Regan Daley Discovers Daemons
I was one of those kids who read voraciously. If there wasn't at least one book
on the go and a stack waiting, panic set in. I started around age six and continued
in more or less the same way until well into my twenties.
Then I had kids.
Many kids, and all at the same time.
The first thirteen months after my twin sons were born, I was lucky to properly
read the size on a package of diapers. But then an astonishing thing happened:
they fell madly in love with books. My pile of unread novels wasn't getting
any smaller (it wasn't getting much bigger, either, to be fair: they don't seem
to have a literary fiction section in Toys "R" Us...), but by the time they were
three and a half, the boys were begging me to start the
first Harry Potter book, and we officially made the leap to chapter books.
Ironically, it was on one of my scouting missions to the kids' section that
I came across what would be the most memorable reading experience of my adult
life. Beside the
Harry Potter box set sat a trilogy by British author Philip
Pullman with the intriguing title of His
Dark Materials. I'm not sure what made me think I could find time to read
it, but all three volumes came home with me and I began a journey I never wanted
I was not, until then, a reader of fantasy. I could name a handful of key
authors, but was otherwise unfamiliar with the genre overall. Turns out this
would probably suit Mr. Pullman just fine; he has infamously said he views the
series not as fantasy, but as "stark reality." An interesting perspective,
considering his subjects of worlds beside worlds, of ghostly Specters, of witches
and Gobblers and armored bears. No doubt Pullman has fielded strong arguments
to the contrary, but I'll concede with no contest: the worlds of these three
volumes are born of a magnificently unique imagination, but felt as close as
a breath, as familiar as the taste of hot tea.
In Pullman's alternate realities, the other worlds into which his young heroine
Lyra and her companion Will advance, things are not upside-down or completely
alien. Instead, fundamental aspects of our humanity are illuminated or articulated
in marvelous ways.
Among these, it was the concept of daemons which resonated most deeply. In
Lyra's world, every human has an animal counterpart, a creature who is viscerally
connected to him or her; neither one can exist without the other. Men have female
daemons, woman have male; children's daemons can change shape at will or with
extreme emotion, but become fixed as adults. Sometimes, pairings are predictable:
servants have dog daemons; sometimes, they are surprising: in the second book,
Knife, a man from our own world finds himself in Lyra's, and encounters
his daemon for the first time: "Can you imagine my astonishment...at learning
that part of my nature was female, and bird-formed, and beautiful?"
This idea of daemons was hauntingly, fiercely compelling. I began to read
about spirit guides and totems, about the Jungian anima and animus. It made
a kind of sense, and excited me on a level few "literary" novels had ever reached.
As I was nearing the end of the second book, savoring every chapter with a kind
of hunger, I had a minor epiphany: I began to think of the books of my own childhood
which had made the biggest impression; the ones I lived, while reading them
and for weeks after; the books which shaped me, which gave me ideas and images
and whole worlds to influence the person I was becoming. I realized that almost
without exception, each of these books had an element of fantasy about them.
They were certainly not science fiction, and their characters dwelled in the
same world I did. But there was always a way in which the finite hardness of
reality was shown to be frayed or flexible or illusory; a little magic that
stretched the rules.
In spite of many years of respectable literature and several of wonderful
children's books, it had been decades since I had felt the kind of hunger for
a story I felt with these books. Reading them reawakened in me something innate,
as natural as a fear of the dark and a taste for chocolate.
About Regan Daley
Regan Daley is a freelance
writer whose book In
the Sweet Kitchen (Artisan, 2001) won the International Association for
Culinary Professionals awards for Best Baking or Dessert Book and Best Overall
Book of 2000. Currently at work on fiction and nonfiction projects, she lives
in Toronto, Canada, with her husband, three little boys and their food-phobic