Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The battle between Metatron’s forces and Lord Asriel’s forces ultimately boils down to the human struggle for free will. Metatron and his minions in the Church want to control human destiny and enforce their rules on all the conscious beings of all the worlds. Lord Asriel and his forces want to create a world in which free will is protected, a world in which all thinking beings are allowed to choose the course of their own lives.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, grace is the sanctification God grants to some people. Like Adam and Eve, who exist in a state of grace before the Fall, Lyra exists in a state of grace until Lord Asriel’s battle. She reads the alethiometer with the help of grace until Lord Asriel’s battle is won and Lyra realizes that she is in love with Will. After Lyra grows up, she has to learn how to read the alethiometer like everyone else. This is because free will has triumphed over destiny. Because Lyra “fell”—grew up, started craving knowledge—people gained the right to decide how they want to live. In Pullman’s world, this right is very desirable, but it does mean that everyone has to live without grace and without the comfort and protection of a higher power.
The most offensive thing about the Church in His Dark Materials is its relentless quest to ensure ignorance. Beginning with Adam and Eve and the forbidden tree of knowledge, God and the Church have sought to prevent people from becoming freethinking adults by trying to restrict knowledge. When Adam and Eve defied God and took from the tree, they abandoned the state of innocence and became free adults who suffered and toiled, but who at least thought for themselves. For some characters in Pullman’s trilogy, like Lord Asriel, the witches, and the mulefa, Adam and Eve’s fall was the beginning of good in the world. For the authorities of the Church, the Fall signaled the ruin of humanity. The Church would have preferred it if people dwelled in the state of innocent ignorance forever. Lord Asriel and his compatriots stage their rebellion to ensure that everyone has the right to attain knowledge and become a freethinking adult.
Metaphorically, the first human sexual encounter occurred when Eve told Adam to eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge. From the very beginning, then, sex and knowledge have been intertwined. The Church of Pullman’s fiction particularly objects to sexual knowledge and seeks to curtail sexual activity in an attempt to prevent adults from becoming independent thinkers. Lyra’s “fall”—the proto-sexual encounter she has with Will in the world of the mulefa—badly damages the aims of the Church. In engaging in a sexual relationship with Will, Lyra chooses to grow up and abandon the innocence of her childhood. Because Lyra’s destiny is to put an end to all destiny, her choice to express physically her love for Will restores Dust to the world and ensures that the Church will be defeated. After Lyra’s decision, everyone will have the right to mature and make independent decisions without fearing the censure of the Church.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The narrator makes repeated references to Lyra’s destiny, a fate that is unknown to Lyra herself. It is said that Lyra is preordained to put an end to destiny forever. The main struggle in the trilogy occurs between the forces of the Church, who want destiny to exist, and the forces of people like Lord Asriel, who want to eliminate destiny and allow people to control their own lives. This conflict is not just about freedom and knowledge—it’s about the right to live without fate, to be in control of every moment of your life.
In Pullman’s trilogy, a fundamental difference exists between innocence and experience. Here Pullman clearly speaks to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, which he regards as a huge influence on his work. Innocence is the stage of Adam and Eve before they leave the garden, and, in Lyra’s world, of children whose daemons haven’t settled. Dust is not attracted to innocence in the same way that it is to experience. In Lord Asriel’s photographs, it seems that Dust accumulates only around adults, not around children. Dust is the physical manifestation of human consciousness, and children aren’t thought to be conscious beings in the same way adults are. They’re usually not allowed to make decisions about their own lives, but they’re also spared the pains and responsibilities that come with adulthood. Like Dust, specters aren’t attracted to pristine little souls that live without pain or responsibility. Both cluster around the experienced soul. Children, because they are innocent, are thought to have almost no souls at all. It is experience, both good and bad, that forges a human soul.
The Church of Pullman’s novels loathes physical pleasure above all else. The monks, nuns, and priests of the Church live without pleasure and condemn those who choose less austere lives. Mary Malone eventually leaves the Church when she realizes that denying herself physical pleasure serves nobody and prevents her from experiencing life fully. The witches are said to live their lives more fully because they revel in physical experience. They sense air passing over their bodies and the light of the stars and the glow of the aurora borealis in ways humans cannot. The kind of pleasure that the witches take from the physical world makes the Church condemn them. Pullman reinforces the importance of physical pleasure by making Will and Lyra’s physical pleasure the tonic that saves the world.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Daemons, the external expressions of people’s souls, take forms that symbolize their owners’ character. Witches’ daemons, for example, take the form of birds. This form represents, most literally, the witches’ ability to fly. It also represents the witches’ freedom from the constraints of society. Daemons also represent their owner’s strength or weakness. Someone who can separate from his or her own soul is someone who has great power and a strong will. Witches are able to stay far away from their daemons without harm. John Parry and his daemon, Sayan Kötör, have the same ability. Sayan Kötör can fly far away without causing pain to either himself or Parry. Separating from one’s daemon is a painful task, as Lyra finds out on the banks of the river of the world of the dead. Leaving their daemons behind is a difficult coming-of-age ritual for the witches.
Because His Dark Materials is in some ways a retelling of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, Pullman stresses the symbolism of feeding one’s lover as Eve fed Adam. For Mary, Lyra, and Will, receiving food symbolizes physical pleasure and mental maturity. When Mary was a teenager, a boy fed her a piece of marzipan. Like Adam and Eve, she realized how sweet the food and the sensation were and realized that she should not stifle her physical urges. Similarly, when Lyra and Will are searching for their daemons after they have escaped into the world of the mulefa, Lyra feeds Will a piece of fruit and they kiss. It is this reenactment of the Fall through one lover feeding another that heals the world.
The aurora borealis, the beautiful play of lights that stretches across the sky in the northern reaches of Lyra’s world (and our own), has always intrigued Lyra. The lights reveal the flimsiness of the layer that separates worlds. Though she’s had experience with ghosts at Jordan College, Lyra’s vision of the strange shifting lights of the aurora borealis are the first hint she has that something much bigger than her life in Oxford might exist. The witches play in the lights and angels pass between worlds in places like the aurora, where the layers between worlds are thinner. It is beneath the aurora borealis that Lord Asriel opens up a breach into another world by killing Roger. In the light of the aurora borealis, Dust is also more visible.