The Golden Compass is extremely concerned with what it means to be alive and what it means to have a soul. Within the world of the novel, a dæmon is a physical manifestation of a person's soul, while other creatures like animals don't have dæmons and other races, such as the bears, state that their souls are contained in their armor. Given the vast range of options that Lyra sees when it comes to manifestations of a being's soul, she ultimately comes to the conclusion that being alive and having a soul are states that are unique to every being. Losing one's soul, no matter how or why, is universally devastating.
The novel first goes to great lengths to show how important dæmons (and the souls they represent) are to humans, as well as how intrinsic dæmons are to a person's identity. It's possible, for instance, to tell a lot about what kind of a person someone is by the form their dæmon settles in in adulthood. Most servants' dæmons take the form of dogs, suggesting an obedient and yielding nature, while all witches' dæmons are birds, which reflects the free and mobile lifestyle that the witches lead. Lord Asriel's dæmon is a snow leopard, which reflects his power as well as the danger he poses. Children's dæmons, which can change shape, similarly reflect their person's mood or needs at any given time. Pan spends much of his time as an ermine or a wild cat, but turns into a bird or bat in order to fly and help Lyra navigate dark city streets, a mean polecat to defend her, or a moth when they want to blend in and hide their emotions. Dæmons are also tasked with comforting and protecting their humans, as well as acting as an external conscience and a constant companion. Lyra knows that as long as she has Pan, she'll never be truly alone, and he'll always be there to guide her in the direction of doing the right thing. Dæmons, then, function as an external display of emotions and personality, and are essential to identifying an individual as human. A person without a dæmon is, to Lyra and those in her world, horrifying, repulsive, and fundamentally different.
This is why, when Lyra first comes face to face with the bear Iorek Byrnison, she's simultaneously curious and repulsed: bears don't have dæmons, and Lyra believes that Iorek must be lonely and deeply different from humans because of his lack of a dæmon. Lyra soon learns, however, that while she's correct that Iorek is fundamentally different from humans, being a bear, it's overly simplistic to tie this difference to his lack of a dæmon. Instead, what makes Iorek unsettling to Lyra when they first meet is that Iorek doesn't possess his armor (which houses bears' souls in the same way that dæmons house humans' souls), which makes him seem soulless and like less of a bear. Returning Iorek's armor to him immediately makes him more tractable and kinder, and in Lyra's eyes, more whole. This suggests that what makes a human a human, or a bear a bear, isn't that they have a dæmon: it's that they have a soul and a conscience that helps them be who they're supposed to be, whatever form that may take. This is why Lyra is ultimately able to trick Iofur Raknison, the illegitimate king of the bears, and help install Iorek on the throne: Iorek makes it clear that it's not in a bear's nature to be able to be tricked, but because Iofur is fixated on becoming a human by acquiring a dæmon, he's susceptible to the follies of humanity and forfeits the elements of being a bear that would otherwise help him see through such a trick.
Seeing Iorek, Iofur, and the horrific experiments taking place at Bolvanger make it clear to Lyra that no matter what, a being must have a soul in order to properly live. Being without a soul not only keeps a person from being subject to original sin, the goal of the scientists at Bolvanger; it also makes them less than human. It's disturbing for Lyra and the gyptians when Lyra returns from a nearby village with Tony Makarios, a child whose dæmon was cut from him in a process known as intercision. They regard him "like someone without a face, or with their ribs laid open and their heart torn out: something unnatural and uncanny that belonged to the world of nightgasts, not the waking world of sense." Later, at Bolvanger, Lyra finds the nurses who underwent intercision as adults to be nearly as horrifying: they're mindless shells and their dæmons are disinterested and obedient, rather than dynamic and observant. All of this culminates in Lyra's final understanding that no matter who or what a being is, their soul and all that comes with it—from original sin and curiosity, to a sense of purpose—is what makes a being a bear, a human, or a witch. A being’s soul, the novel suggests, is what makes them who they are and should be protected at all costs.
Humanity, Identity, and the Soul ThemeTracker
Humanity, Identity, and the Soul Quotes in The Golden Compass
"I didn't have anything in mind, and well you know it," she snapped quietly. "But now I've seen what the Master did, I haven't got any choice. You're supposed to know about conscience, aren't you? How can I just go and sit in the library or somewhere and twiddle my thumbs, knowing what's going to happen? I don't intend to do that, I promise you."
Mrs. Coulter came into the bathroom to wash Lyra's hair, and she didn't rub and scrape like Mrs. Lonsdale either. She was gentle. Pantalaimon watched with powerful curiosity until Mrs. Coulter looked at him, and he knew what she meant and turned away, averting his eyes modestly from these feminine mysteries as the golden monkey was doing. He had never had to look away from Lyra before.
He had to stay close to the ship, of course, for he could never go far from her; but she sensed his desire to speed as far and as fast as he could, for pure exhilaration. She shared his pleasure, but for her it wasn't simple pleasure, for there was pain and fear in it too. Suppose he loved being a dolphin more than he loved being with her on land? What would she do then?
"Anyway, there's compensations for a settled form."
"What are they?"
"Knowing what kind of person you are. Take old Belisaria. She's a seagull, and that means I'm kind of a seagull too. I'm not grand and splendid nor beautiful, but I'm a tough old thing and I can survive anywhere and always find a bit of food and company. That's worth knowing, that is. And when your dæmon settles, you'll know the sort of person you are."
Lyra's heart was thumping hard, because something in the bear's presence made her feel close to coldness, danger, brutal power, but a power controlled by intelligence; and not a human intelligence, nothing like a human, because of course bears had no dæmons. The strange hulking presence gnawing its meat was like nothing she had ever imagined, and she felt a profound admiration and pity for the lonely creature.
She felt angry and miserable. His badger claws dug into the earth and he walked forward. It was such a strange tormenting feeling when your dæmon was pulling at the link between you; part physical pain deep in the chest, part intense sadness and love. And she knew it was the same for him. Everyone tested it when they were growing up: Seeing how far they could pull apart, coming back with intense relief.
"My armor is made of sky iron, made for me. A bear's armor is his soul, just as your dæmon is your soul. You might as well take him away"—indicating Pantalaimon—"and replace him with a doll full of sawdust. That is the difference."
Her first impulse was to turn and run, or to be sick. A human being with no dæmon was like someone without a face, or with their ribs laid open and their heart torn out: something unnatural and uncanny that belonged to the world of night-ghasts, not the waking world of sense.
"How do you do that?"
"By not being human," he said. "That's why you could never trick a bear. We see tricks and deceit as plain as arms and legs. We can see in a way humans have forgotten. But you know about this; you can understand the symbol reader."
"That en't the same, is it?" [...]
"It is the same," he said. "Adults can't read it, as I understand. As I am to human fighters, so you are to adults with the symbol reader."
"Yes, I suppose," she said, puzzled and unwilling. "Does that mean I'll forget how to do it when I grow up?"
"If he's got Dust and you've got Dust, and the Master of Jordan and every other grownup's got Dust, it must be all right. When I get out I'm going to tell all the kids in the world about this. Anyway, if it was so good, why'd you stop them doing it to me? If it was good, you should've let them do it. You should have been glad."
"When bears act like people, perhaps they can be tricked," said Serafina Pekkala. "When bears act like bears, perhaps they can't. No bear would normally drink spirits. Iorek Byrnison drank to forget the shame of exile, and it was only that which let the Trollesund people trick him."
But his armor was his soul. He had made it and it fitted him. They were one. Iofur was not content with his armor; he wanted another soul as well. He was restless while Iorek was still.
Because Iorek was moving backward only to find clean dry footing and a firm rock to leap up from, and the useless left arm was really fresh and strong. You could not trick a bear, but, as Lyra had shown him, Iofur did not want to be a bear. He wanted to be a man; and Iorek was tricking him.
"She guessed that the two things that happen in adolescence might be connected: the change in one's dæmon and the fact that Dust began to settle. Perhaps if the dæmon were separated from the body, we might never be subject to Dust—to original sin."