Nerds Unite! The Symbolism in Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom

Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series is one of my favourite fantasy series’ EVER. So much so, that I actually wrote my dissertation on it (and no, I will never stop bringing that up because it was the most fun thing I ever did). So, in celebration of the fact that the new book in the series, Goldenhand, will be published NEXT WEEK *pterodactyl screech echoes across the Ratterlin* I thought I’d post a couple of extracts from my dissertation. I’m actually super proud of this in true nerd-fashion. Once I started looking into the series, I realised just how heavy it is in symbolism, especially when it comes through journey through adolescence, which is obviously one of the most important themes in YA. In this series, the emotional journey is heavily embedded in the landscape through which the characters travel as they mature, and it’s SO COOL!!

Ahem. Anyway, this extract is from the beginning of the essay, where I talk about the world as a whole before I dive into the nitty gritty of individual places. I really hope more people than me find this interesting! Trust me, it is actually the coolest.

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For context, I’ve just drawn a link between the Kingdom>>Scotland, the Wall>>Hadrian’s Wall, and Ancelstierre>>England. Sources at the bottom.

Nix is not alone in employing a Wall to separate the magical from the mundane, the ‘real’ from the fantasy. Other instances include: Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, published in 1999 and adapted to film in 2007; George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice, beginning with A Game of Thrones (1996); and arguably the wall between King’s Cross Station and Platform 9 ¾ in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, beginning with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997). Interestingly, these series are all close contemporaries – though Sabriel was published in 1995, and therefore Nix did not gain inspiration from them. However, these authors’ predecessors such as Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), and real-world walls such as Hadrian’s Wall, are more likely inspirations.

This connection was probably forged during or even before Nix’s early adulthood, when he spent some time in Britain: “I drove all around, all over England, Scotland and Wales. And I re-read a lot of my favourite childhood books where they were set […] I read Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth on Hadrian’s Wall.”[1] It is clear that British landscape, and the literature inspired by it, in turn influenced Nix’s writing. His fascination is shown through these strong links between Britain and the world of the Old Kingdom. These literary walls represent liminal boundaries between worlds, and Nix’s Wall stands at the boundary between the rigidity of childhood and the freedom of experimentation necessary for adolescence.

Ancelstierre’s political motivations centre largely on immigration – an anxiety with which England is not alone in having a traditional preoccupation – and on a long-standing suspicion of the Kingdom. This fosters a nationalistic ideology which is explored in Lirael and Abhorsen, but more significantly it also creates a country which overestimates its own power, and therefore a country which is remarkably naïve of the dangers of the Kingdom. This attitude is relevant to the narrative, and to the politics of the Kingdom itself, through the education of several protagonists.

Sabriel and her children, Ellimere and Sameth, are all schooled in Ancelstierre from a young age. The school setting already invokes a sense of childishness, and through characters such as Sameth’s cricket coach Mr Cochrane, it implies an element of naïvety in the rest of the populations’ attitude. It is also shown through Sabriel and Lirael that Sabriel and Sameth particularly internalise this underestimation of the Kingdom during their schooldays, and return home ill-prepared for the country’s dangers. Mogget, a servant of the Abhorsen, tells Sabriel: “It is true that you are sadly ignorant […] Your father should never have sent you across the Wall.”[2] Mogget worries that Sabriel’s ignorance endangers her, and therefore him, on their quest, since she has only a child’s understanding of the Kingdom.

Ancelstierre then is an apt symbol for childhood, as the people remain reliant on the parent-like authority of school and government. Even Sabriel is tempted to stay in this innocence environment to attend an Ancelstierran university. Though her magic would fade so far from the Kingdom, “going to university would mean staying with […] girls she’d started school with at the age of five.”[3] The continuation of the fairly easy life of her childhood is difficult to resist, and she only gives it up to save her father. When Sabriel, and Sameth, leave their schooling behind and return to the Kingdom, it signals the end of their childhood naïvety and the start of their transition through adolescent exploration, culminating in being incorporated into adulthood.

However, for native Ancelstierrans, such progression does not come naturally. Sameth’s school-friend Nick spends most of Lirael and Abhorsen in denial of the Kingdom’s true power: ““The Dead, as you call them, are simply poor unfortunates who suffer from something like leprosy. And far from rescuing me, you have taken me away from a scientific experiment.””[4] This direct juxtaposition of magic and science perhaps paints Nick’s efforts towards scientific endeavour in a negative light, but influenced by Ancelstierre’s naïvety, as his childish and therefore incomplete understanding hinders his attempts at a scientific exploration of the Kingdom.

Nick’s naïvety persists further than Sabriel or Sameth’s because, raised in Ancelstierre from birth, his childishness is more deeply ingrained. However, even Nick, upon his return to Ancelstierre at the end of Abhorsen, reflects upon his childish beliefs and discards them in favour of a more accurate, adult understanding of his environment. “Once he might have wanted to argue about that. Now he had a different perspective, and other things to think about.”[5] Through Knoepflmacher, it is possible to deepen this analysis: a character must come to “the realisation […] that separation is necessary for the achievement of freedom.”[6] Nick’s desire in ‘The Creature in the Case’ to return to the Kingdom’s wilderness exists because he recognises the need to continue to grow in understanding and knowledge of a wider world than he has thus far been aware of. “He had become someone else and he could only find out who that was in the Old Kingdom.”[7] Here, the protagonists experience the bulk of their adolescence. The later return to Ancelstierre for Nick, Sameth and Sabriel is an opportunity to grow in self-awareness, and potentially transition into adulthood.

This also reflects van Gennep’s system of rites of passage from one social group to another:

“A complete scheme of rites of passage theoretically includes preliminal rites (rites of separation), liminal rites (rites of transition), and postliminal rites (rites of incorporation).”[8]

Nick’s separation from the familiar is necessary to transition through adolescence, and then be incorporated into adult society. Though he does not experience the same rites as Sabriel, Lirael, Clariel and Sameth, and therefore cannot complete the transition into adulthood, he does experience the preliminal stage (separation), which is enough that he becomes aware that he must return to the Kingdom to complete the rites of transition and incorporation.

The crossing of the Wall is symbolic therefore of a gateway between stages: from Ancelstierre and childhood, to the Kingdom and development in isolation, and then back to Ancelstierre to reflect on growth and integrate into adult society. The Wall is the gateway through which all must pass, and therefore becomes a rite within itself.

[1] Garth Nix at the Edinburgh International Book Festival Part 1 (2010) <>.

[2] Nix, Sabriel, 104

[3] Ibid., 20

[4] Garth Nix, Abhorsen (England: HarperCollins, 2005), 161

[5] Ibid., 394

[6] U. C. Knoepflmacher, ‘Roads Half-Taken: Travel, Fantasy and Growing Up’, Project MUSE <>.

[7] Garth Nix, ‘The Creature in the Case’ in Garth Nix, Across the Wall (Great Britain: HarperCollins, 2007), pp. 19-117, 20

[8] van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, 11

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Goldenhand will be published by Hot Key Books on 4th October 2016.


One thought on “Nerds Unite! The Symbolism in Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom

  1. Pingback: Review: GOLDENHAND by Garth Nix | Rustling Reads

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