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The world of BBC’s His Dark Materials – everything from Dust to daemons explained

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His Dark Materials is based on the acclaimed trilogy of books of the same name from children’s author Phillip Pullman.

The most recent TV adaption, which recently premiered its debut episode to astounding success, means that an entire new generation of viewers both young and old are visiting the world of Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keene) for the first time.

But the world of the show could do with some explaining. Although the opening credits of its first episode established basic knowledge of the world viewers were about to enter, there are some concepts and characters we feel people need to know more about.

Where is His Dark Materials set?

As the opening credits of the first episode explained, His Dark Materials is set in a world much like our own, but with big differences. This parallel existence may look familiar, but it doesn’t take long to realise that there are a lot of distinguishing features between our world and Lyra’s.

Let’s dig a little deeper into what some of these differences are…

What is Dust?

The concept of Dust – what it is and how it came to be – is the driving narrative force behind the first two books in Pullman’s original trilogy. Everyone wants something from Dust – Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) wants to control it, The Magisterium want to destroy it… and Lyra just wants to discover what it is.

But what actually is it? Spoilers aside, Dust is just the name given to specific elemental particles that are invisible to the naked eye. In scenes aired in the show’s first episode, we see Lord Asriel has collected evidence in the Arctic North that Dust is attracted and attaches itself to adults but not children. 

Asriel also shows the scholars that Dust enters the world through a crack in the sky, where a city in another world can be glimpsed from the Northern Lights, revealing that there are other worlds parallel to Lyra’s that contain Dust too. 

Oh, and the most important bit? It’s always spelt with a capital D since it is actually a proper noun. GCSE English lesson over!

What are daemons – how come Lyra’s changes shape and Lord Asriel’s or Mrs Coulter’s don’t?

In the universe of His Dark Materials, a daemon (pronounced ‘demon’) is the physical manifestation of a person’s soul.

Daemons take the form of an animal and have their own distinct name and personalities, for example Lyra’s daemon is called Pantalimon and Lord Asriel’s is Stelmaria, who has taken the form of a snow leopard.

The daemons of children are able to switch their shape at will, it is only when a child reaches the age of puberty that their daemon chooses a permanent form.  Another interesting point – a daemon’s gender is always the opposite to their human. So, Pantalimon and Mrs Coulter’s golden monkey are male, whilst Stelmaria is female. 

Who are The Magisterium? 

The Magisterium can be considered to be the Big Bad of His Dark Materials.

An autocratic, dictatorial religious organisation heavily based on our own Catholic Church, the Magisterium rules over Lyra’s world with an iron fist. 

Much like the Church’s own persecution of scientists during the Renaissance, The Magisterium tries to control and influence knowledge, especially around the topic of Dust. 

The Magisterium believe that Dust must be destroyed, and the villainous Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson) has already told Lyra that Dust can be connected to the concept of sin (again – we won’t spoil anything if you haven’t read Pullman’s books). 

What is The Alethiometer and what does its name mean?

Those who watched the ill-fated 2007 adaption of Pullman’s books will probably recognise the Alethiometer as the Golden Compass, but funnily enough, that name isn’t even uttered in the TV adaptation (a bit like saying Macbeth when you’re in a theatre). 

But, it’s description as a golden compass is actually very apt. Although it doesn’t show you physical directions. Alethiometers are a device that can be used to find out the truth – if someone is telling the truth, what their true intentions are or the answer to a question you keep asking yourself.

You haven’t seen yet, but there’s a fine art to using this device – which can only be interpreted through a rather large collection of symbols that its compass-needle will point to. 

It will most definitely come in handy for Lyra on her quest. Its name is the combination of two Greek words – ‘alethia’ which means truth and meter, which means to measure. So basically, it does what it says on the tin – it measures truth. 

Was that… an armoured bear?

Yes, that’s right. Your eyes do not deceive you, that is really a walking, talking polar bear wearing some rather fitting armour. 

In Lyra’s world, not all animals are sentient – but the polar bears in the Arctic North are. In the novels, they have their own species name as well, the much harder to pronounce panserbjørne

They’ve set up their own society and are ruled over by their very own king, though they have little interaction with the human world. 

Given that they’re animals,  the bears do not have daemons, although they consider their armour – hand-crafted by each bear for themselves – to be their own ‘soul.’ 

The Gobblers seem like bad news?

It wasn’t confirmed until the end of the first episode that the Gobblers – child-stealing thieves – were actually real, and not just an urban myth. 

Their purpose in the narrative of the TV show is unclear for now, but their name should really be spelled as G.O.B.lers, as their name is derived from the General Oblation Board, which were introduced in the first episode of the series as an extension of the Magisterium,

The baddies have already nabbed Gyptian child Billy Costa and now Lyra’s best friend Roger too. But what exactly do they want with the children and where are they taking them? Only time will tell…

His Dark Materials continues this Sunday at 8pm on BBC One.



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