Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) of His Dark Materials is as enthusiastic about dust as my grandmother. Every morning, she goes to war against the accumulating hordes of dust on her stoop, which settled back in to the exact grooves she’d cleaned the day before. Dust is her nemesis, and dust will always win.
However, Lord Asriel isn’t concerned with this domestic kind of dust. His dust is loftier – literally. Once the stuff of legends, Lord Asriel finds proof of magical Dust in the far North. In the first episode of BBC One's His Dark Materials, Lord Asriel’s findings about Dust are earth-shattering enough to warrant an assassination attempt from the Mater of Jordan College. This is going to change everything.
Which brings us to one of the many differences between the world of His Dark Materials and ours. To us normals, dust is a pest — the sand of the domestic sphere, what happens when the world grinds garbage up to its lowest common denominator. Dust also has religious connotations (“ashes to ashes, dust to dust” in the Bible), which are important to remember for His Dark Materials.
Because to Lord Asriel, Dust is the key to unlocking the universe.
Dust is definitely the hardest concept to grasp in Philip Pullman’s philosophical children’s books, but the most important. It’s the substance that links together daemons, the sinister Gobblers, the alethiometer, and that city in the sky in Lord Asriel’s picture.
So, next time you’re sweeping up the clumps of pollen and dead skin that have amassed under your bed, remember Lord Asriel’s enthusiasm: Maybe that dust bunny has some cosmic potential. Here’s why Lord Asriel is willing to risk his life in the name of Dust.
What is Dust in His Dark Materials?
Dust is an elementary particle with a very special superpower. Unlike protons and neutrons, which buzz around, Dust gives beings consciousness, and is also conscious itself.
“Dust is an analogy of consciousness, and consciousness is this extraordinary property we have as human beings,” Pullman said in an interview with The Guardian in 2017.
Dust has existed as long as consciousness has, and is responsible for the shaping of the human mind. In Lyra Belaqua’s (Dafne Keen in the series) world, Dust is the glue that connects humans to their daemons, which are animal-shaped embodiments of a human soul.
How did Dust get its name?
We agree — dust needs a rebrand. It’s an underwhelming name for such an essential, life-building substance. Originally, Dust was named for Boris Rusakov, the scientist who posited the existence of conscious particles.
Rusakov Particles got the name Dust thanks to Genesis 3:19: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” In His Dark Materials, Dust is intertwined with the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, told in the Book of Genesis.
In alternate universes, Dust goes by “shadows” or “dark matter.”
But why is Dust considered to be so dangerous?
His Dark Materials puts a twist on the foundational story of Adam and Eve — and naturally, Dust plays a role. You already know the beginning: Adam and Eve eat an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. Here’s the His Dark Materials twist. After eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve’s daemons, or animal companions, settled into one form instead of switching forms constantly.
After that first act of consciousness — eating the fruit — Dust settled on Adam and Eve. To the Church, Dust is evidence of Original Sin and is responsible for all of humanity’s ills.
Similarly, adults’ daemons in His Dark Materials are settled, whereas children’s change forms. This is taken to be a sign of adults’ sin, and of children’s innocence.
Dust doesn’t settle on children.
Children are special creatures in His Dark Materials. Their daemons are not yet settled into a form. As Lord Asriel’s photo shows, dust doesn’t settle on children, either. Children are “innocent” — not yet touched by sin. In His Dark Materials, there is a link between growing up and sinning.
Dust can communicate directly with humans.
In the first episode of His Dark Materials, Lyra is given an alethiometer — one of six in existence. Alethiometers are able to give truthful answers to any question asked. But there’s a catch: They can deliver answers only through complicated symbols that a user must figure out on her own.
Dust is a key part of Lyra’s journey.
Lyra finds herself in a world of adults who are downright obsessed with Dust. Now that they know Dust definitely exists, adults like Lord Asriel, Marisa Coulter, and the Church officials go to terrible lengths to control (or destroy) the substance.
Where does 12-year-old Lyra come down on the Dust question? Answering this question forms the thrust of her journey. Author Philip Pullman expressed it succinctly on his website.
“She realizes that Dust is everything that is best about humanity — love, kindness, and curiosity — and must be encouraged rather than destroyed. This does not mean embracing evil instead of good; it means understanding that since the loss of innocence is inevitable, we should welcome it and embrace the next stage of our development instead of hiding our eyes from it. Knowing about good and evil is not the same as embracing evil, though it might look like that to a church that likes to think it has all the answers,” Pullman writes.
Dust is what makes the books so controversial in our universe, too.
His Dark Materials are one of the most beloved and best-selling children's books of all time. They’re also some of the most controversial. Peter Hitchens, an English conservative journalist, named Pullman the “most dangerous author in Britain,” and his books were banned across the United States.
Why the uproar? Through the concept of Dust, Pullman reframes Original Sin as a good thing. What if being expelled from the Garden of Eden is what made humanity possible, not what ruined humanity?
Pullman, a staunch atheist, also uses His Dark Materials to criticise organised religion. The Church in the books is a corrupt, all-powerful organisation. Lyra should be trusted.
His Dark Materials airs on BBC One on Sundays at 8pm