Warning: contains spoilers for the His Dark Materials book trilogy.
“Witches hear the immortal whispers of those who pass between worlds. They speak of a child who is destined to bring the end of destiny. If told what she must do, she will fail. But she won’t walk alone. There is a boy whose fate is bound with hers. Together, they will change everything.”
So speaks Kaisa, the daemon of witch Serafina Pekkala in episode five of the BBC/HBO His Dark Materials TV series, ‘The Lost Boy.’ The words are inspired by two speeches in Philip Pullman’s The Northern Lights (published as The Golden Compass in the US), one by Serafina and one by Dr Lanselius. In the first book of Pullman’s trilogy Serafina tells aeronaut Lee Scoresby:
“There is a curious prophecy about this child: she is destined to bring about the end of destiny. But she must do so without knowing what she is doing, as if it were her nature and not her destiny to do it.”
10 chapters earlier, Dr Lanselius tells Farder Coram:
“The witches have talked about this child for centuries past. Because they live so close to the place where the veil between the worlds is thin, they hear immortal whispers from time to time, in the voices of those beings who pass between the worlds. And they have spoken of a child such as this, who has a great destiny that can only be fulfilled elsewhere—not in this world, but far beyond. Without this child, we shall all die. So the witches say. But she must fulfil this destiny in ignorance of what she is doing, because only in her ignorance can we be saved.”
It’s mostly the same information – a world-saving prophecy that Lyra has to fulfil without knowing she’s doing it – with the TV show twist that Will Parry is mentioned as the boy “whose fate is bound with” Lyra’s. (The TV version introduces Will’s story much earlier than the books, in order to hit the ground running when he and Lyra finally meet at the beginning of series two.) So what exactly is she prophesied to do?
The short answer: save the world. The longer answer: save the world from the Magisterium’s plan to destroy Dust – the mysterious, largely invisible substance that surrounds adults after they go through puberty. In Lyra’s world, children have no Dust, only attracting it once they become adults and their Daemon settles into its final form. It can’t be seen with the naked eye, only through specialist photographic lenses. The Magisterium thinks Dust, because of its association with sexual desire, is the manifestation of Original Sin, which they believe cursed humanity after Eve succumbed to temptation in the Garden of Eden.
The Magisterium and Mrs Coulter seek to cleanse humanity of sin by ridding the world of Dust, hence their brutal experiments slicing daemons away from children before they go through adolescence. Their experiments leave children a dying husk, barely alive after being separated from their soul, as seen in the case of the TV adaptation’s poor Billy Costa.
The witches’ prophecy (heard from the whisperings of angels travelling between worlds) positions Lyra as the new “Eve” of Christian mythology. Like Eve in the Garden of Eden, Lyra will be presented with a choice that will determine humanity’s ongoing relation to Dust, which is seen variously as sin (by the Church) and sentience (by Philip Pullman and his non-evil characters). Dust is what makes humans able to think and act for themselves, which is why the all-powerful Magisterium wishes to suppress it to maintain their control over people.
Unknowingly, Lyra will make a choice, and that choice will change the world. “The great war” about which Serafina Pekkala warns Lee Scoresby in the TV series will be between the Magisterium and those fighting to protect human freedom/consciousness also known as Dust.
This part of the His Dark Materials books is an inverted retelling of Paradise Lost, John Milton’s 17th century epic poem (from which the book trilogy’s title was taken). Milton’s poem tells the story of fallen angel Satan after his banishment to hell, and his plot to corrupt mankind by tempting Eve in the Garden of Eden to lead humanity into sin by eating an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. According to the prophesy, Lyra, like Eve, will be tempted and her choice will determine the future of humanity. Will she and Will finally rid the world of Dust, or preserve it?