Dust: A Remarkable Word


What is Dust? Witches have never worried about Dust. All I can tell you is that where there are priests there is fear of Dust. (Serafina Pekkala, The Golden Compass, p.314) Whenever the word “dust” is mentioned in Philip Pullman’s trilogy,  we know it cannot literally mean “dust,” such as the kind that accumulates like a thin layer of snow on our bookshelves, or the kind that irritates our eyes in a “dust-storm.” What is the Dust that can cause dread in priests and that Lord Asriel equates with sin, suffering, and death itself?
A reader of His Dark Materials who has no acquaintance with the King James Bible and the poetry that grew from it can only find Pullman’s use of the word an inventive oddity, belonging (like “fairy-dust”) to a pure fantasy world and not really “our” word. But if the words and rhythms of the King James Bible sing in the marrow of our literary sensibility, then Pullman’s word is our word, and resonant, like flesh, or kingdom, or tree.

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground… (Genesis 2:7)

   In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. (Genesis 3:19)

   He hath cast me into the mire, and I am become like dust and ashes. (Job 30:19)

With its etymology in an Old Germanic word meaning fine flour, powder, then vapor or smoke, “dust” expanded to mean primal earth, materiality itself, the fine particulate matter that we decay and disintegrate into. It becomes an image of our mortality and insignificance: Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bunghole? (Hamlet, 5.1.225) And from expressing our insignificance, it conveys downfall and humiliation: Now, France, thy glory droopeth to the dust…(Henry VI Part 1, 5.3.29). “Dust” now expresses what we are made of, but also what we frantically spend our lives trying to get away from but in the end must be brought down to — for dust is always “down.” In George Herbert’s extraordinary poem Love (3), dust even encompasses our moral frailties, not our terrible deeds (sin), but our inescapable dispositions: Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back / Guilty of dust and sin. Dust thus represents what we seek to transcend: our all-too-human natures, our weakness, our stupidities, as well as our mortality and the fact that we are biological and nothing more.

Pullman’s use of the word has all these 17th century overtones, but Lyra’s world includes the Dickensian urban landscape, and here the word picks up another layer of significance. The modern British use of the word dustbin and dustman comes from the meaning of dust as “refuse, sweepings” — the cinders and ashes from billions of coal fires, but also the trash thrown out with those powders. In Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend one of the main characters, Mr.Boffin, the “Golden Dustman,” gets rich from the mountain of “dust” that he inherits. Such mountains were features of every 19th century city, such as this one from King’s Cross in London:

In the 14 July, 1850, edition of Dickens’ journal Household Words, Richard Henry Horne describes the mound:

About a quarter of a mile distant, having a long ditch and a broken-down fence as a foreground, there rose against the muddled-grey sky, a huge Dust-heap of a dirty black colour,––being, in fact, one of those immense mounds of cinders, ashes, and other emptyings from dust-holes and bins, which have conferred celebrity on certain suburban neighbourhoods of a great city.  (“Dust: Or Ugliness Redeemed,” p.379)

What exactly is in the dust heap?

The principal ingredient of all these Dust-heaps is fine cinders and ashes; but as they are accumulated from the contents of all the dust-holes and bins of the vicinity, and as many more as possible, the fresh arrivals in their original state present very heterogeneous materials. We cannot better describe them, than by presenting a brief sketch of the different departments of the Searchers and Sorters, who are assembled below to busy themselves upon the mass of original matters which are shot out from the carts of the dustmen.

The bits of coal, the pretty numerous results of accident and servants’ carelessness, are picked out, to be sold forthwith; the largest and best of the cinders are also selected, by another party, who sell them to laundresses, or to braziers (for whose purposes coke would not do so well); and the next sort of cinders, called the breeze, because it is left after the wind has blown the finer cinders through an upright sieve, is sold to the brickmakers.

Two other departments, called the “soft-ware” and the “hard-ware,” are very important. The former includes all vegetable and animal matters — everything that will decompose. These are selected and bagged at once, and carried off as soon as possible, to be sold as manure for ploughed land, wheat, barley, &c. Under this head, also, the dead cats are comprised. They are, generally, the perquisites of the women searchers. Dealers come to the wharf, or dust-field, every evening; they give sixpence for a white cat, fourpence for a coloured cat, and for a black one according to her quality. The “hard-ware” includes all broken pottery, — pans, crockery, earthenware, oyster-shells, &c., which are sold to make new roads.

“The bones” are selected with care, and sold to the soap-boiler. He boils out the fat and marrow first, for special use, and the bones are then crushed and sold for manure.

Of “rags” the woollen rags are bagged and sent off for hop-manure; the white linen rags are washed, and sold to make paper, &c.

The “tin things” are collected and put into an oven with a grating at the bottom, so that the solder which unites the parts melts, and runs through into a receiver. This is sold separately; the detached pieces of tin are then sold to be melted up with old iron, &c.

Bits of old brass, lead, &c., are sold to be melted up separately, or in the mixture of ores.

All broken glass vessels, as cruets, mustard-pots, tumblers, wine-glasses, bottles, &c., are sold to the old-glass shops.

As for any articles of jewellery, — silver spoons, forks, thimbles, or other plate and valuables, they are pocketed off-hand by the first finder. Coins of gold and silver are often found, and many “coppers.”

Meantime, everybody is hard at work near the base of the great Dust-heap. A certain number of cart-loads having been raked and searched for all the different things just described, the whole of it now undergoes the process of sifting. The men throw up the stuff, and the women sift it. (p.380)


Everything is recycled. Pullman must have known that many of the ingredients for the dye works and brick kilns owned by Jordan College have been sifted from Dust. As the Zen saying goes, “there is no trash.” The dust-heap becomes an image either for the cycle of life, where nothing ever disappears but always finds new form; or for Resurrection, because nothing really perishes but always lives on, because its essence is Life. Dust thus becomes the image for Life that is rejected, discarded, swept out, perhaps because of its anarchic fertility and the chaos of possible transformations of supposed “waste matter.” The great English painter Stanley Spencer sees it this way; his representations of dustbins always have a peculiarly mystical feel, as receptacles spilling with the organic:


In The Dustman, or The Lovers, we have something like a resurrection from the dead, in which there is a heart-bursting, erotic reunion counterpointed with joyous rediscovery of objects from a dustbin that turn out to be magically intact:

In these beautiful paintings, Dust is life, not death — essential vitality, not waste. In that dustbin is the chaos of thrown-away, rejected things that holds the secret of regeneration. Is this what the priests are afraid of? And is it only the spirit of death — the Magisterium, Asriel/ Azrael — that would see Life as Death?

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3 thoughts on “Dust: A Remarkable Word

  1. Lovely stuff. Coincidently just finished the trilogy last night. The second reading was so much better than the first. Sraf indeed!

  2. And then there is Iqbal’s famous and controversial poem, “Shikwa”, Complaint, where that same material shows up. It is the dust we are formed from and return to, it is ash as well. Tangled up with the whole range of associations and a Persian phrase of self reproach, you get:

    جرات آموز مری تابِ سخن ہے مجھ ک
    شکوہ اللہ سے خاکم بدہن ہے مجھ کو

    “My burning words are teaching me to be brazen:
    I have–may there be ash in my mouth–a complaint against God.”

    The use of the idiom softens the audacity by condemning the complainer even in the same breath as the complaint. The sense is may I return to dust, may I die for even having such a thought (see Francis Pritchert). But the line rebels against itself. Read against the fire of the first line, it also become as request for the complaint to be heard and attended to. For the fire to be put out. In that sense it is a demand, hiding its audacity behind a puff of smoke. Translations typically soften the force of the verse, emphasizing the self reproach. The dust is kept, the ash swept away.

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