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After escaping from Mrs. Coulter’s house, Lyra and Pantalaimon wander through London. By the wharves, they are almost caught by a band of slavers, but Tony Costa, a Gyptian, rescues them. Tony brings Lyra with him to the houseboat on which he lives with his mother, Ma Costa. The Gobblers have stolen Tony’s brother, Billy. The Costas bring Lyra with them to a meeting of all the Gyptians, who are under the control of Lord John Faa. As they travel, Lyra and Tony discuss what the General Oblation Board is doing with the kids they steal. Though they know where the kids are taken, nobody can figure out what happens to them.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter and the General Oblation Board have police scouring England for Lyra, but the Gyptians keep her hidden. At the meeting of Gyptians, which is called a Roping, Lord Faa rallies his people to send a band of men north to rescue the kidnapped children. After the meeting, Lyra goes to meet with John Faa. She also meets Farder Coram, a wise and kindly old Gyptian man. John Faa tells Lyra that she is really the illegitimate daughter of Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter and that Ma Costa nursed her as a baby.
Not long after the Roping, an injured Gyptian spy returns from a reconnaissance mission. He tells Farder Coram that a man named Lord Boreal is involved in the Gobblers’ work and that the children have been taken to the Arctic region known as Lapland. With Farder Coram’s help, Lyra learns how to use the alethiometer, with which she can predict the future and learn information about anything in the past or present. The Gyptians decide to take Lyra north with them. Their first stop is at the home of the representative of the Lapland witches, Dr. Lanselius. He tests Lyra to see if she can find something belonging to a witch named Serafina Pekkala, who once knew Farder Coram. Dr. Lanselius tells Farder Coram that Lyra has a major part to play in the destiny of their world. Dr. Lanselius also mentions an armored bear in town named Iorek Byrnison.
Lyra helps Iorek find his armor, and Iorek agrees to join the party of Gyptians. In the meantime, the Gyptians have hired an aeronaut from Texas named Lee Scoresby, who owns a balloon. Together, they head for Bolvanger, where the Gobblers work.
With the help of Iorek Byrnison, Lyra goes ahead of the Gyptians to a village, where she finds Tony Makarios and learns that the Gobblers are cutting children’s daemons away from them. She brings Tony back to the camp, but he dies. Tartars attack the Gyptians, steal Lyra, and bring her to Bolvanger, where the other children are being kept. Scientists there weigh and measure Lyra and Pantalaimon and study the effect of Dust on humans and their daemons. Lyra finds Roger and begins to plan their escape. With the help of Tony Costa, Lyra and Roger find the severed daemons. Serafina Pekkala’s daemon, Kaisa, rescues the severed daemons and tells Lyra that the Gyptians are on their way.
Mrs. Coulter arrives. Lyra, eavesdropping, hears about how the scientists cut daemons from children. She also hears that Lord Asriel is being held captive by the armored bears. Lyra is caught, and the men try to cut Pantalaimon away from her. Mrs. Coulter intervenes and rescues Lyra. She tells Lyra that the cutting, also called intercision, is a good thing.
Lyra leads the other children to freedom. They run from the building just as the Gyptians and Iorek Byrnison arrive, and a battle between the wards of Bolvanger and the Gyptians ensues.
While traveling north to rescue Roger, Lyra meets a number of interesting characters. John Faa is the Lord of the Gyptians, a group that bears some similarity to gypsies in our world. In fact, the name John Faa comes from a fifteenth-century English song about a gypsy prince. Lyra also meets Iorek Byrnison, an armored bear. Iorek is fundamentally different from the humans in the story, as evidenced by the fact that he has no daemon, which means he has no soul. Iorek and all of his people may not have souls, but they have intelligence—and opposable thumbs. Many scientists point to the development of the opposable thumb as the step that allows beasts to evolve into humans, so the armored bears’ opposable thumbs may mean that their evolution is not yet complete.
Because Pullman’s work is anti-Church in nature, his heroic figures are often those outside of the purview of Christianity. The Gyptians, for example, are a nomadic and irreligious society. They live on the outskirts of society and are often shunned and mistreated, but they are heroes nevertheless. They are kind to Lyra and to other children. They decide to rescue all the children, not just their own, from the Gobblers, even though the “landlopers,” as they call non-Gyptians, have often been cruel to them. In order to highlight the inherent fallibility of religion, Pullman inverts expectations and stereotypes. The witches, who have traditionally symbolized darkness and evil, are transformed here into religious symbols of freedom and power.
Lyra’s encounter with Dr. Lanselius proves that there is something special about Lyra. Lanselius says that Lyra must fulfill an important task without knowing what she’s doing. This means that Lyra must remain innocent until after she has accomplished what she is meant to do. Lanselius’s gift of the alethiometer is a powerful one. Alethia means “truth” in Greek, and meter means “measure.” These meanings suggest that the alethiometer is a tool for measuring the truth. When Lyra learns how to use the alethiometer, she discovers that it will tell her what has happened, what is going on now, and—sometimes—what will happen in the future. She reads its messages by going into a sort of trance that resembles religious meditation. In doing so, she appears to be connecting with some power outside of herself. Although Pullman questions organized religion, he does not believe that humans are the most powerful beings in existence. As Lyra’s meditations prove, he believes that humanity is subject to powerful nonhuman forces.
Lyra’s discovery of Tony Makarios helps her to understand that the Gobblers are cutting children’s daemons away from them in a procedure they call Intercision. Intercision is like castration, in which a young boy’s testicles are cut off so that he never reaches male maturity. Intercision also recalls female circumcision, in which a girl’s clitoris is removed so that she cannot experience the full intensity of sexual pleasure. Both castration and female circumcision are religious in origin. Both practices respond to a religious demand that some natural part of a person be removed in order to prevent sexual pleasure. Intercision is also religious and anti-sexual. It is performed by the General Oblation Board, which is a branch of the Church in Lyra’s world, and it is intended to prevent the onset of “upsetting emotions” and allow children to grow up without ever feeling passion. Lyra knows Intercision is wrong, although she isn’t exactly sure why it’s wrong. For Pullman, sexual experience is an essential part of becoming a full-grown human, despite the confusion and pain it can cause.
Ace your assignments with our guide to His Dark Materials!