Races and creatures in His Dark Materials
Armoured Bears (panserbjørne)
The word "panserbjørne" literally means "armour-bears" in Danish and in the film, The Golden Compass, they are also known as "ice bears." According to Wiktionary, the Danish pronunciation of the word "panserbjørn" (the singular) is [pʰanˀsɐˈb̥jœ̞ɐ̯ˀn]. The pronunciation used in the radio plays and the audio book readings of the trilogy (by Pullman himself) is //.
The panserbjørne are a race of sentient polar bear-like creatures that have opposable thumbs on their front paws. Despite their large digits and immense strength they have remarkable dexterity. This, together with an innate sense of metallurgy, makes them exceptional metalsmiths, and they are capable of creating and repairing metal items far beyond the capabilities of human smiths (at least in the parallel universe where the panserbjørne live).
While they mainly speak English in the books, they are shown to speak in a number of languages.
Bears are difficult to deceive. One exception is Iofur Raknison, a bear king who began to emulate humans by drinking spirits, wearing opulent clothes, and desiring a dæmon. His gullibility is attributed to his failing to act like a bear.
Panserbjørne are generally solitary creatures, but have a loose society centered on Svalbard. They are governed by a king; Iofur Raknison and Iorek Byrnison are the only two kings who appear in the books.
Some bears occasionally hire themselves out to humans as mercenaries or laborers, but only in the Arctic regions, and it is implied that bears who do this may be shamed in some way. Lands further to the south have little contact with the bears, though their existence is widely known.
Becoming an outcast is the worst shame a bear can endure. He is forced to leave his home and may never return. If he ever approaches Svalbard again, he will be shot down from afar with fire hurlers. This adds insult to injury, because death by fire hurler is a dishonourable death. He may no longer participate in a legal duel, and any bear may kill him without being prosecuted.
Duels are ceremonial procedures to bears, although they usually do not end in death. When a bear knows he is defeated, he is obliged to signal his submission to the victor. On rare occasions however, an issue may be so important that there is no other option than to kill a rival. One such case was the famous duel between Iorek and Iofur. Normally, an outcast like Iorek would not be allowed to participate in a duel, but the then-king Iofur made an exception. If a bear kills another in a duel that was not meant to end in death, it is considered murder and the bear will be deemed an outcast.
During the books the bears seem to be struggling to maintain their own culture and traditions against the intrusion of human society. This is most visible during the reign of Iofur Raknison, the usurper king of Svalbard in Northern Lights. He tries to force the bears to become more human-like, attempting to build palaces and universities, decorate their armour, and even acquire dæmons. Even the marble used to build the palace was offensive to the bears' way of life. Decorating armour was an even worse affront, because sky iron, which seems to only be available at Svalbard, is the only thing armour should be made of. A bear's armour is equivalent to his soul. Iorek Byrnison eventually defeats Iofur and returns the bears to their traditional way of life; later in the series, however, he begins to feel human feelings such as doubt, especially in connection with the Subtle Knife. Iorek, however, decides there is a line between bear custom and human behaviour.
Armour and Weapons
A bear fashions his own armour using 'sky-iron', a rare metal collected from meteorites which the bears discover on, or buried in, the ice. Although the magical metal described in Pullman's works is fictional, the native peoples of the Arctic do value meteorites (particularly the Cape York meteorite) as a source of iron for toolmaking.
A bear's primary weapons are his immense strength, savage jaws, and razor sharp claws. He uses these in close combat or when fighting duels with other bears. However, bears use fire hurlers, which is something of a combination of a flame thrower and a catapult against human enemies and outcasts.
In Lyra's world, witches are exclusively female and live in the far north. They worship their own assortment of gods and goddesses, with particular focus on nature and the earth. Significantly, they also share the Judeo-Christian concept of "Mother Eve". Every witch to appear is described as very beautiful, for they stay young for their entire lives, whilst maintaining a mature look of wisdom from their advanced years. No one knows exactly how long a witch can live, but some can live to be over 1,000 years old. They dress in ragged black silk and wear no shoes or warm clothing. Witch queens usually wear a crown that they created for themselves. Serafina Pekkala wears a band of everlasting, red Arctic flowers and Ruta Scadi wears a tiara of Siberian tiger teeth. Interestingly, their crowns (like their dæmons which are always birds) seem to represent the witch queen's personality.
Witches are renowned for their excellent marksmanship, and carry bows with them wherever they go. They lower their bows to the ground as a symbol of friendship when necessary.
Witches occasionally choose human men who are in some way exceptional to be their lovers. All of a witch's sons will be human and all of her daughters will be witches. To a witch, the lives of sons or men they love are mere instants. Although some regret losing those they love, they accept that they cannot change who they are.
Witches have a legendary sense of direction. They can remember the way to a far away place that they have been to only once.
Powers and abilities
Witches can feel cold, but are not affected by it. They can endure the lowest temperatures on earth comfortably. Because they are not burdened by heavy clothing, they can feel the beams of the Aurora on their bare skin.
Because there is a wasteland far north where no dæmons may go, witches can learn to stay as far from their dæmons as they wish. Because all witch dæmons are birds, they can easily fly away to carry messages, spy, or do other tasks for their witches- often to the alarm of anyone who has never seen a person or dæmon separate from one another. When Lyra and Will go to the land of the dead, their dæmons learn to live separately from them in the same way.
If a witch has a branch of a special cloud-pine tree, she can use it to fly. A human cannot fly this way, although a witch can carry another person up on their cloud-pine if they need to, but they usually lift no one bigger than a child. In large numbers, witches and their cloud-pines can tow an airship with no directional engine and can have some control over the winds.
Witches, through intense concentration, have the power to be intensely ignored. In the right state of mind, a witch can make herself so unnoticeable that she is almost invisible. Although she is always completely solid, people will glance at her when they see her and move aside to let her pass, without any comment or objection, as if she were merely a part of the wall (although Mrs Coulter is shown to be immune to this form of trickery). Some witches at least have the power of prophecy, as they foresee the existence of, and identify Lyra as, the second Eve. They have spells and potions for healing, although seemingly only in the right environment and can also keep flowers fresh and prevent corpses from decaying until after a mourner has approached and seen the body. They are also shown to possess some limited form of telepathy, as demonstrated by Serafina Pekkala's ability to know Lee Scorsbee's location by giving him one of her crown's flowers with which to invoke her when he is in danger and by her effect on Mary Malone's dreams to help her wake up gradually and accept her presence. Her dæmon is also shown to have the ability to unfasten padlocks with a combination of snow and his breath.
On his journeys through Lyra's world, John Parry (alias Stanislaus Grumman) catalogued 9 witch clans. The first and farthest north are the witches of Lake Enara, led by Serafina Pekkala. The Slavic witches of Lake Lubana are the furthest south, and are led by Ruta Skadi, who was one of Lord Asriel's lovers.
The witch clans often warred amongst themselves. Some witches even helped the Magisterium at Bolvangar, though most switched sides when they learned the truth.
In the world Lord Asriel sets his base for war, an altogether separate race of witches is shown to exist, which have males as well as females and live only as long as most humans.
Angels were originally the result of condensing Dust, although it seems that other conscious beings can also become angels. They appear as nude winged humans with a light of no apparent source shining on them, and, like the witches, appear to be both young and old at the same time, though to a greater extent. Angels are arranged in a hierarchy, according to their level of power, which also determines how luminous they are; the low ranking angels cannot be seen by the naked eye in the day, only by their outline at night, and are seen best at half light. The only way for humans to see them clearly is when they are enveloped in smoke. Angels long for the feel of a body, which Mrs. Coulter used to her advantage in the Amber Spyglass.
"The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Jehovah, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty – those were all names he gave himself. He was never the creator. He was an angel like ourselves – the first angel, true, the most powerful, but he was formed of Dust as we are, and Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself. Matter loves matter. It seeks to know more about itself, and Dust is formed. The first angels condensed out of Dust, and the Authority was the first of them all. He told those who came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie."
Seen in The Amber Spyglass, Arctic Foxes are somewhat sapient and mischievous creatures. They can only understand the present tense, a trait which leads to much confusion when they eavesdrop on others.
An excerpt of arctic fox dialogue: "Bear must go south! Swear! Witch is troubled! True! Swear! Promise!" This happened when the fox in question had overheard Iorek Byrnison and Serafina Pekkala's conversation about the migration of the armoured bears because of a situation similar to global warming, and that fox was trying to trade information for its life with a cliff ghast threatening to eat it.
Gyptians are a fictional ethnic group in the universe inhabited by Lyra Belacqua; they are roughly analogous to Gypsies. The name Gyptian, like Gypsy, is derived from Egyptian, the original English name for the Roma.
They are divided into large families, the heads of which make up the gyptians' Council, which in turn is ruled by the King of the Gyptians. It also includes the wise Farder Coram. Their culture, while widely spread, is tightly knit. Gyptian children are extravagantly loved and looked after instinctively by other members if they are to stray. Their ethnic group is small enough for all gyptians to know each other by name, yet large enough to supply 170 men to travel north on a rescue mission.
Unlike real-world Roma, gyptians are water-travellers. They mainly live aboard boats traversing the canals and rivers of England. The gyptians' primary source of income appears to be through trading goods as they travel. Lyra describes them as coming and going with the spring and autumn fairs. Furthering this gypsy stereotype, Gyptians are said to pride themselves on their ability at card games.
Gyptians have a distinctive accent, and their vocabulary contains 'Fens-Dutch' words which appear to be generally unused by hegemonic society. They also have a distinctive physical appearance, which Lyra attempts to assume. There are also references that the Gyptians might be equivalent to the Dutch watergeuzen, a confederacy of nobles and other malcontents, who in 1566 opposed Spanish rule in the Netherlands. The most successful group of them operated at sea. They came from a broad heritage, Dutch as well as French and English people, and were based in English ports. One hint to the part Dutchness of the Gyptians is their preference for drinking "jenniver" (Dutch genever), then many Gyptians carry Dutch names like Dirk Vries, Raymond van Gerrit and Ruud and Nellie Koopman, and they are using Dutch terms such as "landloper", which is actually an old Dutch word literally meaning "land-walker", but it is also a derogatory term because it means vagrant. Note that the Gyptians also use it derogatorily to address anybody that is not a Gyptian.
An additional source of inspiration for the gyptians may have been the subculture of cargo narrowboat operators that grew up in the British isles in the 18th century, after the development of the canals but before the emergence of the railways. These families were constantly on the move, like the Roma, and their children were seldom educated beyond what they could pick up from their parents. As a result, narrowboat people tended to be regarded with suspicion by landsmen.
Gyptians sometimes gather in a byanroping, meaning a summons or muster of families. They gather in the fens of Norfolk to discuss and decide important matters. John Faa identifies his group of gyptians as coming from "Eastern Anglia", a place in Lyra's world most likely a counterpart of our world's East Anglia.
Gyptians are an honourable people, and appear to owe debts to Lord Asriel for defeating a proposed Watercourse Bill in Parliament, amongst other things. When they are made aware of the excesses of the Church researchers at Bolvangar they do their best to stop them.
Despite their honourable nature, they are sometimes perceived negatively by hegemonic society. Although they trade fairly, they are described as partaking in "incessant smuggling and occasional feuds" in which they may kill other gyptians. Non-gyptian teenagers that Lyra talks to insinuate that Gyptians steal horses, and are not worried by the disappearance of a gyptian child. At a party held by Mrs. Coulter, Lyra states that gyptians "take kids and sell 'em to Turks for slaves", although this is more likely to be an example of Lyra's wild inventing.
The gyptians believe themselves to be "hit worse off than most" by the spate of child abductions in Northern Lights, and this may be what prompts them as a collective culture to plan a rescue attempt. This could also be a result of gyptians having little other recourse in society, as they are described as having little standing in the law.
Some gyptians and half-gyptians, such as Bernie Johanses, take up employment on land, although it appears that this is a cultural minority. Some hide their gyptian heritage while still reporting information back to the gyptian leaders.
Serafina Pekkala's witch clan, who are based at Lake Enara, share a friendship with the Gyptians. This friendship is born from the relationship between Serafina herself and Farder Coram: Farder Coram once saved Serafina's life, and became her lover and father of her (at the time of the trilogy) deceased son.
Spectres are also known as the Spectres of Indifference. They are beings of spirit escaped from the void between universes. Most commonly, a Spectre is created from each new window opened by the Subtle Knife. They appear in the second and third volumes, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.
Spectres feed upon the Dust that makes up a person's soul (their dæmon), leaving the person as a lifeless zombie-like entity who does not move. They are invisible to and do not harm pre-adolescents, as Dust has not yet settled upon them. When travelling, all human groups in Cittàgazze are required by law to contain a man and woman on horseback to flee and look after the young in the case of a Spectre attack. They are normally not air-borne, so air travel over Cittàgazze is the only safe means possible for an adult to cross the city. The Spectres are shown to be capable of flight under the influence of Mrs. Coulter (who causes them to forget that they are earthbound) and Stanislaus Grumman, as shown in Lee Scoresby's "dream" where Grumman sends a Spectre into the sky and it attacks one of the pilots of a zeppelin. Cittàgazze, a city infested with them, is bereft of adults and filled with gangs of children.
When the effects of a Spectre attack on a human are explained to Will, he hypothesizes that they, or similar creatures, may also exist in our universe and cause mental illness. This opinion is formed by the case of his mother, who seems to be suffering from paranoia and other symptoms resembling a disorder similar to schizophrenia.
Spectres cannot be killed by any physical means, although numerous methods of countering their attacks exist. Angels have some means of neutralizing Spectres, and ghosts are able to hold them in combat. Humans whose dæmons have been removed from them via intercision can pass them without being attacked, and humans can repel them with the Subtle Knife. Stanislaus Grumman uses his skills as a shaman to control one and send it onto a church zeppelin to attack the pilot, causing the craft to crash. Mrs. Coulter convinces a group of Spectres that following her command would give them more access to prey and is thus able to control them, and is able to make them "forget that they were earthbound" (so that they can fly). Consequently, at the end of The Subtle Knife, Will and Lyra's guard of witches is taken by surprise and most, if not all, have their Dust consumed by Spectres while flying.
During the final battle of The Amber Spyglass, Spectres fight against Lord Asriel's forces, cornering Lyra and Will's dæmons so as to eliminate the children who have been such thorns in Metatron's side, but are held back by ghosts (including Lee Scoresby and John Parry) while the children and dæmons escape to the Mulefa world.
These creatures are only featured near the middle of The Amber Spyglass. Much like a dæmon, they accompany a person throughout his or her life, serving to gently alert the person of their time to go to the underworld. Deaths are described as humanlike in appearance, yet unnaturally quiet and able to blend into the background with uncanny ease. However, as most people do not wish to see their death, the deaths are described as courteous enough to hide from their humans. Deaths are presented as caring yet stern creatures, showing no pity for a person's dæmon which must vanish upon death. Deaths are present in a physical form in some worlds, much as dæmons can be seen in Lyra's. It is not clear what becomes of a person's death when that person reaches the underworld.
The Mulefa are a fictional race of sapient beings who inhabit a parallel Earth in the novel The Amber Spyglass. "Mulefa" is a plural word, the singular being "zalif". "Zalif" is pronounced subtly differently for a male or a female.
The Mulefa evolved in a radically different fashion from humans. These elephant-like creatures possess an anatomy based on a diamond-framed skeleton lacking a spine, have four legs, short horns, and a prehensile trunk that functionally takes the place of hands. Signing with the trunk is an integral part of Mulefa language. They form close-knit communities, closer than most human groups met in the novel. One of the reasons for the closeness of their communities is that, lacking two hands, it usually requires two or more Mulefa trunks working together to accomplish complex tasks like tying knots.
A notable feature of the Mulefa is their use of large, disc-shaped seed pods from their world's enormous "seed-pod trees" in locomotion; the pods fit neatly onto a spur on their front and rear legs when each zalif is grown enough to use it. They propel themselves using their two side legs, like a cyclist without pedals. Ancient lava flows solidified into smooth rivers of rock running across the land serve as roads to ease transport. The Mulefa have a symbiotic relationship with the seedpod trees – their use of the pods on the "roads" allows the extremely hard exterior to crack and the seeds to emerge. These are germinated by the Mulefa, allowing the wheel-pod trees to survive. As the book notes, it is the three combined elements of seed-pod, spur, and rock formation which leads to the current Mulefa existence.
From a technological point of view, the Mulefa's civilization is reminiscent of humanity in the stone age. Mulefa live in wattle-and-daub villages and use simple tools – there is no evidence of any form of mechanisation in their world. They do not use metal for any purpose other than ornaments. Reference is made to their domestication of the grazer herds, their non-intrusive use of trees to make lacquer, and their distilling of acid from rocks. One of their few natural enemies are huge white birds called tualapi which habitually destroy settlements with chilling ferocity, and which the Mulefa have no real defense against (save retreating further inland). The Mulefa also appear to lack any sort of organized government; they appear to live in village groups with little or no contact between settlements. The Mulefa's less advanced technology may be due to their limited trunks – the duality and dexterity of hands, and independence of hands from most human speech gives humans an advantage; their state of symbiosis with their natural environment (to the extent that it supplies them with everything they need) may also preclude much need for further development.
The Mulefa view the world differently than humans, and by their own admission to Mary Malone they have much slower thought processes and do not easily visualize abstract concepts such as mathematics, or establish links and patterns. They do have an extraordinary race memory, remembering all of their history starting 33,000 years ago. That is when they first interacted with the wheel-pod trees, symbolized in a story that is their equivalent to the Adam and Eve story of humans, although Mulefa see the enlightening event in a very positive light. The period of 33,000 years coincides with the time frame given in the books for the awakening of human consciousness in other worlds, as evidenced by Mary Malone's anthropological research regarding Dust. Mulefa are also able to see Dust directly without the aid of an instrument such as the amber spyglass. The oil from their pods allow them to "grow up", making them more self-aware and able to see Dust.
Gallivespians are a humanoid race from yet another universe that appear in the third volume of the trilogy. They are small in size, no higher than the width of a man's hand. As a defence to make up for their size, they have spurs on the backs of their heels which can deliver a poison that will kill at worst, and paralyse and cause intense pain at best. This poison must be given time to build up to full potency, and so cannot be used over-frequently.
In the Gallivespian universe, "big people" (humans) serve the Authority and throughout history have been trying to exterminate the "little people", believing they are demonic. Because of this, most Gallivespians join with Lord Asriel against the Authority, and due to their size and proficiency at tools capable of instant communication (devices called "lodestone resonators"), are most useful as spies. Gallivespians are proud and arrogant by nature, compensating for their small size with their massive egos. They seem to possess little subtlety, and they are good spies only due to their size.
Gallivespians use various carefully bred species of dragonflies for transport. They carry larvae of the species particular to their clan with them, which may be quickly cultivated into a fully grown dragonfly. Once grown and imprinted on their Gallivespian, the dragonflies are entirely obedient until death. Gallivespians themselves also have a very short life, living no more than about ten years, and dying in their prime.
In The Amber Spyglass, the two Gallivespians seen the most are the Chevalier Tialys and the Lady Salmakia. They are initially sent to protect Lyra and Will and guide them to Lord Asriel. Lyra and Will have their own ideas, and the spies are powerless to force them into action as long as Will controls the Subtle Knife. Tialys and Salmakia eventually befriend and help Will and Lyra on their personal quest. The only two other named Gallivespians are Lord Roke, commander of the spies in Lord Asriel's Adamant Tower, the central fortress for the rebellion, and Madame Oxentiel, who succeeds to Lord Roke's position after his death.
The name Gallivespian appears to be derived from that of the gall wasp, and the word vespa, which is Latin for wasp. This creature forms a round, shiny, often colored chrysalis on a tree in the Dead Sea region of the Middle East. Although there are other explanations of the name, this object has been called the "apple of Sodom" in literary guides. The name also recalls the protagonist of Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift, who encounters a world of tiny people.
Cliff ghasts are the most prominent type of ghast to feature, the only other kind mentioned being night-ghasts: restless ghosts; a sort of personification of nightmares. Since many of the characters grow up in the world the cliff ghasts live in, some having encountered them before the start of the Northern Lights they know what these creatures are and consequently no character at any point explains them.
They can fly, and are mortal. Lee Scoresby, who hates killing sentient creatures, has no apparent qualms about killing these monsters. They are scavengers and enjoy killing and taunting. In the play adaptation they are depicted as hooded and shrouded, though in the Northern Lights they are described as having flat heads, large, bulging eyes, and wide frog-like mouths. They give off a horrible stench.
Cliff ghasts can speak, though they do not converse with any of the characters. They are heard twice: once overheard and once talking amongst themselves as they butcher an arctic fox. They at first seem to have no clear grasp of honour or respect even for each other, but Ruta Skadi does stumble, whilst invisible, upon the oldest cliff-ghast of all, a blind patriarch referred to as "grandfather" by all the others who take care of him and feed him. They are at first apparently one of the magic elements unique to the world of the Northern Lights, but then appear in other worlds. When the great war begins, they are the only beings known not to take sides, merely waiting to feast on the casualties (although they predict the victory of Lord Asriel's forces due to their inferior numbers, but far superior determination and conviction). They also, for reasons never explained beyond that of their Grandfather's advanced age and memory, know of the Subtle Knife's existence long before any human or witch outside of Cittagazze does, and recognise that Lord Asriel will need it in order to win the battle.
The Tualapi are the only known enemies of the Mulefa, destroying the Mulefas' villages and causing the loss of many seed-pods. They are described as large, white birds whose wings look like ship sails from a distance. Tualapi are almost always seen in groups. Father Gomez, a human from Lyra's world who entered the Mulefa world was able to repulse a Tualapi attack after killing one of them with his rifle.
The Mulefa have no defence against Tualapi; retreating inland during attacks. Tualapi attacks generally result in total destruction of Mulefa habitats and can cost the Mulefa greatly. Like most animals from the universe of Mulefa, their limbs are in a different position than those of our animals, with a single limb (in the Tualapi's case, a wing) at the front; a pair (legs) at the middle; and a single limb (again in the case of Tualapis, a wing) at the back. Although they are similar to birds in some ways, they do not fly. Instead, they use their wings to navigate rivers as sails and rudders, and emerge onto dry land when attacking the Mulefa.
Even though they are wild and destructive, certain details suggest they are more than mere animals. Just after he killed the first Tualapi he met, Father Gomez watches the reaction of the survivors carefully and comes to the conclusion that the creatures know about death, pain and fear, which means they can be controlled and used for greater tasks. Father Gomez somehow manages to get control over the rest of the swarm and starts to use the Tualapi for transport, suggesting he managed to domesticate, or, perhaps more accurately, enslave them.
Harpies in His Dark Materials are portrayed similarly in physical form to Harpies from myths and legends, having human heads on birdlike torsos including wings. In His Dark Materials, they are the guardians of the Land of the Dead, harassing the ghosts without mercy. They appear to hunger for information and knowledge in the form of stories, and appear to have the supernatural ability to know when they are being lied to and use their knowledge of this and other wrongful acts committed in life by their victim to torment him or her. When, in The Amber Spyglass, Lyra and Will open a portal from the Land of the Dead to allow the ghosts to escape, the Harpies are given the new task of guiding arriving ghosts to the portal. The Harpies are also entitled to question the ghosts, requiring them to tell the stories of their lives and any knowledge they have gained. They are entitled to deny ghosts guidance to the portal (potentially trapping them in the Land of the Dead for eternity) if they have "nothing of value" to tell (and are old enough to be expected to) or if they lie.
- "Bridge to the Stars - Pronunciation". Retrieved 2 February 2007.