Saturday, 27 December 2014

Badgers in Literature: Philip Pullman's *His Dark Materials*

Though not a major presence in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, the two appearances by badgers in the trilogy’s first book, Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in North America), are nevertheless significant to the tale, as they relate to the essential bond between young Lyra Belacqua and her shapeshifting soul-dæmon, Pantalaimon.  The first takes place when Lyra tries to meet with the disgraced bear king, Iorek Byrnison, to persuade him to join her in a rescue mission; though generally high-spirited and even reckless, she is too frightened of the massive beast to follow through with her plan.  To urge her forward, and relying on their deep physical and spiritual bond, Pantalaimon transforms into a stout Meles:
She felt angry and miserable.  His badger claws dug into the earth and he walked forward.  It was such a strange tormenting feeling when your dæmon was pulling at the link between you; part physical pain deep in the chest, part intense sadness and love.  And she knew it was the same for him.  Everyone tested it when they were growing up: seeing how far they could pull apart, coming back with intense relief.

She overcomes her fear and rushes to embrace Pan, who has brought her close enough to begin the delicate negotiations with the mighty bear, but certain that ‘she knew she would rather die than let them be parted and face that sadness again; it would send her mad with grief and terror’.[i]  This reflection is a prescient one, for it foreshadows the other badger appearance in the novel, when Lyra and Pan fight against a group of ‘Gobblers’ who threaten to cut Pan away from her in a horrific surgical procedure meant to strip children of the free will represented by their dæmons: ‘But they had dæmons too, of course.  It wasn’t two against three, it was two against six.  A badger, an owl, and a baboon were all just as intent to pin Pantalaimon down, and Lyra was crying to them: “Why?  Why are you doing this?  Help us!  You shouldn’t be helping them!”’[ii]  Here, too, badgerish determination succeeds, though in a sinister reflection of the earlier scene the badger of a full-grown man is used to subject Lyra to the fear of arbitrary power, rather than the earlier freedom she’d experienced when her own beloved Pan became a badger.

[i] Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), pp. 143-144.

[ii] Pullman, His Dark Materials, p. 205.

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