Her Dark Materials: Raising Inner Demons To Craft Complex Villains
Kids in cages. Governments suppressing free thought. Old men whispering in studies about science and the fate of the world. The latest adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is underway, and while the dust is still settling on whether or not it'll be the next Game of Thrones, the show is undoubtedly timely. But what makes Pullman’s trilogy timeless is the complexity of his characters, and there are few more complicated than his villain, Mrs. Coulter.
When you have a character that’s been described as “the mother of all evil”, it would be easy to craft a one-dimensional baddie that everyone detests and let the mic drop. But, as Nottingham author Nathan Makaryk points out, “while impossibly cruel villains work great in sci-fi/fantasy genres (it’s how we get Negans, Voldemorts, and Saurons), they don’t usually ring as realistic.” Villains shouldn’t exist to only serve as the hero’s foil. Rather, they should go about their daily schemes as if there aren’t any meddling goody-two-shoes on a quest to steal their thunder.
So while concocting the most nefarious villain imaginable might be delightful, writers run a high risk of dehumanizing them and giving audiences an excuse to keep them at an arm's length. But in Mrs. Coulter’s case, no one can take their eyes off her due to Pullman’s brilliant world building and commitment to crafting a villain with inner demons.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the world of His Dark Materials, everyone has a daemon that is an extension of their personality. Mrs. Coulter’s daemon is a beautiful and mischievous golden monkey that doesn’t have a name, doesn’t speak, and can travel very far away from her––which is incredibly unnatural. Some argue that Mrs. Coulter and her daemon ooze nothing but chaotic, evil energy––and they definitely do. However, their relationship also reveals the internal conflicts raging beneath Mrs. Coulter’s icy exterior.
The 2007 film adaptation of Pullman's work may have been a flop, but the one thing it gave us was a scene where Mrs. Coulter smacks her daemon to the ground. While the scene doesn’t appear in the books, a similar one was incorporated into the current TV adaptation.
The moment comes in the second episode after Lyra’s caught snooping in Mrs. Coulter’s study. She sees how far away the daemon can travel from Mrs. Coulter and this causes her to doubt if her benefactor is really the fairy godmother she initially imagined her to be. After sending Lyra off to bed, Mrs. Coulter threatens to strike her daemon. There’s no contact, but it gets the point across: she’s furious and doesn’t like when things don’t go according to plan. Controlling and terrifying? Yes. But this moment also shows how rigid and hard she is on herself. Mrs. Coulter is a perfectionist that doesn’t tolerate mistakes––especially when she’s the one making them.
Unlike the other daemons we encounter in His Dark Materials, Mrs. Coulter’s is the only one that doesn’t speak. Because the bond between humans and daemons is so strong they often become one another’s confidants, challenge each other’s opinions, and tackle challenges together. Without a voice the monkey isn’t heard, which implies Mrs. Coulter feels the same. As the head of the General Oblation Board, she has to navigate a male-dominated society that’s wary of her not only due to her brutal tendencies, but also because she’s a woman. This is especially seen when Father MacPhail is forced to visit Mrs. Coulter to discuss the General Oblation Board’s activities and his reaction is a mix of dread and contempt.
Naming turns abstractions into reality because it gives us a way to communicate about them. Furthermore, when we give something a name we’re more likely to form a deeper connection with it. If daemons are extensions of their human companions, then the fact that Mrs. Coulter’s monkey has no name suggests she wants to maintain a level of mystery and menace, so that she can transform into anyone and anything the situation calls for. But on an emotional level, this also shows how she’s compartmentalized her personality and closed herself off from others.
The more we look, the more glaring it becomes that although Mrs. Coulter is one of the wickedest villains to ever walk across the page, she’s still very human. The relationship she shares with her daemon serves as a reminder that she has clawed her way to the top and meticulously (and mercilessly) molded herself in a way that would ensure she would thrive. It’s this knowledge that ensnares us in her twisted web and will keep us on the edge of our seats as this epic showdown between good and evil unfolds.
To leave a comment