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.