What are Gyptians?

Brendan McGuigan

The Gyptians are an ethnic group in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy novels. They bear some resemblance to the Roma people in our own world, with some key differences. They are protagonists in the books, assisting Lyra in her quest to rescue Roger.

Gyptians travel the rivers of fictional England, trading at various seasonal fairs.
Gyptians travel the rivers of fictional England, trading at various seasonal fairs.

The word Gyptian is likely an esoteric renaming of the English word Gypsy. In our world, the term Gypsy came about as a result of people in the past mistakenly think the Roma people had their origins in Egypt, clipping it to Gypsy. The Gyptians have many similarities to the Roma people, and the word Gyptian is even closer to Egyptian.

In our world, the majority of Roma actually live in permanent settlements. Nonetheless, in the popular imagination, they are a nomadic, trading people, often with a negative reputation. This stereotype appears to lay some of the groundwork for the Gyptians of Lyra’s world, although her Gyptians appear to travel almost exclusively by boat, while most nomadic Roma travel by land.

There is also reason to believe that the Gyptians are meant to be of Dutch origin, specifically the Geuzen who opposed the Spanish when they ruled the Netherlands in the 16th century. Many of the names given to Gyptians in the books are Dutch, such as Vries, Ruud, and van Gerrit. The Geuzen operated predominantly at sea, and their proximity to England would have made them likely candidates to migrate there in Lyra’s world.

Whatever their origins, the Gyptians are a tight-knit, devoted group of people. Their society is composed of a number of different family clans, each of which has a family head who is able to vote for their clan at a group council. In addition, there is a King of the Gyptians, John Faa in the time of the books, who rules over the council. An additional figure, a wise old man named Farder Coram, rounds out the council.

The Gyptians travel the rivers of England, trading at various seasonal fairs. Their culture appears to be colorful and vibrant, although there is reason to believe that there is a substantial prejudice against them in Lyra’s world, as there is against the Roma in our own. People in Lyra’s world speak of them as horse thieves and smugglers, and the Gyptians suggest that when their children are stolen by the General Oblation Board, the outside world doesn’t care.

The Gyptians have a base of operations in the fens of Norfolk, where they appear to have fairly free rein. It is from here that they vote to launch an attack against Bolvangar in the north to rescue the Gyptian children, as well as any others who may have been kidnapped. They assist Lyra as best they can, in part because they feel they owe a debt to her father, Lord Asriel, for his part in passing a Watercourse Bill in Parliament, which helped the Gyptians immensely.

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