His Dark Materials – Pullman, ‘Dust’ and the Unravelling of Consciousness

William Blake's 'The Ancient of Days'
William Blake’s ‘The Ancient of Days’, or ‘God as an Architect’

There are few novels that appeal to both children and adults quite as much, nor as equally, as Philip Pullman’s epic, His Dark Materials – in fact, age is, perhaps, almost irrelevant to what one can take out of reading the three-part fantasy. Beliefs and values are probably a greater measure of impact upon the reader. Theologians, philosophers, physicists, historians, sociologists, economists – the list could go on – as well as fantasists, and those without any particular focus at all, will extract very different forms of meaning. The lines of narrative throughout draw upon various and varied sources of inspiration, from Milton’s Paradise Lost – of which His Dark Materials is an effective ‘ Antichrist’ – to poetry by Emily Dickinson and Edmund Burke, creating a contemporary epic that challenges the very foundations of the perception of human existence. There is little wonder that the books are scorned by the Church, conservative forms of which make up the bulk of the antagonism in the story line  The primary strand of the epic that highlights such conflict is the fascination with a concept known to some in the novels as ‘Dust’, and to others as ‘dark matter’.

The Nature of Dust

Pullman introduces Dust in a clever manner to produce the maximum amount of mystery – its first appearance is in a world (a parallel version of our Oxford in which it seems that the Reformation, and many forms of technological advancement, have not taken place, giving the universe a somewhat stunted atmosphere) where there is an immature scientific knowledge of particle physics. Hence, the first novel in the series, Northern Lights, is taken up with superstitious observations of Dust, with the Church – known as the Magisterium – holding distinct influence over its perception. Dust, by the end of the third novel The Amber Spyglass, is revealed to be a form of conscious elementary particle, that is formed when matter begins to understand itself (in our own universe, such matter is limited to humans). In His Dark Materials, there are some life forms that are able to see Dust as a physical entity, as golden particles that are attracted to intelligent beings. Hence it is derived that Dust infers consciousness, and begins to affect humans in the teenage years, around the time that physical and mental growth begin to accelerate, and, according to the Church, matter begins to know ‘good from evil’.

Pullman’s fictional Dust, known in science fiction as ‘quantum mysticism’, has a scientific equivalent, in the form of ‘dark matter’, which is believed by some physicists to hold all positive matter in the universe together – i.e. that for every visible, physical form of matter, there is a negative counterpart that provides an equilibrium in the world.

Dust and the Church

The significance of Dust in His Dark Materials rests on the power of the Church, which remains distinctly important. The Magisterium, working from the basis of biblical teachings, maintains that consciousness infers sin – after the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The highly significant character Lord Asriel even provides an explanation of the origin of the term, in an alternate Bible:

“…in the sweat of thy face shall thou eat bread, til thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.” (Genesis 3:19)

To the Church, Dust is the manifestation of ‘original sin’: the cause of consciousness, free will and, thus, the presence of evil and disobedience in the world. Throughout the novel, it is revealed that the aim of the Magisterium is to discover methods of neutralising the effects of Dust – primarily by removing the connection between human and soul – and to destroy the contemporary agents of Dust, and the upholders of free will (one of which happens to the protagonist of the series, 12 year-old Lyra). Only by destroying Dust can the church retain its hold on humanity – in the form of a ‘World of the Dead’, and a metaphorical Kingdom of Heaven, ruled by the Authority (the first ever angel, posing as God) and his regent Metatron.

Here, Pullman draws upon ideas of self-determination – the Church of course claims that God allowed humans to act freely. It is clear early on however, that the Magisterium are well aware of the true cause of free-will and consciousness in humans, Dust, and hypocritically attempt to manipulate the course of events in His Dark Materials to remove it from the world.


It is clear why religious institutions dislike Pullman’s epic – he formulates a world in which human consciousness and intelligence is celebrated and takes credit for all that the Church relies upon to retain power; i.e. that the Church’s source of power in the universe (manifestations of Heaven, God etc.) is actually formed from human freedom and self-awareness, not the other way around. These ideas oppose those presented in John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, where it is exactly the consciousness of man that leads to his fall. Pullman has not necessarily created a heretical (in the anti-religious sense) novel, but one that criticises the suppression of what it means to be human and to exist. It just so happens that his version of events and the Church’s contradict each other quite significantly.

2 thoughts on “His Dark Materials – Pullman, ‘Dust’ and the Unravelling of Consciousness

  1. To date, I’ve never been able to find the actual biblical reference to free will, and when I asked a cocky canon once to point me in it’s direction, he was lost for words. If you know where it is – or you find it, let me know. Enjoyed the article.

    1. You’re very right, references are few and far between. I’ve only ever found hints, or references to ‘knowing God’s will’ and making it one’s own. One or two of these include Corinthians 10:13, and Galatians 5:16. They’re a little forced but I suppose one could draw a lot from them. Thank you for the feedback! I’m by no means an expert on anything included in this piece, but I do find Pullman’s critiques fascinating!

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