In the twenty-first chapter of The Golden Compass, DUST DUST DUST DUST DUST DUST DUST DUST DUST DUST DUST DUST DUST. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Golden Compass.
Well, I wasn’t even close to guessing what Dust is.
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE: LORD ASRIEL’S WELCOME
Before we get into that head-melting conversation, there’s quite a lot to talk about regarding Lord Asriel and the story that Philip Pullman is telling us.
This is unmistakably a fantasy book, even if many elements of this world are grounded in a sort of reality. Even as Pullman now moves into commentary on Christian theology, there’s no exclusion of the fantasy world or mythology at all. It merely adds a new context to the entire book. As I come to understand just why this trilogy is so revered and despised at the same time (as well as why the Catholic Church has had such a marked interest in being as negative as possible about The Golden Compass via the effort to get it made into a film), I have come to realize something else about this book: It honestly topples a lot of fantasy archetypes and storytelling devices that are expected from a book like this.
This was not a thought that I had while reading through chapter twenty-one the first time, but one that popped into my brain when I was on BART on my way to work. While the reveal of what Dust is absolutely overshadows the first half of the chapter, I realized that the portrayal of Lord Asriel was an obvious sign that Pullman was willing to subvert both the genre and novels in general.
Now, I don’t want to put forth the idea that Pullman is some EXPERIMENTAL RADICAL when it comes to fiction, because that’s not at all what he’s doing here. But Lord Asriel’s abrasive appearance here made me think back to how The Golden Compass is unfolding and there’s quite a bit that isn’t the norm. If you think about the pacing and structure of this book, it seems to slowly build to this gigantic climax in Bolvangar, which could very well be the end of the book. (Which I did bring up at the time.) But Pullman chooses not to end things there, but bring us to yet another point of furious intensity in Svalbard, where we’re brought to an emotional high that victoriously comes crashing down and WE ARE STILL NOT AT THE END. In terms of pacing, this does not fall the single track of a “rise and fall” narrative.
On top of that, we have the character of Lord Asriel, built up over the course of this novel as a man to be feared, but one with a fierce sense of individuality and moral certainty, a man who defies a powerful organization to do what he thinks is right, even while in captivity at THE NORTH POLE. Everything about his image is grandiose, radiant, and spectacular. He is a man wronged by those in power, a man stripped of his rightful earnings, and a man dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. Everything I’ve just said is not only typical of fantasy heroes, but it’s hard to pain any of this as negative. And that’s why Pullman deserves so much credit for what he does here:
He makes Lord Asriel a raging, unsympathetic asshole.
All of the signs were certainly there, but the way in which he consistently and brutally dismisses Lyra over and over was jarring and shocking to me. Here is a man who is a hero, a legend of sorts, in Lyra’s eyes, and he completely destroys that in just a couple minutes. We learn of the immense lengths he went to inspire both fear and camaraderie in Iofur Raknison to get exactly what he wanted. AS A PRISONER!!! And Lyra views this with such an intense respect, paralleling it with the power that Iorek Byrnison possesses. After all of this, I almost feel silly expecting some sort of glorious reunion between daughter and father. Yet, I could not help but feel a sense of excitement as they came upon that glorious glass structure upon that black mountain. We would finally find out what Lord Asriel was up to and Lyra would get her father back.
Lyra’s father stood there, his powerful dark-eyed face at first fierce, triumphant, and eager; and then the color faded from it; his eyes widened, in horror, as he recognized his daughter.
He staggered back and clutched at the mantelpiece. Lyra couldn’t move.
“Get out!” Lord Asriel cried. “Turn around, get out, go! I did not send for you!”
Pure and simple shock. I could not believe it. Why was he acting this way? Why wouldn’t he be ecstatic to see his daughter?
If this is nonsensical, what continues to happen after this just makes it all the more confusing. Asriel calms down, but his tone is not one of relief. Or joy. Or excitement. He sounds EXHAUSTED. As if Lyra’s very appearance has irritated him, as if she just gave him an extra day’s worth of work, but he still has to be somewhat respectful of her. Just…what the hell is going on, Lord Asriel????
Roger’s quick to pick up on how wrong this and vocalizes it to Lyra while he’s taking a bath.
“I’m more scared of him than I was of Mrs. Coulter, and that’s the truth.”
In just one sentence, he’s able to communicate a disturbing truth: suddenly, even for me, I now fear Lord Asriel. Have I been tricked by the mythology that precedes him? Or is this foreshadowing for something worse to come? Lyra asks Roger if she can check the alethiometer for him, and his response is just….well, christ, I have to quote this:
“Seems to me everything I heard of since the Gobblers come to Oxford, everything’s been bad. There en’t been nothing good more than about five minutes ahead. Like I can see now, this bath’s nice, and there’s a nice warm towel there, about five minutes away. And once I’m dry, maybe I’ll think of summing nice to eat, but no further ahead than that. And when I’ve eaten, maybe I’ll look forward to a kip in a comfortable bed. But after that, I dunno, Lyra. There’s been terrible things we seen, en’t there? And more a coming, more’n likely. So I think I’d rather not know what’s in the future. I’ll stick to the present.”
As of right now, this is my favorite quote from the entirety of the book. What an amazing way to depict that sort of bleak fear of the future. Given what we learn just after this, I’d say that Roger is absolutely spot-on: The future holds no guarantees of happiness. We should enjoy the present.
But the “present” time for Lyra is only about to get worse. Well…and a whole lot more confusing, too. After her bath, she joins Lord Asriel next to the fireplace and he continues to act detached and disinterested in her. It takes only a few exchanges for the two of them to stop pretending to be polite to her and Lyra lets it rip. (And I adore her for it.)
“I’ll tell you if you tell me something,” she said. “You’re my father, en’t you?”
“Yes. So what?”
OH NO YOU DIDN’T, LORD ASRIEL. Seriously, NO. NO.
“So you should have told me before, that’s what. You shouldn’t hide things like that from people, because they feel stupid when they find out, and that’s cruel. What difference would it make if I knew I was your daughter? You could have said it years ago. You could’ve told me and asked me to keep it secret, and I would, no matter how young I was, I’d have done that if you asked me. I’d have been so proud nothing would’ve torn it out of me, if you asked me to keep it secret. But you never. You let other people know, but you never told me.”
I just….I tried to find an applause GIF that was appropriate and they all weren’t strong enough. THANK YOU, Lyra, for telling your father what a ruthless asshole he is being.
“Then there’s not much left for me to tell. I don’t think I want to be interrogated and condemned by an insolent child. I want to hear what you’ve seen and done on the way here.”
OH. OH. YOU HAVE GONE TOO FAR. I mean…the utter nerve that takes, the amount of self-important narcissism a person must have to say that to their daughter who just survived a journey to one of the most dangerous places in the entire world. WHAT GIVES.
Lyra explodes with rage and I back her every step of the way at this point. After the ridiculously frightening journey she just went through to get Lord Asriel the alethiometer, he treats her like this???? After nearly dying multiple times, after reaching points where turning back would have made more sense than pressing on, she still did it. And this is how he thanks it? I find it incredibly powerful that Lyra stands up for herself this way and is also able to assert the fact that just because Lord Asriel is her father does not mean she has to love him. As someone who feels that way about a family member and inevitably has to deal with people trying to tell me I have to love my family regardless of their actions, there’s a great sense of validation I feel towards reading this. Thank you, Pullman.
BUT ENOUGH ABOUT ME. Lyra’s rant towards her father suddenly loses steam when she announces that she knows that Mrs. Coulter is on her way to kill both of them, by order of the Magisterium, and even that does nothing to stir any sort of emotion in Lord Asriel. He simply states, calmly, that they will never reach this place. He expresses no interest in the alethiometer, and I think this is what keeps Lyra from leaving. After all of this, shouldn’t his selfishness at least be interested in the one thing he needs from her?
So she stays and she relates the entire experience of what just happened to her, and at the end of it, she demands one thing, since Lord Asriel never told her that he was her father: She demands to know what Dust is.
can you hear my heart tingling in suspense CAN YOU
“Dust is what makes the alethiometer work,” he said.
oh hey we KNOW THIS BY NOW. I actually laughed at this because it feels like Pullman is teasing us. Like: HAHAHAHA I KNOW EVERYTHING YOU KNOW NOTHING. But this is not a red herring or a sleight of hand. Pullman finally, FINALLY delivers on Dust and…oh my god. oh my god.
There’s no real point in making this a recap because it’s almost a bit too pedantic for me. AND THAT IS SAYING SOMETHING COMING FROM YOURS TRULY. However, there are things we absolutely need to talk about. This huge info dump (at the end of the novel, too!!!!) has changed everything we’ve experienced so far. I sort of figured that Mrs. Coulter was holding back a lot more than she was letting on regarding Dust, and her comment about the “wicked” nature of those elementary particles hinted at what we get here. She actually was telling the truth (at least in her view), but she was also leaving out a whole lot.
Dust, as we learn from Lord Asriel, is intricately tied in with the Church’s past, as the man who “discovered” Dust was put through interrogations and his lab was given an exorcism, all determining that it was real:
“That left them with the problem of deciding what it was. And given the Church’s nature, there was only one thing they could have chosen. The Magisterium decided that Dust was the physical evidence for original sin.”
MY ENTIRE GIF FOLDER COULD NOT CONVEY MY BRAIN’S RESPONSE RIGHT NOW.
Did I mention yet that this book seems written specifically for me? Have I? Then there it is. With this single paragraph, a billion thoughts flew into my head, a million things I desperately needed to talk about. But I couldn’t help but think about the heinous experiments that were being acted out in Bolvangar, and all of this was done because of original sin?
OH THIS TRILOGY IS GOING TO BE AMAZING.
As Lord Asriel began to explain the concept of original sin to Lyra, he pulled out a Bible and began to read from Genesis and…well, I’ll be honest. I groaned. It seemed way too obvious for me, and if Pullman was going to try to make a point about the theological concept, surely he didn’t have to spell it out for us? So, being a terrible reader, I skipped to the end of the italic section and continued on:
“And that was how sin came into the world,” he said, “sin and shame and death. It came the moment their dæmons became fixed.”
Wait. What? That’s not what the Bible says, I thought. And I turned back and began reading the quote from Genesis and HOLY SHIT IT IS NOT OUR VERSION OF THE BIBLE IT HAS DÆMONS IN IT.
As my now-exploded brain tried to adjust to this new concept, I could see what was being set up here. The scientists in Bolvangar were separating children from their dæmons BEFORE they had settled. Meaning….seriously. SERIOUSLY IS THAT WHAT THIS IS ALL ABOUT oh my god my little atheist heart is going to explode.
Even with the story of how these particles came to be called Dust, I needed the confirmation spelled out for me. (Funny, given that before this section, I didn’t actually like this idea spelled out at all.) The Oblation Board was set up by Mrs. Coulter for what seems like a couple of motivations: her quest for power and for the severance of dæmons. I think that we’ll be exploring Mrs. Coulter’s sense of power in the future, as it seems it’s only passed over here my Lord Asriel. The context for intercision is given by Lord Asriel, though, from the Church’s acceptance of castration. (For what it’s worth, I kind of hate that Lord Asriel refers to some castrati as “half-men,” as I don’t like the idea that having genitals is a requirement for manhood.) But I understand the point: like circumcision and castration, the Church has a history with controlling people’s bodies, so why would it be at all immoral to find a new way to control others? And that’s when Pullman finally spells it out:
“She guessed that the two things that happen at adolescence might be connected: the change in one’s dæmon and the fact that Dust began to settle. Perhaps if the dæmon were separated from the body, we might never be subject to Dust–to original sin. The question was whether it was possible to separate dæmon and body without killing the person.”
So there it is. The Church wants to STOP PEOPLE FROM SINNING AT ALL. I can already see the massive problem with that, both from a position of Christianity and where this trilogy is heading. In terms of the story we’ve gotten in The Golden Compass, it means that we now have a worldwide organization that is forcing people into a specific fate and destiny, at complete odds with what Lyra and Lord Asriel are fighting against. If what they say about Dust is true, then does that not mean that this is a world without choice and agency? If people cannot sin, how can there be any sort of free will left?
And even in terms of Christian theology, that is such an offensive idea. I was a Christian for most of my life and if you had told me during my Christian years that people had figured out a way to make sure NO ONE EVER SINNED AGAIN, I probably would have slapped you and then followed it up with a sassy remark. I mean….right? Even I can admit that Christian theology rests somewhat heavily on the idea of choice. (Well….we can get into more of that later.)
As if this is all not enough for our brains to handle, Lord Asriel’s motives in the North Pole are slightly revealed and I DO NOT LIKE IT AT ALL. Being the scientist that he is, he’s discovered that when the dæmon is cut away from the body, a gigantic blast of energy dissipates that caused people to feel “shock, or disgust, or moral outrage,” so those working with intercision ignored this.
“And what were you doing?” she said. “Did you do any of that cutting?”
“I’m interested in something quite different. I don’t think the Oblation Board goes far enough. I want to go to the source of Dust itself.”
Here’s what I dislike: Instead of denying that he was cutting, he says he is interesting in GOING FURTHER THAN THEM. I think it’s very telling that he phrased himself this way. Asriel quickly moves to explain that he thinks Dust comes from the universe seen through the Aurora, and the explanation he gives to Lyra about what parallel universes are is kind of amazing? It’s not a new theory at all, and anyone familiar with science fiction has seen this represented before, but it’s nice that it’s explained in a way that is quite digestible, especially given how confusing this whole chapter can be.
So we know Asriel wants to travel into the parallel universe and build the bridge there. Mrs. Coulter wants to control it herself. These are not surprises. What is a shock is Asriel’s reason for this:
“Somewhere out there is the origin of all the Dust, all the death, the sin, the misery, the destructiveness in the world. Human beings can’t see anything without wanting to destroy it, Lyra. That’s original sin. And I’m going to destroy it. Death is going to die.”
It’s as if everything I just typed up there about free will and choice was completely destroyed. Or, at the very least, it is about to be tested. What I’m confused by is this: Does Lord Asriel accept that original sin is real and is caused by Dust? By destroying the source of it, wouldn’t that have the exact same logical end as cutting a dæmon away? Wouldn’t people be left without a choice between right and wrong?
Part of me feels that I’ve simply misinterpreted this or that I haven’t received all the information that I need to put it together. I can admit that. So it leaves me with a few options to consider:
- Lord Asriel believes Dust actually causes original sin and wants to destroy it.
- Lord Asriel believes Dust has nothing to do with original sin, but human misery instead, and he wants to destroy it.
- Lord Asriel believes Dust is….God? Or the concept of God? Or where God came from? And he wants to destroy that? look i know nothing at all.
At the very least, this chapter does end on a sort of high note: Lord Asriel tells Lyra that he has no use for the alethiometer at all. “It would be no use to me without the books anyway,” he tells her. If anything, it appears that the Master of Jordan was giving it to Lyra herself. So the alethiometer is Lyra’s. But I said that this was only sort of a high note. Lord Asriel abruptly leaves the room, a distaste in his voice, and Lyra is left just as bewildered as we are.
So if Lord Asriel didn’t need the alethiometer to complete his task, why did Serafina tell her that she had something to give him? christ I DON’T GET THIS AND IT MAKES ME REALLY NERVOUS.