After Lyra and Will obtain the subtle knife, Tullio, the young man who stole the knife in order to ward off Specters, is attacked and exhibits some odd behavior:

Then he [Tullio] turned away and began to run his hands along the stones in the wall, looking closely at each one, counting them, feeling the edges, hunching up his shoulders as if to ward off something behind him, shaking his head.

Lyra witnesses this, and describes it to Will later on:

"He started counting the stones in the wall. He sort of felt all over them... But he couldn't keep it up. In the end he sort of lost interest and stopped. Then he was just still ... Why?"

"Because ... I think maybe they come from my world after all, the Specters. If they make people behave like that, I wouldn't be surprised at all if they came from my world. ... Maybe they're not called Specters [in Will's world]. Maybe we call them something else."

This is not the (full) origin of the Specters, but this isn't revealed until much later. Will was comparing this behavior to some of the odd behavior of his mother, who exhibited some similar behavior in an attempt to drive off some real or imagined threat.

As far as I can tell, this behavior of Specter victims is not mentioned again, nor why Will thought his mother had specifically been attacked by a Specter (or something similar), nor how this counting behavior was supposed to protect against Specters in any way.

What is the significance of these passages? It feels odd for it to be highlighted twice, and then just forgotten. Was Phillip Pullman (through Will) referring to some specific real-world condition, or comparing Specters to a mythological creature?

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    Specters are supposed to be the cause of depression and related mental illnesses. I guess this is supposed to be an expression of OCD.
    – OrangeDog
    Aug 29, 2021 at 15:36
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    @OrangeDog - I think you are correct, but it seems strange that such is the case. If I recall correctly, the Spectres left their victims in almost a mindless state, which does not seem particularly consistent with an accurate description of OCD or major depression.
    – Adamant
    Aug 29, 2021 at 20:05
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    The quote in the question makes it look more like the victim believes counting the stones can ward off the specters, given the 'OCD like' behaviour stops after the feeding.
    – Jontia
    Aug 30, 2021 at 8:10
  • That was my impression, but it is worth noting that Lyra is an unreliable narrator here - she can't see Specters. So it's not clear if this counting happened before or after he was attacked. The comments about depression did jog my memory about the end of the book. A witch was attacked and to summarize the narration, "I was wrong. There's no joy in life". The depression analogy is plausible, but that wouldn't explain why Will's World's depression wouldn't fully consume everyone like Specters.
    – qazmlpok
    Aug 30, 2021 at 22:28

1 Answer 1


Pullman is writing about mental ill health: specifically major-depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia , but seen in the context of his fantasy universe(s).

Will's mother seems to shows range of mental disorders, from paranoia to obsessive behaviour. She is unable to care for herself, and depends on Will. Obsessive counting is a possible symptom. Compulsive behaviour occurs often as people seek to protect themselves from a perceived threat. Thus it links to paranoia. Depression also manifests as a lack of interest or "will" (and the choice of name is not accidental). These disorders are frequently co-morbid.

The young man eaten by spectres shows these symptoms in an exaggerated form. He no longer cares about anything except his obsession: "counting the stones". And even here this is temporary. We see the boy move rapidly through compulsive disorder to major depressive disorder. When his soul is completely eaten he loses all will completely. He is indifferent to everything. This is a state of utter depression.

Pullman writes:

As for Specters, they were a way of talking about certain mental states such as depression and self-hatred. -(source)

It is therefore suggested that mental disorders in the real world are a form of "soul damage". I'm not sure how far Pullman wants us to take this, as he is evidently not a "soulist". But he probably means it on some metaphorical level.

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