Dust (His Dark Materials)
In Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy of novels, Dust is a mysterious cosmic particle that is integral to the plot. In Northern Lights, Lord Asriel reveals the origins of the term "Dust" to be from a passage from the slightly alternate version of the Bible in Lyra's world: "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." (Genesis 3:19)
Pullman's Dust is a fictional form of dark matter, an elementary particle that is of fundamental importance. It is invisible to the human eye and cannot be seen without the use of special instruments, such as the amber spyglass or a special film. While humans cannot see Dust without the use of outside devices, creatures such as the mulefa are able to see dust with their own eyes.
Unlike ordinary particles, Dust is conscious. It falls from the sky, is attracted to people, and wears off onto objects made by people. This makes it of great interest to the Church, which believes that it may be the physical manifestation of Original Sin. It is later learned that Dust actually confers consciousness, knowledge, and wisdom, and that Dust is formed when matter becomes conscious. This allows creatures who have the ability to see Dust to identify other sentient and intelligent creatures. An example of this is when the mulefa are able to distinguish Mary Malone as an intelligent being (compared to the other animals), because of the Dust surrounding her. Dust is life and the living essence of everything from the play 'His Dark Materials' and 'The Golden Compass.' Dust is also the thing that connects humans to their dæmons. This being is the physical manifestation of the soul that can talk and is in the form of an animal. It sends the Dust to the human to allow the human consciousness. Even in worlds whose people lack apparent dæmons, they still exist, though they typically do not take the form of animals. In some worlds, one's dæmon is the silent consciousness in the back of one's head, that other voice that confers intuition. If the bond between a child and their dæmon is severed (as through Intercision), both the child and the dæmon will eventually die. If the separation occurs after Dust has settled on the person (that is, after he or she has reached adolescence), the person simply becomes a lifeless shell.
It is Dust that provides the answers given by the alethiometer, the I Ching system of divination and also the computer that Dr. Mary Malone creates in order to communicate directly with these particles by using one's consciousness.
Dust has various names among the various worlds within the trilogy. Dust was previously known (in Lyra Belacqua's universe) as Rusakov particles after their discoverer, Boris Mikhailovitch Rusakov. It is known also as Shadows in our world (Pullman relates Dust to dark matter), and the mulefa's word sraf accompanied by a leftward flick of the trunk (or arm for humans).
Angels are formed when Dust condenses. Nevertheless, Angels are not in reality the human-like figures they appear to be. They are the physical manifestation of spirit making something 'be'. In some metaphysical/moral models, consciousness is the thing that makes us "sin". In those worldviews it could (in theory) be seen as original sin. This is the point of view seen by the Magisterium, and therefore they seek to destroy Dust. However, they fail to see what the full repercussions of this would be, as they are ignorant to the true nature of Dust. Eliminating it would mark the end of consciousness.
Dust as a symbol of Knowledge
Most of the symbolism takes the form of three intertwined allegories. Like all allegories, these use surface story characters and events to symbolise characters and events in other narratives. In Pullman's case, the other narratives are
- C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,
- John Milton's Paradise Lost,
- an original Pullman tale about conflict between Charles Darwin and Christian missionaries. Dust relates to the second and third narratives.
Pullman's allegories are tied together by surface story symbolism depicting warfare between knowledge and religious superstition. These two entities are respectively symbolised by
- golden dust that drifts down from the sky onto adults
- ghostly "spectres" that devour the minds of adults while leaving the body unharmed.
In the surface story's climax, Lyra (the heroine, symbolising Satan's Paradise Lost daughter, Sin) and Will (symbolising Cain, son of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost) eat some "little red fruits" packed in a lunch for them by Mary (symbolising the serpent-tempter in the Paradise Lost allegory and Charles Darwin, bringer of knowledge, in the Darwin allegory). The fruits symbolize the Forbidden Fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, fruit that God forbade Adam and Eve to eat. In the original Genesis story and the parallel Paradise Lost story, two things happen. First, Adam and Eve acquire knowledge, which is forbidden by God. Second, they are ejected from the Garden of Eden, where ignorance must prevail. Their ejection is known in Christian theology as The Fall. The reason for their ejection is that they are guilty of Original Sin, which amounts to the acquisition of knowledge.
Parallel events in His Dark Materials symbolise the two events in the Genesis/Paradise Lost story. First, Lyra lives up to the name of the Paradise Lost character she symbolises (Sin) by reenacting the Bible's act of Original Sin: she eats the symbolised Forbidden Fruit, thereby obtaining knowledge. Will eats too. Their eating the "little red fruits" causes golden dust — knowledge — to suddenly begin drifting down on them. They have symbolically eaten from the Tree of Knowledge; they are drenched in knowledge. Second, they Fall in love. The new Fall (Falling in love) symbolizes the original Fall of Christian doctrine — ejection from Eden, where ignorance must prevail.
When this climactic event occurs — when knowledge begins pouring into the world (as it did when Darwin published his theory of evolution) — the Church falls into disarray and decline.
- The Book of Dust, a forthcoming Pullman novel in the same series.
- His Dark Materials: A Look into Pullman's Interpretation of Milton's Paradise Lost, by Karen D. Robinson. Mythlore, #92 24.2, 2005.
- Leonard F. Wheat, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials: A Triple Allegory (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2008), ch. 1.
- Leonard F. Wheat, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials: A Triple Allegory (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2008), 15, 25, 29, 31, 58-59, 169-70, 175-204, 218-27, 230-33, 286-90.
- Leonard F. Wheat, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials: A Triple Allegory (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2008), 177-78; Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass (New York: Knopf, 2000), 465-66, 470.
- Wheat, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, 61, 262; Pullman, The Amber Spyglass, 470, 478-79, 511-12.