Many layers of allusion

Mogget's map of the Old Kingdom credit:
Mogget’s map of the Old Kingdom

Garth Nix Sabriel
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2003 (1995)

A young woman finds herself thrust into a task that she feels unprepared for, and of course you have to hope that, despite the odds, she succeeds. This being fantasy, first cousin to fairytales and heir to human dreams, you can be almost certain that she will. But, to quote the song, what gets results is not what you do but the way that you do it; and because Garth Nix is a talented writer, with a long track record in publishing and editing, the end result is a very distinguished and impressive first volume in The Old Kingdom series that rarely feels as if it’s peddling clichés.

In some countries the trilogy is named the Abhorsen series, from the title of the gatekeeper between the realms of the living and the dead, a necromancer who communicates with the deceased through the use of a set of bells. Sabriel, the daughter of the current Abhorsen, finds herself in quest of her missing father with only the instruments of his calling and a talking cat called Mogget. This involves a dangerous foray from Ancelstierre into the Old Kingdom where magic is strong; conversely anything mechanical is unable to function. Her search requires her to journey through inimical landscapes, survive a siege, fly in an engineless aircraft called a paperwing and survive numerous brushes with death, vividly described as being an underground river flowing through nine precincts. This is not a laugh-a-minute tale.

Nix, although an Australian author, seems to have used Scotland and the North of England as his inspiration for the trilogy, though it’s a Britain very different from anything we’re now familiar with, not least because technology and attitudes correspond more closely to the early decades of the twentieth century. The Old Kingdom, at present without a king, is a realm where magic is so prevalent that the boundaries between Death and Life are easily crossed by adepts. It most resembles Scotland in being a land where kilts are not unknown, lying to the north of an edifice corresponding to Hadrian’s Wall which divides it off from a rather unmagical Ancelstierre. But you will look in vain to identify equivalents in Scotland for features in the Old Kingdom, though the royal city shares some similarities with Edinburgh (as well as medieval Byzantium, with its palace, unique harbour defences and underground cisterns).

There are even two types of magic: Charter Magic, the purer form, and Free Magic, much harder to govern and much more dangerous. I very much liked Nix’s treatment of things magical, and while the rationale behind it (where does it come from? why is it strong in the Old Kingdom?) is rather vague in this story, its manifestation and all its detailing (Charter Marks, the taste of Free Magic) is well imagined and described. As a musician I was entranced by his wonderful concept of the sounds of bells precipitating magical effects — each of Sabriel’s seven bells was imbued with its own character to match its effects. In vain did I try to link them to systems in other cultures, though the ancient idea of the Music of the Spheres came close.

Some readers have complained about the rather perfunctory love story in this young adult novel, but I thought that the balance between this and the fantasy elements was about right. In any case, as the plot driver is mostly about the relationship between Sabriel and her endangered father, any overloading of romantic elements would have distracted from the parent-child bond that Sabriel concentrates on.

The sheer inventiveness that Nix displays is very impressive: I particularly liked the paperwings, gliders that respond to Charter Magic; gliders were of course still a relative novelty in our equivalent early 20th century culture. Other commonplace elements, such as the dead being reanimated, are treated in a way that feel fresh, for all our modern familiarity with zombies and their ilk. One of his wonderful conceptions is Mogget, a snow-white cat who is not what he seems, and who functions rather like a Cheshire Cat to Sabriel’s Alice role. The touches of sly humour that Mogget provides helps to leaven the sheer and sustained dread that confronts Sabriel throughout the novel and which continues until the explosive end of the tale.

There are also the games that wordsmiths like Nix like to employ, wordplays such as Kerrigor, the name of the character who has precipitated the crisis and who perhaps derives his name from a medieval Arthurian tale. In this Welsh poem reference is made to an Otherworld castle called Caer Rigor, the Royal Fort, and which itself perhaps contains a pun on Latin rigor, ‘harshness’ or ‘severity’ (as in rigor mortis, ‘the stiffness of death’). Another series of allusions concerns the holders of the post of Abhorsen, whose names end in -el (Sabriel, Terciel, Lirael and Clariel). This is surely a nod towards the names of the Biblical archangels, such as Michael and Raphael, the suffix of which means ‘power’ or ‘divinity’ and which is cognate with elohim, one of the Hebrew names for gods or God. Sabriel and her fellow Abhorsens are like those mighty powers who guard the boundary between this world and the next, comparable to the unnamed angel who stops Adam and Eve returning to Eden or to Michael who defeats the armies of Satan. Sabriel is perhaps the Hebrew sabra or prickly pear, tough on the outside but soft inside, both a young girl on the cusp of womanhood and a guardian angel.

Like many a good tale Sabriel works on different levels: a solid narrative to appeal to a first reading, and layers of allusion and echoes of other narratives, especially apt in a plot involving bells, to add to the joy of subsequent re-readings.

Bell made of hammered iron, said to be St Patrick's and associated with swearing of oaths and the ability to curse and to cure ills
Bell made of hammered iron, said to be St Patrick’s and associated with swearing of oaths and the ability to curse and to cure ills

Revised and expanded version of post first published August 2012

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