"No, no, that's the saddest thing: <em>she </em>will be the betrayer, and the experience will be terrible. She mustn't know that, of course, but there's no reason for her not to know about the problem of Dust. And you might be wrong, Charles; she might well take an interest in it, if it were explained in a simple way. And it might help her later on. It would certainly help me to be less anxious about her." (2.147)
The Master and the Librarian of Jordan College are reluctant to burden Lyra, a child, with the knowledge of Dust. Why do they see Dust as a problem?
Little Tony Makarios wasn't the only child to be caught by the lady with the golden monkey. He found a dozen others in the cellar of the warehouse, boys and girls, none older than twelve or so; though since all of them had histories like his, none could be sure of their age. What Tony didn't notice, of course, was the factor that they all had in common. None of the children in that warm and steamy cellar had reached the age of puberty. (3.80)
The General Oblation Board targets prepubescent children for their experiments, kids who haven't yet started to change into adults. How does the age of the victims shape our opinion of the Gobblers and Mrs. Coulter?
On each coffin, Lyra was interested to see, a brass plaque bore a picture of a different being: this one a basilisk, this a serpent, this a monkey. She realized that they were images of the dead men's daemons. As people became adult, their daemons lost the power to change and assumed one shape, keeping it permanently. (3.120)
We learn here that daemons settle into one shape when a child becomes an adult, suggesting that the daemons are markers of the transition from innocence to maturity.
On Lyra's other side Mrs. Coulter sat working through some papers, but she soon put them away and talked. Such brilliant talk! Lyra was intoxicated; not about the North this time, but about London, and the restaurants and the ballrooms, the soirées at embassies or ministries, the intrigues between White Hall and Westminster. Lyra was almost more fascinated by this than by the changing landscape below the airship. What Mrs. Coulter was saying seemed to be accompanied by a scent of grownupness, something disturbing but enticing at the same time: it was the smell of glamour. (4.90)
Lyra is fascinated by Mrs. Coulter's glamorous adult world. She's even more interested in her than in the airship she's riding. Mrs. Coulter represents many obvious facets of being a grown-up: sophistication, money, and feminine charm. But as we soon learn, she is not what she seems.
And finally, there were other kinds of lessons so gently and subtly given that they didn't feel like lessons at all. How to wash one's own hair; how to judge which colors suited one; how to say no in such a charming way that no offense was given; how to put on lipstick, powder, scent. To be sure, Mrs. Coulter didn't teach Lyra the latter arts directly, but she knew Lyra was watching when she made herself up, and she took care to let Lyra see where she kept the cosmetics, and to allow her time on her own to explore and try them out for herself. (5.20)
Mrs. Coulter ushers Lyra into maturity by teaching her how to put on makeup and make herself physically attractive. She enforces her notions of what it is to be an adult, which are pretty stereotypically girly. Note that Mrs. Coulter often uses her own physical attractiveness to gain power.
"Why do daemons have to settle?" Lyra said. "I want Pantalaimon to be able to change forever. So does he."
"Ah, they always have settled, and they always will. That's part of growing up. There'll come a time when you'll be tired of his changing about, and you'll want a settled kind of form for him."
"I never will!"
"Oh, you will. You'll want to grow up like all the other girls. Anyway, there's compensations for a settled form." (10.25-22)
Like Peter Pan, Lyra never wants to grow up. But the book points out that there are actually plenty of benefits to becoming an adult. What are they?
"She just said, it's something to make you more grown up. She said everyone had to have it, that's why grownups' daemons don't change like ours do. So they have a cut to make them one shape forever, and that's how you get grown up." (15.29)
Mrs. Coulter and the General Oblation Board have begun to separate children from their daemons, which they think will save them from the Dust that accumulates around them once they stop shifting. In essence, the children aren't really going to grow up; they'll stay innocent and Dust-free forever. Does Mrs. Coulter really believe this operation is a good thing, though? Why won't she let Lyra be cut from Pan?
"Anyway, it's what the Church has taught for thousands of years. And when Rusakov discovered Dust, at last there was a physical proof that something happened when innocence changed into experience." (21.120)
Dust is the physical proof that the Church has sought to prove the physical change that happens when a person transitions from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to experience. Just because there's physical proof, though, does it mean growing up and becoming experienced is such a bad thing?
"Do you know what the word <em>castration </em>means? It means removing the sexual organs of a boy so that he never develops the characteristics of a man. A castrato keeps his high treble voice all his life, which is why the Church allowed it: so useful in Church music. Some castrati became great singers, wonderful artists. Many just became fat spoiled half-men. Some died from the effects of the operation. But the Church wouldn't flinch at the idea of a little <em>cut,</em> you see. There was a precedent. And this would be so much more <em>hygienic </em>than the old methods, when they didn't have anesthetics or sterile bandages or proper nursing care. It would be gentle by comparison." (21.129)
The novel draws an important analogy between the procedure performed by the General Oblation Board and castration. Both prevent a child from growing into adulthood and maturity. The reference also links the Magisterium in the novel to organizations, like the Catholic Church, that have practiced castration in our own world. It's a way for Pullman to offer commentary on our own society.
"We've heard them all talk about Dust, and they're so afraid of it, and you know what? We believed them, even though we could see that what they were doing was wicked and evil and wrong.... We thought Dust must be bad too, because they were grown up and they said so. But what if it isn't? What if it's-"
She said breathlessly, "Yeah! What if it's really good... " (23.100-101)
This is probably the most radical statement in Pullman's novel. Lyra and Pan decide that Dust (which the Church thinks of as original sin) is not sin at all; it's actually something good. What is their rationale for this conclusion? For a lot more on Dust and original sin, check out "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory."