His Dark Materials a disturbing allegory of genital mutilation

Robert Darby

Review published: 2008

Early in Northern Lights, the first volume Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, we find that children are being kidnapped by people known as Gobblers, but nobody knows what happens to them or why the kidnappers are so named. (We are probably meant to think of goblins.) There is much fearful speculation among the population, some thinking that they are being sold to the Tartars, others that they are being eaten, and some that they are being used in medical experiments. Lyra and her daemon, recalling the reference to “a severed child” and “an entire child” in Lord Asriel’s lecture, speculate that the Gobblers cut the kids in half, though they concede that they would be more useful to their owners as functioning slaves. When Lyra is adopted by Mrs Coulter she discovers that the Gobblers acquired their name from the body they serve, an agency of the Magisterium called the General Oblation Board. She further learns that the word oblation means sacrifice, and that in earlier times parents did sometimes sacrifice their children by sending them into the church as monks or nuns. At the cocktail party, an important guest insists that sacrifice is too strong a word, since whatever was being done to the children was being done for their own good. Lyra is doubtful, however, flees her gilded cage and is rescued by the Gyptians; they have learned that the children are being taken into the far north, and she accompanies them on their voyage to Trollesund, determined to rescue her friend Roger, as she had promised she would.

Arriving in Trollesund, it does not take Lyra long to discover that whatever is being done to the children is pretty sinister. The witches’ consul tells them they are not kept long in the town but are taken inland, though he does not know what happens to them: “I have heard the phrase the Maystadt Process in connection with the matter. I think they use that in order to avoid calling what they do by its proper name. I have also heard the word intercision, but what it refers to I could not say” (Northern Lights, p. 170). The great bear, Iorek Byrnison, however, knows that it refers to a cutting procedure, and that it is harmful to the victims but brings profit to some others: “I know the people you are seeking, the child cutters. They left town the day before yesterday to go north with more children. No one will tell you about them; they pretend not to see, because the child-cutters bring money and business. Now I don’t like the child-cutters, so I shall answer you politely” (p. 181). Soon after this Lyra learns from Kaisa, Serafina Pekkala’s daemon, that the children have been taken to a clinical facility at Bolvangar: “They have put up buildings of metal and concrete, and some underground chambers. … We don’t know what they do, but there is an air of hatred and fear over the place for miles around. … Hence the name Bolvangar: the fields of evil” (p. 186).

We thus have a classic fantasy scenario: clearly defined forces of good and evil arrayed against one another (a motley alliance versus the might of authority), a noble mission, and a dangerous journey; but we also have something else not often found in fantasy: an establishment that is itself responsible for the evil (the kidnapped children) that must be fought, and one that insists that the evil is not really an evil, but something being done to benefit those being abducted. Although the Magisterium is some sort of religious authority, it has doctors, technicians and scientists working for it, and they deploy both the tools and the rhetoric of science in order to advance the cultural agenda of their masters. It is thus a very modern kind of fantasy story, one that raises many possible lines of interpretation.

In his Foreword to The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R Tolkien famously warned against allegorical interpretations of his epic tale. He insisted that it was “neither allegorical nor topical”, and suggested that those who found parables (the Dark Lord as Nazism, the One Ring as the Atomic Bomb, for example) were missing the point and confusing allegory (“the purposed domination of the author”) with applicability – “the freedom of the reader” to find his own meanings and significance in the story.

What, then, are we to make of Philip Pullman’s comparable epic, His Dark Materials, in which a malevolent authority is trying to destroy free thought and individuality by subjecting children to a surgical operation called intercision that permanently severs them from their daemons? Could it have any parallels with the cultural, religious and medico-scientific authorities that are now trying to subject boys to a surgical operation called circumcision, which permanently severs them from their foreskins? It is obvious that a daemon is more than a body part, being roughly equivalent to a person’s soul, conscience or will, and having an important bearing on the owner’s personality; but at the same time it is shown as an integral part of a person, the loss of which amounts to a “hideous mutilation” and a cruelly diminished individual; when Lyra finds Tony Makarios in the fishing shed –

The little boy was huddled against the wood drying-rack where hung row upon row of gutted fish, all as stiff as boards. He was clutching a piece of fish to him as Lyra was clutching Pantalaimon, with both hands, hard, against her heart; but that was all he had, a piece of dried fish; because he had no daemon at all. The Gobblers had cut it away. That was intercision, and this was a severed child (Northern Lights, p. 213).

Clearly, intercision (cutting away a child’s soul) is not the same thing as circumcision (cutting away part of a child’s genitals), but the parallels between the two procedures have not gone unnoticed in Internet discussions of The Golden Compass movie, and the similarity of the two operations is drawn quite explicitly in the original story itself. Addressing the witches as to why they must join the forces fighting against the Magisterium, the witch queen Ruta Skada states:

“Sisters, let me tell you what is happening and who it is that we must fight. … It is the Magisterium, the church. For all its history … it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can’t control them, it cuts them out. Some of you have seen what they did at Bolvangar. And that was horrible, but it is not the only such place, not the only practice. Sisters, you know only the north: I have travelled in the south lands. There are churches there, believe me, that cut their children too, as the people of Bolvangar did – not in the same way, but just as horribly – they cut their sexual organs, yes, both boys and girls – they cut them with knives so that they shan’t feel. That is what the church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling” (The Subtle Knife, p. 50).

The reference here to genital mutilation in the “south lands” – Africa and the Middle East – is unmistakable, and those cutting procedures (circumcision, etc) are described as being “just as horrible” as intercision, and carried out for similar reasons: to muffle children’s feelings and cripple their individuality. It would be absurdly reductionist to regard Pullman’s brilliant rewriting of Paradise Lost as no more than an allegory of genital mutilation, but in view of Ruta Skada’s declaration I think we are justified in viewing the parallels between intercision and circumcision as more than a case of mere applicability, and in seeing what other similarities between the two procedures we can find. There are several key discussions that will make the parallels very clear.

(1) The nurse’s reassurance:

At Bolvangar one of the girls tells Lyra what happened to Tony:

“The nurse came in and said, Come on Tony, I know you’re there, we won’t hurt you. And he says, What’s going to happen? And she says, We just put you to sleep, and then we do a little operation, and then you wake up safe and sound … Tony wanted to know what they was gonna do with Ratter, see. And the nurse says, Well, she’s going to sleep too, just like when you do. And Tony says, You’re gonna kill her, en’t yer? I know you are. We all know that’s what happens. And the nurse says, No, of course not. It’s just a little operation. Just a little cut. It won’t even hurt, but we put you to sleep to make sure (p. 250).”

How often have we heard circumcision described as “just a little cut” and been promised that it “won’t hurt at all”? Boys who are told that it’s just “a little operation” on their penis are not warned that it means cutting off a large and significantly functional part of that organ, and that they will never get it back.

(2) Mrs Coulter’s explanation

After her rescue from the guillotine, Lyra asks Mrs Coulter why intercision is being done to the children: “Why are they so cruel?” In reply, she gets a stream of just the sort of weasel words that we hear so monotonously from circumcision advocates:

“Darling, these are big, difficult ideas. It’s not something for children to worry about. But the doctors do it for the children’s own good, my love. Dust is something bad, something wrong, something evil and wicked. … But a quick operation on children means they’re safe from it. Dust just won’t stick to them ever again. They’re safe and happy and – ” … Lyra thought of little Tony Makarios. She leaned forward suddenly and retched (p. 282).

Lyra cannot accept this argument, and asks why, if the operation is so beneficial, adults don’t get it done to themselves. Again, Mrs Coulter offers the sort of unctuous baby talk with which we are familiar:

“Darling, some of what’s good for us has to hurt us a little, and naturally it’s upsetting for others if you’re upset. But it doesn’t mean that your daemon is taken away from you. He’s still there! Goodness me, a lot of grown-ups here have had the operation. The nurses seem happy enough, don’t they?”
Lyra blinked. Suddenly she understood their strange blank incuriosity, the way their little trotting daemons seemed to be sleepwalking.
“Darling, no one would ever dream of performing an operation on a child without testing it first. And no one in a thousand years would take a child’s daemon away altogether. All that happens is a little cut, and then everything’s peaceful. For ever! You see, your daemon’s a wonderful friend and companion when you’re young, but at the age we call puberty, the age you’re coming to very soon, darling, daemons bring all sorts of troublesome thoughts and feelings, and that’s what lets Dust in. A quick little operation before that, and you’re never troubled again” (p. 282-3).

This is exactly the argument that was used to justify circumcision of girls and boys in the nineteenth century, when it was believed that cutting off the most sensitive (“irritable”) parts of the genitals would promote sexual self-control and make people less susceptible to sexually-acquired diseases. Mrs Coulter’s explanation is remarkably close to the syrupy language of a late Victorian purity campaigner, a certain Mrs Henry, in a short book on child management. “Satan has been quick to realize the fertility of childhood for his sowing”, she wrote, and had “planted the seeds of moral leprosy in the delicate flesh of the smiling babe”; today “there can scarcely be found a child whose sexual organs are not abnormally sensitive”. Thoughtful parents and teachers are thus “in despair over the horrible revelations of depravity in young children … and all the world is kept busy trying to devise some means by which the moral quagmire under our feet may be prevented from breaking through the thin crust of polite society.” Even the “guileless flesh of childhood” carried “a spot of irritation and uncleanness which bred diseased imaginings”; fortunately, God had provided an antidote in the form of “physical correction by which the child should be restored to something like what he would have been if he had been conceived and born in sinlessness instead of sin”. Society had woken up to “the hygienic importance of a certain operation, kindred to the old rite of circumcision, in which is found the physical remedy for an evil that kills the soul”, and which was necessary in infants because they were incapable of “acting from principle or by faith”. In fact, the operation was so “kindred” as to be indistinguishable: circumcision both discouraged impurity like masturbation and promoted an unselfish and self-disciplined character:

This harmless operation in the flesh of the little child removes the principle cause of that peculiar irritation that leads to secret vice, giving physical freedom from that downward-dragging self-consciousness which it engenders; and a chance to grow the wings of a noble self-forgetfulness.

Accepting the doctors’ argument that circumcision was preventive medicine for the body, Mrs Henry went further to suggest that it was good preventive medicine for the soul as well:

Circumcision stands as a remedial agent with vaccination. It is a means of correction which must needs be applied before there is anything to diagnose in the case, if you would make sure of the most satisfactory results. Every child does not need it; but it will do no harm to any; and if you wait for … the family physician to so order, you risk leaving a taint on the child’s memory which can never be removed. … I believe God will hold those parents responsible who … allow their children to grow up to the nameless miseries of unclean habits.

A more perfect meshing of medical and religious arguments for circumcision without detectable need in infancy could not be imagined. Circumcision would not only discourage children from masturbation and other sexual experiment, and thus lead them away from risk of disease indirectly, but protect them from syphilis directly:

As a religious ordinance circumcision is still in existence among the Jews, and as some special forms of venereal disease became more and more manifest among other nations, while the Jews went almost entirely free, the discovery was made that the old rite … had a value for both boys and girls as a cleansing and preventive process.

She thus urged circumcision for its effectiveness in both modifying behaviour (making children’s daemons less lively) and producing physical changes which made the body less susceptible to venereal infection. There is certainly nothing new in Brian Morris’s oxymoronic claim that circumcision is “a surgical vaccine”. (Mrs S.M.I. Henry, Confidential Talks on Home and Child Life, Edinburgh, Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1898, p. 69-76)

(3) Lord Asriel’s comparison

Asked by Lyra to explain why the Church was letting the doctors perform intercisions, he compares it with castration:

“Something like it had happened before. Do you know what the word castration means? It means removing the sexual organs of a boy so that he never develops the characteristics of a man. A castrato keeps his high treble voice all his life, which is why the Church allowed it: so useful in Church music. Some castrati became great singers, wonderful artists. Many just became fat spoiled half-men. Some died from the effects of the operation. But the Church wouldn’t flinch at the idea of a little cut, you see. There was a precedent. And this would be so much more hygienic than the old methods, when they didn’t have anaesthetics or sterile bandages or proper nursing care. It would be gentle by comparison” (p. 372).

Asriel states clearly that intercision is like another surgical operation that removes part of boys’ genitals. Again we hear the language of today’s circumcision advocates, urging that circumcision is such a safe operation when carried out in hygienic modern conditions that nobody need feel apprehensive about the operation or the result. The same could be said about the amputation of any other body part: in today’s “hygienic modern conditions”, children’s toes, hands, and entire genitalia could be surgically removed without the risk of an unacceptably high incidence of deaths and other complications. The fact that an operation can be done safely is not an argument for doing it.

(4) The scientists discuss their techniques

The white-coated scientists have no interest in the rights and wrongs of what they are doing, but they are fascinated by the technology they use.

“There’s a real advance. With the first model we could never entirely overcome the risk of the patient dying of shock, but we’ve improved that no end.” “The Skraelings did it better by hand”, said a man who hadn’t spoken yet. “Centuries of practice”, said the other man. “But simply tearing was the only option for some time”, said the main speaker, “however distressing that was to the adult operators. If you remember, we had to discharge quite a number for reasons of stress-related anxiety. But the first big breakthrough was the use of anaesthesia combined with the Maystadt anbaric scalpel. We were able to reduce death from operative shock to below five per cent” (p. 271-2).

— presumably an acceptable level of wastage. The clinical attitude is reminiscent of John Bland-Sutton’s nonchalant admission that, although some children died as a result of circumcision, while many others were infected with syphilis, tuberculosis and other diseases, this was not a reason to abandon such a health-giving operation, but “only served to show that an element of risk pervades all human actions”. (John Bland-Sutton, “Circumcision as a rite and as a surgical operation”, British Medical Journal, 15 June 1907, p. 1408-12).

One of the obstacles to widespread acceptance of circumcision in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the disturbingly high incidence of “complications” and adverse outcomes, such as infection, bleeding, death and reduced genital functionality. There were three main reasons for this carnage: doctors had little experience in operating on such a complex (and in infants or children, such a tiny) part of the body; existing surgical instruments were not well adapted to the task; and there was no standardised technique. Many doctors tried to learn from Jewish Mohels, who (like the Skraelings) had been carrying out the procedure for centuries, using either special knives or (in the most traditional communities) their fingernail, but this approach was generally rejected as insufficiently modern and clinical. Numerous purpose-built devices appeared on the market between the 1870s and the 1920s, but it was not until the invention of the Gomco clamp by an American doctor in the 1930s that the medical profession felt they had an instrument that could be used on a production-line scale. Touted as “bloodless”, the Gomco was nothing of the kind, but it seemed a relatively simple matter to train medicos in its use, and nobody much cared about the cosmetic result. Introduction of the device allowed the obstetricians to seize this corner of the medical market from the expensive surgeons and to make circumcision a routine element of hospital deliveries, no more problematic than cutting the umbilical cord. (For further details, see Robert Darby, A Surgical Temptation: The Rise of Circumcision in Britain, University of Chicago Press, 2005, and the discussion of American experience at the History of Circumcision website.)

In the 1970s a competitor to the Gomco clamp emerged in the form of the Plastibell, a device that uses a fine thread to crush and strangle the foreskin, rather like the rubber rings used to (slowly) castrate lambs and calves. Afficionados of the Plastibell sometimes use topical anaesthetics to dull the immediate pain, and are fond of making the ridiculous assertion that the method is bloodless and non-surgical – an illogical and dishonest contention, on a par with the anti-scientific claim that circumcision is a “surgical vaccine”. The “Maystadt ambaric scalpel” sounds remarkably like the electric cautery knife sometimes used for circumcision in the United State and Canada; that was how the unfortunate Bruce Reimer lost his entire penis and suffered the further indignity of an unsuccessful sex change.

The Holy Grail of the circumcision lobby has always been to convince the public, first, that normal human anatomy is a dire threat to health; and secondly, that circumcision can be performed so quickly, bloodlessly and painlessly that it should be enforced on a mass (and preferably universal) scale. They have thereby sought to distract attention from the preferences of the individual and the outcome of the operation (the destruction of an integral part of the body), and to focus instead on the method, just like the scientists at Bolvangar. Like them, circumcision advocates such as Brian Morris, Roger Short and Edgar Schoen dismiss ethical issues as irrelevant or “nebulous”, and insist that, since circumcision is somehow “scientific”, there can be no valid objection to its universal application. If something is scientific, objections must be merely emotional, and can therefore be ignored.

For Lyra and her allies, however, the vital question about intercision is not whether it is scientifically valid or painless, or whether the death rate from the procedure is within tolerable limits, but whether it is good or evil. As she puts it to Dr Malone, shocking her out of her “value-free” assumptions:

“I think what they do is evil. I seen them do it. So what is it, Shadows? Is it good, evil, or what?” Dr Malone rubbed her face and made her cheeks even redder than they were. “Everything about this is embarrassing”, she said. “D’you know how embarrassing it is to mention good and evil in a scientific laboratory? Have you any idea? One of the reasons I became a scientist was not to have to think about that kind of thing.”
“You got to think about it”, said Lyra severely. “You can’t investigate Shadows, Dust, whatever it is, without thinking about that kind of thing, good and evil and such” (The Subtle Knife, p. 96).

Such a foregrounding of ethical concerns flies in the face of the medico-scientific Magisterium’s claim to know what’s best for us and undermines its own pretensions to moral arbitration. As Frank Furedi complains on Spiked, “scientific authority is replacing religious and moral authority, and in the process being transformed into a dogma. … Science has the last word on all the important questions of our time. Science is no longer confined to the laboratory. Parents are advised to adopt this or that child-rearing technique on the grounds that “the research” has shown what is best for kids.”

“If science is turned into a moralising project”, he concludes,

its ability to develop human knowledge will be compromised. It will also distract people from developing a properly moral understanding of the problems that face humanity in the twenty-first century. Those who insist on treating science as a new form of revealed truth should remember Pascal’s words: “We know the truth, not only by reason, but also by the heart.”

Lyra has the alethiometer to tell her the difference between truth and falsehood, good and evil, and Dr Malone has her amber spyglass. In our world, sadly, we lack such magical devices, but we don’t really need them to be able to reach the conclusion that to deprive a boy (or girl) of his (or her) foreskin is like severing a child from his or her daemon.