By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

“Millions of other universes exist, unaware of one another” – Explaining the Multiverse in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials

The universe, the multiverse: what is it about? The answers can be found in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. All of them.

I only recently realised that my favourite book series, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, takes place in the multiverse. Of course, I knew that it is set in different universes, but I hadn’t quite connected this term to it. The multiverse, which means that there isn’t just one universe but infinite parallel ones, is all the rage, which culminated in Everything Everywhere All at Once winning big at the Oscars last week. Want to know what I found out about His Dark Materials and Pullman’s exploration of the multiverse? Read on!

His Dark Materials, which consists of the books Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, is about twelve-year-old Lyra, who lives in an Oxford like ours, but also very different. For instance, she is always accompanied by her dæmon Pantalaimon, and the Church, called Magisterium in this world, is in charge of everything, down to what we’re supposed to think and how we should behave. Lyra doesn’t know it, but she and Will Parry, who is from another Oxford, they are destined to save the world from this institution. Or, to be more precise, she is destined to save all the worlds from it.

When I first read His Dark Materials, I was so jealous of Lyra. I was jealous of that magical Oxford, of her dæmon (a physical manifestation of one’s soul), of the witches and talking bears she meets, of her alethiometer (a device that tells you everything you need to know), and of her ability to travel through different worlds, of different universes, as Pullman calls it. Oh, when I first read these books, I kept hoping that I, too would find a hole in the sky, waiting for me to pass through it. Seeing as I read these books only, what, ten years ago, when I was an adult and wasn’t supposed to believe in magic and alternate universes anymore, His Dark Materials really spoke to me and triggered my imagination. I wanted to know what it would be like to be in another universe, and how it would influence me.

I recently reread the series, and that’s when it struck me: these books take place in the multiverse. The same multiverse that Marvel fans can’t stop talking about, the same multiverse that is so important in Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library (I have been working on a blog about that one for ages) and the same multiverse that made Everything Everywhere All at Once sweep the Oscars last week. It made me wonder why we have this craving for other universes. Is it because the idea of there being different versions of ourselves is so attractive? Would that give us hope, because there’s always a better self, somewhere? Or is it because religion is slowly losing its power on people, but we still crave some sort of concept which we can’t quite grasp? Or is it because we our understanding of this universe has grown to such an extent that we now have the intellectual capacity to delve into the ideas that there’s more than just one?

In His Dark Materials, cutting a hole in a universe means damaging it, and that Dust, a metaphor for consciousness, escapes through the cracks. And consciousness, pure, free thought, is exactly what we humans need above all else. According to Pullman, we don’t need someone else to tell us the difference between good and evil. Instead, we need to think for ourselves. This leaking of consciousness into nothingness symbolises our tendency to let others do the thinking for us, which will eventually cause our demise.

I usually reread Pullman’s novels every year, and each time I focus on a different theme. I have previously focused on growing up, on what dæmons are, exactly, on identity, on the role of religion, on consciousness, and on stories. This time, of course, I paid special attention to the multiple universes. I wondered about its significance, and what it all meant. Everything fell into place when I read the following quotation:

At the summit of the slope she looked for the last time at the Dust-stream, with the clouds and the wind blowing across it and the moon standing firm in the middle.

And then she saw what they were doing, at last: she saw what the great purpose was.

They were trying to hold back the Dust-flood. They were striving to put some barriers up against the terrible stream: win, moon, clouds, leaves, grass, all those lovely things were crying out and hurling themselves into the struggle to keep the Shadow-particles in this universe, which they so enriched.

Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass, page 454

It turns out that Lyra and Will are not on their own. Every single thing is fighting to keep consciousness into the worlds. Even though this scene only describes one universe, I am sure Pullman implies that in every single one of the infinite number of universes, inanimate objects are doing the same thing: trying to save the world. Lyra cannot live in any universe but her own, and she needed to travel through a multitude of universes, and repair all the holes in them, in order to come to that realisation. That also means that she and Will will never see each other again.

I always end up a crying mess when I read His Dark Materials. I also bawled my eyes out when I watched the final minutes of Everything Everywhere All at Once. Somehow, I noticed, all these journeys through infinite universes only lead to our true selves, in the one world we grew up. Even though we love thinking about the multiverse, and love the idea of travelling through all of them and leaving our mark on them, all it does is allowing us to come to terms with who we really are.

Haven’t we always need edsomething that is just beyond our understanding in order to understand ourselves just a bit more?

Do you believe in the multiverse? If there were an infinite number of universes in which you could be anything you wanted, what would you most like to be? Do you think that there’s a universe that closely resembles one of your favourite novels? Which universe are you dying to visit? Please let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book-related posts!

These giraffes represent the forms my dæmon would take in different universes. Always slightly different, but still recognisable as a giraffe. As me.

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