad”in a way that seems very similar to how similar areas are seen in our own world (which I discussed above in relation to “the war on terror”). This is also extremely clear in the scene where Lyra is sexually assaulted on the train, and perhaps especially in the aftermath of that when the sergeant of the soldiers assaulting her advices her to wear a niqab in the future (Pullman 2019, 642). This combined with Lyra’s dislike of wearing a niqab later, “it looked neat enough. And safe. And nullifying.” (ibid, 664), seems to indicate a view that women are especially oppressed in this area of the world, and especially by wearing clothing such as a niqab. This is a contrast to the view of many Muslim women who do wear niqabs, who might describe the experience of wearing a niqab as liberating and empowering and see the niqab as an identity signifier (Zempi 2016).

Another aspect of this neo-colonial activity in Asia in The Secret Commonwealth that I want to consider is that it forces people to flee their homes and attempt to seek refuge in Europe. In her travels Lyra sees several of these refugees, first in Prague where her guide Kubiček explains:

‘More of them arrive every day. The Magisterium has begun to encourage each province of the Church to regulate its territory with a firmer hand. In Bohemia things are not yet as savage as elsewhere; refugees are still given sanctuary. But that can’t go on indefinitely. We shall have to begin turning them away before too long.’ (Pullman 2019, 409)

It’s interesting here that the Magisterium is telling provinces of the Church to regulate immigration, it seems similar to what the EU might do in our world. Well, these people have at least managed to make their way to Prague, later Lyra sees people on a boat trying to cross the Mediterranean (Pullman 2019, 483). This clearly seems to be a reference to refugees in our world attempting the same, especially during and after the so called 2015 “refugee crisis” in Europe. Many have criticised this labelling, since it turns the refugees into the crisis, not the war and other circumstances that has led to them having to flee. As researcher Ida Danewid points out, it reduces the crisis to something Europe have to handle only when it reaches its shores:

By divorcing the ongoing Mediterranean crisis from Europe’s long history of empire and racial violence, these left-liberal interventions ultimately turn questions of accountability, guilt, restitution, repentance, and structural reform into matters of empathy, generosity, and hospitality. The result is a politics of pity rather than justice, to borrow the words of Hannah Arendt, and a consequent recasting of the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed as one between the lucky and the unlucky. As anti-colonial scholars such as Césaire, Cabral, and Fanon remind us, such wilful amnesia sits at the heart of the colonial project. Charles Mills and Linda Alcoff have recently described this as ‘an epistemology of ignorance’ (of not knowing, or of not wanting to know), as a form of Forgetting or white amnesia through which Western publics come to believe not only that the world is post-colonial and post-racial, but also that the long history of colonialism, racialised indentured servitude, indigenous genocide, and transatlantic slavery have left no traces in culture, language, and knowledge production. (Danewid 2017, 1681)

This seems incredibly similar to how the issue is framed in The Secret Commonwealth. Simply as an issue of lucky versus unlucky, rather as a result of historical and current colonialism from Europe upon the world. Clearly the refugees in The Secret Commonwealth has had to flee due to conflict that is clearly the fault of the Magisterium and big corporations, that are both fuelled by European interests. But still these refugees have to rely on the good will of the countries they’re fleeing to, and hope that they will not close their borders.


In this essay I have attempted to argue that while the history of Lyra’s world in His Dark Materials is different than our own, many of the racist, white supremacy, and colonial powers operate similarly. From the discrimination toward gyptians, to the eugenic like work of the GOB, to the racist and colonial treatment of the bears, to the neo-colonial capitalist and governmental collaboration in Asia Minor, it seems clear that colonialism definitely exist in the world of His Dark Materials. In most of these instances, the religious authority of the Magisterium is at centre, and functions similar to how a colonial power might. But perhaps it would be more accurate to liken it to a neo-colonial power, similar to the EU, NATO, or the US and the way they have acted when attempting to stamp out terror (and in reality, expanding their own power). Just as in our world the colonial history of Lyra’s world is far from over. As Sara Ahmed puts it, racism is an unfinished and ongoing history which impacts how we navigate the world both as individuals, and how the world itself is set up (2006). Hopefully both our fictional heroes and ourselves can continue fighting against it.


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Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenology. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Amnesty. 2020. Human Rights on the Margins: Roma in Europe.

Arruzza, Cinzia, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser. 2019. Feminism for the 99 percent- a manifesto. New York: Verso.

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Danewid, Ida. 2017. ”White Innocence in the Black Mediterranean: Hospitality and the Erasure of History.” Third World Quarterly, 38(7): 1674-1689.

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Girls Gone Canon. 2020a. His Dark Materials Episode 11- The Subtle Knife Chapters 5-6. March 27, 2020.

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Mills, Sara. 2003. ”Gender and colonial space.” In Feminist postcolonial theory: A reader, eds. Lewis, Reina & Sara Mills. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University.

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Pullman, Philip. 2018. La Belle Sauvage. London: Penguin Books.

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