Lyra, the protagonist of the trilogy, is the second Eve. To Pullman, the original Eve depicted in Genesis was not the cause of all sin, but the source of all knowledge and awareness. In the universe of the novels, when Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, she became the mother of humanity and introduced Dust into the worlds. If Eve hadn’t eaten the fruit, humans would have remained forever in a childlike state of ignorance in the Garden of Eden. But this is not the dominant interpretation of events because a power-hungry Church has taken control of Eve’s story and twisted it to serve their own plans. They call knowledge “sin” and try to prevent people from learning more and growing wiser and more experienced. They think Dust is evil and contrive ways to keep people away from it. Lyra, as the new Eve, must fall again in order to restore respect for knowledge. She must also pass from childhood to womanhood in order to restore Dust, which has been leaking out of the world.
Lyra Belacqua, whose first name means “lyre” in Latin and whose last name means “beautiful water,” experiences a sexual awakening over the course of the trilogy. Just as Eve and Adam had their first sexual experience after eating from the tree of knowledge and leaving innocence behind, Lyra passes from childhood to adulthood only after learning about herself and her body. In Pullman’s novels, the body is not sinful or dirty, but rather a source of beauty and strength.
Lyra, who is more or less raised as an orphan, has a streak of adventurousness that makes her the perfect heroine for Pullman’s story. Lyra is hungry for experience. She is rebellious and willful and obeys no one unless she thinks she has good reason to do so. Pullman’s story about an imposter God and a rebellion against an all-powerful Church demands a character as headstrong, adventurous, and strangely innocent as Lyra.
Children’s literature is full of orphans or near-orphans who go on adventures. Will Parry, who looks after himself and his ailing mother, follows in this tradition. Because he lacks true parent figures, Will is free to explore another world. Will does not enjoy everything about his parentless state. Like Lyra, Will is driven by his search for his father. Because he has acted like an adult for so long, Will longs to be a child and to be advised and parented by his long-absent father. Fittingly, it is in his search for childhood that Will matures and finds love with Lyra.
Pullman suggests free will is what separates adults from children. Adults are allowed to exercise free will, while children are not. To Pullman, the Church treats its parishioners like children, stifling their natural impulses and oppressing them with strict rules about what they can and cannot do. Will, who is closer to adulthood than Lyra is, represents the triumph of free will. He is strong-willed and stubborn. Instead of being coddled by a doting mother, he looks after adults. People constantly comment on how he seems to be more than a mere child. Will is a formidable opponent who acts when necessary and rarely dithers over what to do next.
Mrs. Coulter, Lyra’s mother, is an almost purely evil character. Despite her charming and persuasive demeanor, Mrs. Coulter is the greediest, most power-hungry character in the trilogy. Her daemon, a vicious little golden monkey, reflects its owner’s personality. Just as the monkey enjoys torturing and killing bats in the cave in which Mrs. Coulter keeps Lyra, Mrs. Coulter enjoys toying with people before she kills them. She shows no remorse after tearing people to pieces or torturing them to death. For much of the trilogy, Mrs. Coulter is associated with the Church, where she heads up the General Oblation Board, the organization that kidnaps children in order to perform dastardly experiments on them.
Despite her cruelty, Mrs. Coulter has a soft spot for Lyra. She rescues Lyra from Intercision at Bolvanger, she looks after Lyra in the cave in the Himalayas, and she fights desperately with Father MacPhail to make sure that his bomb doesn’t kill Lyra. In the end, she gives her own life to drag Metatron into the abyss so that Lyra can accomplish her goal. Mrs. Coulter’s transformation is inspired by Lyra, who evokes extraordinary love from most people she encounters.
Mrs. Coulter’s relationship with Lord Asriel, Lyra’s father, adds another dimension to her character. The struggle between Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel drives much of the trilogy’s narrative. Though Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel battle for control of their daughter, Lyra’s existence suggests that a powerful attraction once existed between them.
Modeled after Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lord Asriel is the gentlemanly devil who plans to overthrow God and establish a Republic of Heaven. In other stories, Asriel would almost certainly be the villain. In Pullman’s trilogy, Asriel is complicated, arrogant, and unlikable, but in many ways he is also a heroic figure.
The name Asriel is derived from Asrael, the name of a biblical angel. In the Bible, Asrael’s appearance heralds the apocalypse. He is also an angel of death who severs human souls from human bodies. Lord Asriel hopes to induce an apocalypse of his own by waging war on God, and he separates Roger’s soul (his daemon) from his body.
In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan tempts Eve with the fruit from the tree of knowledge. In Pullman’s trilogy, Lord Asriel’s compelling slides of Dust and the aurora borealis convince Lyra to go on her quest for knowledge. Though Lord Asriel doesn’t ultimately play the serpent to Lyra’s Eve, he does instill in her the thirst for knowledge.