On Sabriel And Coming To Terms With Death

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Death and its ubiquity: there are few things harder for youth to face than that simple, inescapable truth. We will all die.

There are all kinds of ways to deal with this truth. You can bargain with it, subconsciously offer a pint of your own or another’s blood in exchange for staving off the inevitable. You can run and hide, live your life and pretend there is no shadow. Or you can turn and fight. But how do you fight death, when death is itself an essential part of life?

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In Sabriel, Garth Nix brought these questions out of the metaphorical and into a concrete fictional reality. His teenage heroine is a necromancer, like her father and all of her long dead family—but a necromancer of a special kind, one who uses the weapons of death to fight the dead who have been returned to the living—“for this is not their path.”

Sabriel, though she has walked in Death (represented as a river) literally since her birth, has a great deal of difficulty coming to terms with the reality of death. She struggles both internally and externally to overcome the death of her father; she fights the temptation to bring the recently dead back to life, even bringing pet rabbits and such back out of pity. She is a warrior with a battle to fight, but in the battle she becomes closer and more akin to that same thing which she fights. Just as everyone of this world becomes more a part of it and all its corruptions, the older we become.

But at the last, the lesson of the book (for all young adult books have a lesson—perhaps all stories do, some more veiled than others) is not that death is something that must be fought. It is that death is something that must be accepted as a balance to life. Everyone must die, one day, but not necessarily today. Life must come first—the solution to death is not surrender.

One must fight, every day. Knowing that one will lose, in the end, and become what has been fought. But fighting onward, all the same, because that is what life is.

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The lesson of the teenage necromancer.

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