Whispers of Dust

The third and final series of the BBC/HBO adaptation of Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials is due to air some time in 2022. If you’re a fan of the screen version you’ll be familiar with Scottish composer Lorne Balfe’s striking title music, especially its distinctive ‘Scotch snap’ in the opening theme (perhaps an echo of the rhythm in the name Lyra Silvertongue).

The middle section of the credits sequence includes a sung chorus, the largely indistinguishable words later confirmed in a tweet by the composer as being in Latin. The mystical-sounding words have since been translated in various ways but I favour an interpretation which whispers about Dust, about great cycles of Time, and about the part to be played by seemingly insignificant individuals.

But the murmurings and whispers also convey to me the promise of the third and final volume of Pullman’s The Book of Dust, the title of which we don’t yet know (the author has reportedly suggested The Garden of Roses or Roses from the South as possibilities) and which this summer he was still in the middle of writing. Still, I’m going to speculate a little on what it might contain, so expect several spoilers in this rather meandering post.

Western Temple in the Erdene Zuu Monastery, Karakorum (Marcin Konsek / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0)


Susurros immortales audiunt haruspices.
Incipite parvuli, incipite parvuli.
Procedant menses magni.
Incipite, incipite.

This is how I choose to dispose the words from the music of the opening credits, and below is how I think it could be translated.

The diviners can hear the whispering immortals;
begin, little ones, begin little ones.
The great months are proceeding.
Begin, begin!

You may remember from Serpentine that Lyra and her dæmon Pantalaimon had become somewhat estranged; subsequently the two — along with Lyra’s friend Malcolm Polstead and the sinister Olivier Bonneville — have all been making their individual ways across Europe to the Levant.

In The Secret Commonwealth we heard more about the oil from particular roses, Rosa lopnoriensis, which seems to function in a similar way to the oil Mary Malone used for her telescope in The Amber Spyglass to allow her to see Dust. We also hear about a mysterious structure in a desert in Central Asia where these roses are said to grow, where separated dæmons are reputed to congregate and where other mysteries abound.

Taklamakan Desert, north of the Tibetan Plateau and east of the Gobi Desert.

Here’s where my musings direct my steps. The mysterious region in Lyra’s world is called Karamakan, the name of no known place in our world. However in our Central Asia is found the Taklamakan desert, a sparsely populated area in China’s Xinjiang or Sinkiang province. Bounded by the Pamir Mountains to the west, the Tien Shan range to the north, the Gobi Desert to the east and the Kunlun Mountains to the south, the desert was part of what was formerly known as Chinese or East Turkestan, now mostly inhabited by Uyghur peoples speaking Turki, a form of Turkish. The salt water lake known as Lop Nor (due to damming now largely dry) gets significant mentions in The Secret Commonwealth, its name used to identify the roses; the lake was located between the Taklamakan and Gobi Deserts, at the north edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

The name Taklamakan may derive from taqlar makan, compounded from the Turki word for ruins and the Persian for place — and so the second element of Lyra’s Karamakan may simply mean ‘place’. What about the first element? Here we may note a ruined city to the northeast of the area inhabited by the Uyghurs, in Mongolia — Karakorum — now the site of Erdene Zuu, a 16th-century Buddhist Monastery in modern Karakhorim. The second element appears to derive from the Mongolian word khurem which means castle or fort, while the first element is said to mean ‘black’. Thus Lyra’s Karamakan might imply it’s an area with a sinister association — figuratively but not literally the Black Place.

My guess is that Pullman has combined aspects of Karakorum and Taklamakan to create the place name Karamakan, possibly standing for both desert and the mysterious structure at its heart.

1936 map of part of Mongolia with ruins of Karakorum, “former residence of the Mongolian emperor” on the eastern edge of the Khan Gai Mountains.


Our world’s Karakorum is an interesting site with an curious history. It started off as a yurt or tent city under Genghis Khan around 1220, situated at the edge of the Khan Gai Mountains in the valley of the Orkhon — a river which eventually flows into Lake Baikal to the north — and stood astride the Silk Road as it passed through Mongolia. The son who succeeded Genghis then built a city on the site. In 1253 William of Rubruck, a Flemish Franciscan missionary and papal envoy travelled there, describing Karakorum in his Itinerarium fratris Willielmi de Rubruquis de ordine fratrum Minorum, Galli, Anno gratiae 1253 ad partes Orientales. The city, he said, had four gates facing the cardinal points; within the ruddy mud walls there were residential areas:

“It contains two quarters: one for the Saracens, where the markets are and where many traders gather due to the constant proximity of the camp and to the great number of envoys; the other is the quarter of the Cataians [Chinese], who are all craftsmen. Set apart from these quarters lie large palaces belonging to the court secretaries. There are twelve idol temples belonging to the different peoples, two mosques where the religion of Mahomet is proclaimed, and one [Nestorian] Christian church at the far end of the town.”

William of Rubruck, ‘Journey’
Karakorum’s silver tree fountain as imagined by Mathieu-Richard-Auguste Henrion in 1846

What particularly interests me is a feature designed by a Parisian smith, Guillaume Bouchier, to stand outside the Khan’s palace — the Silver Tree of Karakorum. Sculpted from silver and other precious metals this fountain was sited in the middle of a courtyard, silver fruit hanging from the branches with four golden serpents circling the trunk; at the top stood an automata in the shape of an angel, ready to blow a trumpet.

In the entry of this great palace, it being unseemly to bring in there skins of milk and other drinks, master William [Bouchier] the Parisian had made for him a great silver tree, and at its roots are four lions of silver, each with a conduit through it, and all belching forth white milk of mares.

And four conduits are led inside the tree to its tops, which are bent downward, and on each of these is also a gilded serpent, whose tail twines round the tree. And from one of these pipes flows wine, from another ‘cara cosmos’, or clarified mare’s milk, from another ‘bal’, a drink made with honey, and from another rice mead, which is called ‘terracina’; and for each liquor there is a special silver bowl at the foot of the tree to receive it.

Between these four conduits in the top, he made an angel holding a trumpet, and underneath the tree he made a vault in which a man can be hid. And pipes go up through the heart of the tree to the angel.

[…] Outside the palace is a cellar in which the liquors are stored, and there are servants all ready to pour them out when they hear the angel trumpeting. […]

William of Rubruck, ‘Journey’

Of the four serpents twined round the trunk the one that had fermented horse milk pouring from its mouth represented the north; the one that provided grape wine represented the south, while the west served honey mead and the east rice wine.

When then drink is wanted, the head butler cries to the angel to blow his trumpet. Then he who is concealed in the vault, hearing this blows with all his might in the pipe leading to the angel, and the angel places the trumpet to his mouth, and blows the trumpet right loudly. Then the servants who are in the cellar, hearing this, pour the different liquors into the proper conduits, and the conduits lead them down into the bowls prepared for that, and then the butlers draw it and carry it to the palace to the men and women.

All very interesting you may say, but what has this to do with The Book of Dust? The clues are early on the The Secret Commonwealth when Lyra and Pan are examining a murdered man’s papers. Dr Roderick Hassall had laissez-passer documents for the Ottoman Empire, the Khanate of Turkestan, and “the prefecture of Sin Kiang in the Celestial Empire of Cathay.” These of course trace a route all the way to and from Sinkiang or Xinjiang province where the Taklamakan desert is situated.

Further, a notebook belonging to a Dr Strauss describes a building, “big like a great sand-dune […] made of red stone, very ancient.” Later we read that it’s “like a fortress or a hangar for a vast airship,” in fact “a large rectangular block, dark red in colour,” guarded by men who admit no one without an undisclosed payment.

Stupas on brick walls of Erdene Zuu Monastery, Karakhorim, Mongolia (image: Bouette, Creative Commons)

Red building

Now clearly this red fortress isn’t the same site as Karakorum, and I won’t pretend that it is; quite apart from anything else Karakorum is a good thousand miles (1600 km) northeast of the heart of the Taklamakan desert. Only a few details suggest Pullman may have had Karakorum at least partly in mind while writing The Book of Dust. For example, Karakorum’s palace was originally rectangular, and supported by 64 wooden columns atop granite bases: Pullman’s rectangular though windowless ‘fortress’ may have been formed from either granite or red sandstone. The town wall itself was also roughly rectangular, measuring around 1.5 by 2.5 kilometres or 1 by 1.5 miles, though little now remains.

The later Erdene Zuu Monastery, standing adjacent to the ancient site, has redbrick walls crowned by stupas which form an irregular square compound, each side little more than a quarter of a mile long (as far as I can judge) rather than a rectangle; other than the ‘fortress’ being guarded by men who could have been monks but equally may have been soldiers this monastery doesn’t really equate with Pullman’s concept.

However, the angel on top of the fountain in the Khan’s palace forecourt brings to mind the Torre degli Angeli in Cittàgazze from The Subtle Knife where men (who should have known better) indiscriminately opened windows onto other worlds without closing them, allowing Spectres to enter their world. Is this desert structure, like the Cittàgazze tower, a place to access other worlds? And is the attar of the Lop Nor roses a link to the liquids flowing from the fountain?

And the description of the Karamakan building as being like a stone hangar, does this not have echoes of Bolvangar in Northern Lights, where Mrs Coulter’s intercision blade was made to cut children in Lyra’s world apart from their dæmons?


Here’s the crucial feature of this building in the heart of the Karamakan desert: to reach it adults have to voluntarily separate from their dæmons on entering the desert, an extremely painful process for both human and dæmon. It’s the process Lyra had to undergo in The Amber Spyglass (leading to Pantalaimon’s and her estrangement), and what witches had to go through in Siberia; reputedly the Atlas Mountains in North Africa also require human and dæmon to separate.

Body and soul. Intellect and imagination. Experience and wisdom. These are the elements that characterise the beings in Lyra’s world, who consist of human and dæmon. To understand the glue that binds them together, the forces that make each simultaneously planetary body and satellite, the philosopher has to comprehend the nature of Dust.

We know that in our world the theory that postulated the Higgs boson (the elementary particle named after Peter Higgs) required the building of the Large Hadron Collider to confirm its existence. Lord Asriel’s photogram slides in Northern Lights had already revealed the passage of Dust between the Cittàgazze world and his own, just as Mary Malone’s laboratory equipment sensed the particles, and the mulefa’s tree oil sensitised her amber spyglass to see them (all in the second and third volumes of His Dark Materials).

I surmise then that the building in the Karamakan desert may house the equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider in Lyra’s world, its roses providing the attar that allows its denizens to discern the whispering immortals and peer beyond the confines of that world. Will Lyra and Pantalaimon find the answers there to what could heal the rift between them?

“A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet…” Camille Flammarion, L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire (Paris, 1888)

8 thoughts on “Whispers of Dust

    1. Cheers, Piotrek, my aim as ever is to inform as well as entertain, so I’m pleased to have achieved it in this case! And I can’t wait to see how they present the final part of HDM either. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Fascinating post. I enjoyed your tracing out the roots of both the fictional Karamakan and real Taklamakan. Also the history of Karakorum. The silver tree looks and sounds wonderful–like something out of the Arabian Nights. Being the realm of fantasy, perhaps the real life distances were not so much an obstacle in the places/buildings that formed Pullman’s world.

    I am yet to pick up the book of dust, but hope I can soon and also fit in a revisit of His Dark Materials.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Mallika. As you might have gathered, I’m absolutely fascinated with maps and atlases, of places both real and fictional and in amongst my small collection I have a 1936 atlas with pre-war political boundaries and odd snippets of information such as the ruins of Karakorum. So when Pullman referred to a mysterious place in a Central Asian desert my eye was led immediately here.

      We’re so lucky that, with a bit of judicious searching, the world world Web can provide so many otherwise obscure details for us, including up to date research (links to which I’ve included in my text).

      You’re of course right, the silver tree is very Arabian Nights, so much so that I should rummage through my cheap edition in the archaic translation by Sir Richard Burton. In the meantime, I do hope you revisit HDM, and also read ‘Serpentine’ along with the two instalments of The Book of Dust already available.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The atlas sounds lovely. I like the idea of seeing how our our boundaries and definitions of countries have changed over time.

        Agreed on the web, it’s a priceless resource; no more need to dig up encyclopedias and such at least for quick reference even though they are a pleasure to explore at leisure.

        Burton had a 200th anniversary either this year or last year and I had thought about looking up his Arabian nights but it’s still a plan that I haven’t realised as of now.

        I hope I can get to HDM soon.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. As with all resources the Web has to be treated critically—statements queried, sources questioned, plagiarism sought out, slips suspected, authorities credited and so on. So many sites I look up using key words on a search engines simply parrot other sources uncritically, and I have to be careful I don’t do otherwise. Of course, with your professional background you know all this! 🙂

          I see the bicentenary of Burton’s birth was March this year, so we have just a few weeks left if we’re planning to mark it in our blog posts!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I agree–one has to be very careful what one relies on, but for quickly looking up something as one goes, it does prove rather handy. When one needs it to write of course, the approach would be different.

            Now I remember I did have Burton in my anniversaries list and did do a post as well. Let’s see if I can manage to get to him in time.

            Liked by 1 person

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.