The second episode of HBO’s new fantasy series His Dark Materials will air on Monday night and if you’re new to the world of Lyra, Lord Asriel, gobblers, and daemons, you may have a few questions about the world that they inhabit.
The show is set in an alternate reality that looks a lot like our world, save for a few key differences. First, each human has a daemon, an animal that is their constant companion. There are armored bears, angels and witches, and for a little steampunk flair, people travel by airships. There are also a number of institutions, including Jordan College, an Oxford college that is using “scholastic sanctuary” to keep Lyra safe within its walls, and the Magisterium. While the show will explain much about daemons and Dust, it may help newcomers to know about the Magisterium.
In the books, author Philip Pullman crafted the Magisterium as a government-like body that is both seemingly omniscient and intimidating. In The Golden Compass, the first book in his trilogy, Pullman explains that the Magisterium was established after the death of Pope John Calvin (if that name sounds familiar, it should — as Nerdist points out, in our world, John Calvin was a leader of the Protestant Reformation). In the wake of his passing, the papacy changed and the “courts, colleges, and councils” that made up the church’s domain were consolidated into a powerful entity known as the Magisterium. Within the Magisterium, the Consistorial Court of Discipline is “the most active and feared of all the church’s bodies,” according to The Golden Compass. Over the course of the first season, a new villain will rise in the form of the terrifying General Oblation Board.
On behalf of the church, the Magisterium monitors doctrine and keeps tabs on all scientific discoveries that might lead people to question their faith or, worse, to heresy. According to the His Dark Materials fan wiki, “Any discoveries that have a bearing on the doctrines of the church have to be announced through the Magisterium.” In the books, Lord Asriel (played in the show by James McAvoy) angers the Magisterium by discovering proof of something called Dust, a mysterious particle that appears to surround children. As he sets off to find a city of Dust in the sky, the Magisterium’s agents are moving against him, as they want to ward off the potential threat to their belief system.
If you think of the Magisterium as a bit like a cross between the all-seeing government in 1984 and the Vatican in the age of the Inquisition, you will be on the right track. The powerful church body is based in Geneva, but they have spies everywhere — even in Jordan College, despite the school’s supposed independence.
If you want an aural sense of the Magisterium’s power, check out the theme that composer Alexandre Desplat created for The Golden Compass, an earlier film based on Pullman’s books.