How does Philip Pullman treat human relationships in the His Dark Materials trilogy?
In an interview Pullman said, "what I've tried to do is use the apparatus of fantasy to say something that I think is true about human psychology" (Avnet). He did not simply want to write a 'quest story', which is how he sees Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings; he wanted to write about "being a human being" (Avnet). Pullman often talks of his preference for realist texts rather than fantasy texts for this reason. He wants to write about characters and how they interact, rather than a quest for a magical object. Pullman investigates many human emotions and relationships within the trilogy. He looks at friendship, and betrayals of that friendship; familial relationships, and the failure of some people to be good parents; and romantic love and sex, which he has to deal with in a way sensitive to his wide readership, which spans from young children to adults. Most of these relationships are explored through the central character, Lyra. She reaches puberty within the book, and throughout the story, she sees things that she does not always understand. However, her learning process ends with her falling in love herself a 'temptation' tantamount to the tempting of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Throughout the trilogy, complex relationships and friendships are important, as is the loyalty and betrayal that sometimes come with them. In another interview Pullman says, "Why shouldn't a work of fantasy be as truthful and profound about becoming a human being as the work of George Eliot or Jane Austen?" and he attempts this task in His Dark Materials (Achuka).
In Northern Lights, a relationship central to the entire book is the friendship between Lyra and Roger "the kitchen boy who was her particular friend" (NL, 35). At the beginning of the book, they are shown playing and having 'adventures' of the type one might expect in a traditional children's story. They play on the roof of their home, Jordan College and explore other forbidden areas, such as the basements and cellars of the college, once getting drunk, another time inducing nightmares by playing with the skulls of dead scholars. Roger has a fierce loyalty to Lyra, at one point Pullman says "He would have followed her to the ends of the earth" (NL, 44). She often seems to lead him into trouble. It is he who questions whether they should drink the wine in the basement, and whether they should touch the skulls of the scholars (NL, 45, 47). It seems that Lyra is always the leader and that he would do anything she tells him. Yet sometimes, the reader sees Roger take control. For instance, once they find an injured rook on the roof of the college, Lyra says: "I was going to kill it and roast it but Roger said we should help it get better" (NL, 38). So, sometimes Roger, who appears to be the weaker friend, takes control and shows Lyra the right and compassionate way to act. He is not simply the follower he may seem to be at a first reading of their relationship. This is shown again by the fact that it is Lyra who follows him to 'the ends of the earth' when she discovers that he has been abducted.
Lyra makes it her quest to save Roger from the 'gobblers' and she follows the trail, with the 'gyptians' to the far North and Bolvangar, where children are being 'severed' from their daemons, a practice equivalent to having their souls cut away. Lyra is successful in finding Roger and releasing the children. However, she takes him on with her to find her father, Lord Asriel. After this, Pullman entitles a whole chapter 'Betrayal'. Lyra feels immense emotion when she realises that she has provided Asriel with Roger, who he will 'sever' to provide the energy her needs to connect with the new world:
Oh, the bitter anguish! She had thought she was saving Roger, and all the time she was diligently working to betray him�
Lyra shook and sobbed in a frenzy of emotion. It couldn't be true. (NL, 311)
Pullman's use of vocabulary shows feelings of huge gravity in the child. The words 'anguish' and 'frenzy' are particularly evocative and show how strong Lyra's love is for Roger. For Pullman, friendships are intense and important. Indeed, in The Amber Spyglass, Lyra goes even further to rescue Roger. After being haunted by his words in drug-fuelled dreams, Lyra searches for the world of the dead with Will. She goes through incredible pain and deserts her daemon Pantalaimon to try and make amends to Roger. This, of course is another betrayal. However, although Pan seems to be a separate entity to her, Lyra is in fact betraying herself and causing herself pain, which she sees as necessary, as her loyalty to her childhood friend demands that she do anything it takes to help him.
The relationship between the characters and their daemons is very complex. Of course, in some ways it is strange to describe it as a relationship at all. The daemons are a part of the human, as Lyra says: "Your daemon en't separate from you. It's you. A part of you. You're part of each other" (SK, 350). However, Pantalaimon, the golden monkey and the other characters daemons do seem to be distinct characters in the story, especially Pan, who is always very prominent as Lyra's companion. To begin with, he almost seems to be a 'Jiminy Cricket' conscience, telling Lyra when he feels that things are dangerous. In the first few pages, Lyra sneaks into the 'retiring room', against Pan's protestations. Soon she finds herself trapped there, at which point Pan says: "We're going to have to stay here now. Why don't you listen to me?" (NL, 12). However, Pan, and all the characters daemons fulfil a much more important role that simply being a conscience. This is shown when Lyra has to leave Pan on her way to the land of the dead. "No Lyra thought, and Pantalaimon though with her: We didn't go through Bolvangar for this, no; how will we ever find each other again?" (AS, 824). However, even though they are both experiencing huge amount of pain, they are both of the same mind about the necessity of what they are about to do.
And he knew that if he spoke, she wouldn't be able to resist; so the daemon kept himself quiet so as not to distress the human who was abandoning him, and now they were both pretending that it wouldn't hurt, it wouldn't be long before they were together again, it was all for the best. But Will knew that the little girl was tearing her heart out of her breast (AS, 826)
They both feel exactly the same way because, of course, they are both parts of the same person. Pan is described as Lyra's "heart's companion" and her "dear one" (AS, 824-5). This use of the language of romantic love shows the huge amount of feeling between a person and their daemon. There is no vocabulary in this world's language to properly evoke the feelings towards a daemon, as none of us, not even Pullman can ever know what it feels like. However, he uses the vocabulary of the most intense love and passion to try and show the pain when your daemon is torn away.
Lyra's intense feelings for Pantalaimon are obviously greater than the feelings she has for her friends but Lyra's loyalty to her friends is shown again in her relationship with Iorek Byrnison. Pullman writes of their friendship: "Having met the bear, and heard his voice, and seeing how powerful and impressive he was, it was natural that Lyra would fall in love with him, in her girlish way" (Carter, 190). When Lyra first meets him, she is shocked and scared: "She felt a bolt of cold fear strike at her, because he was so massive and alien" (NL, 163). However, she does not run away, Pan pulls her towards Iorek to talk to him even though Lyra is frightened. Although bears are not supposed to feel human emotions, Iorek has a lot of respect for Lyra, which is shown by the way he renames her Lyra Silvertongue after her tricking of Iofur Raknison (NL, 285). Indeed, there is evidence that bears do make lasting friendships and also have enemies, although to bears friendships are about honour and debts to be repaid, rather than love. This is shown by the friendship between Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison, who had fought together in wars before the trilogy began. Iorek makes a kind of pilgrimage to Lee's body when he hears of his death. He has business on his own world, as the king of his people, yet he travels into another world to see Lee. Pullman tries to make his human readers understand the ways of bears when Iorek reaches Lee's body:
And because the Texan aeronaut was one of the very few humans Iorek had ever esteemed, he accepted the man's last gift to him. With deft movements of his claws, he ripped aside the dead man's clothes, opened the body with one slash, and began to feast on the flesh and blood of his old friend. It was his first meal for days and he was hungry. (AS, 631)
This will seem alien and even repulsive to Pullman's readers, but it is presented as an act of respect and even friendship. Pullman shows that the bears have their own customs and ideology, but it is not necessarily wrong, only different. The readers who have learnt to love and respect the character of Iorek throughout the three books will see that although bears emotions are very different from those of humans, they are not wrong.
Pullman often uses other types of beings to explain how different people can feel emotions differently. This is shown by his depiction of the witches. The fact that witches are much older than humans, and therefore often much wiser, is clearly shown throughout the trilogy. Farder Coram, possible the oldest and wisest human in the books, even has to go to a witch for help. Pullman writes: "Ruta Skadi was four hundred and sixteen years old, with all the pride and knowledge of an adult witch-queen. She was wiser by far than any short-lived human" (SK, 442). The witches are enchanting, almost like the Sirens of ancient mythology. When Serafina Pekkala goes to see Asriel's manservant Pullman writes "Thorold was an elderly man, but he was healthy and vigorous, and he felt flattered by the attention of this young witch and her beauty, as any man would" (SK, 365). Any man, it seems, it vulnerable to the seductive power of the witches. Love and loyalty are very powerful concepts to the witches. Farder Coram goes to Serafina Pekkala for help because there is history between them and Ruta Skadi goes to help Asriel because he was once her lover (NL, 139-140; SK, 370). However, it is not just loyalty that has a hold over the witches, Juta Kamainem shows that the vengeance a witch can desire after being turned down by a man is vicious and deadly. When Will asks why she killed his father, she replies, "Because I loved him and he scorned me! I am a witch! I don't forgive" (SK, 586). It is here that the 'wisdom' of the witches comes into question. For all her knowledge of the world and experience, Will, an innocent child, seems to be wiser. As a child, he cannot understand the intensity of her love and cannot see why she would have to kill his father.