Visualizing the Soul in His Dark Materials
If you could see your soul, what would it look like? The HBO series His Dark Materials explores this idea in unique fashion: in a fantasy world that looks much like our own, every person is born with an animal companion attached to their literal soul. These daemons, as they are called, are physical manifestations of a person’s inner being and never leave their human’s side.
The story largely follows Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen), a young orphan, and her daemon Pantalaimon (aka Pan). Pan and Lyra are, essentially, one. The form Pan takes directly reflects Lyra’s personality, even cycling through different shapes depending on her emotional state: a mouse when afraid, a wildcat when bold. The fairly flawless visual effects give Pan and the other daemons a physical reality and a psychological depth. From the softness of his fur to his facial expressions and bodily movements, Pan feels as real as Lyra.
The world of His Dark Materials is based on the book trilogy of the same name by Philip Pullman, renowned for his anti-religious and specifically anti-Christian sentiments. It’s curious, then, that he has crafted a world of humans and souls that, in some ways, aligns with biblical theology.
In the New Testament, the Greek word for soul is used in passages like 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and Hebrews 4:12 to highlight the fact that we are more than just a body and a brain. According to Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland, the soul in Scripture “is a substantial, unified reality that informs (and gives form to) its body.” It's said to be the ultimate animating principle by which we think and feel. It’s a vital and natural life force—an élan vital—but, significantly, it exists independent of the body.
Similarly, in His Dark Materials, daemons exist as separate entities with distinct personalities from their counterparts. Lyra’s daemon, Pantalaimon, is a voice of reason, constantly tempering Lyra’s brashness. The daemons of adults, in contrast, often represent a darker internal state. The powerful religious rulers, known collectively as the Magisterium, have sinister daemons. The cardinal has a hornet, whose stinger flashes every time he threatens someone. By far the most disturbing character in the show is Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), whose golden-haired monkey functions as a manifestation of her pent-up rage.
Early on in the narrative, Lyra and Mrs. Coulter have a hostile confrontation. The woman smiles at the child, while repeatedly stating, “I’m not mad.” But immediately thereafter, her golden-haired monkey flies across the room and assaults Pan. Mrs. Coulter stands frozen, her eyes menacing, and an eerie smile on her face. All the while, Pan is viciously beaten and strangled. Lyra, likewise, shakes on the ground in pain. Because to hurt a daemon is to hurt its human.
Watching this scene I thought, “This is exactly what we, as humans, are like.” We say one thing, but inwardly our soul rages. We speak friendship, yet our heart holds only hate. Even worse, we often feel content to live in this inward tension. But, I wonder, if our souls stood manifest in front of us, much like a predatory animal, would we feel the pangs of conviction a bit stronger?
If you could see your soul, what would it look like?
As Christians, we’re called to reflect on our souls. To visualize our unrepentant soul—our natural, unregenerate self—is a necessary process in our spiritual journey of conviction, confession, and transformation. The mirror that we use to see our soul is not a physical animal, but rather the Holy Spirit. And we make ourselves attuned to the Spirit’s guiding through practices like prayer and reading the Bible. The Spirit helps us see our sin and enables us to grow and change.
The question of soul transformation, however, is what ultimately separates the biblical ideal from His Dark Materials. Influenced by Socrates’ discussion of daemons and Greek mythology, Pullman’s creatures settle into one permanent form when children reach adulthood. Pan, for example, eventually settles as a pine marten, a creature similar to a squirrel. There is a rigidity to the daemons in this fantasy world; once you become an adult, your daemon (and hence your inner being) will never change. Moreover, a daemon settles into its final form without guidance or influence from its human. In this way, daemons assert more control over their humans, leaving no room for spiritual growth.
His Dark Materials offers a vision of earthly beings who are mastered by inner forces outside of their own control. The choice to represent a human soul via animals is also telling, considering that animals don’t bear the image of God. The daemon as a symbol of the human soul reflects Pullman’s desire to craft a more animalistic understanding of being, one that is void of a spiritual dimension, one that simply returns to dust when destroyed.
Nevertheless, Pullman’s visualization of the soul provides a useful point of reflection for Christians. The truth is, we all have a daemon. In our far less magical universe, our soul doesn’t walk around like a talking animal, but it still manifests itself in the ways we speak and behave. Whether we find ourselves surprised by the things we do or we know exactly what our motives are, we can each consider the state of our soul, and the ways it’s reflected in our lives.