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His Dark Materials | Study Guide

Philip Pullman

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His Dark Materials | Symbols


The Alethiometer

The alethiometer is a truth-telling device, a beautiful, exquisitely detailed instrument that Lyra Belacqua is able to read intuitively almost from the moment it is given to her. It can provide information about the past and present, and it can also suggest what might happen in the future if certain conditions are met. The alethiometer is compared to a clock or compass, and like both of those tools it provides its user with guidance and direction. With Lyra, though, the alethiometer is not only the means by which she learns more about the world but also the symbol and measure of her innocence. As she becomes less naïve she has more and more difficulty reading the device. And once she experiences love with Will Parry she loses her ability completely and will have to study for years before she can make sense of the messages again. This development suggests two additional meanings for the alethiometer: that the ability to see truth in the world becomes increasingly difficult as one gets older, and that the magic so accessible to children becomes more elusive as we reach adulthood.


To the characters in Pullman's trilogy, Dust is understood and interpreted differently by almost every person or group that encounters it. The Church sees Dust as evidence of Original Sin since it gathers around people when they reach the age of puberty. Less judgmental individuals view Dust simply as proof that something changes in a person when innocence is replaced by experience. The angel Balthamos describes Dust as "what happens when matter begins to understand itself," but in other situations Dust appears to be the thing that actually creates consciousness and self-awareness in other beings. Dust also appears to be a conscious entity aware of itself, communicating directly with both Lyra Belacqua and Mary Malone.

At a higher level, though, Dust seems to represent the unknowable—the mysteries of the universe, never completely understood. It is a life force, the spirit animating everything that lives in the world. When Dust begins to flow out of the world and into the abyss, there is a sense that without it life would no longer exist. This suggests Dust is the source of life itself, echoing the biblical phrase "Dust thou art and to dust shalt thou returneth." (When Lyra and Will Parry find a way to free the ghosts, the spirits literally—and joyously—turn to Dust as they exit the underworld.) Dust also appears to be the source of all knowledge, speaking through the alethiometer. All these meanings taken together may suggest Dust symbolizes the ultimate Higher Power. Dust, in other words, may be the god of Pullman's trilogy, made up of the life force, intelligence, and spirit of all living things, constantly renewing and recycling itself.


The daemons in His Dark Materials are literally the souls or spirits of the individuals they are connected with. They tend to project the personality of their human companion, even parts that are hidden from others. Mrs. Marisa Coulter's daemon, for example, is a beautiful, clever, but vicious monkey. Lord Asriel's is a powerful snow leopard, as cold, striking, and fearsome as he. Lord Boreal's daemon is a snake, deceptive and dangerous.

On a more symbolic level, though, daemons represent the changes all humans undergo as they mature. As children adjust their views of the world and consider how to deal with it, their daemon's can shape-shift. Only after puberty, which marks an individual's change to adulthood, does the daemon settle into one shape, reflecting the kind of person he or she has become. Lyra Belacqua at one point wonders what it would be like if one's daemon settled into "a shape you don't like." An old seaman acknowledges there are plenty of people who would "like to have a lion as a daemon and they end up with a poodle." These people, he says, must learn to be satisfied with who they are or risk being discontented for the rest of their lives.

Also noteworthy is the fact that a person's daemon is almost always of the opposite sex of its human. Although Pullman himself has not explained this choice in any definitive way, it may be that having a daemon with the opposite sex is an acknowledgment that each person has both masculine and feminine traits and the human-daemon combination shows that balance clearly. However, it's implied that having a same-sex daemon is an indicator the person is homosexual.

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