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The Persistence of Character

Character in Young Adult fiction: The example of Lyra in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (1995-2000) and The Book of Dust (2017- )

Virginie DOUGLAS


Peu d’études se penchent sur la question des personnages et la spécificité de leur traitement en littérature pour la jeunesse. Pourtant, la construction du personnage est d’autant plus importante dans les romans pour enfants et adolescents qu’une grande partie de ces livres se concentre sur le Bildung et le développement personnel à travers l’exploration de la transition entre l’enfance et la maturité.
Cet article étudie le traitement des personnages dans les livres young adult grâce à une étude de cas, celle de la jeune Lyra, la nouvelle Ève de Philip Pullman dans la trilogie de fantasy His Dark Materials (1995-2000). D’une part, le traitement du personnage de Lyra s’inscrit dans une tradition romanesque plutôt conventionnelle à plusieurs égards. Mais d’autre part, il bénéficie également d’éléments plus novateurs liés aux possibilités offertes par la fantasy, un genre dont la popularité auprès des jeunes ne dément pas. Les Daemons sont par exemple, dans le monde à la fois familier et différent de Lyra, des créatures animales étroitement liées à leurs homologues humains qui révèlent la nature profonde de leur propriétaire tout en jouant le rôle protecteur d’animaux totémiques. Cette métaphore est l’un des dispositifs de la trilogie, avec l’aléthiomètre (un lecteur de symboles semblable à une boussole), par lesquels le personnage de Lyra se révèle au lecteur.
Le fait que l’œuvre de Pullman relève de la fiction young adult (pour les grands adolescents) est également essentiel. Cette littérature, qui s’adresse à une classe d’âge liminale dont les frontières sont de plus en plus floues, fragmente à l’infini l’évolution de ses jeunes personnages en les suivant pas à pas vers l’âge adulte, comme pour mieux disséquer les mutations et métamorphoses de l’adolescence. Même si His Dark Materials identifie la puberté comme un tournant dans le processus de croissance et de construction identitaire des jeunes protagonistes, il est significatif que Pullman, qui avait déjà ajouté un petit livre – intitulé Lyra’s Oxford – à l’univers littéraire de la trilogie, tente encore d’explorer les multiples dimensions du personnage en perpétuelle mutation de Lyra : alors que le livre 1 de The Book of Dust, la nouvelle trilogie de Pullman, La Belle Sauvage (2017), est une préquelle de His Dark Materials, qui se concentre sur Lyra bébé, avant que l’action de Northern Lights ne se déroule, le livre 2, The Secret Commonwealth (2019), s’intéresse de plus près à Lyra une fois qu’elle est devenue une jeune femme, après sa rencontre avec Will dans His Dark Materials.

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  • 1 The third book in the second trilogy is still unpublished but might come out in 2024.
  • 2 For a discussion of the link between neo-Victorian fantasy and character, see Caroline Duvezin-Caub (...)

1In this article, I intend to address the question of the specificity of character in contemporary children’s and young adult literature. The treatment of character will be examined through a case study of a turn-of-the century publishing phenomenon, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy (1995-2000) and, to a lesser extent, of the ongoing related trilogy, The Book of Dust (2017-19).1 His Dark Materials focuses on two young protagonists—preteen, then teen, Lyra and Will, who live in parallel universes, meet once they find ways of travelling from one world to another, and eventually fall in love before returning to their own worlds. The trilogy clearly belongs to the genre of high fantasy, since it involves several universes and peoples (the witches, the armoured bears…) and fights or wars in which these different peoples take part. Both children are from Oxford, but the theocratic society Lyra lives in is an alternative version of the primary world we know, a blend of steampunk, dystopia, and uchronia, while Will’s is similar to the realistic world readers are familiar with.2 The character I will concentrate on is young Lyra, who plays the part of a new Eve in His Dark Materials when she discovers several other worlds and meets Will around the age of twelve. The trilogy is a rewriting of the Biblical Fall and especially of John Milton’s rewriting of it in Paradise Lost, combined with the pervasive reference to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. The first book focuses on Lyra, the second on Will, and the third on their re-enactment of the original sin; but in spite of this apparent gender balance, several commentators have shown that Lyra is the real heroine of the story.

  • 3 On this particular neologism and the relationship between different types of novel expansion, see P (...)

2Even if His Dark Materials identified puberty as a turning point in the young protagonists’ process of growing up and construction of identity, it is significant that Pullman, who had already added a small companion book, entitled Lyra’s Oxford, to the trilogy’s literary universe, is still trying to explore the multiple dimensions of Lyra’s constantly shifting character by coming back to it again and again. Book 1 of Pullman’s new trilogy The Book of Dust, La Belle Sauvage (2017), is a prequel to His Dark Materials which focuses on Lyra as a baby—before the action in Northern Lights takes place. In contrast, book 2, The Secret Commonwealth (2019), takes a closer look at Lyra once she has become a young woman, a twenty-year-old student, after her meeting with Will in His Dark Materials. Taking the books of the new trilogy collectively rather than individually, Philip Pullman famously termed the new cycle an “equel” rather than a prequel or a sequel (Pullman, “His Dark Materials…”).3 Although the first two instalments of the new trilogy do not move between the worlds as His Dark Materials did, since they take place in Lyra’s world, the links that connect the two cycles, in addition to the pivotal character of Lyra, seem to be the concepts of Dust and daemons.

  • 4 His Dark Materials was adapted for the stage by Nicholas Wright, National Theatre, London, 2003-200 (...)
  • 5 Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage. Adapted by Briony Lavery and directed by Nicho (...)

3Although in the space of this article I will mainly focus on the literary dimension of this publication phenomenon, it is worth bearing in mind the unprecedented expansion of fictional worlds and ensuing development of seriality and multimodality of turn-of-the-century children’s and young adult literature (Saint-Gelais ; Besson, Constellations). Pullman has explored the same character, Lyra, over and over again through different ages, different books and even cycles of books, but he has subsequently agreed to hand over the treatment of his character to other creators working with different media: in addition to a very successful two-part London theatre adaptation of His Dark Materials (starting in 2003)4 and the film adaptation of the first book, The Golden Compass (2007), there was an audiobook version, a radio dramatisation, a graphic novel rewriting by French authors, Stéphane Melchior-Durant and Clément Oubrerie, which has now been translated into English, as well as various tie-in products like video-games. The three-season BBC 1/HBO series His Dark Materials (November 2019-December 2022), has not only revived the interest in Pullman’s books, but experiments further with yet another representation and interpretation of the character of Lyra. For the second trilogy, adaptations are already under way with a theatre adaptation at Bridge Theatre, London.5 And Jane Tranter, the producer of the first TV series, has expressed her wish to adapt The Book of Dust for the small screen once the last book of the second trilogy is published.

4In this study, I can only scratch the surface of Pullman’s works, especially the first trilogy (His Dark Materials), focusing on a few significant elements about character: the question of age, the role of fantasy in characterisation, and the metaphorical dimension of character. The sheer length of the works connected with the character of Lyra would require a much more thorough, in-depth study (the cycle is over 2,500 pages long altogether for the two trilogies, and one remains to be completed). For this examination of character in young adult literature, I am indebted to children’s literature scholar Maria Nikolajeva and her book The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature (2002), which applies various theories of character to the particular case of children’s books, insisting on taking into account the specificities of children’s literature and reading:

[t]he issue of characters seems to be so self-evident that few studies of children’s literature have paid any attention to it. […] No theoretical work compares characters in general fiction and characters in fiction for children. (“Introduction”, Rhetoric vii)

5She adds that this is all the more inconsistent as “[t]he nature of children’s literature presupposes a different set of rules both for the authors’ creation of characters and for the readers’ understanding of them” (Rhetoric, ix). The very imbalance linked to the paradoxical status of children’s literature, its pertaining both to the child’s and to the adult worlds—in other words its double bind—justify a distinct approach to matters concerning narratology, including characterisation.

6My take on this question is that targeting a child or a young adult readership makes a difference insofar as characterisation is concerned, especially when the genre chosen is fantasy, and that the notion of character in children’s literature, as the next section explains, largely revolves around that of age, and is often highlighted through metaphorical devices.

1. The question of age in children’s literature: the complex publishing history of Pullman’s “Lyra books”

7It may seem a truism to say that the question of age is at the heart of children’s fiction. Children’s literature is the only kind of literature that is defined by the age of its readers; and whenever one tries to achieve as accurate as possible a definition for this highly elusive body of works whose only common point seems to be that it addresses readers under the age of 18 or so, what emerges among the recurrent features of these books is that they contain themes and motifs that showcase what could arguably be one definition of childhood—a state characterised by its mutability, its unsettledness and the transition it reveals from immaturity to maturity, which often involves the experience of power relationships with adults. Even titles are proof of the importance of age, especially in fiction for adolescents, from the American forerunners or pioneering works of young adult literature—Booth Tarkington’s Seventeen (1916), Maureen Daly’s Seventeenth Summer (1942), Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen (1956)—to recent works like Shannon Molloy’s Fourteen (2020). In his interviews and talks (many of which can now be found in the collection of essays Daemon Voices), Philip Pullman has not often been consistent as to the age group he addresses in his works; but I consider that between the first book of the initial trilogy and the second book of the second trilogy, the age of the addressees gradually shifts from pre-teens to young adults (older teenagers): the fact that many thirty-year-olds— former readers of His Dark Materials––actually read The Book of Dust makes no difference in the original address of the books.

  • 6 My translation of : « On pourrait précisément définir le récit initiatique comme un récit en attent (...)

8The construction of character is all the more significant in children’s and young adult fiction since a large part of these books focus on Bildung and personal growth through the exploration of the transition from childhood to maturity: this is why, to quote Nikolajeva again, “child characters are by definition dynamic, under development; they have not accomplished their psychological maturation yet” (Rhetoric x). This transience of character leads to a certain incompleteness of the Bildungsroman, a phenomenon defined by Xavier Garnier in terms of resistance to stability and accomplishment: “The initiation story could precisely be defined as a narrative awaiting a character, or rather as a narrative tending towards the emergence of a character” (Garnier 445).6 The fact that the mutability and unsettledness of childhood define this literature explains why children’s and young adult literature has always exploited the assets of seriality in an attempt to get as close as possible to the different stages in a child character’s evolution.

9Bildungsromane are part of the tradition of children’s literature; but significantly the turn-of-the century novels that have contributed to the “coming of age” of children’s literature as a genre (to take up Nikolajeva’s expression), such as the Harry Potter cycle (1997-2007) by J.K. Rowling or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (1995-2000), have taken the description of this transition from childhood to adulthood to the extreme, by breaking down this passage into a multitude of successive stages and thresholds, with a particular focus on the precise passage, symbolised by puberty, from pre-adolescence to adolescence. The fact that adolescence and young adulthood should strike a significant chord with society’s imagination around the turn of the century partly accounts for the success of Harry Potter and His Dark Materials then and now.

10In Philip Pullman’s two trilogies, it is interesting to notice the mention of the ages of the young protagonists—Lyra, Will, Malcolm, and Alice. In His Dark Materials, Lyra is twelve at the beginning, thirteen at the end of the trilogy; and so is Will. In La Belle Sauvage in The Book of Dust, Malcolm is eleven, one year younger than Lyra in Northern Lights, and he is reminiscent of Lyra’s pre-teen personality in several ways; and Alice, who escapes with Malcolm on his boat on the flooded river Thames to save baby Lyra, is fifteen, i.e. an older teenager. Overall, the ages represented through the various child protagonists are six months, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fifteen and twenty years old. It cannot be denied that there is a clear focus on puberty and the shift from pre-teen to teen characters, from innocence to experience, but the examination of young characters is pushed further by including the two extremes of childhood in the second trilogy: infancy and young adulthood. The impression created is that even though the intensity in transformation is reached around puberty, there is a continuity in the construction of the individual during childhood but also after it, a continuity that should be conveyed in the narrative in character development. To take up Andrea Immel, U.C. Knoepflmacher, and Julia Briggs’s words, “even after reaching puberty at the end of The Amber Spyglass, Lyra’s maturation will continue” (Immel & al. 240). This is exemplified, as these critics stress, by the fact that the novella Once upon a Time in the North, a companion book focusing on a secondary yet important character in Lyra’s story, Lee Scoresby, and his daemon Hester, and a prequel to His Dark Materials, ends with such extras for the reader as a board game, a fictitious newspaper article, two letters written by Lyra Silvertongue, and the certificate of her Master’s thesis: interestingly, while the novella itself is written about a much younger Lee Scoresby than he is in the first trilogy, and therefore clearly positions itself as a prequel to His Dark Materials, the additional material included at the end conjures up the continuity of the characters and their world. For Pullman, although growing up implies many changes, these transformations are to be seen in terms of a continuum rather than a breach.

  • 7 Starting two years after the publication of Northern Lights, the Harry Potter cycle was also going (...)

11The intricacies of the publication history of “the Lyra stories” account for Philip Pullman’s constant attempts at getting closer to the complexity of his young characters: the multiplication of books seeks to refine the reflection on age in connection with childhood. Although the expansion of fiction corresponds to a general tendency of fantasy and of young adult fiction nowadays, adding one book to another, and so on, is a way to explore Lyra’s character in ever greater detail, either through the honing of the character herself or through the world in which she evolves. The first trilogy, His Dark Materials, was already characterised by its seriality since the heroes’ passage from innocence to experience was broken down into three parts.7 Some time after The Amber Spyglass was published, Pullman announced he was working on a sequel entitled The Book of Dust. Finally, seventeen years after the publication of His Dark Materials, The Book of Dust turned out to be a new trilogy with the publication of La Belle Sauvage. Together with the three companion books, what could be called the “Lyra ensemble” is today made up of eight books.

2. The function of fantasy in characterisation

  • 8 “[T]he absence of parental authority allows the space that the fictive child needs for development (...)
  • 9 On the American context, see for example: Abate, M.A. (2008). Tomboys: A Literary and Cultural Hist (...)

12From one point of view, the treatment of the character of Lyra belongs to a rather conventional novelistic tradition in several respects. A couple of examples of this predictable characterisation spring to mind. Although it later turns out not to be the case, Lyra is described as an orphan at the beginning of the first trilogy. Her parents, Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter, are present and matter a great deal in the trilogy, but the reader learns that they have become estranged after she was born and have entrusted her upbringing and education to Oxford scholars. Orphanhood is a traditional way for children’s literature to get the adults out of the way and focus on the child/teen hero’s adventures and self-discovery.8 Another example showing a certain conventionality in characterisation is Lyra’s initial description as a tomboy, who explores Jordan College from the cellar to the roofs, or initiates fights between the children from the college (like her) and the townies. This is not a very innovative way of stressing Lyra’s agency, as tomboys have been a recurrent feature in the description of girls in children’s literature, especially pre-teen girls.9

  • 10 For a more general discussion of the relationship between fantasy and children's literature, see my (...)
  • 11 See for instance: Douglas, “Réalisme, fantasy, réalisme magique… » 220.

13But on the other hand, the treatment of the character of Lyra also benefits from more innovative elements related with the possibilities offered by fantasy, a genre which is still at the height of popularity with young adults.10 Fantasy, which is not a genre that immediately appealed to Pullman,11 was interesting for the use of metaphor it allows. Although he hates being compared with fellow fantasist C.S. Lewis, who published the Chronicles of Narnia in the 1950s, Pullman has something in common with him, in addition to the kind of fantasy he writes. This resemblance is the idea that you can choose a particular genre because it serves your purpose. According to Lewis’s famous essay, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said”, once the author has come up with the first few fragments of the story, the form that is most adequate imposes itself (what Lewis calls fairy tales actually correspond to fantasy). For Pullman, writing a cycle of fantasy novels when he had mainly written short fantasy novels or medium-length realistic ones so far served a purpose: exploring the human mind, and more particularly in this case, characterising a child on her journey through adolescence as best as possible. He explained in an interview that he “knew [His Dark Materials] was going to be big and ambitious and enable [him] to say things [he]’d never been able to say in any other form” (Carter 188). Paradoxically enough, Philip Pullman considers his fantasy writing as realistic, at least from a psychological point of view. He defiantly describes the trilogy His Dark Materials as “a work of stark realism” in the essay “The Path Through the Wood” (Daemon Voices 106).

14In another essay, significantly entitled “Writing fantasy realistically”, Philip Pullman states that he found out that “there was no reason why fantasy shouldn’t be realistic, in a psychological sense—and it was the lack of that sort of realism that [he] objected to in the work of the big Tolkien and all the little Tolkiens” (Daemon Voices 354). Such a statement calls one’s attention to the ambiguity of the term “realism”; but what Pullman means is that a character can “seem real”, be mimetic or consistent in psychological terms, even if the world in which (s)he belongs is not mimetic, as in the case of Lyra’s world, an alternative, uchronian version of the world we know. In children’s literature in general, the notion of a so-called psychological realism is also ambiguous insofar as it cannot help being very much tainted by the adult author’s vision of the child, so that children’s books generally offer strongly ideological representations of the child through character.

15Fantasy, for Pullman, is just a way to make abstract or subjective aspects, like philosophical notions or psychology, more accessible to the child reader. Nikolajeva considers that “[c]haracters in children’s fiction are not necessarily less complex, but they must be comprehensible for young readers” (Rhetoric x). In the first trilogy, for example, Dust in the Biblical sense represents consciousness and what is traditionally known as sin; but this Dust manifests itself through very palpable/visual physical phenomena, like the northern lights in the title of the first book, or bridges to other worlds. Fantasy, with its worlds, its magic objects and accessories, is a very visual genre, which allows a metaphorical representation that helps the child/teen reader visualise difficult notions.

16The fact that Pullman’s work belongs to young adult fiction is also essential. This literature targeting a liminal age group whose boundaries are increasingly blurred, fragments its young characters’ evolution ad infinitum by following them step by step towards adulthood as a way better to dissect the mutations and metamorphoses of adolescence. In the same way as the transition towards adulthood is materialised by the devices of Dust and daemons, the protagonists’ growing up in His Dark Materials is deeply anchored in space, from the Oxford of Lyra’s childhood to the North Pole in her early teens. It is significant that when they are faced with their own adolescent metamorphosis as they reach puberty, Lyra and Will start moving from one world to another thanks to Will’s ability to use the subtle knife (from the title of the second book), and these comings and goings between worlds are one of the main features of the first trilogy. As Colin Manlove notes, “[o]n one level Lyra travels across the world to find out what is going on; on another she expands outward in spirit, from the enclosed world of her childhood to the exposed world of the Arctic, and then beyond.” (189) Lyra has to cross the threshold to another world to meet Will in book 2 of His Dark Materials, as she will need to cross the threshold of puberty to become the New Eve of Pullman’s universe.

3. Pullman and the use of metaphor in characterisation

  • 12 The name Pantalaimon comes from the Greek and means “All merciful”. It is also very close to the na (...)

17Daemons are one of the devices fantasy offers in the trilogy, along with the alethiometer—a compass-like symbol-reader—, which contribute to characterisation. Lyra’s dæmon, in particular, is a narrative element through which her character is revealed to the reader. Daemons are animal creatures in Lyra’s familiar yet different world who are closely connected to their human counterparts and disclose their owners’ innermost nature while playing the protective part of totemic animals. They are both the embodiment of people’s inner selves and autonomous individuals (which is why each daemon has a name—Lyra’s is called Pan—short for Pantalaimon).12 This metaphor is especially striking as Pullman has prepubescent children’s daemons change shapes (thus showcasing the aforementioned unsettledness of childhood) while adults’ daemons remain fixed. They are also, in most cases, the opposite sex of their human companion. Lyra’s daemon, for instance, is a male creature, and he is a moth at the very beginning of the first novel, but changes into many other forms later, often that of an ermine, sometimes that of a wildcat or mouse or bird, and becomes fixed at the end of the trilogy as a pine marten, which is the form under which the readers meet him again in The Secret Commonwealth. Therefore, daemons are the materialisation of a person’s duality or complexity of character. Lyra often disagrees and even quarrels with her daemon, but these squabbles between the two different parts of the same character, which are expressed through dialogue, always end up in reconciliation in His Dark Materials and provide a more explicit rendering of a character’s inner uncertainties and conflicts.

18On some occasions, a daemon can reveal a character’s innermost feelings or thoughts, as the animal creature cannot hide its emotions as well as its human counterpart can. When Lyra innocently reveals to malevolent Mrs Coulter that she knows about some secrets she is not supposed to be aware of, it is the woman’s Golden monkey dæmon, through the violence of his reaction, which lets Lyra (or rather Pan) know how shocked she is (Northern Lights, 83-4). Daemons’ closeness to the Gothic double should be noted, even if, unlike Doppelgangers, they are generally not scary, except if their human companion is, as in the case of utterly evil Gérard Bonneville in La Belle Sauvage: people need to see his horrifying daemon, a three-legged hyena, to understand the man is not as friendly as he seems. In many ways, daemons embody the uncanny, by combining intrinsic yet opposed aspects within their owner. A character’s daemon provides a reassuring, familiar presence for the child character; and because it is an animal, usually a small one in the case of children, it is halfway between a faithful pet and a nice, cuddly soft toy. But at the same time, the character’s confrontation with a double that occasionally feels more other than same is akin to the anxiety and ambivalence of Freud’s concept of the uncanny (Unheimlich).

19Daemons are also a way to explore the notion of separation, which is part and parcel of growing up. A child’s separation from his/her daemon is shown to be unbearable for both, and a daemon cannot move more than a few metres away from his owner without excruciating pain, both physical and psychological. Such separation can either be imposed by others, or sometimes by circumstances. Occasionally, it is the reflection of the character’s loss of harmony with him/herself (as in the latest book, The Secret Commonwealth). In Northern Lights, separating a child from his/her daemon is carried out by an extremely malevolent branch of the Church (in an already theocratic society): the General Oblation Board (“oblation” because of the sacrifice the kidnapped children represent, but rumour has aptly transformed the initials G.O.B. into “gobblers”), performs an act of torture called intercision. After getting very close to experiencing the distressing process of intercision herself in Northern Lights, Lyra has to repeat the traumatising experience of separation of her own accord in The Amber Spyglass, which describes her terrifying descent to Hell with Will, a journey inspired by Virgil, Aeschylus or Dante, that obliges them to leave their daemons behind—the ultimate betrayal.

20With adults, separation from one’s daemon can be done deliberately, although it is very rare. Although their quarrels never last long in the first trilogy, Lyra and Pan become estranged in The Secret Commonwealth, because of their differences in opinion and perhaps also because since Lyra’s descent to Hell they have acquired the capacity to move around independently from each other. It is also in this instalment that Lyra realises some people learn how to become temporarily separated from their daemons if they need to. This excruciating experience is described in the journal found by Pan on a murdered man in Oxford: “This pain is agonising, almost indescribable, completely imperious and commanding. But it isn’t quite pain either any more. sA sort of heart-deep anguish and sorrow, a sickness, a fear, a despair almost unto death” (65). Paradoxically, learning how to control this existential suffering is empowering and goes hand in hand with the acquisition of maturity.

  • 13 To explore this aspect further, please refer to my article: « Storytelling and the Adult/Child Rela (...)

21In addition to describing the complexity of individual characters, daemons also describe the complexity and mutability of childhood, something Pullman acknowledged in an interview: “I realised that I could use the idea to symbolise the difference between the infinite plasticity, the infinite potentiality and mutability of childhood and the fixed nature of adulthood” (Carter, 190). This metaphor is especially efficient as the human/animal paradox exemplified by daemons also stands for the adult/child paradox that exists within each individual as well as in the author/reader relationship established in children’s literature—the double bind, or the quintessential paradox on which all children’s literature is based.13 Talking to one of the sailors on the ship taking her to the North in Northern Lights, Lyra explains she feels that constant change is an inherent part of her nature:

“Why do dæmons have to settle?” Lyra said. “I want Pantalaimon to change for ever. So does he.”
“Ah, they always have settled, and they always will. That’s part of growing up. There’ll come a time when you’ll be tired of his changing about, and you’ll want a settled kind of form for him.”
“I never will!”
“Oh, you will. You’ll want to grow up like all the other girls. Anyway, there’s compensations for a settled form.”
“What are they?”
“Knowing what kind of person you are.” (167)

22In this passage, Lyra’s refusal to grow up and to put an end to the constant process of metamorphosis she is undergoing is reminiscent of another famous children’s literature character, Peter Pan. It may not be fortuitous that the shortened name of Lyra’s daemon should be Pan. The difference is that for Lyra this reluctance to grow up is only temporary.

23Although in Lyra’s world, everybody has a daemon, the daemon part of a character is the one which is most obviously on the side of nature and wildness, and therefore of childhood, which explains the conflicts between Lyra and Pan in The Secret Commonwealth. Significantly the bond of the daemon with the child is less symbiotic when the child grows into an adolescent and then an adult. When she moves in with glamorous Mrs Coulter before realising how evil she is, Lyra is encouraged to become sexualised, therefore to grow up and to shift away from the daemon part inside her. In an episode when the woman gives Lyra a bath, Pan is made to feel shameful and estranged from Lyra:

Pantalaimon watched with powerful curiosity until Mrs Coulter looked at him, and he knew what she meant and turned away, averting his eyes modestly from these feminine mysteries […]. He had never had to look away from Lyra before. (Northern Lights, 78)

24Pan’s experience of being forbidden from sharing Lyra’s intimacy is based on the notion of gender as a barrier and is the first step towards sexualisation as a separateness that comes with adulthood, allowing one to become at odds with one’s true self.

4. From child character to child reader

25Lyra not only evolves away from what she starts from as a literary individual; she also evolves in accordance with the possible evolution of the reader outside the book. It is generally considered that the young reader—the child outside the book—shows more empathy than his elders in his/her response to the young character—the child inside the book—because their reading is unsophisticated. This is why the protagonist is usually a child or a teenager whom the reader might feel empathy for— if not necessarily identify with—or else a metaphorical equivalent for his/her disempowered status, for example a small animal. According to Nikolajeva,

[…] for child readers a difference in age between themselves and the characters may create insurmountable barriers. Empirical research shows that children prefer to read about characters of their own age or some years older. (The Rhetoric of Character, 7)

26This is what happens in His Dark Materials, where the child is present both as a pre-teen (then a teenager) with Lyra and Will, and as a metaphorical equivalent through their animal daemons.

  • 14 See for instance Besson, « À la croisée des mondes fictionnels », or Doucet, especially 278-284.

27The relationship between character and reader is all the more obvious in His Dark Materials as it has often been observed that Pullman’s trilogies offer metaphors of reading within the diegesis.14 Lyra is first seen as a rather uneducated child but education is a central theme in this trilogy as well as the next, and the girl will instinctively learn how to read the alethiometer, giving meaning to the symbols which allow her to know what is happening elsewhere or what will happen in the future. Lyra’s natural, intuitive interpretation of the alethiometer clearly suggests child reading, as opposed to a less innocent type of reading, adult reading. A few adults can read alethiometers, but they need many years of study to do so. In Daemon Voices (573), Pullman explained how he managed to ensure he engaged the young readership, deciding to begin and to end the first trilogy with the name Lyra: “I wanted to put my main character, Lyra, on the page as soon as possible. […] You want to engage the reader’s sympathy at once”. He also stresses Lyra’s centrality in an “Author’s note” at the beginning of The Secret Commonwealth, book 2 in The Book of Dust, pointing out that:

The central character, Lyra Silvertongue, once known as Lyra Belacqua, was also the protagonist of a previous trilogy, His Dark Materials: in fact her name was both the first word, and the last, in that work. (Commonwealth, vii)

28But it should be stressed that the young reader also participates in Lyra’s centrality.

  • 15 See in particular Eco’s theory of interpretation as a cooperation with the Model Reader (Eco, 1979/ (...)
  • 16 Translated from : “une figure de l’altérité qui fait de toute lecture une rencontre exemplaire.”

29Umberto Eco’s15 and Vincent Jouve’s theories concerning the reader’s role in approaching a certain fictional completeness, refining and appropriating what is hinted at in the diegesis, particularly applies to Pullman’s books. Vincent Jouve defines character as “a figure of otherness that makes any type of reading an exemplary encounter” (111).16 In La Belle Sauvage, the relationship between Malcolm and baby Lyra can be interpreted as that of the reader trying to decipher and understand a mysterious character. At that point Lyra is no longer the astonishing teenager of the first trilogy but a six-month-old infant who seems nothing more than a mouth to feed. But there is some sort of Cryptophasia, the esoteric language of twins, that already unites Lyra and her demon. This language, which is incomprehensible for other people, makes them the two parts of a unique character, calling for translation, in the same way as reading a text calls for interpretation.

30Throughout the Lyra ensemble, Pullman’s young protagonist exemplifies most of the specificities of the treatment of character in contemporary children’s and young adult literature. The focus on age and the meticulous breakdown of the child’s development and of the temporality of his/her experience convey the essential transience and mutability of childhood, making it explicit for the young reader thanks to the metaphorisation fostered by the genre of fantasy, and more particularly by the striking figure of the daemon. Characterising Lyra reveals the writer’s vision of the implied young Model Reader he is addressing, as well as his own longing for a relationship with childhood that is based on both dichotomy and continuity between past and present. The division of (pre-)adolescence into two genders, female (Lyra) and male (Will) in the first trilogy, but also into two eras, past and present, through the superimposition of Lyra’s steampunk Oxford and Will’s modern Oxford, is a clear indication of Pullman’s relationship with childhood—a hopeful confidence in the potential of youth that is nonetheless tinged with nostalgia.

  • 17 See Philip Pullman and Kit Alderdice, “PW Talks with Philip Pullman,” Publishers Weekly, vol. 247, (...)

31But it is the scope for possibility and agency that prevails. Pullman’s trilogies are about expansion: textual expansion through seriality, but also spatial expansion and character expansion within the diegesis. The fantasy frame (Pullman has used the hybrid phrase “science fantasies” to describe his universe17) emphasises the notion of possibility, whether it concerns the multiple worlds of Pullman’s multiverse, the multiple prospects in a character’s destiny, the multiple possibilities in the construction of a child character’s personality and identity, or the multiple options as far as plot is concerned. It is hardly surprising that Philip Pullman chose the following quotation by William Blake as an epigraph to The Secret Commonwealth (Book of Dust 2): “Everything possible to be believ’d is an image of truth.” (Commonwealth ix) His trilogies are very much about possibility. But possibility also relies on the child or teenage reader: in the same way as Lyra is both a predictable child character and a unique one, the young reader’s personal gaze makes each fictional character a unique individual.

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Primary sources

PULLMAN, Philip. Northern Lights. Dark Materials Trilogy. Scholastic, 1995.

PULLMAN, Philip. The Subtle Knife. Dark Materials Trilogy. Scholastic, 1997.

PULLMAN, Philip. The Amber Spyglass. Dark Materials Trilogy. Scholastic, 2000.

PULLMAN, Philip. Lyra’s Oxford. ill. John Lawrence. David Fickling Books, 2003.

PULLMAN, Philip. Once Upon a Time in the North, ill. John Lawrence. David Fickling Books, 2008.

PULLMAN, Philip. Serpentine. ill. Tom Duxbury. Penguin, 2020.

PULLMAN, Philip. La Belle Sauvage. The Book of Dust Trilogy. David Fickling Books, 2017.

PULLMAN, Philip. The Secret Commonwealth. The Book of Dust Trilogy. David Fickling Books, 2019.

PULLMAN, Philip. Book 3, The Book of Dust Trilogy. (forthcoming; title unknown).

Secondary sources

BESSON, Anne. “À la Croisée des Mondes fictionnels : cycle, littérature de jeunesse et sémiotique des mondes possibles chez Philip Pullman”. Cahiers Robinson, no. 17, “Autres Mondes”, May 2005, p. 125-144.

BESSON, Anne. Constellations. Des mondes fictionnels dans l’imaginaire contemporain. CNRS Éditions, 2015.

CARTER, James, ed. “An Introduction to Philip Pullman.” Talking Books (Children’s authors talk about the craft, creativity and process of writing). Routledge, 1999, p. 178-195.

DOUCET, Sibylle. “‘Literature without Borders’: The Poetics and Politics of Passage in Philip Pullman’s Multiverse ensemble”. Diss. Strasbourg University, 2021. HAL thèses. Accessed 13 May 2024.

DOUGLAS, Virginie. “Storytelling and the Adult/Child Relationship in Geraldine McCaughrean’s A Pack of Lies, or the Dilemma of Children’s Fiction.” New Voices in Children's Literature Criticism. Ed. Sébastien Chapleau. Pied Piper Publishing, 2004, p. 79-87.

DOUGLAS, Virginie. “Comment définir la littérature pour la jeunesse, ou le paradoxe insoluble.” Devenir adulte et rester enfant ? Relire les productions pour la jeunesse. Eds. Isabelle Cani, Nelly Chabrol Gagne, and Catherine d’Humières. Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2008, p. 105-17.

DOUGLAS, Virginie. “Réalisme, fantasy, réalisme magique dans le roman britannique contemporain pour la jeunesse.” Poétiques du merveilleux. Fantastique, science-fiction, fantasy en en littérature et dans les arts visuels. Eds. Anne Besson and Evelyne Jacquelin. Artois Presses Université, 2015, p. 217-231.

DOUGLAS, Virginie. “La fantasy : définition, histoire, enjeux.” Littérature de jeunesse au présent. Questions de genres / Genres en question. Eds. Christiane Connan-Pintado and Gilles Béhotéguy. Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 2015, p. 27-43.

DUVEZIN-CAUBET, Caroline. “Dragons à vapeur : vers une poétique de la fantasy néo-victorienne contemporaine.” Diss. Université Côte d’Azur, 2017. HAL thèses. Web. Accessed 12 March 2024.

ECO, Umberto. Lector in fabula. La cooperazione interpretativa nei testi narrativi. 1979. English transl.: “Lector in Fabula: Pragmatic Strategy in a Metanarrative Text.” The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. Indiana University Press, 1984, p. 200-260.

GARNIER, Xavier. “À quoi reconnaît-on un récit initiatique ?” Poétique vol. 4, no.140, 2004, p. 443-454.

IMMEL, Andrea, U.C. Knoepflmacher, and Julia Briggs. “Fantasy’s alternative geography for children.” The Cambridge Companion to Children’s Literature. Eds. Matthew O. Grenby & Andrea Immel. Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 226-241.

JOUVE, Vincent. “Pour une analyse de l’effet-personnage”. Littérature, no. 85, 1992, p. 103-111.

LEWIS, C.S. “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said.” 1956. Of This and Other Worlds. William Collins, 1982, p. 71-75.

MANLOVE, Colin. The Fantasy Literature of England. Macmillan, 1999.

NIKOLAJEVA, Maria. Children’s Literature Comes of Age: Toward a New Aesthetic. Garland, 1996.

NIKOLAJEVA, Maria. The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature. Scarecrow, 2002.

NIKOLAJEVA, Maria. Power, Voice, and Subjectivity in Literature for Young Readers. Routledge, 2010.

PAREY, Armelle. “Introduction: Narrative Expansions—The Story So Far….” Prequels, Coquels and Sequels in Contemporary Anglophone Fiction. Ed. Armelle Parey. Routledge, 2019, p. 1-24.

PULLMAN, Philip. “His Dark Materials follow-ups announced by author Philip Pullman”. Today, BBC Radio 4. (15 February 2017). Accessed 30 June 2023.

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SAINT-GELAIS, Richard. Fictions transfuges. La transfictionnalité et ses enjeux. Seuil, 2011.

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1 The third book in the second trilogy is still unpublished but might come out in 2024.

2 For a discussion of the link between neo-Victorian fantasy and character, see Caroline Duvezin-Caubet’s dissertation (2017).

3 On this particular neologism and the relationship between different types of novel expansion, see Parey (2019).

4 His Dark Materials was adapted for the stage by Nicholas Wright, National Theatre, London, 2003-2005.

5 Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage. Adapted by Briony Lavery and directed by Nicholas Hytner. London, Bridge Theatre.

6 My translation of : « On pourrait précisément définir le récit initiatique comme un récit en attente de personnage, ou plutôt comme un récit tendu vers la constitution d’un personnage. »

7 Starting two years after the publication of Northern Lights, the Harry Potter cycle was also going to fragment the transition from innocence to experience and from childhood to adulthood into a multiplicity of different stages.

8 “[T]he absence of parental authority allows the space that the fictive child needs for development and maturity, in order to test […] his independence and to discover the world without adult protection. However, adult figures are necessary to enable the young protagonist’s rebellion against them as a means of developing up character and growing” (Nikolajeva, 2010: 16).

9 On the American context, see for example: Abate, M.A. (2008). Tomboys: A Literary and Cultural History. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

10 For a more general discussion of the relationship between fantasy and children's literature, see my article on the definition and history of the genre (Douglas, « La fantasy : définition, histoire, enjeux »).

11 See for instance: Douglas, “Réalisme, fantasy, réalisme magique… » 220.

12 The name Pantalaimon comes from the Greek and means “All merciful”. It is also very close to the name of a saint in the Orthodox Church, St. Panteleimon.

13 To explore this aspect further, please refer to my article: « Storytelling and the Adult/Child Relationship in Geraldine McCaughrean’s A Pack of Lies, or the Dilemma of Children’s Fiction » (2004).

14 See for instance Besson, « À la croisée des mondes fictionnels », or Doucet, especially 278-284.

15 See in particular Eco’s theory of interpretation as a cooperation with the Model Reader (Eco, 1979/1984).

16 Translated from : “une figure de l’altérité qui fait de toute lecture une rencontre exemplaire.”

17 See Philip Pullman and Kit Alderdice, “PW Talks with Philip Pullman,” Publishers Weekly, vol. 247, no. 39 (25 Sept. 2000), p. 119.

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Virginie DOUGLAS, « Character in Young Adult fiction: The example of Lyra in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (1995-2000) and The Book of Dust (2017- ) »e-Rea [En ligne], 21.2 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2024, consulté le 18 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Virginie DOUGLAS

Université de Rouen Normandie
Virginie Douglas is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English Studies at Rouen Normandy University (ERIAC). She specialises in British children’s literature and its theory, narration, and translation. She is the editor of Perspectives contemporaines du roman pour la jeunesse (2003), Littérature de jeunesse et diversité culturelle (2013), Retranslating Children’s Literature (with F. Cabaret, 2014), État des lieux de la traduction pour la jeunesse (2015), an issue of the journal of translation studies, Palimpsestes : Traduire les sens en littérature pour la jeunesse (with B. Poncharal, 2019), and Family Stories and Children’s Literature. Parentage, Transmission or Reinvention? (with R.-M. Pham Dinh, 2020). Her monograph Le roman Young Adult au XXIe siècle en Grande-Bretagne : Explorations de la marge et de l’entre-deux is forthcoming with Peter Lang. She was the convener of The Child and the Book Conference in Rouen in May 2024.
Virginie Douglas est Maître de conférences habilitée à diriger les recherches au Département d’études anglophones de l’Université de Rouen Normandie (ERIAC). Ses travaux portent sur la littérature britannique pour la jeunesse, en particulier sur la théorie, la narration et la traduction de ces livres. Elle a dirigé les ouvrages Perspectives contemporaines du roman pour la jeunesse (2003), Littérature pour la jeunesse et diversité culturelle (2013), La Retraduction en littérature de jeunesse (avec F. Cabaret, 2014), État des lieux de la traduction pour la jeunesse (2015), le numéro de Palimpsestes : Traduire les sens en littérature pour la jeunesse (avec B. Poncharal, 2019) et Histoires de famille et littérature de jeunesse. Filiation, transmission, réinvention ? / Family Stories and Children’s Literature. Parentage, Transmission or Reinvention? (avec R.-M. Pham Dinh, 2020). Sa monographie Le roman Young Adult au XXIe siècle en Grande-Bretagne : Explorations de la marge et de l’entre-deux est à paraître aux éditions Peter Lang. Elle est l’organisatrice principale du colloque international « The Child and the Book Conference » qui s’est tenu à Rouen en mai 2024.

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