Meet me in the river

"The First Gate" | Art by LauraTolton. Used with permission.
Walking in death: this is the power of the Abhorsen.

Where magic is portrayed as a gift in many stories, it almost seems like a curse for the Abhorsen, a faithful servant of Charter magic, whose duty is to lay the dead to rest.

In Garth Nix’s Abhorsen Chronicles, the Old Kingdom is a world caught in a constant battle between life and death, between Charter magic and Free magic. This is a land plagued with necromancers who use the corrupted power of Free magic to raise the dead in order to achieve their own goals of dominion and destruction. Their enemy is the Abhorsen.

The series is comprised of three booksSabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen—and follows two would-be Abhorsens: Sabriel and Lirael (whose story picks up 20 years after Sabriel’s). Both are stories in which the protagonists learn about their inheritance as the next Abhorsen and must defeat great evil while doing so.

A common theme in fantasy is that everything has a time to die.

The Abhorsen has the ability to walk in the spiritual realm of death, which plays just as much a role in these books as the land of the living. Death is portrayed as a river with nine gates and precincts through which spirits must pass before they come to their final resting place. Here, death is dangerous and sinister. Everything is grey and devoid of light, except for occasional bursts of red fire; the river itself is icy cold, its treacherous current tugging spirits further into its depths. Any spirit that lingers too long becomes a twisted reflection of what it once was. Necromancers and Abhorsens alike have to take care lest they find themselves swept away along with the dead.

Everyone in this land seems to have an innate fear of that final end. Dead spirits often try to claw their way back into life, where they become zombies who constantly have to prey on the living to stay there.

And yet, that final end turns out to be beautiful. When Lirael walks through death all the way to the Ninth precinct, this is what she finds:

“The Ninth Precinct was utterly different from the other parts of Death… The familiar tug of the river at [Lirael’s] knees disappeared as the current faded away. The river now only splashed gently round her ankles, and the water was warm…

For the first time, she could also look up and see more than a grey, depressing blur. Much more. There was a sky above her, a night sky so thick with stars that they overlapped and merged to form one unimaginably vast and luminous cloud. There were no distinguishable constellations, no patterns to pick out. Just a multitude of stars, casting a light as bright as but softer than the living world’s sun” (Lirael, 443-444).

A common theme in fantasy is that everything has a time to die. There is a natural order into which all things must fall, and those who try to harness the power of death, or come back from the dead for their own means, ultimately fail.

“Just a multitude of stars, casting a light as bright as but softer than the living world’s sun.”

Take Voldemort, who coveted immortality and created the Horcruxes so that, even if his physical body were destroyed, his spirit could live on—he tried to delay his final end in order to gain personal power. Or, look at vampires, which are dead creatures that have to consume blood, the very essence of life, in order to stay “alive.” No matter how much we try to romanticize them, they are also delaying their final end as much as they can, and are unnatural to this world.

Then there are heroes, like Harry Potter and Gandalf, who are resurrected, but the difference is that they do not seek to prolong their lives out of selfish desires. Harry sacrifices himself for his friends. Gandalf is brought back for the time it takes him to complete his task; after Sauron is defeated, he goes back to Valinor, never to be seen in Middle-earth again.

I think being afraid of death is natural because it is unknown to us. It’s part of the reason why we’ve invested so much time and money into building hospitals and developing medicines; we want stave off death as long as we can. It’s what Dylan Thomas was talking about when he wrote “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” We want to cling to just a few more years, days, and minutes because there’s still so much living we want to do.

As a Christian, I believe that death is not something to fear, and that it’s not the end either. It is still unknown to me, but one day I will meet it with the knowledge that the journey afterwards will be something beautiful.

Kyla Neufeld

Kyla Neufeld

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
Kyla is a poet, writer, and editor. She writes about various sci-fi and fantasy series, and is interested in the intersections between geek culture, feminism, and social justice. She lives in Winnipeg with her husband, the Sith Lord, and her daughter, the Nazgûl child.
Kyla Neufeld