His Dark Materials: what is a daemon?

What exactly are those animal companions that follow around the characters in the BBC1 series? And why does Lyra's keep changing form?

Ruth Wilson's Mrs Coulter with her monkey dæmon (BBC)

For those unfamiliar with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Material books, one or two things about the the new BBC1 adaptation may be a little bit puzzling.


For example, why are all the characters followed around by their own personal animal companions? And why does the main character Lyra’s seem to change at will on a regular basis?

Well, the answer is that these aren’t just ordinary animals – they’re dæmons, which are absolutely central to the world Pullman created.

You only need to look at the opening page of the trilogy’s first novel to get an idea of how important these creatures are – Lyra’s dæmon Pantalaimon is mentioned in the very opening sentence.

So what is a daemon?

His Dark Materials

Every human in Pullman’s world is born with a dæmon – a physical manifestation of that person’s inner self that takes the form of an animal.

Dæmons have often been compared to characters’ souls, so when you see someone talking to their dæmon they are essentially in dialogue with a part of their self.

In nearly every case, a dæmon is of the opposite sex to its human – although on very rare occurrences there are exceptions.

Speaking in the latest issue of Radio Times, Pullman said that he hadn’t always planned for daemons to be a part of his books.

He said, “I didn’t know that Lyra had a dæmon until he turned up in that first sentence. I’d written the opening of the story at least 15 times and I couldn’t make it work because Lyra was on her own as she went into that room where she wasn’t supposed to go. She had no one to talk to. But with her very own dæmon, suddenly it worked.”

Pullman adds that far more than being an imaginary friend, a character’s dæmon is part of them – and it is sometimes their job to tell a character things that they don’t want to hear.

Are there differences between children’s daemons and adult’s daemons?

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 26/10/2019 - Programme Name: His Dark Materials - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 1) - Picture Shows: Pantalaimon, Lyra Belacqua (DAFNE KEEN) - (C) Bad Wolf - Photographer: screen grab
Yes – and this is absolutely crucial.

Whereas the dæmons of adults are fixed in one form – for example Lord Asriel’s snow leopard or Miss Coulter’s monkey, a child’s dæmon can shape shift depending on circumstance and mood.

This is why over the course of episode one, Lyra’s dæmon takes many different forms – and there’s a lot more of that to come.

Speaking to RadioTimes.com, James McAvoy – who plays Lord Asriel – said, “Because your dæmon can change as a child, all the options are still open and you can be anything. The adults, whose dæmons have solidified and chosen their shape… it’s not just that their imagination has shut down. In Philip’s world it’s actually quite an interesting thing. Who am I? That question that people ask themselves. What is the heart of me? And trying to understand yourself and your journey and all that stuff. 

“In his world you get to look at yourself and go like ‘Oh yeah, I’m a servant because I’m a f***ing bloodhound. I’m a follower.'”

You’ll have noticed that one scene in the first episode saw a ceremony for Tony Costa, a Gyptian boy whose dæmon had recently achieved its final form. This ceremony is presented as a coming of age for Tony – now that his dæmon is fixed he has become an adult.

How were the daemons filmed?

Programme Name: His Dark Materials - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 4) - Picture Shows: Behind the scenes from episode 4 Lee Scoresby (LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA) - (C) Bad Wolf - Photographer: Alex Bailey

The dæmons were filmed using a mixture of on-set puppets and CGI added after the fact. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Read all about it here.

Can a human ever be separated from their daemon?

That’s a big no! If a person is separated from their daemon there will be some very nasty consequences – but more on that as the series progresses.

There are, however, a few exceptions to this rule. Later on in the series, viewers will be introduced to witches, including key character Serafina Pekkala. A witch’s daemon, for example Serafina’s goose, is able to stray quite far – something which often comes in very handy indeed…


His Dark Materials broadcasts on Sundays at 8pm on BBC1