Friday, January 27, 2012

Garth Nix's Sabriel: A Work of the Fantastic

Garth Nix’s 1995 novel Sabriel seems a pretty clear-cut fantasy novel.  As the tale of a young necromancer and her quest to rescue her father and save a kingdom, Sabriel certainly appears to be compatible with all the stereotypical criteria of the fantasy genre—quests, magic, and even a talking animal sidekick.  But what is less obvious is that Sabriel is also a work of the fantastic—that is, a work that hesitates on the border between the real and the supernatural.  While this difference might seem to be trivial—only the matter of a few letters—it is key in understanding the sense of uncertainty and hesitation that the novel creates in the reader.

Franco-Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov defines the fantastic in his 1975 book The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre.  The fantastic, he writes, “is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature confronting an apparently supernatural event” (Todorov 25). Such hesitation can be experienced by either the reader or by one of the characters, but oftentimes combines the two by confronting a character with whom the reader identifies with the supernatural. The uncertainty as to whether or not a “rational” explanation of events exists is what forms a hesitation for the reader. It is important to realize that what constitutes “supernatural” can be based upon either the reader’s own reality, or the world of the text. In order to remain fantastic, the work must maintain this hesitation in the reader throughout, and the reader must be able to identify with the story’s world. “The fantastic therefore implies an integration of the reader into the world of the characters,” Todorov writes; “that world is defined by the reader’s own ambiguous perception of the events narrated” (31). By defining the fantastic as that which introduces hesitation either directly in the reader or indirectly through a character proxy, Todorov presents a method for identifying the fantastic elements of a text.

This sense of hesitation exists from the very beginning of Sabriel, as the prologue of the novel outlines a series of supernatural and unexplained events. An otherwise common, although decidedly medieval, scene of a birth causes the reader to hesitate when one of those present is identified as a Charter Mage—an occupation which the reader is almost certainly unfamiliar with (Nix 3). Note that any hesitation here is purely on behalf of the reader. The other characters in this scene esteem the Charter Mage and his presence causes them no hesitation; magic-wielders are simply a part of their day-to-day reality. The reader’s hesitation here, however, is a product of their ignorance about the story’s reality and does not stem from a confrontation with the supernatural—merely the unfamiliar.

Hesitation true to Todorov is revealed and enacted shortly afterwards when Sabriel’s father steps into Death to save the newly-born and newly-dead Sabriel, confronts a powerful undead wizard, and returns to Life with the child. When questioned as to his motives, Sabriel’s father replies, “‘I am a necromancer, but not of the common kind. Where others of the art raise the dead, I lay them back to rest. And those that will not rest, I bind—or try to’” (Nix 11). These scenes perfectly arouse feelings of hesitation in the reader by forcing them to confront “an apparently supernatural event” (Todorov 25). To be sure, mention of mages, necromancers, and magical bells, all provoke hesitant reactions from the reader, but Nix most effectively uses images from reality—specifically, the imagery of death—to create the hesitation necessitated by Todorov to paint the fantastic into Sabriel from the very beginning. It is important that Nix establishes the reader’s hesitation early on because it sets the stage for continued use of the fantastic throughout the rest of the novel.

After these initial scenes that create and instill hesitation in the reader, Nix maintains this hesitation through the juxtaposition of the neighboring countries of Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom. Separated only by a wall, these two kingdoms differ in many important ways. The Old Kingdom, in a state of disarray after a sorcerer-led uprising two-hundred years ago, functions in a characteristically medieval way. Residents of the Old Kingdom fight with sword, bow, and magic against a horde of undead monstrosities which reveal themselves at night. The attitude there is one of fear as the undead and their Free Magic sorcerer masters enjoy nearly free rein across the land. The country of Ancelstierre to the south could not be more different. With a modern Parliament-style government, a technology level of the mid twentieth century, and no trace of magic or undead to be found, Ancelstierre is roughly equivalent to the world we as modern readers ourselves inhabit. At any rate, Ancelstierre is sufficiently close to our own reality for the reader to easily identify with it and gain a sense of the familiar.

But when the now eighteen-year-old Sabriel travels from her Ancelstierrian boarding school toward the Old Kingdom, however, the reader’s familiarity quickly turns to unfamiliarity. Upon reaching the wall between the two countries, Sabriel meets Colonel Horyse, a military official at the crossing who is disgusted that the crossing point has not been moved in forty years. “Never mind,” he exclaims, “the fact that, over time, there would be such a concentration of death, mixed with Free Magic leaking over the Wall, that everything would… ‘Not stay dead,’ interrupted Sabriel” (Nix 44). Here again, the reader is confronted by the supernatural, but this time the supernatural exists no longer just in the reader’s world but now also, by extension, in Ancelstierre. By partially mirroring the reader’s reality, Nix is able to heighten the sense of hesitation by extending the reader’s feelings of hesitation into other characters of the story.

Just as the Wall between Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom is a magically-constructed and reinforced boundary, its role is doubled to also represent the division between the worlds of the reader and the story—those of the mundane and the fantastic. The Wall particularly exhibits its role as a boundary between the two countries in a very clear and physical way. In comparing the views of both sides of the Wall, Sabriel notes that, “It was clear and cool on the Ancelstierre side, and the sun was shining—but [she] could see snow falling steadily behind the Wall, and snow-heavy clouds clustered right up to the Wall, where they suddenly stopped, as if some mighty weather-knife had simply sheared through the sky” (Nix 32). The two countries on either side of the Wall are separated by more than just a large assembly of stonework—they are marked as different in terms of weather, technology level, culture, government structure, and even exhibit fundamentally different ways of interacting with reality. The Wall and, to a lesser extent, the Ancelstierrian Perimeter strive to keep apart two irrevocably separate and distinct.

The fantastic in Sabriel is introduced in conjunction with the Wall, and the Wall plays an important role in developing hesitation for the reader. Although some of the first instances of hesitation in the novel occur at Wyverley College when Sabriel restores a rabbit to life and interacts with a Dead messenger, it is not until she reaches the Wall that the full implications of her task are realized. As she arrives and looks at the Wall she notes that her “feeling of wonder and excitement came laced with a dread that she couldn’t shake, a dread made up of fear for what might be happening to her father, what might have already happened” (Nix 35). The literal hesitation experienced by Sabriel is a counterpart to the reader’s hesitation at being confronted with a complex system of magic, feelings of foreboding, and only a slight idea of how the story might progress. In the first several chapters, the reader is unsure what to make of the supernatural occurrences and therefore hesitates to decide whether there is a rational explanation or not for these events. The Wall accentuates these feelings and hints at a possible marvelous solution as each stone in it “crawled with Charter marks—marks in constant motion, twisting and turning, sliding and rearranging themselves under a skin of stone” (Nix 32). At this point in the story, even though the rules of reality in the Old Kingdom have not been fully explained, the reader’s hesitation is encouraged by such partial explanations and hints.

Although introduced early in the novel, both in the Old Kingdom setting of the prologue and in the Ancelstierrian setting of the first three chapters, the reader’s hesitation must be continued throughout the rest of the novel. After leaving the familiar Ancelstierre and Wall with their comfortable and gradual submersion into the supernatural, how can this necessary hesitation be conjured? Building off Todorov’s framework, literary critic Clyde Northrup points out that “the fantastic is subject to some notion or idea of the real and any sort of violation of this view of reality signals a fantastic moment” (Northrup 814). This observation allows for a solution to the problem of creating hesitation in the Old Kingdom. Nix uses familiar settings and ideas in a way unfamiliar to the reader. Perhaps the best example of this is the river which comprises Death. Movement between life and death corresponds to the ever-flowing nature of the river. The fluidity with which Sabriel and other necromancers travel between the two worlds corroborates the notion of a blurred boundary, and Nix reinforces the transient nature of this boundary by orienting the entire story around characters which routinely penetrate the life/death barrier. Such a blurring of distinctions serves to heighten feelings of the supernatural by veiling the river in a mystic and supernatural aura.

By the end of Sabriel the supply of hesitation-inducing material begins to thin. At this juncture in the narrative the reader has grown more accustomed to the otherwise supernatural occurrences of reality in the Old Kingdom. The elements which initially caused hesitation no longer do so. It is common for books targeted at the “young adult” audience to end on a stereotypically positive note which neatly wrap up all outstanding plot points and cause the protagonist(s) to live happily ever after. Although satisfying to the reader, this sort of ending does not further the cause of the fantastic, as it causes the reader to leave the fantastic and end up in either the uncanny or the marvelous as Todorov predicted (Todorov 41). Rather than take this approach, however, Nix offers a conclusion which, more than simply continuing hesitation, masterfully climaxes the reader’s hesitation to a point unsurpassed in the rest of the novel. He does this by depicting the death of Sabriel and then her subsequent return to life, but leaving everything beyond that point open-ended. The transition between Sabriel’s dying whisper of “Everyone and everything has a time to die” (Nix 488) and Touchstone’s ending exclamation of “Sabriel! You’re alive!” (Nix 491) creates only a temporary feeling of respite. To be sure, the antagonist of the novel was vanquished and some manner of peace was restored, but the reader is left with the feeling that everything in Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom is not going to stay right. “‘You are the last Abhorsen,’ spirits of prior necromancers tell Sabriel as she drifts down the river in Death, ‘you cannot pass this way until there is another’” (Nix 489). This, along with her father’s charge to re-establish the Old Kingdom’s monarchy and repair the myriad of broken Charter Stones across the land, indicate that Sabriel has a lot of work and many struggles ahead of her yet. Even though she and the world around her are temporarily at peace, Nix ends the story with hesitation spawned from the perception that this peace is merely transient.  And in so doing, Nix creates a novel that, from the prologue to the final page, instills and maintains the hesitation necessary to fit Todorov’s criteria of the fantastic.

Works Cited

Nix, Garth. Sabriel. New York: Harper Collins, 1995. Print.

Northrup, Clyde B. "The Qualities of a Tolkienian Fairy-Story." MFS Modern Fiction Studies 50.4 (2004): 814-837. Project MUSE. Web. 21 Jan. 2011. <>.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1975. Print.