On Clariel And The Need To Fight


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Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom books have been the story of a primal battle between chaos and order. There is “The Charter,” a force that orders the universe into bloodlines and symbols, an infinite well of power which is the basis of life. And then there is “Free Magic,” drawing its power from outside “The Charter” and interweaving that power with Death itself.

The original trilogy of Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen concerned great battles in which the forces of chaos threatened to overwhelm and destroy the forces of order. In Clariel, Garth Nix uses the trappings of the rich world he has created and its mythology to tell a very different story, one about what happens when the forces of order threaten to destroy chaos.

There is no great fight happening in Clariel. The main drama, for which people die and kill, concerns a relatively straightforward royal succession crisis. Not exactly a spirit from the beginning of time threatening to destroy the universe, as almost happened in Abhorsen. Instead of concerning themselves with the struggle to survive, people have become obsessed with demarcating their social status, concocting complicated clothing rituals and tea ceremonies in order to reaffirm the neurotic order they have conjured. Even the Charter, itself the source of all this order, has been subsumed into social categories of “employer” and “servant.”

The Abhorsens themselves are numerous—strange after the original trilogy, when the blood had been whittle down to 3 people. But they barely think of the Dead that are their birthright at all, instead creating a town full of Abhorsens and spending all their time on ritualized hunting.

There is no battle, only order, order, order, and it is a terrible world with little to fight for but desire. It produces people like Clariel: berserkers, chaos incarnate. It drives Clariel from her home, pushes her into situations she is not emotionally prepared to handle. It traps her in cages, trying to order her and resisting her efforts to remain free. There is no room for a woman like Clariel in this world, and so she retreats from it further into chaos, destroying herself in the process.


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People good and evil are duped and betrayed. Loved ones die pointless deaths. To fight, in a too-ordered system, is to itself become a problem which demands destruction to maintain the system’s integrity. But without the battle to live and love, all humanity has is its own petty obsessions, and it creates nightmares like what the title character (who only ever asked to make her own path, away from the choking order) is destined to become.


Lirael And The Paths We Choose, Or Are Chosen For


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To come of age. There are thousands of books written on the subject, of course. No matter that humanity has been completing the process quite casually for hundreds of years, we remain obsessed with it, never fully tiring, filling first our heads then our bookshelves with centuries of the story.

One of the things we face as we come of age is that we are not the people we think we are. Perhaps we want something that everyone around us has—in the case of Lirael, this is the Sight, the ability to see into the future that everyone of her blood possesses. Lirael is isolated and changed by her lack of Sight, her lack of ability to blend in among her peers, just as is every young man or woman who feels she is unalterably different. But in our differences lies our power, and just because we lack one gift does not mean we are empty.


In Sam’s case, he lacks a rarity which everyone expects him to have: the ability to become a necromancer. It is his birthright, but he is terrified of it, physically revolted by it and unable to admit to anyone that this is the case. The fact of the matter is, he cannot be what everyone expects him to be. He can only be something else.

“Does the walker choose the path? Or the path, the walker?” It’s a repeated question in these books, but as is the case with every good enigmatic statement it contains far more depth than at first glance. It is not a bland statement of destiny, that our paths choose us and we must walk them. Because the walker is not chosen indiscriminately. And no one can be forced to walk a path that they do not choose—Sam cannot become the Abhorsen because his character is fundemntally unable to deal with the realities of Abhorsen, yet Lirael can become an Abhorsen because her character would lead her down the path anyway, even were her blood different.


There comes a time in everyone’s life when they regret their decisions, when they seek to disown them. When they ask “why is this happening to me?” But once our feet are set on a path, we continue walking (rather than turning aside) because of who we are. Because our character has guided us to a place, and our sense of duty or longing or belief calls us onward.

The future, these books constantly empathize, is not a set thing. There are many possible futures, often dark and dangerous. There is no such thing as destiny, no matter how much it seems that we are forced into situations some higher power has thrust upon us. We choose our own paths, never able to know how hard they will be or what will await us at their endings. We are the walkers, and though the paths are long and hard, we have chosen each other.

Gettin’ Hooked

It’s been an addiction for the last two weeks. I jones, I worry, I debate in my head, I bargain for time. It’s Dianne Wynne Jones.

Anyone who thinks young adult literature can’t be serious should give her a good try. Her books cover all the magnificence, ridiculousness, and travails of “coming of age.”

From the characters who start as 8-year-olds adopting puppies, to Polly, whose story goes from the age of 8 to 19, to Sophie, who is in her late teens when her story begins and has a husband and child when it ends–everyone resonates.

Every event, no matter how objectively ridiculous (like finding a Goon in your kitchen) has weight. It’s all about growing up. And growing up is what life is about, no matter how old you are.