Dishonor Thy Mother: Mrs. Coulter in His Dark Materials

Sure, when you watch a scary movie and the slasher in a mask chases people, it’s frightening, but I am personally more terrified when a villain feels more true-to-life. When the bad things they do stem from realistic and understandable reasons. An antagonist recognizable to the audience in that way can be the most memorable. Sometimes they even have a redemptive character arc. Once in a while, women get to see a female as this type of character. Mrs Coulter from the book and television series His Dark Materials is one such villain. Through her actions and relationships, she is complex and entertaining.

The premise of His Dark Materials trilogy (written by Philip Pullman and published beginning in 1995) is based on multiple worlds existing simultaneously. It takes place in a world in which humans have souls external to their bodies in the form of talking animals called daemons. The religious organization The Magisterium controls everything. A mysterious substance called Dust is being investigated by everyone, including an intrepid girl named Lyra, the series’ lead character.

Marisa Coulter works for the tyrannical Magisterium. She runs the General Oblation Board, which performs terrible experiments on children. Dust doesn’t affect people until puberty, so the Magisterium equates it with original sin and therefore wants to “protect” children from it by separating them from their daemons physically. They do this with a frightening procedure which sometimes results in the child’s death. They kidnap some children for the experiment, one of whom is Lyra’s best friend, Roger.

Mrs. Coulter is terrible in other ways to Lyra. She pretends to be caring but hurts Lyra’s daemon to make her do what she wants, then relentlessly pursues Lyra when she escapes to gain control of a special device in Lyra’s possession called an alethiometer. Frequently, Mrs. Coulter uses her excellent manipulation skills to advance her agenda. This character definitely qualifies as a villain.

The interaction between Mrs. Coulter and Lyra is one of the most significant relationships in the story. Learning they are mother and daughter is also the most memorable reveal. The man Lyra believed was her uncle, Lord Asriel, is her father. He hid her at Jordan College. Though she does the Magisterium’s bidding, Mrs. Coulter slowly begins to show feeling for her daughter. When Asriel wants her to go with him into other worlds to discover the source of Dust and defeat the Authority (the first angel, who controls the oppressive Church), she refuses for Lyra. She protects her daughter from the Church’s other agents, who want to kill Lyra. Finally, Mrs. Coulter joins with Asriel to defeat Metatron, the Authority’s regent who is responsible for the restrictive monotheistic religions across the worlds. They lose their lives doing so. Whether this is a true redemption arc is up to each reader to judge, but it definitely is dynamic character development. She grows into caring about her daughter and allowing that to inform her actions.

His Dark Materials features an antagonist with complexity in the character of Mrs. Coulter. She is even more effective to me for feeling realistic and authentic. The viewers of the recent HBO television series adaptation of the trilogy (which is filming its third and final installment now) get treated to an excellent performance from actress Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter, which embodies these elements. A successful female villainous character like this is something to savor, and it’s only one engaging part of His Dark Materials on page and screen.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Sexton lives in Ohio with her dog Lily. Her favorite things are movies and books, and her hobby is editing fan videos.

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