His Dark Materials: What is Dust?

The concept of Dust - introduced in the show's first episode - has left some viewers scratching their heads

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BBC One’s new adaptation of His Dark Materials debuted last weekend to strong ratings and broadly positive reviews – but one or two aspects of the show have left some viewers scratching their heads.

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Of course, it’s important to bear in mind that different viewers will be watching the show from very different perspectives.

Whereas some are long-term fans of the novels on which it is based, and are fully embroiled in Philip Pullman’s fantasy world and all its attendant lore, others are coming to the show as novices to the material.

Things that might seem clear to book readers, then, are likely to require a bit more explanation for those new to the world. And one of these things is the concept of Dust – which was introduced in episode one.

So what is Dust?

If you’re struggling to make sense of what the characters are talking about when they speak of Dust, then you’re not alone – and this might not be a bad thing.

The hero of the trilogy, Lyra – portrayed by Dafne Keen – is equally unsure about what the mysterious substance is. Indeed a large part of the series revolves around Lyra trying to find out as much as she can about it.

Therefore, Dust is absolutely essential to the story – and its precise nature and purpose will slowly unravel as the series progresses.

James McAvoy as Lord Asriel with his dæmon Stelmaria (BBC)
James McAvoy as Lord Asriel with his dæmon Stelmaria (BBC)

OK, but what do we know about it so far?

At its most basic level, we know that Dust refers to particles that have some sort of influence in Pullman’s world.

The first mention of Dust in the series – as was also the case in the books – comes as Lyra overhears her uncle, Lord Asriel, played by James McAvoy on the show, speaking to the scholars of Jordan College.

He speaks of how when he takes photograms using a particular emulsion, an adult will appear bathed in light – but a child appears as normal. This, according to Asriel, confirms that Dust is attracted to adults but not children.

Asriel then shows the scholars another photogram – this time of the Northern Lights. When the special emulsion is used here, an entire city can be seen within the Northern Lights, telling us a little more about the properties of Dust – perhaps it can be used as a porthole to another world.

These revelations are accompanied by an incredulous reaction from the Jordan scholars – showing us that Dust is something that attracts a lot of talk, and also suspicion, amongst adults in Pullman’s world.

We also learn that Asriel has made it his life’s mission to experiment with Dust as much as possible – something which is met with a certain degree of pushback from some quarters.

So is Dust a good or bad thing?

That’s a very good question – and at this point it’s not exactly clear. But don’t fret, a lot more will become apparent as the show continues.

For now, all you really need to know is that it’s a very important substance in the books – the source of much experimentation – that authority figures in Pullman’s universe are suspicious of it, and that Lyra is desperate to learn more…

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His Dark Materials is on BBC One at 8pm on Sundays