His Dark (Legal) Materials:  Law in Lyra’s World

I have been continuing my farewell tour of children’s/young adult literature, and the latest thing I’ve read/re-read us the Philip Pullman His Dark Materials trilogy, plus the two newer Book of Dust ones. Naturally, when I am reading to myself, rather than to kids at bedtime, nobody can stop me dwelling on the essential law/legal history connections which spring to mind. There is a decent amount of legal content, though some things are not quite clear (I am hoping for a detailed exposition of the legal system in the final book …) Anyway, here are the provisional fruits of my ruminations …

Non-legal basics

If you don’t know, the basic set-up is that there are multiple worlds, some weirder than others. The first one we encounter is the best, with humans having a kind of external soul or daemon, and all sorts of steampunky retro-technology. There are several others, plus various magical or magic-adjacent groups. Our heroine is Lyra Belacqua/Silvertongue (though I prefer Iorek the armoured bear, personally …), who resides, initially at Jordan College, Oxford (one of the versions of Oxford, anyway) and has all sorts of adventures, attempting to put the world(s) to rights. But enough of that; we all know that the story is far less important than the legal/legal historical resonances …

Constitution and ‘secular’ law

Lyra’s world features slightly different countries to those in ours. Hers is ‘Brytain’. There is the odd slip into eliding ‘Brytain’ and ‘England’, (e.g. BS 187) though the existence of Wales, and Welsh, is at least acknowledged, with daemons called  Geraint (BS, 260) and Cariad (SC, 65), and Welsh miners, allowed to speak a bit of your actual Welsh (SC, 333, 339).

Brytain has a king who lives in or uses White Hall Palace, and seems to have some political power – holding a weekly Council of State (NL, 40). Monarchy also features amongst other groups – the gyptians, armoured bears and witches, for example. There is a parliament, a Lord Chancellor, lawyers and police (BS, 19, 103).

Just as the institutions look rather like old British ones, so too does the substantive law look pretty familiar. We might be in the late nineteenth century or early to mid- twentieth century. There seems to be a similar range of secular crimes (we hear of homicide, sexual offences, and others  (BS, 49, 347). The death penalty is used for murder (BS, 49), and there are inquests in cases of suspicious death (BS, 103).

There are ideas about civil liberties which, again, could be those of the early 20th C. They appear to be under threat, especially in the period of La Belle Sauvage, when ‘the old act of habeas corpus had been set aside’, so that ‘one heard tales of secret arrests and imprisonment without trial’ (BS 187). There appear to be what we might call ‘human rights’ lawyers though, who can help free those arrested (ibid.), and some people are still insisting on the need for a cause to arrest somebody, and for a warrant to come into a house (SC, 616, 624).

Lyra’s appears to be a world without sex discrimination law. Women are excluded from Jordan College (though they do have their own, much poorer, institutions (NL, 132). Women can’t be priests (NL, 371).[i]

We don’t hear too much about the workings of secular courts (with one exception, which I will deal with below), but there is a bit on the way in which law can be made via the legislative route. There is a splendid example of an attempt to sneak in serious diminutions of civil liberties under cover of the long and boring Rectification of Historical Anomalies Bill (SC, 113). This, of course, is pure fantasy, and no government would ever try to use statute to smuggle in reductions of rights and hope that people would not notice (would they, Priti Patel?)

Outside Brytain, at least some places have something akin to enslavement, as a punishment. Thus, in Trollesund, Iorek Byrnison is ‘serving out a term as an indentured labourer’ under sentence, having gone on a rampage when his armour was taken, and killed some men (NL, 189). Lyra regards it as illegitimate to treat him ‘like a slave’.  It turns out, however, that this is something more lenient than the penalty which might have been inflicted in Trollesund – shooting. The indentured labour is said to be intended to pay off the damage and the blood money. (ibid.)


Church matters

If the ‘secular’ constitution is ‘sort of late-19th/early 20th century-looking’, the ‘Church’ aspects of law make connections with older periods, in our world. The overall conceit is that the Church in Lyra’s world is extremely powerful, and was not diminished as a force in ‘Brytain’ by a Protestant Reformation or later secularising tendencies. Here, ‘Church power over every aspect of life is absolute’ (NL 31).

 The back story here is that there seems to have been a branching off from something like our world’s western Catholic history at the time of (our) Protestant Reformation. Pope John Calvin ‘moved the seat of the papacy to Geneva (SC, 246). When he died, the powers of the pope were shared out between different bodies, and there were no more popes until Lyra was of student age (SC, 246, 358).

Unlike the nice, neat, hierarchy of the medieval Catholic church in our world, the Magisterium is a bit of an administrative mess – ‘a tangle of courts, colleges and councils …’ (NL 31). The inter-relationship of Magisterium bodies is complex and shifting: thus, the Oblations Board is ‘not entirely answerable to the Consistorial Court (NL, 30)’. This last body is, however, constantly to the fore powerful body is this Consistorial Court of Discipline, set up by Pope John Calvin himself (NL, 30).

The Consistorial Court of Discipline has serious powers, and can apparently hand out death sentences, or suspended sentences and exile (NL, 272). It also makes ‘political’, rather than non-judicial orders, e.g. ordering the killing of Lyra, not guilty of anything, but thought to pose a danger (SK, 598). Its core business is ‘heresy and unbelief’ (BS, 31), but this is seen in fairly expansionist terms, as ‘enforcing discipline and security’ (SC, 8) as well as focusing on the intricacies of doctrine.

Heresy includes unbelief in things we would think of as ‘religious’, but also holding views of Dust  other than that it is ‘the physical evidence for original sin’ (NL, 369). (This is what lands Lord Asriel in trouble). Suggesting the existence of other worlds is also a matter for excommunication (NL, 374). The CCD could pass death sentences for blasphemy (SK, 332).

Methods of investigation and trial are reminiscent of some of the heretic hunting methods of our world’s Catholic history. At some point in the period before Northern Lights, there was an Office of Inquisition (NL, 128). Procedure in the CCD seems broadly civilian. It has an ‘Inquirer’, who questions witnesses, a membership of 12 (SK, 596), and a President (SK, 598), These are all male. Nuns get to take notes (SK, 597). In a slightly more U.S. common law vein, it has a ‘stand’ for the witness (SK, 596). The Church seems fine with torturing witches (SK, 319), and has sometimes burned them as well (though, as any of my students would know, because I really can’t stop myself from saying it every year, this is not a reflection of English practice: witches were hanged and not burned in the England of our world).

At the point where ‘church’ and ‘state’ meet, there is mention of some institutions which will sound familiar from the history of our world: tithes and benefit of clergy (SC 112). There are also two very interesting extensions/variations of ‘our’ doctrine: scholastic sanctuary and pre-emptive absolution.

The idea of sanctuary is well-known to those who study medieval and early modern England. The variation in Lyra’s world is the association with scholastic institutions and persons. It seems to have started in a ‘non-scholastic’ way, as an immunity from arrest  associated with ‘oratories’ (BS, 23), but branched our into a power in some colleges ‘to give sanctuary to scholars’ (BS, 23). Dr Hannah Relf dates this scholastic sanctuary idea back to ‘the Middle Ages’, and suggests that it was formerly a power for all all colleges, but, in her day, only Jordan College used it (BS, 95). She notes that claimants have to pronounce a Latin sentence to the Master to claim the right. (BS, 95). A little reminiscent of ‘the neck verse’, perhaps? That suggestion is not made. Lord Asriel manages to claim scholastic sanctuary for his baby daughter, which is an interesting extension, and one not seen in our world.

Not surprisingly, scholastic sanctuary is not popular with the Consistorial Court of Discipline, and the more zealous members of the Church, and there are moves to cut it down, for example telling the Jordan College housekeeper, Alice, who is dragged off by the CCD, that it does not apply to college servants, but only to scholars (SC, 515). Another way around it is financial pressure: Lyra could be made to leave Jordan College despite scholastic sanctuary when money to support her ran out (SC, 112). Then there is the direct approach: the Rectification of Historical Anomalies Bill sought to  abolish it (SC 112). Tudor parallels could be drawn.

The other excellent invention in the book, which builds upon some of the practices of the late medieval church in our world, is that of ‘pre-emptive penance and absolution’. The Consistorial Court pioneered this. The idea was that, by a lot of scourging and flagellation, a person could build up enough credit to get advanced forgiveness for something which is technically sinful – including homicide. Very useful for assassinations at the behest of the Court (SK, 600-603).


Sex, honour, fighting

Weirdly fitting in with one of my research projects (yes, the world does revolve around me …) Lyra Belacqua is an adulterine bastard! (NL, 122) She is the child of Lord Asriel and Mrs (Marisa) Coulter (formerly Delamare). As Mrs Coulter put it, she was ‘conceived in sin and born in shame’ (SK, 326). Mr (Edward) Coulter, finding out about the situation, chased down Lord Asriel and challenged him to a duel (with guns). Lord Asriel, however, was successful, and killed Mr Coulter (NL, 123). Imagine how happy I was to read the following words (of John Faa): ‘The consequence was a great lawsuit’! (NL, 123). Killing somebody whilst defending home and child against an intruder seemed to mitigate the sentence, but ‘the law allows any man to avenge the violation of his wife’ – what Coulter was said to have been doing (note that it’s taken as violation even if consensual… definite echoes of medieval English ‘ravishment’ laws, I think). Apparently this was a hard/unusual case, and perhaps the eventual outcome was a bit of a compromise – Asriel’s punishment was that his (very substantial) assets were confiscated (NL, 123). We have a bit of family/child law too. The general rule would be that a mother would get custody, but Lyra’s mother did not want her, and Lord Asriel was forbidden from having custody, because he was ‘not a fit person’ according to the court, so she was placed her in the priory of the Sisters of Obedience, Watlington. Lord Asriel, however, took her to Jordan College (NL, 124, BS, 117).


Other groups

Lyra’s world contains other defined groups, some human, some human-adjacent, some definitely ursine.


First the humans. You have to like the gyptians – they are cool, water-dwelling, nomadic types. Their customs are well-drawn. They meet at intervals, or when called, in the Fens, to decide important things, at meetings called ropings (NL, 113).  Here, decisions seem to be made by proposal and open oral agreement (NL, 117). Men are in charge, but both men and women have the right to speak against proposals (ibid.)

Their legal position seems to be exceptional, but at risk, in the time of Northern Lights, one gyptian pointing out that there was a contemporary ‘move in Parliament … to rescind our ancient privileges on account of [their sheltering of Lyra]’ (NL, 135). Free movement by water seems to be the main privilege under threat. It seems that there were previous attempts to remove their right to free movement and other activities, such as buying and selling (NL, 136; BS, 58). Like their equivalents in our world, gypsies, Romany people and travellers, they seem to have been an easy target.


Perhaps even cooler than the gyptians are the witches – women only and capable of flight and other magic. And very long-lived. They are organised in clans, and make decisions by council (SK, 334). This is how it worked: ‘The witches were democratic, up to a point’ All had the right to speak, but only the Queen has the power to decide (SK, 337).

A fascinating, and, to me, admirable, aspect of witch law is that they do not have property. As the magnificent Serafina Pekkala puts it ‘Witches own nothing, so we’re not interested in preserving value or making profits… We have no means of exchange apart from mutual aid… Nor do we have any notion of honour, as bears do, for instance. An insult to a bear is a deadly thing. To us, … inconceivable. How could you insult a witch? What would it matter if you did?’ (NL, 305).

Like the gyptians, they have known persecution. Some humans are very anti-witch. Father Seymun Berisovitch, for example says the ‘They should be put to death, every one. ‘The church should have put them all to death many years ago’ (SK, 622). They do seem to have been at risk of burning at the hands of the Church. (AS, 28).



And possibly coolest of all, we have the armoured bears. They clearly had their own legal system. We know that Iorek Byrnison ‘was sent away from Svalbard as a punishment because he killed another bear, against the rules (NL, 223). We later learn that the fight was over ‘a she bear’,[ii] and a failure on the part of another bear to ‘display the usual signals of surrender when it was clear that Iorek was stronger’, and that the specific thing Iorek had done wrong was to kill, not just wound, the other bear: wounding would have been acceptable (NL, 305).

Bears had a well-established procedure for trial by battle (a outrance) to settle some particularly intractable issues (such as who gets the she-bear, and who should be king) (NL, 347). There was ‘a whole ceremonial’, including the sweeping of the combat ground and the checking of armour (NL, 342). There may also be a ritual for dealing with a defeated party: before his fight with Iorek, the evil Iofur says that, if he beats Iorek, ‘his flesh shall be torn apart and scattered to the cliff-ghasts. His head shall be displayed… His memory shall be obliterated. It shall be a capital crime to speak his name.’ Then again, this might be a bespoke threat rather than what always happens. The eating of a defeated rival’s heart does seem to be essential, however (NL, 352). Lovely!



As the second Book of Dust says,  To be concluded …..





NL           Philip Pullman, Northern Lights (1995)

SK           Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife (1997)

AS           Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass (2000)

BS           Philip Pullman, La Belle Sauvage (2017)

SC           Philip Pullman, The Secret Commonwealth (2019)

(page numbers for books 1-3 are from the Kindle trilogy edition).


Photo by Lucas Marcomini on Unsplash

[i] Dress is very gendered. Thus, Lyra won’t wear trousers, saying ‘I’m a girl. Don’t be stupid!’ (SK, 345). It is also a pretty heterosexual world. Virtually everyone has an opposite sex daemon, though there is mention of a pastry cook. ‘one of those rare people whose daemon was the same sex as himself’: NL 125, and some gay angels (SK, 591).

[ii] Gender in the bear world is fairly traditional too. There are ‘bears’ and ‘she bears’ (in accordance with The Second Sex by Simone de Bearvoir (!) the masculine covers both male and neuter) (NL, 345). There seems to be a degree of segregation too – with separate enclosures for ‘she bears’ in the audience at a judicial combat (NL, 345).