Thought Leadership

Questions about dæmons

By Colin Walls

I am a keen – dare I say it: avid – reader and I always have a book on the go [on my Kindle normally]. Typically I read contemporary fiction alternating with non-fiction [biography, science etc.]. I love the feeling of getting lost in a book and savor the feeling of being excited at the prospect of a quick read of another chapter [or 2 or 3 …]. My current book is His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman …

This is actually a trilogy of books, but I purchased it as a single, 930-page volume, which I am working my way through. At the time of writing, I am about 40% of the way through and thoroughly gripped.

Normally, when I read fiction, I want to learn something. So I am always fussy about the integrity of the author; I want the research to be done right. If it is science fiction, I expect the science to be sound or, at least, conceivable. For this reason, I am challenged by fantasy as a genre. I have great difficulty with suspending belief and accepting a different reality. Somehow, however, Pullman enables me to believe in the world that he describes – even if some of seems, to me, to be downright impossible. I think the writing – the quality of his language and the details of the descriptions – is the secret. The big thing that I learn from this reading is lots of new words [I love having a built-in dictionary on my Kindle].

An aspect of Pullman’s alternative universe [or, I should say, of one of the universes] is the concept of a dæmon: an animal companion possessed by every human. The dæmon is separate from the individual, but also part of them; if the human and dæmon get physically separated by more than a short distance, it causes great distress and pain to both. Children’s dæmons have not “settled” – i.e. decided what animal to be; this occurs at puberty and the form they take is in some ways an indication of the character of the person. When a human dies, their dæmon just disappears; if a dæmon is killed, the human dies also. The idea of dæmons is fundamental to the series of books.

Because I am a naturally curious person, I always want to understand things, to ask questions. In the case of dæmons, I have quite a few:

  • Do dæmons eat and drink? There is a mention of a dæmon nibbling something, as I recall, so I suppose the answer is yes. The extension of this question is: are they fully functioning animals? Do they breath, defecate, etc.?
  • When someone is born, where does their dæmon come from? Does it just appear out of thin air? Does it appear immediately after birth or on conception or what?
  • Most people have a dæmon of the opposite gender. There are exceptions. Does this say something about the person’s sexuality?
  • Why do dæmons settle on a particular form? It would have been an evolutionary advantage [I would imagine] if they retained their ability to change species at will.
  • Do children’s dæmons have a specific set of forms that they can take?
  • Are dæmons always smaller than the human? Although they seem to vary in size between an insect and a big cat, I have not come across anyone who has a dæmon that is, say, an elephant.
  • If two humans are affectionate to one another, their dæmons follow suit – likewise if they are aggressive. Does this imply that, if two people have sex, their dæmons mate? In which case, their differing species could make life difficult.
  • There is a very strong taboo against touching someone else’s dæmon. What is the background to this? It is almost an analogy to our taboo about touching certain parts of another person’s body. For us, that taboo is dropped if the individuals are intimate. Does this imply that lovers might touch one another’s dæmons?

I have a feeling that this list might go on …

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at