Course Hero. "His Dark Materials Study Guide." Course Hero. 11 Dec. 2017. Web. 27 Sep. 2023. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/His-Dark-Materials/>.
Course Hero. (2017, December 11). His Dark Materials Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved September 27, 2023, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/His-Dark-Materials/
(Course Hero, 2017)
Course Hero. "His Dark Materials Study Guide." December 11, 2017. Accessed September 27, 2023. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/His-Dark-Materials/.
Course Hero, "His Dark Materials Study Guide," December 11, 2017, accessed September 27, 2023, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/His-Dark-Materials/.
The "subtle knife," also called Æshættr, is a cutting instrument developed by the philosopher's Guild of the Tower of the Angels in Cittàgazze, a city in one of the parallel worlds of the novel. One edge of the blade can cut through any material. The other can cut windows in the fabric separating worlds. More importantly, Æshættr is later revealed to be the item that can mean the difference between victory and defeat in Lord Asriel's war against the Authority.
The Subtle Knife temporarily leaves Lyra Belacqua's world behind and opens in the world of the reader—a world of cell phones, blue jeans, and hamburgers. Two men have come to the house where 12-year-old Will Parry lives with his mother, and they ask questions about Will's father. Colonel John Parry, an explorer, vanished years before while on expedition. Will suspects the men are looking for some letters his father sent to his mother, and he demands the men leave. This gives Will time to hide his mother, who has been unstable since his father's disappearance, at the home of a sympathetic neighbor. He goes back to the house and retrieves the letters, but the two men return. Barreling past them to escape, he knocks one down the stairs, killing him.
Now a fugitive, Will flees to the city of Oxford to avoid capture and to learn more about his father. Exhausted, he notices a cat batting at something invisible. Moments later the cat steps forward and vanishes through what seems to be a window in the air itself. Will quickly follows the cat "through the hole in the fabric of this world, and into another." He finds himself in a world near the sea with palm trees, cafes, and a tall tower. It is completely empty. He enters one of the cafes and discovers Lyra. Will is shaken by her daemon Pantalaimon, who is swiftly changing shapes, and Lyra is stunned to realize Will doesn't have a daemon. They quickly realize they are from different worlds, neither of which is the one they now find themselves in. Both, though, decide they can trust each other.
Back in Lyra Belacqua's world, the witch queen Serafina Pekkala boards one of Mrs. Marisa Coulter's ships, where she hears that a young witch is being held. She finds the witch in a room containing leaders of the Church and Mrs. Coulter. They are discussing Lyra, whom they seem desperate to find, and they mention she has already disappeared into the other world. The men believe the young witch knows something about Lyra and torture her mercilessly. The witch finally cries out the witches know about "the child who was to come" and "know her name." She calls out for death before she can reveal more, and Serafina gives her that mercy.
The witch queen then flies to the port of Trollesund, where she learns from the witches' consul that the Magisterium is assembling a great army of mindless zombi, men who have been severed from their daemons. She visit's Lord Asriel's servant, Thorold, who tells her Lord Asriel has always despised the Church, its doctrines, and its God, whom people call the Authority. In fact Asriel is planning a rebellion and wants to destroy the Authority himself, finishing a war that began thousands of years before.
Serafina returns to her clan, where she has also left the Texan balloonist Lee Scoresby. They are joined by the queen of the Latvian witches, Ruta Skadi. Ruta expresses disgust with the Church and says they must all fight against it because it tries "to suppress and control every natural impulse" and cuts out what it can't control. The other witches agree to call the other witch clans together for this mission. In the meantime Serafina, Ruta Skadi, and a troupe of witches will fly into the new world and look for Lyra. Lee Scoresby, for his part, mentions he has heard of a special object that gives protection to whomever holds it. He believes it is in the possession of the explorer Stanislaus Grumman, whom he thinks is still alive, and vows to find it and deliver it to Lyra.
In the new world they have discovered, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry encounter a brother and sister, Angelica and Paolo. Lyra and Will learn the name of the city is Cittàgazze, and that it is deserted because of Specters. Only adults can see Specters, which "eat the life out of" them, turning them into mindless shells. Children are safe from Specters until they grow old enough to see them. Will and Lyra decide it's time to go back to Will's Oxford to learn as much as they can about Dust, Will's father, and the other mysteries they are dealing with.
The two crawl back through Will's window, and Lyra realizes the city they enter both is and isn't like her own Oxford. The two separate. Will goes to a library and finds several old articles about his father's expeditions, all sponsored by the Institute of Archaeology. He then heads to the Institute, where he learns his father's expedition had been exploring high-level atmospheric particles associated with the Northern Lights.
Lyra, meanwhile, wanders into a museum and is fascinated to find a display of skulls with holes bored in them, something done by Tartars in her own world. She consults the alethiometer and learns that there is more Dust around those skulls than around those that have no holes. As Lyra continues to study the exhibit, she is joined by an older man who introduces himself as Charles. He seems pleasant but something about him disturbs Lyra. Before she leaves he gives her his card.
The alethiometer sends Lyra to a nearby building, warning her not to lie to the scholar she will find there. It also tells her to focus on helping Will find his father. Once inside the building, Lyra locates a scientist named Dr. Mary Malone in the Dark Matter Research Unit. As Lyra starts asking about Dust, the scientist realizes Lyra is describing what Dr. Malone and her colleagues call shadow particles. Dr. Malone believes the shadow particles are conscious and has been trying to communicate with the shadows through a computer.
Lyra realizes the computer is functioning like her alethiometer. After showing the astonished Dr. Malone how the alethiometer works, Lyra asks to be hooked up to the computer. Her connection with the particles is immediate and intense. They tell her Dr. Malone will be able to communicate with the particles in words by making a few adjustments to the computer. The Dust also says Dr. Malone will have an important role to play.
Shortly afterward Lyra and Will reconnect and return to Cittàgazze. Back at their flat Will finally reads his father's letters and learns several people in their world were searching for "the anomaly"—the same kind of window Will had discovered. Will realizes the men who came to his apartment had likely known of the windows and were looking for them too.
Lee Scoresby travels to Nova Zembla to gather information about Stanislaus Grumman. He learns Grumman had come out of nowhere seven years before and had a passion for the Aurora and measuring "starlight." Later he had joined a tribe of Tartars called the Yenisei Pakhtars, where he was given the name Jopari and became a shaman. Scoresby suddenly notices one man in the group who is wearing a Church ring. Scoresby purposely baits him by asking about Dust. When Scoresby leaves, the man from the Church follows him and tries to kill him. Scoresby kills him instead.
Lee heads to the Yenisei tribe, where he is told they have been expecting him, and he finds Dr. Grumman. Grumman reveals he is from another world and his name is John Parry (mispronounced by the tribe as Jopari). Parry explains in his own world he had been looking for something he had heard about in legends—"a hole in the fabric of this world." He found it accidentally, in a snowstorm, and had been unable to find it again and return home to his wife and son. The world he entered was Cittàgazze, with its Specters, and he escaped through another window into Lee's world.
Parry took on the name of Grumman, and his great knowledge gained him membership into the academy in Berlin. He learned about Dust, and now he wants to go to Lord Asriel so he can help him with his task, "the greatest in human history." He says he must tell Asriel about something called the subtle knife: Parry knows where it is and how to recognize the person who must use it. Lee agrees, realizing this knife is also what he had been seeking to protect Lyra. He makes Parry promise to use it to keep Lyra safe.
Serafina Pekkala, Ruta Skadi, and their companions have entered the new world and are flying over a devastated wasteland. Eventually they spot a band of adults and children who are almost immediately attacked by the Specters. The adults are drained of their souls, but the children are ignored.
The Specters drift away. One of the two surviving adults, Joachim, tells the witches their world had once been a rich and beautiful place. But 300 years before, the philosopher's Guild of the Torre degli Angeli, or the Tower of the Angels, learned how to open doors to other worlds. These doors allowed Specters to enter. Life had still been possible because the Specters were few in number. But when the sky was recently torn open, thousands more Specters appeared and survival had become all but impossible. Although the children don't realize it, this is part of the disastrous fallout the alethiometer had predicted could result from Lord Asriel's research.
Joachim mentions the doorways are still used and travelers from other worlds find their way through. These include angels, sometimes called Watchers or bene elim. They seem to be battling the Specters, just as they had during the war in heaven thousands of years before. He tells the witches the angels seem to be heading north, to the Pole. As he speaks a group of angels passes overhead and Ruta Skadi decides to join them. They travel to yet another world, where Ruta Skadi finds that Lord Asriel is building a great fortress on a mountaintop and is attracting angels from every corner of the world.
Despite the alethiometer's order to help Will Parry with his task, Lyra Belacqua decides to head back to Dr. Mary Malone's office. She finds her in a panic. Two officers are waiting for Lyra: Sergeant Clifford and Inspector Walters. They seem to know who she is and trick her into admitting she knows Will. Realizing she made a terrible mistake in coming, Lyra runs away. As she races through the streets, a Rolls-Royce pulls up beside her. In it is Charles, the kind man from the museum, who offers her a ride. Only when he drops her off does Lyra realize he has stolen her alethiometer.
Nearly hysterical, Lyra heads back to Cittàgazze and Will. Together they return to Oxford and locate the man, Sir Charles Latrom, using information from his card. Sir Charles, though, has been expecting them. He tells them the only way he will return the alethiometer is if they procure a special knife for him. It is in the keeping of a man who is hiding in Cittàgazze, in the Torre degli Angeli. Will and Lyra realize Sir Charles knows all about the other worlds and the windows between them. Will then sees a serpent daemon peeking out from the man's sleeve and realizes Sir Charles is from Lyra's world.
Lyra and Will head back to Cittàgazze, and to the tower. On one of the upper floors, Pantalaimon spots a young man with curly red hair. The two children head upstairs and find him holding a knife and making odd gestures with it in the air. Before he sees them, they hear a groan from up above. There they find an old man who has been beaten and tied up. After they release him, he says he is Giacomo Paradisi and that he is "the bearer," the one who holds the subtle knife on behalf of the Guild. The knife is the tool is used to open up windows between worlds, and the young man has stolen it from him.
All three return to the lower floor. The young man lashes out with the knife, but Will is a skilled street fighter and is able to take the knife. The young man runs off, and only then does Will realize two of his fingers have been sliced off during the battle. Paradisi is able to staunch the wounds. He tells Will the loss of the two fingers means that Will is the next bearer of the subtle knife, and he shows Will his own missing fingers. He says Will must learn to use the knife quickly because Paradisi will soon be dead, no longer protected from the Specters by the power of the knife. Looking out of the window, Lyra sees the red-haired man is already being attacked by the Specters.
Will Parry and Lyra Belacqua leave Paradisi and head back to Will's Oxford to retrieve the alethiometer. Lyra keeps watch from the Cittàgazze side of the window Will has cut. To her shock she sees Sir Charles arrive with her mother, Mrs. Coulter, and realizes Sir Charles is the Lord Boreal she had met at her mother's cocktail party. She warns Will, who is able to hide in time. Mrs. Marisa Coulter tells Boreal about Lord Asriel's plans to complete the heavenly war. In turn Lord Boreal tells her about Cittàgazze and his discovery of Lyra and the alethiometer, which he pulls out of his pocket. When the alethiometer is revealed, Lyra and Will are able to create a distraction that allows Will to grab the device. Will and Lyra escape back to Cittàgazze before the two adults can catch them, and they hide in a great, white villa near the tower.
Suddenly Will and Lyra hear the children of Cittàgazze gathering below the villa where they are hiding. The mob is intent on killing Will and Lyra for what happened to Tullio—the young man with the red hair whom Will fought—who was Angelica and Paolo's brother, and for stealing the subtle knife. The children storm up the stairway but are stopped by the appearance of Kaisa, Serafina Pekkala's daemon, and the witches, who have come to defend them. They hide out in a nearby cave, and the witches create a spell to heal Will's wound, which has never stopped bleeding.
The witches tell Lyra they are going to help her with Will's quest. As they travel Will becomes weaker—the witches' spell has not worked. Ruta Skadi rejoins the troupe and tells her sister witches about Lord Asriel and his castle. Asriel has invited the witches to join him in his war against the Authority, telling Ruta "to rebel was right and just, when you considered what the agents of the Authority did in His name." Ruta also overheard cliff-ghasts saying that although the Authority had more troops than Asriel, Asriel could win the war because he is "passionate and daring and he believes his cause is just." But he does not have one essential element he needs: Æshættr. Without Æshættr, he will go down in defeat. The witches wonder if Æshættr might be Lyra or Will.
Back in Oxford, Dr. Mary Malone and her colleague Oliver Payne are visited by Sir Charles/Lord Boreal. He says he will provide them with desperately needed research funds if they agree to three conditions: to use the research to determine how to manipulate consciousness; to explore the many-worlds hypothesis; and to help him locate Lyra and Will. As he leaves he also implies he will know if they try to cross him in any way.
Dr. Malone realizes Sir Charles wants to weaponize Dust and harm Lyra. She wants nothing to do with him. Her partner is only interested in the money and says he is going to take Sir Charles up on his offer. Dr. Malone quits but sneaks back into the lab that night with a new program for the computer. Suddenly she is able to communicate with the Dust. It tells her that Dust, Shadows, Dark Matter, and Angels are all one and the same, and they number in the billions. It directs her to find Lyra and Will, saying that Dr. Malone is meant to "play the serpent." The Dust then gives her directions for finding them, and Dr. Malone finds her way to a window and steps through it to Cittàgazze.
As Lee Scoresby and Stanislaus Grumman continue their journey, they become aware they are being followed by another balloon and a number of zeppelins. Lee Scorseby realizes the Church is after him for having killed their informant. They are forced to land the balloon, and Lee sends Grumman to safety as he holds off their pursuers. He fights valiantly and sends a message to Serafina for help, but he is one against many. He dies, content to have helped Lyra.
The witches, meanwhile, continue watching over Will and Lyra, although Serafina leaves to respond to Lee's call. Will, still bleeding, is determined to continue, knowing he is destined to "take up [his] father's mantle." The witches realize there are people pursuing them, and one of them, Lena Feldt, flies off to see who they are. The pursuer is Mrs. Marisa Coulter, who is accompanied by Lord Boreal and attended by an army of Specters she has learned to control. The witch listens as Mrs. Coulter tricks Lord Boreal into telling her Lord Asriel needs something called the subtle knife, also called Æshættr, to be victorious. She then poisons him. Mrs. Coulter suddenly turns on Lena Feldt, catching and torturing her until the witch reveals that Lyra's real name is Eve—Mother of All. Mrs. Coulter has the Specters kill Lena and realizes since Asriel is waging war on the Authority, she will have to destroy Lyra, the new Eve, "to prevent another Fall."
Back at the camp, Will is still in pain and unable to sleep. He wanders up into the mountains where he is suddenly attacked. The attacker turns out to be Dr. Grumman. The shaman cures Will's wound, recognizing from his missing fingers that Will is the bearer of the knife. He tells Will a war is coming, and "this time the right side must win." He says the subtle knife is the one thing that can destroy the being that has caused all the cruelty and deceit in the world: the Authority. He tells Will to bring the knife to Lord Asriel and the angels will guide Will to him.
As Will and the man look at each other, they suddenly recognize that they are father and son. But at that moment, an arrow shot by the witch Juta Kamainen—who had loved Grumman and been rejected by him—pierces Dr. Grumman's heart, and he falls dead. Heartbroken, Will vows to fulfill his father's mission and get the knife to Lord Asriel. The angels appear to guide him, and Will returns to the camp to get Lyra. Instead he discovers the still, soulless bodies of the witches, drained by Mrs. Coulter's army of Specters. Lyra is gone, though her alethiometer is still in her rucksack. Will's anguish almost overcomes him, but the angels refuse to let him grieve. They insist he continue on to Lord Asriel.
In The Subtle Knife the adult characters of Mrs. Marisa Coulter and Lord Asriel are temporarily relegated to the background, spoken about but seldom seen. Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry, on the other hand, take on increasing importance, not only to the reader but also to disparate groups participating in this multiworld battle—the Church, government agents in Will's world, and the army of rebels. In The Subtle Knife children can be important figures, more central to the future of humankind than many powerful and influential adults. Luckily the two balance each other out in terms of personality, serving as two halves of a whole. Each also becomes the other's fiercest ally and, as they later realize, best friend.
Neither Will and Lyra is intimidated by adults, even if those adults are witches, angels, and armored bears. Lyra's self-assurance comes from growing up relatively unsupervised at Jordan College, where she was usually left to her own devices and was indulged by the adults around her. She also responds to people based on their character rather than their age and has a capacity to love easily, as she shows when she meets Iorek, Lee Scoresby, Serafina, and now Will, though she does not quite understand her feelings for him yet. Will's confidence comes from a very different source: a home situation that required him to become an adult at age seven in order to care for his mother and be her protector. The situation has also given him a fierceness others find intimidating. Even witches are unable to look him in the eyes; one witch even thinks "this young, wounded figure held more force and danger than she'd ever met in a human before."
The two are alike in certain ways. Both children are extraordinarily courageous, with strong survival instincts that serve them well when they are pulled into the battle between the Church, the Authority, and the rebels. Lyra has managed to escape from Mrs. Coulter, Bolvangar, and the prison of King Iofur. She goes off alone into a new world in search of Dust and bravely explores the unfamiliar landscape of Will's Oxford in an attempt to find the information she needs. She rarely cries, even when she is wounded and in pain. Will, in turn, proves his courage over and over again, often in physical conflicts, and has been called a born "warrior." He confronts the men at his apartment, risks his life to retrieve the alethiometer, battles Tullio for the subtle knife, and presses on to find his father even when he thinks he is dying. To Lyra, Will is very much like armored bear Iorek Byrnison, whom she sees as the epitome of courage and bravery.
There are differences, though. Lyra is headstrong and impulsive and depends on her daemon Pantalaimon—who seems to represent her more mature self—to offer sensible input and advise caution. She only regrets her actions when they negatively impact those she cares about—for example, when she almost reveals Will's whereabouts to the authorities in Oxford. When that happens, her remorse is deep and almost overwhelming. Lyra is also a skilled liar with a talent for deception, traits that would normally be considered immoral but prove to be invaluable in the more corrupt worlds she is dealing with.
Will, on the other hand, is exceptionally honorable, responsible, and cautious. More reserved and introspective than Lyra, he has cared for his fragile mother since he was seven. He agonizes over the accidental death of the man who threatened him and his mother, although he had no other choice but to fight his way free. He leaves money to pay for supplies in a deserted town. He prefers to think through options rather than rush into action as Lyra might do. But these traits do not in any way compromise the heroic nature at his core. He ignores his own pain and grief once he realizes he must "take up his father's mantle" and be part of something larger than himself.
There is, however, one similarity that overrides any differences and shows that both Lyra and Will are intended to play pivotal roles in the coming battle between the Authority and Lord Asriel. Each possesses a tool that is vital to the other characters, and each appears to be the only one able to use that tool effectively. Lyra's intuitive ability to interpret the alethiometer continues to confound those who know about her skills since adults must study the device for years and use reference materials to be able to make any sense of its symbols. It is also the key to communication with Dust. Will, in turn, is the chosen bearer of the subtle knife, which Lord Asriel needs to be triumphant in the coming battle. Both children, therefore, are key players in the coming war, although neither realizes it.
In The Subtle Knife connections to the heavenly war described in the Bible and retold in John Milton's Paradise Lost become more pronounced. In his epic poem, Milton explains that before the creation of the world, the angels and God existed in heaven. Satan, originally called Lucifer, rebels against God when God announces he has appointed his Son to reign over all of the angels. Satan is angered that the Son has been placed above him and persuades many of the other angels to rebel with him. They lose the battle, and Satan and the other rebel angels are banished and sent to hell. After His victory, God creates the world and its inhabitants, including his beloved Adam and Eve. He gifts the two with freedom and with power over their new world, but he also gives them one specific command: not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge.
In hell Satan and his followers decide to achieve revenge against God by corrupting Adam and Eve. Taking the form of a serpent, Satan convinces Eve to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, which she does. She then convinces Adam to eat of the tree as well. The two have lustful sex for the first time but then grieve over the error of their ways and ask for forgiveness. They are allowed to live but are banished from the perfect Garden where they have lived.
The characters in His Dark Materials treat the story of the Angelic War as historical fact, something that happened thousands of years before and ended with the Authority (God) ultimately triumphant. Just as in the Bible and Paradise Lost, the rebel angels were thrown out of heaven. But in His Dark Materials good and evil are reversed. The Authority is described by rebels like Asriel as a tyrant who insists on unquestioning allegiance, and whose followers, religious institutions of every type, do unspeakable things—including the mutilation of children—to serve him. According to Lord Asriel, to rebel against such a god "is right and just, when you considered what the agents of the Authority did in His name." If what Asriel says is true and the Authority is evil, then those who fight against him—witches, the rebel angels (also called the Watchers or bene elim), and Lord Asriel himself, are good. Or, at the very least, they are preferable to the Authority and his followers.
Lord Asriel himself is described in ways that are similar to the Satan figure in Milton's poem. Like Satan, he is charismatic and persuasive and handsome, and fierce, strong, and powerful. Ruta Skadi thinks he must have learned to control time because he has been preparing for the rebellion for aeons. But his reasons for rebelling are somewhat different from those of Satan, who began his rebellion primarily from wounded pride. Although Asriel is indeed a proud, somewhat arrogant man who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals, he is rebelling against the tyrannical and oppressive doctrines of the Authority and the Church. He and his own rebel forces celebrate freedom, knowledge, and experience as opposed to blind obedience, repression, and cruelty. That being said, Lord Asriel has shown himself willing to engage in horrible and cruel acts if they will enable his rebellion.
Other characters from Paradise Lost and the Bible also have their representatives in the series. The witches in The Subtle Knife, who sometimes take on the role of prophets, reveal that Lyra is Mother Eve, "the one who came before." They say the Church has hated and feared her ever since, presumably because Eve was the one who ate of the Tree of Knowledge and, from the Church's point of view, doomed humankind to suffering and pain. Will Parry is Lyra's partner and will play the Adam to Lyra's Eve. Dr. Malone, revealed at one point to be a former nun, is told she will play the role of the serpent. Rebel angels appear, both "physically" and as the Dust that communicates with Dr. Malone and Lyra.
In The Golden Compass Dust was something of an unknown, interpreted differently by various characters. At its most basic level Dust was described as elementary particles like quarks that seemed to be attracted to adults and not children. But for various groups, it soon took on more significance. To the Church, Dust was the physical manifestation of Original Sin, since it seemed to begin collecting on children when they reached puberty and began having sexual urges. To Lord Asriel, it represented experience and knowledge but also "all the death, the sin, the misery, and the destructiveness in the world." In other words he equated Dust with the evil people commit as they lose their innocence and become more experienced and corrupt. At the end of the first book, however, Lyra Belacqua begins suspecting there is something good about Dust since so many bad people are against it, and she decides to seek it out herself.
In The Subtle Knife Lyra's instincts are confirmed. She begins to realize Dust is somehow communicating with her through the alethiometer and it has "moods" like people do. It provides information clearly at certain times and more obscurely at other times. It even appears to purposely withhold information when it wants to, either by not answering questions or by somehow influencing the humans using it, making them reluctant to ask questions.
When Lyra meets Dr. Mary Malone, she learns even more about Dust. Dr. Malone believes that Dust, which she calls shadow particles, is what holds the universe together. Like Lyra, though, she too is convinced Dust is somehow conscious. She believes Dust knows we're here and can even respond to people. She also reveals that evidence of Dust seemed to coincide with the time the first modern human beings appeared—beings capable of true thought.
Once Lyra shows Dr. Malone how to communicate with Dust through the computer, the essence of Dust is finally made clear. The Dust tells Dr. Malone it is indeed a conscious entity. It isn't human, but humans have always been aware of it. The Dust explains that what people have been calling Dust or shadow particles or dark matter are all the same, but Dust is actually angels, numbering in the "uncountable billions." As Dr. Malone tries to make sense of this, she thinks about what she learned when she was a nun, before she had rejected religion. She recalls that Saint Augustine said, "Angel is the name of their office, not of their nature." Saint Augustine also said, "If you seek the name of their nature, it is spirit." The Dust confirms Dr. Malone's speculations, telling her angels are "complexifications" of Dust and spirit and matter are one.
Finally, Dr. Malone asks the Dust if it has intervened in human evolution and is told it has—for reasons of vengeance. At that point Dr. Malone realizes she is speaking with the rebel angels who fought against the Authority during the war in heaven. She is shocked to realize the story of the rebellion and the Garden may have been true, but the Dust cuts her off, directing her to "find the girl and the boy" and to "play the serpent." At this point it is clear that Dust is not some amorphous, soulless cloud of particles. It is a complex consciousness, trying to control the destiny of heaven, Earth, and humankind.
Throughout both The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife, characters have been motivated by ancient prophecies, responses from the alethiometer, and messages from the Dust, which it seems may control the other two. At the center of those prophecies are Lyra Belacqua, Lord Asriel, and the subtle knife. The prophecies concerning Lord Asriel are somewhat vague. But the Master of Jordan College knew from the alethiometer that Lord Asriel's research would lead to "appalling consequences," and Lyra would be drawn into them. Those consequences turn out to be the great tear Asriel creates between worlds, which upsets the climate in Lyra's world, lets hordes of Specters into the world of Cittàgazze, and devastates the landscapes everywhere.
So even though he was not sure what he was trying to prevent, the Master's attempt to murder Lord Asriel was driven by an honorable desire to delay those consequences and protect Lyra. Other groups, such as the Church leaders, fear Lord Asriel more because of his work with Dust and his disdain for their doctrines rather than because of any prophecy. They seem unaware of his ultimate goal to battle against the Authority. Only Mrs. Marisa Coulter, their representative, begins to understand the larger and more dangerous picture.
Lyra, on the other hand, has been at the center of different prophecies from the time she was born. The Master is the first to mention that Lyra has a role to play, that she must be unaware of the role, and that she would be part of a great betrayal of her own making. And when the gyptians rescue Lyra early in The Golden Compass it is because they, too, know of prophecies concerning her importance. Those prophecies continue in The Subtle Knife. Church leaders tell Mrs. Coulter there is a prophecy concerning Lyra and "all the signs have been fulfilled." Those signs are not described in detail, but they include "the circumstances of her birth," her ability to lead the gyptians to Bolvangar, and her success in defeating the bear-king Iofur Raknison.
It is the witches, though, who seem to know the most about who and what Lyra is. They first recognize her from her ability to pick out a particular spray of cloud pine—part of a prophecy. They speak of her as "the child who was to come," and they know "the name of her destiny." The witch tortured by Mrs. Coulter says Lyra "is the one who came before, and you [leaders of the Church] have hated and feared her ever since!" Toward the end of the book, another captured witch reveals to Mrs. Coulter that Lyra's real name is "Eve! Mother of all! ... Mother Eve!" It is a reference, of course, to the Eve of the Bible and indicates Lyra will be the key to the rebirth—or downfall—of humankind. Mrs. Coulter, trained by the Church, takes this as a sign she must kill Lyra to prevent another Fall.
The prophecies concerning Will are more subtle and more personal. His mother had always told him he was destined to pick up his father's mantle and continue his work. He has no idea what that means, but circumstance (or the Dust) lead him through the window to the world of Cittàgazze, where he eventually finds the subtle knife and is marked as its bearer through the loss of his two fingers. He eventually learns from his father that his mission is to get the subtle knife to Lord Asriel so the right side can win this time. Once other beings realize Will is the bearer of the knife, they do everything they can to protect him and get him to Lord Asriel, and angels become his protectors just as the witches became Lyra's. But it is actually the knife itself around which the prophecies and legend center. Lee Scoresby has heard of it and knows it is something that can protect the bearer. Dr. Grumman knows it to be the one thing that can destroy the Authority and win the war. Even the Magisterium has heard of Æshættr, although they don't realize what it is. But everyone knows it is crucial to the war and to the ability to move between worlds, so Will as its bearer will increasingly become the focus of people's attention.