You are on page 1of 5


A literary analysis by Joy Qin of Philip Pullmans trilogy according to Freudian Psychoanalysis and Michel Foucaults Power Theories. Extension English, Year 12 / Ms. C. Cadden His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman, a trilogy consisting of Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, is a rich and multifaceted bildungsroman which tackles intensely complex ethical issues. Literature is perhaps one of the most potent mechanisms humans use to ponder questions of morality and the function of society, and it is this theme which underpins Pullmans trilogy. Tying into these innate questions of humanity, are theories posed by academics throughout history. Renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud postulates heavily throughout his works about the true nature of human beings. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud discusses the relationship between Eros and Thanatos (life and death drives) as the instinctual basis of human existence because The goal of all life is death (Freud, 1920, p. 38); and it is these two diametrically opposed forces that power human functions. Michel Foucault also theorized on the nature of power itself, concluding that Power is everywhere: not that it engulfs everything, but that it comes from everywhere. (Foucault, 1978, p. 122) He believes that the relationship of power is fluid and therefore neutral until it is enforced and reacted upon. In His Dark Materials, Phillip Pullman celebrates humanity by challenging many ideals of good and evil engrained into the human psyche. The trilogy essentially aims to serve as social commentary and is a reflection of society. How are these notions of good conquering evil communicated when reading the text in line with Foucaults power theories and Freudian psychoanalysis? Analysing the role of power in His Dark Materials according to Foucaults theories unveils the relationship the concept has, on how humanity functions. Foucault sees power not as a Marxist based hierarchy or the binary of ruler and the ruled (Foucault, 1978, p.96) but as an all-pervasive plane, or a network, which ties together human structures. The backdrop of Pullmans trilogy is set against a battle of epic proportions between the Judeo-Christian God, the Authority; and the resistance lead by Lord Asriel, for Where there is power, there is resistance (Foucault, 1978 p.96). It can be said that war is a constant within our history and Foucault himself sees power itself as a form of warlike domination. Just as war is constant, so is the exchange of power. In the eyes of Foucault, the opposition of war and peace is a construct as peace is dominated by the victors and thereby peace-time is controlled by their power (Foucault, Society Must Be Defended). In conjunction with this, truth is imposed by dictators and thus whoever is in power creates discourse, ensuring that their truth is the truth, those who are in power influence the communication of information and therefore ones truth aligns with the truth communicated in ones environment. (Foucault, 1980, p.46). Similarly Marx and Freud theorized that what passes for reality is in fact shaped and driven by forces of which we are aware only indirectly (John Lye, 1993, p.3) and Foucault would argue that these are forces of power. In the case of His Dark Materials, this fact is true not only in our own world, evidently dominated by Christian values, but also in other civilisations within the Pullmans set of parallel universes, some of which are also subject to this Christian truth. Yet it is a system built on lies, The Authority, God, The Creator, The Lord (etc.) those were all names he gave himself. He was never the creator ... The first angels condensed out of Dust, and the Authority was the first of all. He told those who came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie. (Pullman, p.622) Although many would argue that religion is the root of morality, both Pullman and Foucault demonstrate that morality is a subjective truth and thus power creates a reality. But if truth is subject to power, then does truth and morality become false? This is one of the main criticisms of Foucaults power theory, Foucault, it is said, has already demolished any human essence or subjectivity that could anchor freedom or self-creation (Dr. Widder, 2003). His power theory essentially discounts the existence of morality, meaning that according to his worldview; intrinsically good and evil actions are non-existent. Also, while Foucault argues that the nature of power contains domination, he also presents power as all pervasive, a seeming contradiction. In interpreting this through His Dark Materials, the opposition of The Authority and the Resistance is not presented as an binary of good and evil, Lord Asriel is just as ruthless as his opposition. Thus to find a representation of pure morality the reader is guided to the exploits of Lyra and Will, children who act as a result of the confrontation, whose lives are influenced and manipulated by both sides of the war, but as an entity act within their own free will and instinctual morality.

Lyra and Will are proponents of morality in Pullmans text, yet if they act within the bounds of Foucaults power constructs then how is their power executed? Foucault would argue that it is their nature of freedom, which allows them to create such phenomenal influence within the parallel worlds. To Foucault, power is not a renunciation of freedom, a transference of rights, the power of each and all delegated to a few ... power is only exercised over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free. (Foucault, 1978, p. 43 & 60) Neither God nor Asriel are powerful and Coulter may be enthralling but she has no power, because they all forcefully subjugate those they have power over. Yet Will and Lyra possess, and are able to exercise their power because they do not control anybody - they are mere children, thus their power is only effective on the free and they cannot subjugate the masses because of their position. For example, Balthamos the angel serves Will in an unerring manner for the simple sake of duty and honour. Both these moral elements are intangible forces and have no physical power to manipulate anything. Yet Balthamos, as a free entity, is controlled by Will to do his bidding because of Wills necessity as a human being and therefore Will holds true power because he affects something free. Ultimately, this is all a representation of fluidity of power and how power relations are rooted deep in the social nexus... to live in a society is to live in such a way that action upon other actions is possible -- and in fact ongoing. A society without power relations can only be an abstraction. (Foucault, 1982, p. 208). The Authority himself was not the sole owner of Christian power, He has delegated much of his power to Metatron (Pullman, p.623) This nature of transference in power, as put forward by Foucault, would suggest that the death of God in The Amber Spyglass is a natural social change and therefore is not an action that can be labelled good or evil because it is simply a state of being within the web of power. This text is ultimately centred upon the triumph of love creating a restoration of order and it is the enlightenment of conscience within the children, which brings forth the final resolution.
We demand that sex speak the truth [...] and we demand that it tell us our truth, or rather, the deeply buried truth of that truth about ourselves which we think we possess in our immediate consciousness. (Foucault, The History of Sexuality 1: An Introduction, 1978, p.87)

Foucault relates his theory back to history, and how religion as a form of power, stigmatises sexuality and portrays it as evil, giving it regulations in the form of marriage and monogamy. He argues that this model is losing relevance because sexuality was once repressed and may now evolve to become something free and indulgent and in fact, sex is not something which involves morality at all. Lyra and Will both essentially discover their sexuality and longing for one another, this self-awareness directly relates to psychoanalytic drives as discussed by Freud. The concept of Eros and Thanatos, life and death drives can be directly applied to His Dark Materials. According to Freud, the natural leaning of human nature is towards homeostasis, self-destruction, death or Thanatos because The aim of all life is death...inanimate things existed before living ones (Freud, 1920, p. 612). In The Amber Spyglass, Lyra, Will, and the Gallivespians succeed in penetrating the realm of Death itself, in finding their own Deaths who lead them into the Land of the Dead, then abandon their dmon, their souls, the very essence of their existence. The absolute destructiveness of this action is unparalleled, just as the ultimate power struggle of God and the Resistance was on an epic proportion. When in the Land of the Dead, the group join a company of ghosts who have only just recently died and they explain that they move towards death because it 'seems as if I know, but I cant remember learning it ... [were] pulled onwards by something, some instinct is drawing them (Pullman, p. 798). Additionally when Lyra and Will finally open a window from the Land of the Dead into the living world for the ghosts to finally embrace true death, Pullman describes the process as one of pure bliss. He took a step forward, and turned to look back at Lyra, and laughed in surprise as he found himself turning into the night, the starlight, the air... and then he was gone, leaving behind such a vivid little burst of happiness that Will was reminded of the bubbles in a glass of champagne. (Pullman, p.889). Even the death of God is described with a sense of freedom and exaltation:
Between them they helped the most ancient of days out of his crystal cell; it wasnt hard, for he was as light as paper, and he would have followed them anywhere, having no will of his own, and responding to simple kindness like a flower to a sun ... Only a few moments later he had vanished completely, and their last impression was of those eyes, blinking in wonder, and a sigh of the most profound and exhausted relief. Then he was gone: a mystery dissolving in a mystery. (Pullman, 2000, p.926)

Pullmans writing technique further amplifies the gentle euphoria of this event; he spends under a page covering the death of what many would consider the ultimate creator and conveys it in a tone of absolute tenderness and innocence. The reader is made to feel as though death is graceful and natural. This complete dissipation of self relates wholly to Freuds controversial arguments about the biological tendency towards destruction.

It was also Freuds conviction that Eros, which is the life drive that encompasses creativity, love, libido, selfsatisfaction and preservation, balances our latent leaning towards Thanatos and evidence of this is bountiful in His Dark Materials. Essentially, this text concludes with the victory of love when The Dust pouring down from the stars had found a living home again, and these children-no-longer-children, saturated with love, were the cause of it all (Pullman, p.976). In a world of chaos, it is two children discovering their love and innate sexuality, a feeling which Lyra describes as ...exciting and frightening at the same time, and she had not the slightest idea why ... She felt as if she had been handed the key to a great house she hadnt known was there, a house that was somehow inside of her (Pullman, p.953), that restores order to the worlds. Not just social order, but restores the flow of Dust, Pullmans physical symbol of human conscience, making love intrinsically tied in with what it means to be human. Eros aims at complicating life and at the same time, of course, at preserving it (Freud, 1923, p.40) and it is apparent that love preserves life in His Dark Materials in the most absolute way. It would seem that His Dark Materials matches with Freudian views in that individual human emotion manifests itself into more widespread effects in a fundamental way. To Freud, Eros also represented libido or the sex drive which is the energy ... of those instincts which have to do with all that may be comprised under the word love [...] in relations between the sexes these impulses force their way toward sexual union (Freud, 1921, p.90-91). Marisa Coulter who is Lyras mother comes across in Pullmans text as an extremely complex character who is treacherous, cruel and utterly power-hungry, yet comes to show a side that was nurturing and loving towards her daughter, with her selfish nature completely dissipating when it came to the safety of Lyra. However, it can be interpreted that Mrs. Coulters protection of Lyra was in fact selfish when we consider that Lyra is a product of Eros, the love between Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel. While these two are characters who hold enormous power, ultimately the couple sacrifice their own lives and give into death for the survival of Lyra, their daughter, the manifestation of their satisfied libido. They succumb to the magnetism of death while simultaneously performing an act of love, representing the polar interaction of Eros and Thanatos as a binary - one cannot exist without the other. The duality of Eros and Thanatos represents the fluid nature of humanistic drives and shows the dichotomy within our interactions through life and how we are guided into making moral decisions in a primal way. The binary again fulfils Freuds criteria by presenting the most devastating complication, that being Lyra and Wills inevitable separation at the end of their adventures. While the Eros aspect changes the children irrevocably, they ultimately find that they cannot be with one another for the rest of their lives because they are unable to survive in alternate universes for an extended period. Just as the parents love turns to death, so too does the childrens. Pullmans world continues to reflect Freudian theories regarding psychosexual development at the conclusion of The Amber Spyglass. Freud believes that childhood is controlled by the id, which is an instinctive wish-fulfilment drive that seeks gratification (Stevenson, 1998), and when Lyra is tempted by Mary Malone, the serpent, she gives into her desires and newly discovered sexuality. However, as the child grows, it learns that its desires cannot always be fulfilled; it is subjected to the reality principle (Webb, 2009) and Will and Lyras heart-wrenching choice to live their lives apart show their development from selfish children into more mature human beings. The strong biblical reference to the fall of Adam and Eve permeates through Pullmans characterisation and this symbolism helps to emphasise the authors aim to subvert our notions of innocence by first showing childrens innocence not as guiltless, but rather as uncouth, even feral as the absence of knowledge and of culture rather than the presence of purity, love, or virtue (Wood, 2005). Lyra and Wills growth into beings who are conscious of reality rather than being course and greedy (Pullman, 1995 p. 32) children would thus be seen, according to Freud, as indicative of growing up and learning responsibility because even though the children felt more anger and pain than ever before in their life neither his despair nor Lyras moved them a single inch. (Pullman, 2000, p.996). More symbolically, the settlement of the dmon is used to represent developmental change, the final animals representing the true nature of the persons soul, showing an adult self-awareness. To Will, his settled dmon accompanied a new mood [that] had taken hold of him, and he felt resolute and peaceful he moved his hand and stroked the red-gold fur of Lyras dmon. Lyra gasped. But her surprise was mixed with pleasure, with a racing heart she responded the same way [and] knew that Will was feeling exactly as she was So, wondering whether any lovers before them had made this blissful discovery, they lay together... (Pullman, 2000, p.1000). This suggestive sensitivity of touching the dmons comes across as sexual, and seeing as dmons represent the truth of humanity, sharing something so intimate reflects a coming of age as well as relating to the Eros drive. The reality principal and the theme of growing up comes across strongly in Pullmans heavily symbolic writing and endorses the idea of self-discovery being ethical and beneficial to our world.

Discovering sexuality is often interpreted by our western, Judeo-Christian society as something evil, an inescapable disease, because religion is often considered to be the vanguard of morality. Pullman however, opposes these notions and presents an alternate view of this moral question though his books. Many works acted as inspiration Pullmans trilogy, such as the writings of William Blake and Heinrich von Klein among others. But most prominently His Dark Materials is a reaction to Paradise Lost as Pullman celebrates what Milton saw as humanitys most tragic failing, The Fall of Man. Pullman inverts what Milton, and many religious factions would consider to be original sin and temptation by instead endorsing these qualities as natural curiosity, a form of good. Arguably, the purpose of literature is to provide social commentary and a reflection of society, literature is the great textbook for real knowledge. The writings of the day show the quality of the people as no historical reconstruction can. (Edith Hamilton), and His Dark Materials is no exception. Heavily laden with historical and cultural references, Pullman weaves in ideas that have been alluded to in the past to show how humanity constantly questions itself. In The Amber Spyglass chapters are structured to reflect the sentiments of other authors in short quote form at the beginning of each paragraph, and this message is echoed in the following section of the plot. For example, at the beginning of Chapter 28: Midnight, a quote from Keats poem Ode to a Nightingale is used, For many a time I have been half in love with easeful death. The chapter focuses on Asriel and Mrs. Coulter as the love between them is rekindled and their love for their daughter is also recognised, it also begins to show the sentiments later leading to the two sacrificing themselves into death for this love. The inter-textuality and historically relevant discourse of His Dark Materials shows how relevant the works are in portraying ideas of morality. Pullman himself has rejected the label of fantasy:
I have said that His Dark Materials is not fantasy but stark realism, and my reason for this is to emphasise what I think is an important aspect of the story, namely the fact that it is realistic, in psychological terms. I deal with matters that might normally be encountered in works of realism, such as adolescence, sexuality, and so on; and they are the main subject matter of the story the fantasy (which, of course, is there: no-one but a fool would think I meant there is no fantasy in the books at all) is there to support and embody them, not for its own sake. Pullman, 2007, ACHUKA Interview

The links to psychology and history the author has himself made links intricately with Freud and Foucaults theories. Although both academics study humanity from completely different fields, they both concur in viewing human nature as something organic. Theoretically, they are vastly contrasting, not only in the subject matter and field, but also in their scale. Foucault deals in power as an overwhelming societal force while Freud looks at humans individually. They do not explicitly focus on morality, yet the two theories both apply directly to Pullmans text and they both agree on a factor which Pullman himself draws upon, that being auniversal human experience (Pullman, 2008). The depiction of morality in His Dark Materials is a message that can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. Some may argue that love conquers evil, that self-awareness is more moral than ignorant innocence or that religion stifles human development and controls morality. These are all valid arguments and ideas that have already been postulated, but viewing the trilogy in correlation with Freudian psychoanalysis and Foucaults power theory, as well as considering Pullmans own view of his text, depicts a new perspective on this central message. Good and evil, according to these theorists, are not elements that are true to human nature because we are beings that function on levels that are influenced by a bombardment of our surroundings. Essentially we are the product of external factors - power relations, religion, history, influence; but also of our natural drives; Eros, Thanatos and sexuality. Pullman, Freud and Foucault all present a central tenet which is unified in its message, being that we as a species have an innate nature. We act according to certain human traits and these traits are perfectly natural. It is this purity that can be seen as the truest morality; and that no matter how we interpret our human behaviour, ultimately what is natural is moral and good.

REFERENCES ACHUKA. (2007). Interview: Phillip Pullman. Available: Last accessed 28th Aug 2012. Bunnin, N., & and Jiyuan, Y., Blackwell Reference Online, Eros: Freud [Online]. 2004, Available from Chambon, Michael (2004) "Dust & Daemons". Originally published in The New York Review of Books Fellunga, Dino. Modules on Foucault: On Power Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Jan 31 2011. Purdue U. accessed 19 August 2012. Foucault, Michel (1980), Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, edited by Colin Gordon, Harvester, London. Foucault, Michel The Subject and Power" 1982: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics" University of Chicago, p. 208. Foucault, Michel (1978) "The History of Sexuality I: An Introduction" ditions Gallimard, France. Freud, S (1990) "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" W. W. Norton & Company, New York. Freud, S (1914c). "On narcissism: An introduction." SE, 14: 73-102. Freud, S (1921) "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego" Boni & Liveright, New York. Green, Andr. (2001). Life narcissism, death narcissism (Andrew Weller, Trans.). London and New York: Free Association Books. (Original work published 1983) Keats, J (1891). Ode to a Nightingale. Lye, J. (2008). The Interpretive Turn. Available: . Last accessed 13 Aug 2012. Pullman, P (2007) "His Dark Materials" Scholastic Children's Books, London. Pullman, P (1995) "Northern Lights" Scholastic Ltd., London. Pullman, P (1997) "The Subtle Knife" Scholastic Ltd., London. Pullman, P (2000) "The Amber Spyglass" David Fickling Books, London. Stevenson, D.B.. (1998). Freud's Division of the Mind. Available: Last accessed 16th Aug 2012. Webb, S.L.. (2009). An Overview of Freud on Love and Death Drives Available: Last accessed 17th Aug 2012. Wood, N (2005). "Dismembered Starlings and Neutered Minds" Yeffeth, G (2006) "Navigating the Golden Compass" Benbella Books, Dallas.