ENGL 203: Science Fiction & Fantasy

Dr. John Pennington

Fall 2015, Freshman Year


  • Friday Insights
  • 2 Critical Essays
  • 2 Take Home Test Essays


The prompt was to write an essay that helps readers understand how one of the twelve novels we read in class fit within the original culture and its concerns.  Dr. Pennington asked us to pick a topic that was related to our major—for English majors, he recommended exploring a New Historical Context.  Though I liked the other novels studied in class, The Golden Compass stood out best, so I went with studying how the STD fear in the 1990’s influenced the writing of the book.

Disease and Daemons

Throughout history, diseases have popped up to decimate the population and strike fear in humanity’s hearts as people grew ill.  In the beginning, the slightest illness would kill a person.  If someone sneezed, people began the preparations for that person’s burial.  As humans understanding of disease grew and the world changed, new diseases and germs were discovered.  Fast forward to the 1980’s to the early 1990’s.  A panic ensued as new STDs appeared, one with the name of the human immunodeficiency virus or HIV.  Not a lot was known about how to combat, treat, or prevent the virus from spreading.  People fell into a fear as they waited for answers and clarifications.  They questioned how it spread, and what they should do to avoid contracting the virus.  By the 1990’s, answers were slowly being formed.  A few writers in the time tried to make sense of what was happening.  Philip Pullman, a children’s author, lived during this precarious time.  He first hand saw the promiscuity that society suffered.  As he lived in this time, he wrote to try to help make sense and protest the responses people had to preventing the spread of HIV and other STDs.  Philip Pullman’s work, The Golden Compass, protests the use of circumcision in response to sex in the 1990’s.

During the nineties, people lived in fear and uncertainty of sex, especially for their developing youth.  STDs and HIV were on the rise with no known treatments that could cure them.  Experiments took place to try to figure out how to prevent the spread.  Teens fooled around and enjoyed in promiscuity as the world worried (Robin, et al 4).  As teens experimented with sex, the spread of HIV and STDs rose with it (Mercer et al 6).  Most worrisome to the public was the rise of HIV in homosexual relationships.  Some saw the supposed revolution of people ‘giving into their sexual sins’ as reason for the ‘divine’ bestowing the HIV virus onto the world (Mercer et al 7).  Yet, the church took up its cry of abstinence as teenagers acted like bunnies in heat.  Scientists and doctors searched frantically for answers elsewhere in the world.  They wondered if other cultures found ways to combat this awful disease.   In their search for answers, scientists found that one culture had found a somewhat preventive measure to combat HIV and other STDs: African’s use of circumcision (Merson 3).  Africans actual intent was not to prevent HIV and other STDs: a decent chunk of the population underwent circumcision as a rite of passage (Silverman 423).  Because of this, the African population saw a smaller number of circumcised men contracting STDs and HIV (Merson 4).  By no means was it fool proof, but the general number of men that were STD free still fell significantly lower than anything the doctors could envision in their desperation.

Pullman depicts the desperation from the viewpoint of a small child in a parallel universe.  The desperation he demonstrates in The Golden Compass shows a young girl named Lyra trying to rescue her friend from the Gobblers, the children snatchers.  While on her journey, she discovers that the captured kids are being separated from their daemons.  A daemon is an intelligent, animal- like being that is an exterior soul of a person, important to that person’s personality and an eternal companion.  Through this visualization, Pullman depicts a heartbroken and emotional stirring image of a child that is lost without a part of themselves.  Lyra embarks on a small mission to help relieve a village from a ghost (Pullman 205).  Instead of discovering a ghost, she finds a lost boy named Tony who has been separated from his daemon, Ratter (Pullman 213).  When she finds him, Tony grips a dead fish to himself in desperation to feel the connectedness of being whole with a daemon.  Little, helpless Tony is traumatized and shortly perishes from the heartbreak of being only a part of a whole soul (Pullman 218).  His daemon was an important part of him that helped him live in the world.  The intercession of a daemon and a child is barbaric to Lyra.  This scene is not just remarking on the cruelty of taking a daemon away from a child.  In reality, Pullman is protesting the practice of circumcision.

Because of the HIV and STD crisis, circumcision rose in popularity in an attempt at protecting the young.  During the nineties, hospitals started using anesthesia before continuing the jarring procedure (Hirshberg 15).  Many in the public felt that anesthesia was a way to prey on minors unknowingly: a despicable and cruel act.  Despite the public’s uncomfortableness with the practice of circumcision, doctors, hospitals, and clinics all over Europe and America tried to promote it (Hirshberg 23).  Looking through the history of Africa, a place that had been more harshly exposed to HIV earlier than Europe and America, found that circumcision had actually helped reduce the risk of contracting HIV (Wade 8).  Though this was not a fool proof way to prevent it, the science field felt that it was a preventive measure with enough positive results to promote it.

Pullman did not see the complete positivity of the practice.  To him, he saw people taking advantage of young people who could not voice their consent.  The pieces of them that were being cut away were private and intimate.  Without full understanding, the children were being robbed of an important aspect of themselves: their choice in developing.  The decision for circumcision should have been left with the child to decide later on in life when they could better understand it.  For some religious families, it was not just the fear of STDs and HIV that led them to deciding for their child.  Pullman saw with disgust that people were trying to take more from children than what they were initially preventing.  The children are reaching a point in their life where they can make decisions for themselves and can break from the parent’s influence.  In The Golden Compass, Pullman depicts children as small savages in their warlike games and was quoted in a book stating that children are “ignorant little savages” (Baggini 176, Pullman 35).  From what he knows from history, circumcision was not the best solution.

The Golden Compass mentions the history of circumcision briefly as Lyra overhears nurses talking (Pullman 272-273).  In the beginning of their experiments, the nurses would tear a child and daemon a part.  There is a limit to how far away a daemon can be away from their child.  Apparently overstretching that limit can cause them too separate. Within this time, Lyra understands that the nurses sedate the children before placing them in a guillotine like machine that severs the connection between the child and daemon (Pullman 273).  At first, children died of shock from the separation process, but once anesthesia and proper scalpel tools were introduced, more children survived the daemon separation (Pullman 272-273).

This pattern follows history as well.  Many children fell to infection and not being able to urinate due to inflammation from their genitalia (Hirshberg 5).  Once the process became more refined in the twentieth century, more children survived with less complications.  Before the 1990’s, doctors, priests, and tribesmen would operate with the patient fully awake (Hirshberg 15, Silverman 423).  Tribesmen were expected to experience the procedure stoically and without complaint.  In other religions, doctors and clergy men would simply restrain the patient and do what was expected.  The infant or child was ignored as he or she cried and screamed.  Some would cut the skin away from the genitals, others would just rip it off (Silverman 422-423).  This traumatized children unsurprisingly.

As the STD and HIV crisis was stanched in studies of African circumcision, people felt the need to force their children to undergo the practice.  Once a baby was delivered in the hospital, one of the first questions asked by the doctor was if the parents wanted their child circumcised (Hirshberg 4).  People without religion ties were encouraged to do the procedure to prevent their child from contracting an STD as well as for other hygienic purposes (Hirshberg 24, Gollaher 9-10).  In Judaism, there was no real question about it.  For Jewish people, the circumcision was necessary to keep one pure for God and move the boy on from the mother (Silverman 424).   In Muslim practices, circumcision was practiced on both sexes once the child reached puberty.  The circumcising of children who reached puberty was supposed to help ensure the destruction of impure sexual desires as well as make sex for procreation rather than a fulfillment to quench sexual desire (Silverman 428).  Africans saw circumcision as a rite of passage to show that the boy had reached manhood and was ready to partake in sexual maturity (Silverman 421).  Looking further, even in English culture, it used to be a way to prevent people, mainly male, from masturbating (Gollaher 6, Silverman 435).  They believed that the nervous system was connected to emotions in the body and that nervousness and disquiet was found in the genitalia, causing the urge to act on sexual drives (Gollaher 8).  Through this “minor” surgery, the church could ‘protect’ and prevent people from indulging in their sinful lust.  Through these four cultures, circumcision was a way to ensure the preparation of pure intimacy in life and future divinity.

Pullman briefly shadows the cultures that practiced circumcision.  The Golden Compass remarks on the ‘ghosts’ of other cultures that practice circumcision.  Pullman uses this commentary to highlight how popular a practice circumcision appeared to be throughout multiple cultures.  Lyra listens fascinated to the tales of ghosts that roam countries and have zombie servants (Pullman 107, 375).  For example, she learns that the Nalkainens are ghosts of children without heads that devour people who roam in the forests in the North.  The word is Finnish in origin and means “to be hungry” (“Nalkainen” 1).  Lyra also learns that Windsuckers are ghosts of a sort that roam and steal people’s strength (Pullman 107). Windsucking can be related to a term in veterinary practice that is used for horses who accidentally harm themselves in response to escaping their harnesses (“Windsucking” 1).   Zombies, which are found all over cultures, serve people once they are cut from their daemons (Pullman 375).  Through these supposed myths in Lyra’s world, Pullman writes metaphors for those removed from their supposed sinful beginnings.  Each mythic creature is said to take something from others to serve their own needs.  Lyra soon realizes with Tony, the lost boy with the fish, that maybe the ghosts are really just people who have fallen prey to losing their daemons.  Because they lost a piece of themselves, they look for something to replace their emptiness.

Pullman depicts Mrs. Coulter and the Magisterium as the villains in his novel.  They are the ones that oversee the Gobblers who kidnap the children for their experiments.  The Gobblers are the ones who do not care about taboos that are set in the society of their world.  No one is allowed to touch another person’s daemon.  This is an unspoken understanding between people.  The nurses in the oblation board where Lyra is captured do not care as they overcome Lyra by touching her daemon, Pan (Pullman 275).  They try to separate Pan and Lyra but are stopped by Mrs. Coulter, Lyra’s estranged mother.  Mrs. Coulter and the Magisterium represent the Christian faith.  Mrs. Coulter tries to justify the procedure to Lyra:

“…All that happens is a little cut, and then everything’s peaceful.  Forever!  You see, your daemon’s a wonderful friend and companion when you’re young, but at the age we call puberty, the age you’re coming to very soon, darling, daemons bring all sort of troublesome thoughts and feelings, and that’s what lets Dust in.  A quick little operation before that, and you’re never troubled again (Pullman, 283-284).”

The justification given parallels to religious thought through most spans of religions.  Judaism, Islam, African tribes, and some forms of Christianity use this practice to prevent naughty thoughts and actions.  In the old days, castration was also used as a form of punishment to remove bad thoughts from rapists and adulterers (Wade 11).  The Christian religion relates sin to the finalizing of the fall of Adam and Eve when they left Eden and had sex.  Because the fall is related to the intimacy between Adam and Eve, the church naturally thought that sex was the cause of most problems.  Taking away what they thought was the source meant removing those ‘organs.’

In The Golden Compass, Dust is the physical depiction of sin which attracts to the children after they reach puberty, which is the time of becoming sexually aware.  In this time, the child’s daemon also settles on a form that is supposed to depict that child’s personality.  Since the child’s daemon envisions the person’s personality, this is the last chance for a child to discover themselves in all ways of the word “discover.”  They truly become who they are destined to be after that point.  Growing up is part of figuring out who someone is meant to be.  Innocence is drawn to childhood and experience begins in puberty.  Through a person’s body awakening, he or she begins to understand the world.  Puberty is necessary in entering adulthood.  When people try to prevent someone from growing up, consequences arise that they never thought of.  Mrs. Coulter and the Gobblers try to take away the necessary companion of children.  Without their companion, the children perish because they cannot imagine themselves without their daemon.  Sin is ingrained too far into humankind for them to want to relinquish it.  This need and want for sin is what makes someone human.  The child may still have sin, but at least he or she will not be enduring it alone.  Adam had Eve.  Eve had Adam.  Humans were never meant to be alone.  The church should stop trying to prevent what is natural and supposed to happen.  As Lyra says to Mrs. Coulter, “If [Lord Asriel]’s got Dust and you’ve got Dust, and the Master of Jordan and every other grownup’s got Dust, it must be all right (Pullman 283).”  From the frame of a child, this holds true.

The Golden Compass is a book written against the cultural and religious popularity of circumcision in the STD and HIV crisis of the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Pullman uses his characters and imagery to emphasize his beliefs.  In this novel, religion’s fight to take away what is natural to the human being is villainized as science and the church clash and form a different approach to removing sin from the world.  Pullman argues that sin is natural to humans now and is not worth removing at this point of evolution.  Sex is natural for human existence and should not be prevented.

Works Cited

Baggini, Julian, and Jeremy Stangroom. What More Philosophers Think. London: Continuum, 2007. Print

Gollaher, David L.. “From Ritual to Science: The Medical Transformation of Circumcision in America”. Journal of Social History 28.1 (1994): 5–36. Web. 10 Dec. 2015

Hirshberg, Charles. “Should All Males Be Circumcised?” Men’s Health. Men’s Health, 28 Jan. 2009. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <http://www.menshealth.com/health/debate-over-circumcision>.

Mercer, Catherine H., Clare Tanton, Philip Prah, Bob Erens, Pam Sonnenberg, Soazig Clifton, Wendy Macdowall, Ruth Lewis, Nigel Field, Jessica Datta, Andrew J. Copas, Andrew Phelps, Kaye Wellings, and Anne M. Johnson. “Changes in Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles in Britain through the Life Course and over Time: Findings from the National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal).” Lancet. Lancet Publishing Group, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3899021/>.

Merson, Michael H. “Slowing the Spread of HIV: Agenda for the 1990s.” Proquest. Science, 28 May 1993. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <http://search.proquest.com/openview/54a56b850472a226a4c5b18cf4b875a0/1?pq-origsite=gscholar>.

“Nalkainen.” Nalkainen: Definition of Nalkainen and Synonyms of Nalkainen (Finnish).   Sensagent, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <http://dictionary.sensagent.com/NALKAINEN/fi-fi/>.

Pullman, Philip. The Golden Compass. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. Print.

Robin, Leah, Patricia Dittus, Daniel Whitaker, Richard Crosby, Kathleen Ethier, Jane Mezoff, Kim Miller, and Katine Pappas-Deluca. “Behavioral Interventions to Reduce Incidence of HIV, STD, and Pregnancy among Adolescents: A Decade in Review.” Journal of Adolescent Health 34.1 (2004): 3-26. Web.

Silverman, Eric K.. “Anthropology and Circumcision”. Annual Review of Anthropology 33 (2004): 419–445. Web. 10 Dec. 2015 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25064860>

Wade, Holly Anne. “Discrimination, Sexuality and People with Significant Disabilities: Issues of Access and The Right to Sexual Expression in the United States | Wade | Disability Studies Quarterly.” Discrimination, Sexuality and People with Significant Disabilities: Issues of Access and The Right to Sexual Expression in the United States | Wade | Disability Studies Quarterly. Disability Studies Quarterly, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/369/485>.

“Windsucking.” Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2015 <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/cribbing>.