The narrator explains that Jordan College is the grandest, richest, and possibly, the biggest college in Oxford. It's known for its work in experimental theology. Lyra is proud of Jordan College and uses its prestige to impress her friends, but she has no idea what experimental theology is and doesn't care either. She enjoys running around with her best friend Roger, either playing alone together or engaging in "deadly warfare" against the children of other nearby colleges—or sometimes, banding with those children to war against the "townies," and then banding with the townies to fight the brickburners' children or the gyptian children, whose families arrive with their boats in the spring and fall.
Because Lyra doesn't know or care what experimental theology is, the reader doesn't get to find out either. Again, this means that the reader gets to closely follow Lyra on her journey as she gains experience and figures out how the world around her actually works, gaining maturity along the way. This description of the children's warfare shows that, at least on some level, every single thing in this world is political, down to the way that the children play.
The last time a particular gyptian family came to Oxford, Lyra and Roger stole one of their narrowboats, rode down the river, and searched for the bung (the plug) to sink it. They didn't find it and eventually abandoned the boat. Though Lyra loves the world of Oxford and the children's politics, she knows that she's somehow connected to something grander, as represented by her connection to Lord Asriel. Despite knowing this, Lyra only uses it to lord over her peers. When Lord Asriel visits the college, the Scholars catch Lyra, scrub her, dress her in a clean dress, and force her to have tea with him. Last year, Lord Asriel ascertained that Lyra had been playing on the roof and, when he decided that she looked healthy, suggested that she explore the underground portions of Jordan College too.
Lyra's understanding that she's part of something larger suggests that in some ways, she's not as childishly innocent as she might seem. Lyra's natural leadership abilities also support this, even though at this point, she's only used that skill to cause mayhem. The way that Lord Asriel guides Lyra toward exploring underground here mirrors the way he allowed her to observe from the wardrobe. In both cases, he's able to quietly point her in a direction that he feels is best without making a big fuss about it.
The narrator notes that Lyra's life proceeded like this until she hid in the Retiring Room and heard about Dust, and the narrator also says that the Librarian was wrong that Lyra wouldn't be interested in learning about it. However, at this time, Lyra is preoccupied with a rumor flying around that children are disappearing. The narrator explains how this happens and introduces Tony Makarios, a clumsy, unintelligent, but tender boy from a poor settlement along the river. Tony is in the street, knowing he won't find food at home, so he steals a hot pie at the market and settles in to eat it on some steps. There's a woman behind him (Mrs. Coulter), but Tony isn't aware of this until his dæmon, Ratter, senses the woman's golden monkey dæmon. Ratter, entranced, hops onto the monkey's hand. The monkey takes Ratter back to the woman, which suddenly alarms Tony. The woman, however, invites Tony to help her drink chocolatl.
Introducing Tony Makarios in a passage that doesn’t follow Lyra’s perspective makes it clear that it's not just a rumor that children are disappearing; it's an inarguable fact. Note also the way that the narrator describes Tony. In addition to not possessing the critical thinking skills that might make him question why this woman needs help from a small child, he's also poor—which, in the grand scheme of things, means that he's a much more vulnerable target, given that the Magisterium and the powers that be in Lyra's world don't care much for the fate of poor people.
Tony Makarios follows her down to a warehouse. There, Tony finds a dozen other children, none older than twelve. The narrator points out to the reader that none of these children have reached puberty. As Tony drinks his chocolatl, one boy asks what Mrs. Coulter wants. Mrs. Coulter sweetly says that she needs help, and the children feel lucky to help her. She explains that they're going on a voyage and allows the children to dictate letters to their families. Tony knows his mother can't read so he doesn't send her a letter. The children all say goodbye and board a ship. Once they're gone, Mrs. Coulter throws the letters in the fire.
The narrator's note that none of these children have reached puberty offers up another way in which these children are vulnerable: they're taught to defer to adults and not advocate for themselves, and they certainly have few rights in society the way that adults do. Because of this combination of being poor and young, they're the perfect target: gullible, hungry, and unwilling to stand up to Mrs. Coulter.
Eventually, people begin to notice that children from the slums are disappearing all over England. The stories differ as to who is stealing the children, but everyone calls the culprits the Gobblers. One day, Lyra suggests to Roger that they play kids and Gobblers, which she says entails playing hide-and-seek and then cutting Roger open, which the Gobblers do. Roger isn't convinced that the Gobblers do this, but he accepts her story when she tells an even more fantastical one about Lord Asriel killing Tartars with a withering stare. Lyra steals the Butler's keys and the children sneak into the cellar to look at the wine. They forget the Gobblers and decide to find out what wine tastes like and what it's like to be drunk.
Experimenting with the wine like this reinforces that while both Lyra and Roger are still children, they're definitely approaching puberty and are beginning to explore what it's like to be an adult in the world. Their interest in the Gobblers speaks to their naïveté, however: worried adults certainly aren't turning the Gobblers into a fun game to pass the time. This shows how, in the hands of children, everything can become a game, no matter how serious.
After this, Lyra and Roger begin spending more time underground. Lyra suspects that they'll find and capture Gobblers there. One day, they wander into the crypt and inspect the inscriptions on the dead Masters' coffins. Each coffin also has an image of an animal, which Lyra reasons is the Master's dæmon. In the next room, they find shelves with skulls on them. Pan and Roger's dæmon are scared, but Lyra pulls a skull down to inspect it. A coin falls from the base of the skull and she sees that it's engraved with a cat. Each skull has a coin representing its owner's dæmon. Later, Lyra switches the coins around despite Pan's protests. A “night-ghast” visits her that night and the next day, she puts the coins back where they belong.
The way that Pan and Roger's dæmon react, coupled with the night-ghast (presumably the equivalent of a nightmare), offers some clues into how important dæmons are to a person's identity and how they function in the afterlife. Pan and Roger's dæmon likely know instinctively that this is wrong because of what they are (and it's worth noting that later, the narrator reveals that it's taboo to touch another person's dæmon, a rule that Lyra is likely breaking here as she effectively makes dæmons touch other Scholars).
One afternoon, the Intercessor catches Lyra and Roger coming out of the crypts. He calls the children over to ask what they were doing. He sends Roger back to the kitchen and then asks Lyra if she craves girls or other highborn children as friends. Lyra stubbornly insists that she's fine. Having exhausted the crypts, Lyra and Roger return to the streets. Just as they lose interest in the Gobblers, however, the Gobblers arrive in Oxford.
The Intercessor's interrogation suggests that Lyra truly is more important in the wider world than she knows. This raises the question of why she was raised by the Scholars at Jordan College in the first place, and who she truly is—questions that, as she moves toward maturity, Lyra will begin to answer for herself.
In preparation for the horse fair, Lyra and her cronies plan to capture a narrowboat again. As Lyra wanders along the river with her friends Hugh and Simon (Roger is busy with chores), she hears Ma Costa, a grand gyptian woman, yelling at a horse trader. Lyra is nervous—Ma Costa is kind, but has hit Lyra before and is the owner of the narrowboat that Lyra stole—but Ma Costa is anxious, not angry. When Ma Costa hits the trader, Lyra asks a gyptian child what's going on. The child says that the Gobblers got Ma Costa's son, Billy. Lyra and the nearby gyptian children all prepare for a fight but before they can begin, Ma Costa asks if Lyra has seen Billy. Lyra is scared, as gyptians never worry about missing children—they usually know that other gyptians will take care of them.
The gyptians, like the poor who live on land, are extremely vulnerable. This explains why the Gobblers took Billy, especially given the animosity that Lyra and her other college friends express toward the gyptians—to them, the gyptians are fundamentally different and are probably treated quite differently under the law. This shows again that the Gobblers are preying on the most vulnerable members of society and on a population that is easy to kidnap from, given that they don't usually worry about children who are absent for a few hours.
Ma Costa stumbles away, yelling for Billy, and the children discuss what the Gobblers actually are. One boy says that they throw kids in a white truck and they're called Gobblers because they eat kids. Lyra takes charge of the situation, points out that anyone could be a Gobbler, and a group of 30 children scrambles over the wharf, looking for Billy. They don't find him. At dinnertime, Lyra and Simon head back to Jordan, and Simon says that a child is gone from the market too. Lyra frantically escapes the Porter's attempt to keep her in and finds one of her older friends in the streets. The older kids are skeptical that the Gobblers are real, but one admits that he knows of a missing child.
Lyra's sense of responsibility and fear when it comes to Billy and the other missing child shows that while she may still be young, she already has a firm sense that kidnapping children from their families is wrong. When it's made real to her like this, Lyra also experiences a moment of new maturity. Now, it's no longer fun to play kids and Gobblers, as the Gobblers aren't just an imaginary threat. As far as Lyra knows, she and everyone she knows could be at risk—a terrifying proposition.
Suddenly, Lyra flashes on what she saw in the Retiring Room, and the Scholar asking if the child in the photo was a "severed child." She realizes she hasn't seen Roger since morning, so she and Pan run back to Jordan. Nobody in the Jordan kitchens seems to care about Roger, so Lyra knocks over dishes, runs to her room, and barricades the door. She opens the window, climbs onto the roof, and screams. Lyra looks around at Oxford and thinks that she wants her world to never change, but that it's changing anyway if someone is stealing children. She and Pan discuss rescuing Roger and what the Gobblers are doing to the captured kids. Lyra reasons that they cut them in half and turn them into slaves for the mines.
Though there's no real reason why, at this point, Lyra is putting the mention of a "severed child" and the Gobblers together, she is right to do so. This takes the problem of the Gobblers and makes them even more sinister than they were in Lyra's storytelling, given that they concern and scare even the Scholars. Even more so than Billy, the fact that Roger is missing makes this personal for Lyra. This pushes her even more toward growing up.
The housekeeper, Mrs. Lonsdale, shouts for Lyra. Lyra crawls down through the window and doesn't ask why she needs to wash and dress. Lyra accuses Mrs. Lonsdale of not caring about Roger, so Mrs. Lonsdale smacks Lyra. The older woman says that Lyra is going to have dinner with the Master and his guests and forces Lyra into her best dress. Five minutes later, Lyra knocks on the Master's door and a servant shows her into the drawing room. He introduces Lyra to boring guests and then to Mrs. Coulter.
Mrs. Coulter's appearance here with the Master shows that she's not just some shadowy evil figure—instead, she's a part of polite society and is at least tangentially associated with the university system. This reminds the reader that the Gobblers aren't a rogue criminal operation: they're under the Magisterium's jurisdiction and a known quantity in high society.