For those of you that don’t know, Lyra is the main character of Philip Pullman’s ground-breaking trilogy, His Dark Materials. The story centres around Lyra, a twelve-year-old girl who is drawn into a war between several parallel universes when she prevents the assassination of her uncle. The books were incredibly successful – one of which became the first-ever children’s book longlisted for the Man Booker Prize – and were universally praised for the ways in which they dealt with love, religion and difficult scientific and theological concepts. Lyra herself is at the centre of all this, and has become one of Pullman’s most popular – and complex – characters.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
NOTE: Just so we’re clear, I’ll be basing my analysis on the original trilogy by Philip Pullman. I won’t be looking at the film of The Golden Compass, and I’ll only be briefly referencing Pullman’s additional stories about Lyra as a teenager and young adult.
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
Lyra’s destiny in a larger sense actually presents the reader with a really interesting (and difficult) philosophical question. From the very beginning of the series, we find out that Lyra is destined to save not just her world, but billions of other parallel universes too. Many other characters know this, and try to help and hinder her in their own ways. However, the only catch is that Lyra can’t actually know that she is the subject of such a prophecy, or it will never come true.
Lyra is thus at the centre of a philosophical quandary that scholars have been debating for years: the tug of war between Fate and Free Will. It is Lyra’s ~*Destiny*~ to save everyone, but she won’t be able to save everyone if she knows that this is what she’s prophesised to do. She can only fulfil her destiny by acting of her own volition – not by acting to carry out the prophecy. This forces the readers to ask themselves what’s really guiding Lyra through the story. Does she truly carry out her own free will, or is her free will the manifestation of Fate itself?
For my part, I’m inclined to come down on the side of free will. From the very beginning of the story Lyra is established as a very independent character – we constantly see her deciding to track down her friends, find out the truth and get away from those who would do her harm. Furthermore, I think this interpretation sits better with the overall tone of the story and Pullman’s own humanist beliefs, as so much of the plot of His Dark Materials revolves around individuals shaping their own destiny without reference to a higher power. I’ll be generous and give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Lyra’s hobbies are touched upon in the series, but treated more as an expression of her personality rather than as pastimes she enjoys. She’s a bit of a tomboy, and enjoys fighting other children, getting dirty, and exploring places she generally shouldn’t be.
Her goals are a little more complicated. Even though she’s been prophesised to save the world by leading humanity into a second ‘fall from Eden’, this isn’t really what she sets out to do. She sets out to find her kidnapped friend and bring him home, or to find out the truth about Dust (the mysterious substance that all the parallel worlds revolve around), or to restore the bear-king Iorek Byrnison to his rightful throne. Her goals change from book to book, depending on the situation she’s in.
Her beliefs, however, are a little more constant. She values the bond with her daemon more than anything else (for the uninitiated, a daemon is essentially a human’s soul that lives outside the body and can take animal form). She believes her parents were wrong to act as they did, and actively goes about trying to rectify their mistakes. She believes that children can never be as bad as adults, but after she meets the children of Cittagazze, ends up radically re-assessing this view. Most crucially of all, she believes that Dust is a force for good, and sets about trying to stop other people from putting an end to it.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Lyra is a very consistent character. She’s fiercely independent, loves spinning tall tales, is a bit of a tomboy and while not well-educated, is very intelligent and picks things up quickly. She’s also a natural leader, brave and determined, who is intensely loyal to her friends.
Her skills run along a similar vein. Lyra is a very good liar, and uses her natural skill to get her out of (and into) trouble. But what’s much more interesting is her ability to read the alethiometer, a device which can answer any question truthfully. It’s established that this is a device that adults require years of study to use properly, but Lyra, as a pre-pubescent child, can read it almost intuitively. Lyra is the only person in the entire trilogy who can read an alethiometer without years of study and an enormous symbol guide – but only until she hits puberty. Then, she completely loses the ability to read it and must learn how to do it in the same way as everyone else.
It’s this that stops Lyra’s ability from becoming unrealistic. The series establishes that the alethiometer is read using Dust – the mysterious particles that can be found across multiple universes. Children and adults react to Dust differently, and thus when Lyra starts becoming an adult, her ability to read the alethiometer changes accordingly. It’s established in later novellas that Lyra learns how to read the alethiometer again, but this time she does it the hard way. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A wild, determined and brave young girl goes looking for her missing friend and, in the process, ends up changing the fate of existence as she knows it.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Lyra’s love life is actually a pretty interesting part of her story. I mentioned earlier that Lyra is the subject of a super-important prophecy that will decide the fate of not just mankind, but every single being across multiple different universes. Lyra is the second incarnation of Eve, destined to lead a second fall from Eden, and in doing so will bring knowledge and understanding to several different parallel worlds. She can’t know that she is doing this, but in order to do so she has to fall in love and, it’s implied, go through her first sexual experience.
Essentially, the resolution of the entire plot of His Dark Materials depends on Lyra getting a boyfriend. However, what’s really great about the way that this is handled is that this really isn’t Lyra’s goal. She spends most of the series trying to save the people she cares about, trying to find out the truth about Dust, or trying to get away from the incredibly creepy Church that’s in power in Lyra’s world.
Lyra’s love life is central to the resolution of her story. Without it, she could never fulfil the prophecy and bring knowledge and understanding back to mankind as a larger whole. But it doesn’t really influence her decisions at all. Lyra’s first love grows very slowly, isn’t often treated as the main focus of her story, and it’s allowed to blossom very naturally while other elements of the plot take the story forward. Lyra’s first experiences of love and sex are treated with a kind of quiet dignity which isn’t always seen in young adult stories, and her agency and independence as a character isn’t really compromised because of it. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Lyra develops really well over the course of the story. She starts out as a scrappy, impulsive tomboy, and as the trilogy progresses she grows into a young woman with a much more complex and subtle understanding of love, power, and life in general. She’s travelled through countless worlds, developed a relationship with her mother, survived a few assassination attempts and had her first experience of love – more than enough to change somebody’s character. By the end of His Dark Materials, Lyra has grown up into a much wiser, more mature character.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- Does she have a weakness?
What’s interesting about Lyra is that her propensity to tell lies isn’t portrayed as a weakness, but as an outpouring of her rich imagination and quick mind. But that’s not to say that she doesn’t have weaknesses at all. She’s stubborn, reckless, she tends to act before she thinks, she very rarely admits that she can’t do something and she has a tendency to get caught up in her own stories. These are all weaknesses that actively hold her back and put her in trouble as the story progresses, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 7
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
In His Dark Materials, Lyra is twelve and thirteen years old – as such, she doesn’t always have a lot of say in her own movements, like many other child characters. When she decides to pursue her own goals she can’t always just wander off in search of them – although she does end up doing that once or twice. More often than not, she ends up having to rely on someone else to take her where she wants to go.
But that’s really the extent of any limitations on her agency. Most of the time Lyra is a character with a real impact on the plot. She might not always get there under her own steam, but she initiates the search for her missing friend, she finds the instruments she needs, and she goes down into the land of the dead to free the souls trapped there. She does get captured quite a few times, but she almost always manages to find her own way out of trouble, whether that’s by manipulating her captors into making a mistake or just flat-out running away.
SCORE SO FAR: 8
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Lyra’s a very positive character in terms of gender stereotypes. She’s a scrappy, impulsive young girl who fights the other children, lies to almost everyone she meets, goes around caked in dirt and isn’t above sneaking a cigarette or a little bit of wine if that’s what she fancies. Yet she isn’t portrayed as a ‘bad girl’ because of this, and her behaviour isn’t depicted as a bad habit that she needs to fix. Pullman consistently treats Lyra with kindness and respect, showing her behaviour as childish exuberance more than anything else.
This is actually really unusual in a young female character. In fiction traditionally aimed at young girls, the little girls who fight, lie, steal and have dirty knees are almost universally portrayed as ‘naughty’. Whereas young male characters can still be seen as ‘good boys’ if they get a bit mucky and have a scrap now and then, young female characters aren’t always seen as ‘good girls’ unless they’re quiet, good and clean. I’m really talking about some of the more old-fashioned stories here, but there’s no denying that these tropes still have an effect on fiction today.
What’s more, Lyra’s first experiences with love and sex are treated as something beautiful and tender rather than as something to be ashamed of. She’s still a very young girl when this happens, but her relationship with Will is treated as nothing short of true love. They’re a real partnership, never once undermining each other, but their relationship doesn’t eclipse everything else that they care about. Because they are literally from different worlds – and people can’t survive for a very long time outside the world in which they were born into – they realise that they can never be together once they must close the passages between worlds. They’re devastated by this, but agree that keeping the passages open would put too many people at risk. So – with remarkable maturity for a couple of thirteen-year-olds – they agree to go back to their own worlds and live full lives, only marking their fledgling relationship by standing in the same spot in their different universes once a year. They both recognise that even though they love each other – and may well never find love with anyone else – there are some things more important than love. They set their feelings aside and do what’s best for humanity, trampling all over my poor, battered heart in the process.
Lyra is consistently portrayed as a character who follows her own path, in line with Pullman’s own beliefs on free will. Her tomboy habits aren’t shown as a bad thing, but as something that Lyra really wants to do for herself. In the novellas detailing her later life, this trend continues – we see Lyra becoming a dedicated scholar and pursuing an academic career, which is established to be unusual for a woman in her world. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 9
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Most of Lyra’s relationships tend to be with male characters, but that’s not to say that she doesn’t have any female friends. She finds it very easy to make friends with other children, and becomes the unacknowledged leader of whichever group of girls she happens to find herself in on a regular basis. She looks up to the witch, Serafina Pekkala, she sees Ma Costa as like a mother to her, she pities and is a little afraid of Angela, the girl from Cittagazze, and she ends up becoming good friends with Dr Mary Malone, who ends up becoming a part of the reason why she falls in love with Will.
But her most interesting relationship by far is with her mother, Mrs Coulter. For much of her life Lyra believed her parents were dead, and when she first meets Mrs Coulter didn’t guess at their relation. Charmed and fascinated by the wealthy socialite, she’s adopted by her, but soon realises that Mrs Coulter has been kidnapping children to perform experiments on them. Horrified by what Mrs Coulter is doing and finally aware of her innate cruelty, Lyra runs away and spends most of the novel trying to stop or escape her mother’s clutches. Mrs Coulter isn’t exactly fond of Lyra at first – she finds her too grubby, wild and untameable – but eventually grows to love her. Lyra never fully reciprocates this, what with all the child-mutilation her mother got up to, but she does acknowledge the care Mrs Coulter tried to give her, even if she had to drug Lyra into unconsciousness to get her to stay still long enough to take it.
The result is a very complex relationship that evolves over the course of the series, with Lyra coming to understand a little of Mrs Coulter’s desire to be a mother to her, but never fully forgiving her for the way she acted.
FINAL SCORE: 10/10
Congratulations, Philip Pullman! Lyra is a well-rounded, consistent character with a range of strengths and weaknesses. She develops throughout her story, is a real force on the plot, has a range of different relationships with a range of different female characters and raises interesting questions about not just gender stereotypes but the nature of free will. She’s certainly passed my test!
Next week, it’s the sixtieth post on Strong Female Characters! How time flies. I’ll be going back to my comparison format for that one and looking at another classic character. Snow White, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.