His Dark Materials

William Blake: Copy D, plate 1, frontispiece: “The Ancient of Days”; a bearded nude male (probably Urizen) crouching in a heavenly sphere, its light partially covered by clouds; his left arm holding a pair of compasses and reaching down with them, measuring the surrounding darkness.(via https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1859-0625-72)

Philip Pullman finished his trilogy of fantasy novels His Dark Materials in 2000. But I feel his epic has a lot to say about the symbolic portents of our times and the near future. I tremendously enjoyed the HBO/BBC adaptation of the novels, which ended in December last year. There is a curious personal connection between the Pullman universe and my humble blog. I had chosen the name Symbolreader a long time before I heard about the alethiometer, a.k.a. symbol-reader, which plays such an important role in Pullman’s universe. The alethiometer (from Greek – a truth-measuring device) is a compass-like device used by Lyra, the main character of the books, to gain truthful answers to her questions. The needles of the device point to images, whose interpretation is only possible when one is in a state of deep contemplation. Reading the alethiometer is a skill that can only be mastered through years of diligent studies. However, Lyra, who is still a child, has a unique gift of reading the golden symbolic compass. She accomplishes this by communicating directly with the conscious particles called Dust. Lyra’s name Belacqua is obviously an allusion to the intuitive properties of water. What is more, her nickname Lara Silvertongue links her with the alchemical Mercurius. Dust can be likened to the alchemical primal matter, with which Lyra has a very special connection. In accordance with her Mercurius credentials, at one point in the story Lyra descends to the Underworld to free the souls kept in limbo by the evil Authority.

Lyra with her daemon Pantalaimon

In Lyra’s universe conscious particles are referred to as Dust. In “our” world, Dust is called Dark Matter or Shadow particles, and there is indeed a strong Jungian resonance here. Pullman conceived of Dust as conscious and sentient. Creatures made entirely of Dust were called Angels. Dust is attracted to adults, especially the creative ones. The title of Pullman’s trilogy refers to a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which God, the Almighty Maker, uses “his dark materials” to create new worlds. Pullman’s visionary undertaking is awe-inspiring in both its depth and breadth. It alludes to Gnosticism, Orthodox religions, Jungian psychology, William Blake’s cosmology, alchemy, the Kabbalah, and has been successfully interpreted in light of all of those systems, and more.

Metatron, the Regent of the Authority

Central in Pullman’s story is the human soul and its struggle to free itself from the tyranny of orthodoxy. Organized religion is not portrayed kindly. But also the limited nature of science and rationalism are exposed. It seems that both scientists and members of the clergy strive for power and are more than happy to sacrifice individual souls if the “greater cause” of their fixed convictions demands it. Lord Asriel, a free thinker and a scientist, who opposes the Magisterium (thinly-disguised metaphor for Church) turns out to be as ruthless and close-minded as his mighty opponents. He does not stop short of child sacrifice. Yet he is still a full-blooded character, since Pullman does not limit himself to simple dichotomies of good and evil in his superb storytelling. Together with his estranged partner, Marisa Coulter, Asriel manages to defeat the Authority, thus redeeming himself to a certain extent. Both he and Marisa are marvellously-conceived tragic characters: capable of utter evil in the name of ambition but also driven by deep love and soulful striving.

Marisa Coulter surrounded by the Spectres (malevolent soul-eaters, which fed on Dust)

In Lyra’s universe people’s souls are called daemons and take the form of an animal. The animal changes shapes multiple times until it settles for one species in adulthood. In “our” world daemons are not visible, but the chosen few can train themselves to perceive them. Daemons were normally the opposite gender to their master, which must be a hint at the Jungian concept of anima and animus being the soulful companions of respectively men and women. At the moment of physical death daemons dissolve into Dust, which is beautifully shown in the TV adaptation. The unique loving bond between human and their daemon rests upon the latter’s ability to mirror the unconscious emotions of the person, to provide them with intuitive insights as well as to warn them of any danger. Animals also provide grounding and a connection with primal instincts.

I was struck how timely Pullman’s epic is in relation to the long-announced Age of Aquarius. It seems to be a task of the individual soul to navigate their way through the dominant religious and social systems, which so often seek to mould and oppress by offering false security. Without a doubt, the most liberating factor seems to be the symbolic imagination. I think Pullman would agree with the following words from Jung’s Red Book:

“Our freedom does not lie outside us, but within us. One can be bound outside, and yet one will still feel free since one has burst inner bonds. One can certainly gain outer freedom through powerful actions, but one creates inner freedom only through the symbol.”

There is freedom in the air. Air is about freedom. Interestingly, one of the most compelling characters of the trilogy is Lee Scoresby, an aeronaut, whose balloon serves as an instrument of liberation and protection for quite a few characters. Air is heavily populated in Pullman’s universe: there are witches and angels spreading their wings over humanity in loving embrace and offering constant guidance.

Lee Scoresby with his daemon Hester

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10 Responses to His Dark Materials

  1. Frank Draper says:

    I was not aware of His Dark Materials or the HBO/BBC adaptation of the novels. I will see if either HBO or BBC productions are still available.

    Thank you for the insightful introduction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I am sure it is still available on HBO. Please avoid the Hollywood movie, though. It is appalling although it has a great cast.
      Thank you very much for your comment.


    • angelakd says:

      If you’re in the UK it’s still available on iplayer. I agree with the Blog author, the production is absolutely SUPERB, I’ve watched it several times now and am in awe of the production, it’s utterly beautiful, dramatic and heart breaking, as of course are Pullman’s books. I really enjoyed your take on the story and themes involved. As you say it’s breadth is astonishing and is going to take a long time I feel to really let’s its meaning and symbolism reveal itself.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lisa says:

    The HBO/BBC production (one and the same) are available on HBO or via streaming on HBO Max. I highly recommend the series.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Danah Blanco says:

    Love all your posts, as always, and I will be watching this!! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. dreamerphoenix says:

    Daemon is known by other names… Witches call them their Fetch and Shamans call it Animism Soul. The animal soul is the counterpart soul of the human soul which is housed in different bodies, a specific example is the animal, bird, oceanid, or insect kingdoms which have souls.

    For example, if there are 100 tigers left on earth, then there are 100 humans who have a tiger soul and no more. Maybe one or two of the one-hundred people will know or understand this but even then, it would take about thirty years of intense discipline, sacrifice, self-healing, working out, and resolving even the most terrible issues, and extremely painful karmic purification processes to allow such a high-vibration animal to merge. The smaller the animal the easier it is to attain (like a squirrel).

    This loss today is from millenniums of our building of our “Shadow” (karma soul that fragments from our light soul, over lifetimes). So when someone says they are an old soul, most likely they don’t have a context. There are hundreds of millions of dogs and cats now, and that is the reduction of the soul into the “domesticated” soul which is a much lower vibration and attained easily.

    In goddess cultures (grandmother cultures) before the patriarch, nature, animals, plants, earth, and woman are connected through imagery, ancient art, etc. This is not mind-body reality, but the soul’s reality connected to the emotional body connected to the natural world and mother earth’s animals and birds.

    Liked by 1 person

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