• Ruby McDonald-Bridge

His Dark Materials: A Bold Imagination

Ruby McDonald-Bridge shares her love of Philip Pullman's world with us at The Sapling, during the week of the release of La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust I. Later in the week we will have a review from Ruby of (surely) the most anticipated YA release of the year.

His Dark Materials

There’s a girl lying on the warm scratchy grass of the school field in high summer. A book thicker than her fist rests in the space between her hip and forearm; children scream and scamper in clusters around her, keeping their distance. They play as she daydreams, near the coolness of the trees where the breeze whispers through and carries with it the scent of pine and hot gravel roads. At some point during the hour lunch break, the magnificent silhouette of a hawk passes over the sun and its shadow sweeps across the girl. She watches it pass, heading towards farmland, and thinks: 'Maybe that could be my Daemon!'

I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series for the first time when I was eight years old. It was the first set of novels I ever finished and they have remained my favourite books for the eleven years since. The series, published in 1995, has sold more than 15 million copies and been translated into 40 languages. They follow heroine Lyra on her extraordinary adventures to the far north of her world; and the various wonders of many other worlds other than her own, the series exploring what it means to be human. It teaches us about tolerance and truth, the danger of corrupt authorities and ideologies and why they should be challenged. It also teaches us about the immense power of curiosity and imagination when coming to face these challenges.

It teaches us about tolerance and truth, the danger of corrupt authorities and ideologies and why they should be challenged.

Hence my enthusiasm for the forthcoming companion trilogy to the series: The Book of Dust. It’s been years since Philip Pullman first mentioned the title and the fact that it was a project underway, and now it’s here – the world can finally leap back into the wonders of Lyra’s. When Pullman first announced the book, he said that 'at the centre of The Book of Dust is the struggle between a despotic and totalitarian organisation, which wants to stifle speculation and inquiry, and those who believe thought and speech should be free.'

In both His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust, Philip Pullman’s concept of the daemon is present: the physical manifestation of a person’s soul, their guardian and conscious, bound to them by an unassailable thread. In Lyra’s world, the one she was born in, everyone has a daemon walking along side them, taking the form of animals. In childhood they can change form like shape shifters, while as you grow older and “settle” into adulthood your daemon settles too, finding a fixed form that reflects your deepest essence, whether that be a fox, lizard, snow leopard, or butterfly, and it stays the same until the day you die.

Northern Lights. Photo source: Pixabay, by TriplexAdventures

In our world, our daemons live inside us. They are not externally manifested in the same way. Unlike Lyra and the rest of the people in her world, our thoughts and our daemon are fused together inside us, as one mind... Unless you do the imaginative work it takes to separate them.

That’s what I decided to do that day lying on the field watching the hawk fly over the sun. It was pretty easy, just like having an imaginary friend except cooler because it was a daemon – all I had to do was pick a name and practice imagining what he looked like, visualising him changing forms and speaking, fluttering around the room or padding beside me on the pavement. Soon I became very good at separating my own thoughts from my daemon’s voice (his name was Pheleuthé, which was completely made up).

Using nothing but my imagination, I untangled and extracted a part of my subconscious, creating a friend out of it. I’d consult him before making decisions. We’d work together on homework. We’d talk about the boy I had a crush on as I biked down to the river and he ran alongside me in the form of a hare. The beauty of it was that no one could see him but me, no one could hear the secrets we passed between us, and it was SO. MUCH. FUN.

Using nothing but my imagination, I untangled and extracted a part of my subconscious, creating a friend out of it.

I had been imagining my daemon every day for a couple years by the time I became interested in exploring the deeper philosophy surrounding the concept. Pheleuthé had become as real to me as anything, changing forms smoothly without my conscious decision as to what form he would take, babbling away with me in conversation silent to everyone but us. His supposedly imaginary existence and personality was colouring my world in such a powerful way I was baffled at my own capacity to alter reality by projecting him into it. Surely there was some kind of psychological magic behind this?

At age 13, I stumbled across Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s concept of the “animus.” Jung claimed in his work that we all have a subconscious as part of many layers of the self, and if we could learn to communicate with this subconscious we could know our own minds far better. This theory reminded me so much of the daemon concept that I was compelled to ask Philip Pullman whether he was influenced by this.

Ruby McDonald-Bridge at school camp, age 8

So I did. At the time, Pullman was answering Q &A’s through his website. In my mind, my question stood no chance against the hundreds he’d without doubt be receiving daily, but I sent one anyway. I asked whether he was influenced by Carl Jung, I told him how real my daemon seemed to me despite him being just my imagination, and I also asked him whether he projected his own daemon. And a few weeks later – he responded.

He addressed my question about whether he was influenced by Carl Jung. He explained that everything he’d ever written is probably made up of all the things he’d ever read and nothing else, like a patchwork of other people’s ideas, including Jung, and Freud, and 'dare I say it – there’s probably some Marx in there too.' He didn’t say whether he imagined his own daemon, but it was his very last comment that struck a chord in me, a chord that has continued to ring throughout my life, running like a golden thread from my childhood to adulthood, guiding me to become the person I am today:

'By the way, you don’t have to say that your daemon is "just" your imagination. Your imagination is very powerful and important. I’m glad you’re becoming acquainted with it.'

'By the way, you don’t have to say that your daemon is "just" your imagination. Your imagination is very powerful and important. I’m glad you’re becoming acquainted with it.'

By becoming acquainted with my imagination, I was strengthening my ability to use it. The ability to turn the world into a magical place is something we take for granted as something that only children do and eventually grow out of. But I reckon that those who continue to imagine and dream understand that reality is not always what it seems to be, and that imagination has the power to recreate reality. To imagine something different and to alter it to be more interesting is to push the existing world into a state of change. It is to utilise the uniquely human capacity to envision how the world could be better and what that could look like.

So what did I learn from this experience? Two things. First of all, to ask questions. The answers may change one’s life. And second of all, the power of the imagination. With an imagination bold enough, anyone can change the world. It is so important to be fearlessly curious in order to bring about change and growth, so bring on the daydreamers, the storytellers, the ones with the radical imaginations and the bravery to challenge ideologies accepted as truth. Those are the people that will change the world, and we need them now more than ever. La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust I will release worldwide on Thursday 19 October from Penguin Random House.

La Belle SauvagE: The Book of DusT I by Philip Pullman Published by Penguin and David Fickling Books RRP: $35.00 (PB) or $48.00 (HB)

Released worldwide on Thursday 19 October


ruby mcdonald-bridge

Ruby McDonald-Bridge is a young writer from Wellington. She has completed a creative writing course in children's fiction at Victoria University, where she also studies philosophy, political science and anthropology. Ruby lives in Lyall Bay and spends her free time reading, writing and swimming in the sea.