Warning: This article is largely spoiler-free, but it is best to have seen the first season of His Dark Materials, The Golden Compass (2007) or read Northern Lights by Philip Pullman before reading this article.
Many of us have been enjoying the fantastic BBC and HBO show, His Dark Materials, which started its second season at the beginning of this month (November 2020). It is based on the trilogy of books called “His Dark Materials” by Phillip Pullman and explores Pullman’s world largely in line with the book series.
Although the His Dark Materials book series are really children’s books, they tackle some incredibly sophisticated moral, social and scientific subjects that can be difficult for even adults to grasp. If anything, children probably find it easier to fathom than us old fogeys.
Probably the most complex “device” in His Dark Materials is Dust. Not the ordinary household dust, but an almost mystical, sentient Dust that influences and interacts with sentient life. It can be a bit of a melon twister, to be honest with you, so this article, in our new series of “What Is?” articles exploring the lore of some of our favourite franchises, is going to tackle the question of “What is Dust?” with a basic, largely spoiler-free (at least where the main plot is concerned) explanation.
What is Dust?
Dust, also known as Rusakov Particles, Shadows, dark matter and Sraf depending on where the characters in the series are from, is an elemental particle that is conscious. It is both the reason for intelligent life being conscious and sustained by this conscious life. Consciousness is a hard term to really understand, so the dictionary definition is an “awareness of one’s own existence, sensations, thoughts, surroundings”. So, without Dust, life would be empty, devoid of any thought, feeling and imagination. And without thought, feeling and imagination, Dust will just dissipate.
Dust is attracted to mature life. So, in humans, dust tends to settle (become more attracted to and attaches itself) on people after they have reached puberty. With children, perhaps because they understand their surroundings, themselves and what it is to be alive less, Dust is much more fluid and less attracted to them. Dust is also attracted to objects that sentient life has handled or influenced. Dust can be attracted to itself and coalesce into its own corporal shape but that is starting to delve into a spoiler minefield.
The History of Dust
Dust started to interact with intelligent life approximately 33,000 years before the time of His Dark Materials, where it began to induce changes on life in order for it to better interact with Dust. Without giving too much away, when Dust was asked why it influenced the evolution of intelligent life, it replied that it was for vengeance…
Dust was discovered in Lyra’s world when a man named Boris Mikhailovitch Rusakov, who discovered a field through the universe that was innately connected to consciousness. The existence of the field then suggested the existence of a particle for that field. Hence why Dust is sometimes known as Rusakov particles.
The name Dust, at least in Lyra’s world, comes from a passage in the bible. In Genesis 3:19, after being tempted by the serpent to eat the forbidden fruit, God tells Adam and Eve “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”. After eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve began to feel conscious of their own nakedness and their eyes were “opened”. The influence of Dust on consciousness draws a parallel from this.
Life has developed objects that can communicate with Dust. Lyra’s world has Alethiometers, strange compass objects with many symbols running around the outside. By pointing the three “arms” of the Alethiometer to different symbols, a question can be phrased so a fourth arm can indicate an answer. This arm is sensitive to dust, so dust uses it to answer the posed question. In another world, Mary Malone helps develop a computer called “The Cave” which can also communicate with Dust. She also owns a group of sticks used for a form of Chinese divination called I Ching, which works by interacting with Dust.
Why is Dust so important?
Well aside from the previously stated reason of it being thought, imagination and feeling, all essential ingredients in what it means to be human, there are a couple of other reasons why Dust is so important.
The first is what the Magisterium, the Holy Church in Lyra’s world, believes Dust is. Because of the connection Dust has to consciousness and because the Bible states that this consciousness began when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, the Magisterium believes that Dust is the embodiment of Original Sin. Because of this, they seek to banish and suppress the knowledge of it, going as far as ripping children’s Dæmons away from them to stop Dust from settling on them (more of this later) in an effort to remove original sin from them.
The other reason why Dust is very important is that because it is consciousness, if it is controlled or suppressed, creatures that are conscious can be controlled and restrained. The Magisterium in Lyra’s world and historically in our world, has used this suppression of basic instincts and urges to control people’s lives, all for the glory of a higher power. An aspect of this control of Dust-free people is seen in the lore. In Lyra’s Africa, people are separated from their Dæmons to become a Zombi. They have no will of their own and are used as slaves.
What do Dæmons have to do with Dust?
Every sentient, living thing would be described as having a soul, the very stuff that makes you you. Your personality, your likes, dislikes, and fears would all be considered part of your soul or consciousness. A Dæmon is a physical, visible manifestation of the soul that is born with humans in Lyra’s world. Creatures from other worlds also have Dæmons, but they are not visible with the naked eye. So a Dæmon, being an aspect of somebody’s consciousness, is in essence, Dust.
Dæmons take the forms of animals depending on the characteristics of a person. Before humans mature, a Dæmon can change form between different animals. As they grow older, their Dæmons settle, depending on their nature. For example, servants almost always have dog Dæmons. Although not specifically stated, I believe that is not because they are servants that make their Dæmons dogs but because their nature is to follow orders and bow to somebody else. Once a Dæmon settles, Dust becomes more attracted to the person. As I alluded to earlier, I believe this is because children are perhaps less aware or sure of themselves and their own natures.
When a human dies, their Dæmon disappears. This is because the person is no longer conscious of itself and Dust stops interacting with them. Because Dæmons are the physical, visible manifestations of a person’s consciousness (and thus, are Dust), when they die, the Dæmon simply dissipates away from the now “hollow”, lifeless person.
Hopefully this article hasn’t been too confusing for you. For children’s books, the themes and plot of His Dark Material is incredibly sophisticated and complex. If you are struggling to grasp Dust, Dæmons, Witches, Panserbjørn and multiple worlds, I leave you with the advice I would give to anyone reading and watching fantasy, sci-fi and the like.
Just go with it.
In this world, Dust just is a thing. If it’s confusing you, just go with it. Don’t let the technical whatnot confuse you to the point that it ruins the enjoyment of the thing. As the scientist in Tenet says regarding time inversion “Don’t Try To Understand It. Feel It”.
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