Navigating geographies of fear- themes of disability and queerness in The Secret Commonwealth

Spoiler warning: all His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust books.

TW: sexual assault, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism.

When the reader opens up The Secret Commonwealth for the first time, they’re probably not ready for the heart-breaking sadness they’ll feel when reading about Lyra and Pan’s relationship. After the trauma they experienced in the end of their journey as children, they have a strained relationship, and eventually Pan decides to leave Lyra. Lyra then goes on her journey to find Pan, coming across both people who are sympathetic to her situation, and those who are decidedly less so. There are many ways of understanding Lyra and Pan’s estrangement, it can for instance be read as a metaphor for depression and trauma as for instance Girls Gone Canon have noted (2020). In this way, Lyra’s relationship with Pan parallels her mother’s toxic relationship to her own daemon, which I’ve covered on multiple occasions. But in this essay I want to focus on a slightly different aspect of Lyra and Pan’s separation; how the surrounding world perceive them (and specifically Lyra) when they are separated, and how it parallels experiences of disabled and queer people in our world.

Now, I first want to point out that I don’t think daemon separation is an exact parallel to disability or queerness. What I will attempt to point out here is instead how the experience of daemon separation and the marginalisation it leads to, in some ways parallels the experience of disabled and queer people. I especially want to focus on what it’s like to move through the world as a daemon-less person, and the similarities to the experience of queer and disabled people. This is what I mean by navigating geographies of fear, how do you navigate a hostile society as a marginalised person? To examine that I’ll first do a brief breakdown of some relevant aspects of daemon separation, and how people who are separated from their daemons are treated, and then move on to describe a bit of theoretical writings about disability and queerness in our world. Then I’ll go on to analyse three specific scenes from The Secret Commonwealth that I think make this parallel clear.

Background- daemon separation and marginalisation

Our first insight into daemon separation comes, of course, from Northern Lights where we see children being taken by the GOB and then forcibly severing them from their daemons as part of the Magisterium’s investigation/control of Dust (Pullman 2011). The reason the Magisterium is doing this is so to control sin, since they think Dust comes from original sin. I’ve previously compared this process to eugenics and forced sterilisations in our world, a process for controlling unwanted sexuality and reproduction. In our world a variety of marginalised people have been forcibly sterilised, from ethnic minorities, to lower-class women, to disabled people, to trans people. In Lyra’s world the people who are used for the GOB’s experiments are similarly marginalised people, mainly children from the lower classes and/or ethnic minorities such as the gyptians. The severing process is less explicitly about sexuality than sterilisation is, but it still concerns controlling sin and (implicitly) sexuality. The forced severing seems to be very traumatic for the children, and many don’t survive it. Yet, in the same book we learn of the witches’ ability to separate from their daemons, without these adverse effects. As the books go on, we learn a bit more about this voluntary form of separation, for instance with Malcom and Asta in La Belle Sauvage (Pullman 2018). It seems as if there is a spectrum of separation, and that the process affects people differently depending on the circumstances. Yet, we see similar reactions from other people when they’re confronted with people who are separated from their daemons; namely disgust and fear.

I think a telling example of how the general population sees daemon separation comes from Northern Lights, when Fader Coram tells a group of gyptians of his first meeting with Serafina Pekkala and how she had no daemon with her. It says that:

It was as if he’d said, ‘She had no head.’ The very though was repugnant. The men shuddered, their daemons bristled or shook themselves or cawed harshly, and the men soothed them. (Pullman 2011, 164)

Clearly, the very idea of someone not being close to their daemon is inconceivable and scary. Another example that I want to raise is from The Secret Commonwealth, when Lyra meets some Tajik people Seleukeia, Chil-du (“Forty-two”) and Yozdah (“Eleven”) who work collecting nightsoil. A priest Lyra meets explains:

‘Your Tajik friends,’ he said quietly, ‘their daemons would’ve been sold.’

She wasn’t sure she’d heard him. ‘What? Did you say sold? People sell their daemons?’

‘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. Hence their names, and the occupations they have to take up.’ (Pullman 2020, 660)

Now, there are many interesting things going on in this quote, including the way this area is described as backward and almost barbaric while it’s European corporations who use their resources. This neo-colonial discourse is something I discussed in this essay, so I won’t go further into that here. Instead I want to focus on how these daemon-less people are treated. These people are used by corporations for profits, and then discarded by society because they are seen as worthless for “being incomplete.” This is extremely reminiscent of how corporations in our world will use workers in the Global South, and then discard those people when their bodies are used up (eg. Puar 2009). I’ve written about this previously in connection to those who are spectred in Cittàgazze. I would also like to point out how this language around daemon-less people not being “full citizens” is very reminiscent about how different disabled people have for a long time been denied legal rights, such the right to vote, in many countries. For instance, in Sweden many people with intellectual and mental disabilities were denied the right to vote until 1989 if they were “omyndigförklarade” (being under a form of guardianship where they were not legally speaking considered to be an adult, this was abolished in 1989) (Nordiska Museet n.d.) Similar laws are still in place in 39 states in the US, where people who are considered “incapacitated” or “incompetent” can be stripped of their right to vote (Vasilogambros 2018). In the UK, patients living in mental hospitals weren’t allowed to vote until 2000 (NHS 2013).  

Theoretical background- disability studies and gender studies, queer theory and crip theory

Both disability studies and gender studies are huge fields, and many researchers have done work that touch on the ways gender, sexuality, and ability are connected. So, I can in no way cover all of that theoretical writing here, but I wanted to give a brief background to explain why you can talk about disability and queerness together.

A person who has been extremely influential in this field is the researcher Robert McRuer who in 2006 wrote the book Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. In this book he drew inspiration from queer theory as well as disability studies to compare norms and structures of sexuality and disability. He argues that in our society, both the able-bodied person and the heterosexual person are invisible, while the “abnormal” people (the queer and disabled people) are visible and pathologized. To illustrate this point, he compares two dictionary definitions of heterosexual and able-bodied: “heterosexual: pertaining to or characterized by the normal relations of the sexes; opp. to homosexual.”(ibid, 6), compared to “able-bodied: having an able body, i.e. one free from physical disabilities, and capable of the physical exertions required of it; in bodily health; robust.” (ibid, 7). McRuer himself has a somewhat different definition of what being able-bodied means; “being able-bodied means being capable of normal physical exertions required in a particular system of labor.” (ibid, 8) That is to say, society assumes everyone will live up to its standards/ideals, that which is considered “normal”, both when it comes to sexuality, gender, and ability. Society also assumes that being able-bodied, heterosexual, and cisgender is the preferable option, that everyone would want to be that given the choice. But as disability and trans activist Eli Clare puts it:

I’ve been asked more than once whether I’d take the hypothetical cure pill. I usually explain that having CP is like having blue eyes and red hair. I simply don’t know my body any other way. Thank you very much but no: no to the New Age folks who have offered crystals and vitamins, no to the preachers who have prayed over me, no to the doctors who have suggested an array of drugs and possible surgery, all with uncertain outcomes. (Clare 2007)

What many disability activists have promoted instead is a focus on how society should be adapted so it can work for people with different abilities, i.e. placing the problem with society instead of with the disabled person. Trans activists have suggested a similar approach to allow for trans people who want access to medical treatments, without pathologizing them (eg. Krieg 2013).

Another similarity between queer, trans, and disabled experiences that I want to discuss is the reaction heterosexual, cisgendered, and able-bodied people can have to queer/trans/disabled people. Queer theory argues that queer and trans people aren’t seen as “properly” gendered, for instance with gay men being seen as overly feminine and trans women not being seen as real women because of the genitalia they had at birth (eg. Butler 1990). Somewhat similarly, disabled people are often not seen as “real men” or “real women” (Malmberg 2012). Disabled women are for instance often seen as “un-gendered”, not proper women, and somehow unclean/impure. Researcher Denise Malmberg furthermore points out that disabled people are often harassed in different ways for deviating from the norm:

The deviation, the otherness, seems to stir a fascination that is built on a tension between attraction and dread, threat and fear, and also contempt. (…) There is fear of being afflicted with or contaminated by the life of a physically disabled person, a life that is seen as so miserable and poor that it is hardly worth living. (Malmberg 2012, 209)

This is very similar to a point trans scholar Susan Stryker makes; that part of the reason why people despise trans people so much, and call them unnatural etc, is that trans people make them question boundaries of sex and gender. As she puts it, cis people are inclined to reject trans people as monsters to avoid accepting that trans people could make them notice the “constructedness of the natural order.” (1994, 250) If they were to accept the “constructedness” of the gender order, they might notice that they too have “seems and sutures”, just as the trans people they call Frankenstein’s monster (ibid, 241).

Analysis- the ferry scene

The first scene I would like to analyse is the scene where Lyra is travelling by ferry from Brytain to the Dutch coast, and she’s accosted by a man who asks her where her daemon is. She tries to say that her daemon is not feeling well and is just inside of her coat, but the man won’t let up. Both the man and his daemon are visibly upset at her just being there, and he starts harassing her louder and louder. Some of the things he says are:

‘You shouldn’t be in a public place in the state you are. There’s something the matter with you. Something not right.’ (…)

‘She hasn’t got a daemon! I keep telling her, it’s not right to come out in public like that, there’s something badly wrong-’

(Pullman 2019, 336)

Here he also gets other people involved, yelling to them about how something is wrong with Lyra. The scene continues with the man saying:

‘People with that degree of disfigurement ought to keep out of public view,’ he said, and his daemon howled again. ‘Look at the way you’re frightening people. Not fit to be seen in public. There are places for people like you to stay…’

A child was beginning to cry, and his mother picked him up ostentatiously, holding his coat clear of Lyra’s rucksack as if it was tainted. (Pullman 2019, 337)

Eventually, of course, a group of Welsh miners intervene and get Lyra out of the situation. But we can here clearly see the way someone with some sort of bodily difference can be harassed in public, with this man saying that she’s wrong to even subject others to her “disfigurement.” This quote reminded me very clearly of laws that have existed in our world about which people are allowed to appear in public. One example of this is the very harsh laws that existed in San Fransisco in the 19th century that prohibited, among other things, cross-dressing in public. The full text stated that:

If any person shall appear in a public place in a state of nudity, or in a dress not belonging to his or her sex, or in an indecent or lewd dress, or shall make any indecent exposure of his or her person, or be guilty of any lewd or indecent act or behavior, or shall exhibit or perform any indecent, immoral or lewd play, or other representation, he should be guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction, shall pay a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars (Revised Orders 1863, quoted in Sears 2008, 171).

Note here that appearing in a “dress not belonging to his or her sex” is seen as the same type of indecency as being nude in public or indecent exposure.  As Sears notes, this law was used as a flexible tool to target a variety of gender transgressions, including but not limited to people who might identity as trans today. The laws at this time also prohibited “anyone who was ‘diseased, maimed, mutilated,’ or an otherwise ‘unsightly or disgusting object’ from appearing in public (General Orders 1869)” (Sears 2008, 174). This is very similar to the way the man on the ferry argues that Lyra should not be in public because her “disfigurement” frightens other people. The mother who removes her child and makes sure the child’s coat doesn’t touch Lyra’s rucksack also reminds me of how queer and disabled people might be seen as disgusting, and people might act as if they’re contagious.

I think the clearest parallel here is to how people might act toward disabled people, but I do also think there’s a gender/sexuality aspect to consider. Similarly to how queer theory argues that society doesn’t see queer or trans people as “real” men/women if they don’t have the “correct” gender expression, body morphology, and desire, people in Lyra’s world seem to think you’re “incomplete” if you don’t have a daemon. Daemons are also somewhat connected to sexuality in that they’re connected to Dust and therefore sin. There’s also the aspect to consider that they’re usually (but not always) the “opposite sex” from their human, which seems to imply some sort of balance of masculine and feminine that doesn’t exist if you lack your daemon. There is some sort of queer feel to Lyra lacking a daemon, and it upsets other people. Perhaps one could even argue that the anger and disgust they express is similar to what Stryker describes that trans people have to face for “disrupting” the boundaries of sex/gender. In this case Lyra shows that humans don’t have to always be attached to their daemons, you can exist apart from them, which upsets people who thought that humans and daemons (similarly to sex and gender) always come as a set. Now, this is clearly not a perfect parallel, but I think that the feelings this “wrongness” and “incompleteness” create among other people is similar.

Another aspect of this scene that I want to consider is how marginalised people have to navigate the risk of being harassed when out in public. After this situation, and discussing it with the miners she meets, Lyra takes more precautions when moving through public spaces. This reminds me of how queer, trans, and disabled people might act. Researchers have for instance noted that trans people who utilise public transport might create different strategies to avoid harassment, or to deal with it if it arises (Lubitow, Carathers, Kelly & Abelson 2017). Trans people who are harassed in public often report that the reason that they’re targeted is their visible transness, while those who are less often harassed generally attribute this to their relative normative gender expression. Therefore, some people attempt to look more normatively male/female, especially in public to avoid notice and therefore harassment. What experience someone has is often also impacted by other social categories, such as race, which this person explains when retelling an event:

She asks me [my gender] … I was like, ‘Oh, um … I’m a girl.’ Then, all of a sudden, it’s done, it’s done … I can see that she’s gotta get away from me because now I’m something that she totally doesn’t understand …. And sometimes if you’re stuck on a bus and the bus driver has watched you [talk with this person] and all of a sudden they’re clamming up and freaking out and they’re moved to the other side of the bus in fear … then everyone else is looking and everyone else who hasn’t been paying attention … is now trying to figure out what’s going on and all that they see is this giant non-normative – what looks like a black guy – intimidating this tiny old white lady. (quoted in Lubitow et al. 2017, 1406)

Here again we see this fear of the unknown, and wanting to get away from it, which was prevalent in the scene in The Secret Commonwealth. In their article, Lubitow et al. also notes that disabled trans people might be targeted both for being disabled and trans when traveling in public, for instance by not letting them have their seat even if they’re using a crutch, and instead harassing them about their gender. Trans people might have different strategies to avoid or deal with this harassment, from dressing in a way to not get noticed, to deliberately choosing travel routs that they deem safer, to even not getting off at the correct stop to avoid people figuring out where they live. This latter part is of course also similar to how women might approach public spaces when fearing violence, with many restricting their movement through public space (Sandberg & Tollefsen 2010). Restricting one’s movement in such a way can be described as geography being affected by fear, social space becomes less open and free for those who fear violence in it. As Sandberg and Tollefsen notes, researchers of this geography of fear have noted that this fear is related to gendered power dynamics as well as other power dynamics such as race (and disability, I would add). In this scene in The Secret Commonwealth, we see how Lyra has to learn how to navigate these power dynamics in a new way after her separation from Pan.

Analysis- finding community in Prague

The next scene I want to consider is when Lyra arrives in Prague and meets Vaclav Kubiček, another man without a daemon. When meeting him Lyra expresses how it’s been both a shock and a relief to find out that there are other people like her, that she’s not alone (Pullman 2019, 405). This passage of their conversation stands out to me:

‘I had no idea,’ she said again. ‘I knew nothing of this way of being. I was sure people would see it at once and hate me for it. Some did, in fact.’

‘We have all experienced that.’

Here Lyra and Kubiček bond over their similar experiences of being different and being marginalised. This reminds me a lot of how queer people might experience meeting other queer people, realising that there are others like oneself, and finding community in that. Now, this is of course true to a certain degree for many marginalised communities. But the part Lyra says about not knowing anything “of this way of being” specifically reminded me of a queer person finding that other people like them exist, perhaps reading a book or looking online and finding out that other people share their experiences and have a name for it (“gay”, “bi”, “queer”, “trans”, etc). To later find a physical community, a queer or trans space, can also be incredibly powerful. Many describe such queer spaces as extremely valuable as an escape from “the gendered logics of everyday which determine what a body should or should not do, what a body should or should not look like, and where a body should or should not go.” (Rooke 2010, 665) Lyra’s experience with Kubiček very much reminds me of that, of her finding someone she can be open with and relate to. Lyra also learns from Kubiček that:

‘There are some of us in Prague. A small number. We met by chance, or by hearing about one another from those who are not afraid of us- we do have a few friends- and we have discovered other networks of acquaintanceship in other places. It is a secret society, if you like. If you tell me where you are going next, I can give you the names and addresses of some people like us in that place. They will understand and help if you need it.’ (Pullman 2019, 405)

This sort of resource sharing and network building exist in many types of marginalised communities, but I here want to compare it to some early trans communities. One such example is the network that the American trans woman Louise Lawrence developed in the 1940s (Stryker 2008, 44). By placing personal ads in newspapers and contacting people who had been arrested for crimes such as cross-dressing, Lawrence had created a correspondent network with trans people from across the world. Her home in Northern California also became a way station for American trans people who sought medical procedures in San Francisco. This sort of support network very much reminds me of the one that the daemon-less people in Lyra’s world have set up, with contacts in different cities to call upon. There are of course parallels here to other networks that other marginalised groups utilise, and I by no means intend to imply that only queer and trans communities function in this way. But reading the passage from The Secret Commonwealth, this was the parallel that struck me the hardest.

Analysis- the train scene

The last scene I want to discuss is the scene when Lyra is assaulted by soldiers on the train when travelling to Seleukeia. I know many people dislike this scene and think it’s unnecessary, or unnecessarily detailed, something that for instance Girls Gone Canon cover in their episode about The Secret Commonwealth that they did with The Dark Materials Podcast and Her Dark Materials (2020). I’m inclined to agree with that and will discuss that later, but I first want to analyse the scene as an instance of violence toward a marginalised person. It is noted that the soldiers that Lyra meets are suspicious and angry about her lack of daemon, speaking about her “with an air of superstitious hatred.” (Pullman 2019, 632) Not too long afterward, they attack her, sexually assaulting her, and attempting to rape her. Lyra fights back, and eventually the sergeant in charge hears the commotion and intervenes. Later Lyra gets help with her injuries by the officer in charge, who attempts to pass on some “wisdom” to her, saying:

‘Well, if you ride on a train with soldiers, you must expect a little discomfort.’

‘I have a ticket that permits me to ride this train. It does not say that the journey includes assault and attempted rape. Do you expect your soldiers to behave like that?

‘No, and they will be punished. But I repeat, it is not wise for a young woman to travel alone in the present circumstances. (Pullman 2019, 640)

Later their conversation continues with the officer saying:

‘A little advice,’ he said as he helped her stiffly down on to the platform.

‘Well?’

‘Wear a niqab,’ he said. ‘It will help.’

‘I see. Thank you. It would be better for everyone if you disciplined your soldiers.’ (…)

‘You are probably right. They are trash. Seleukeia is a difficult city. Do not stay here long. There will be more soldiers arriving by other trains. Better move on soon.’ (Pullman 2019, 642)

Now, there are obvious gendered aspects to this situation, with the officer talking about Lyra being a target for sexual violence because she’s a woman. I would, however, also argue that she’s being targeted because she’s a daemon-less woman. Earlier in this essay I have argued that the harassment Lyra meets is similar to that which queer and disabled people might face, and that seems to be the case here too. As many researchers have pointed out, queer and gender nonconforming people are often targeted by violence, including sexual violence (eg. Halberstam 2005). As Halberstam puts it, people often think that “gender nonconformity must be corrected through the enforcement of heterosexuality” (2005, 66). Halberstam here specifically discusses the case of Brandon Teena, who was raped and later murdered for being trans, but it also works as broad statement on how society views gender nonconformity. Lyra, who is queer in the eyes of society for not having a daemon must be punished and corrected by forced heterosexuality.

Another read of the situation is to focus on how being daemon-less is similar to having a disability, and how disabled women can be targets of sexual violence. I mentioned earlier how disabled women are can be seen as non-gendered, sometimes being assumed to be asexual because people either infantilise them or objectify them (Malmberg 2012). The objectification can lead to these women being reduced to their disability or objects connected to their disability, such as a wheelchair. This all combined leads to some people assuming that no one would want to have sex with a disabled women, and that they therefore can’t be sexually assaulted, alternatively: “The objectification of a disabled woman constructs a ‘logic’ accor­ding to which the perpetrator does not violate or assault a human being, but an object, a ‘thing’.” (Malmberg 2012, 206) This latter explanation, that these people don’t see disabled women as human beings, feels more in line to what happens to Lyra. These soldiers don’t see her as a human being since she doesn’t have a daemon, and therefore think they can do what they want with her.

No matter if you go with the trans/queer explanation or the disability one, I think it’s clear that these soldiers dehumanise Lyra because of her lack of daemon, and therefore attack her. In that way, it’s very similar to the scene on the ferry, but even more violent and with added sexual violence. So, why the need for this scene? As I mentioned earlier, many people think this scene is unnecessary and/or unnecessarily descriptive. In my opinion, it doesn’t really provide much more than the ferry scene besides upping the stakes even more. Perhaps that’s the purpose of it, to heighten the tension for the last part of the book. I do, however, believe that could’ve been done without this level of sexual violence. However, I can’t shake the feeling that Pullman (consciously or subconsciously) felt like Lyra should be in more danger in the East than in the West, and that’s part of the reason he added this scene. That Lyra is in more danger here specifically is indicated by the officer saying that these soldiers are trash, that this is a dangerous area to travel through at present, and especially by his suggestion that she wear a Niqab. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the Niqab and other veils are often seen as symbolic of the oppression of women, even if women themselves often do not see it that way. That “the East” is more patriarchal is a view long held in Western countries and is used to legitimise colonial and neo-colonial invasions. In my opinion, this scene in The Secret Commonwealth plays right into that idea.

Conclusion

In this essay I have attempted to show that living without a daemon in Lyra’s world is in some ways similar to navigating our world as queer or disabled. However, as I hope has been clear, it is of course not an exact parallel. Nonetheless, there are similarities in how daemon-less people are seen as disgusting, scary, unnatural, etc, and treated as such. Lyra has to learn how to navigate this hostile world, much as a queer or disabled person might. But she also realises that she’s not alone, and that there is a community out there who will help her on her way. In Lyra’s journey in The Secret Commonwealth, Pullman manages to describe the experience of moving through the world as a marginalised person very well. I might dislike parts of how he does this, especially the train scene, but he does capture a lot of it surprisingly well. I wish Lyra all the best in her future travels and hope she can find even more support and community on her way. There are a lot of us queer folk out there.

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