Here’s Why Everyone on His Dark Materials Keeps Talking About Dust

By | November 12, 2019
  • His Dark Materials is HBO’s most recent fantasy series.
  • Based on the books by Philip Pullman, the series features a substance called “dust.”
  • Here’s what to know about mysterious force.

    Much like the “Force” of Star Wars and the Tao of eastern philosophy, “Dust” in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials–adapted now by HBO and the BBC–behaves as a kind of life-sustaining energy. That being said, it’s not one easily explained.

    In the show’s world, Dust is a particle. It’s something that only settles on mature beings, and why the children of His Dark Materials are said not to be covered in Dust, as Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) shows in the series’ pilot episode. Dust also connects the human to his/her daemon–the animal manifestation of the human’s soul, making the three, Dust, daemons, and humans, seemingly inseparable.

    In Amber Spyglass, the final book in the His Dark Materials trilogy, Dust is said to come into being “when living things became conscious of themselves.” Dust then sustains these beings, preventing them from turning to “brutish automatism.” In a way, Dust becomes a kind of animating particle, an essential component of the physical (though not always visible) world.

    But Dust also has ideological significance. In an interview for the 2007 Golden Compass film, author Philip Pullman described Dust as “a mysterious force of which the powerful people in the story seem to be afraid.” Dust threatens power. This is actually the first fact we learn about Dust in the series: it exists, and the “Magistrate,” a powerful governing body, wants to keep it hidden.

    Understanding why the Magistrate fears Dust might require some knowledge of real-life religious history. In many ways, Dust is Pullman’s stand-in for the Divine, but one in which both forces–the human and the divine–depend on each other. Dust becomes threatening to those in power when it transforms our image of the divine–what the magistrate supposedly speaks for. Discovering Dust then means gaining a more direct access to the divine. Or, perhaps more heretical, replacing the divine with something physical. (Many Christians see the story’s depiction of God as cruel and tyrannical. The church, or the “Magistrate,” doesn’t fare too well either, itself more a tool for oppression than a place for salvation.) By this reading, knowledge of Dust achieves similar intellectual boons as the European Enlightenment. Dust is knowledge. And knowledge is power.

    “It’s a picture,” said Pullman. “It’s a visual, physical analog of everything that is consciousness: human thought, imagination, love, affection, kindness, curiosity. . . . Our most profound duty is to increase the presence of dust in the world.”

    Dust represents all that is wonderful and good and pure about human thinking. If that includes curiosity and free thought, one might understand why an institution, standing in place of the Church, might think it a good idea to keep Dust on the down-low.

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