Garth Nix

At university I studied Creative and Professional Writing. During this course I had to write several critical essays. I won’t go as far as saying that theses were fun but they were relatively interesting. The best thing about these essays was that we were allowed to choose what we wrote about. Here I want to share with you one of my essays. This one was on the works of Garth Nix. He is an author I very much admire and is especially good at the creation of a universe. I’ll let the essay speak for itself.

*In the interest of expediency I have removed the footnotes, as I don’t yet know how to render these in HTML, and instead used links.

The Establishment of a Universe
A critical essay on Across the Wall by Garth Nix

Garth Nix is perhaps best known for his the Old Kingdom trilogy, also know as the Abhorsen trilogy, which is about a strange world of necromancers and magic. Nix creates vivid and engaging worlds which draw the reader in to a fascinating word of odd characters and strange events. This essay will look specifically at Across the Wall, a collection of thirteen short stories. It will showcase Nix’s style of writing and discuss the way in which he presents the facts of his imagined worlds. It will specifically show how this is done without it appearing clunky, clichéd or unrealistic. Finally this essay will discuss my own work and how I have attempted to build a universe and explain what the reader needs to know to understand it.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for a writer of fantasy or science fiction is the establishing of the universe. These genres will likely have elements of magic or greater technology respectively. In order for a reader to fully appreciate the story they need to understand the differences between the imagined world and the real world. The difficulty for the writer is how best to deliver this exposition.

One method is to give a description at the beginning of the novel. Generally this will only work if the set up is simplistic but it can be most effective. The opening poem to The Lord of the Rings nicely sets up the story. Another method is to have the characters discuss their world. This can seem unrealistic as, outside of a class room, people do not explain the world in this fashion. It is perhaps for this reason that fantasy authors use the outsider as protagonist or as a focal point for the narrative. This person, often a child, finds their way into the magic world and asks the questions the reader wants answered. Examples of this reader surrogate include: Lucy Pevensie, Harry Potter and Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The disadvantage of this method is that it can seem coincidental and convenient. It can look like a character has been shoehorned into the story, or been given a character trait, for the purpose of exposition. This trait could take the form of a coincidence where a character has a skill that the plot just happens to depend.

Use of coincidence is not necessarily a problem but can be an issue if too much hangs on it. In Jane Eyre, in the last quarter of the novel, Jane is without food or water, except what she can beg from others, and when she collapses is discovered by her cousin. This coincidence drives the novel for a large part of the narrative.

In The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lucy discovers Narnia whilst playing hide-and-seek. In Narnia she, and her siblings, fulfil a prophecy but the events leading to it, in our world, are coincidences. The children are evacuees. They could have been sent anywhere that was safe from the blitz. There is only one house in the world, as far as we know, that contains the magic wardrobe and this is where they end up. Nevertheless this contrivance is necessary for the reader to understand Narnia.

Garth Nix, in the Old Kingdom trilogy, neatly skirts the issues of coincidence and contrivance In these novels we are presented with two worlds. Neither world is ours and the two worlds interact, on a regular basis, the exploration of them is therefore more easily achieved.

These two worlds are the Old Kingdom, a magical world and Ancelstierre the technological world. There is a wall which is the boundary between these worlds that is referred to as the Wall. A regular reader of fantasy might recognise this separation of magic and technology as a trope of the genre. Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom are distinct from each other and so the readers interest is maintained no matter which side of the wall we are on.

Magic is a common theme of fantasy novels but how it works varies. In the Harry Potter books the witches and wizards can use their magic universally, rules and regulations notwithstanding, however, in Nix’s Old Kingdom books, magic will only work in the Old Kingdom and in areas of Ancelstierre close to the wall.

These limitations are shown in ‘Nicolas Sayre and the Creature in the Case‘, at the beginning of Across the Wall(p15-119):

Nick noticed a paperweight…A lump of broken stone, etched with intricate symbols. They did not shine or move about, not so far from the Old Kingdom; but Nick recognised their nature…They were Charter Marks.(p 34)

The Charter ‘underpins everything that exists in the Old Kingdom.’ It enables spells to be performed and is representative of the kingdom’s magic. Free Magic is able to operate far from the wall and is impervious to technology, ‘“Guns don’t work up close to [the Free Magic creature], bullets fired further back don’t do a thing…’ (P 61) However a free magic creature is vulnerable to natural defences. These include fire and flowers.

Get anyone who can make flower chains braiding these daisies, and those poppies…I know what it sounds like, but there’s a chance that thing can be restrained with chains made from flowers.”…“The Old Kingdom. Magic. Just make the chains! (P 75)

This information is given by Nicolas Sayre, the protagonist of the novella. Nick has an understanding of the Old Kingdom having visited it in the preceding trilogy. The fire is used as a barrier; ‘The animal is from the Old Kingdom! It will kill all of us if we don’t keep it out with fire’ (P73) The flower chain is thrown in a ‘wreath over the creature’s head,'(P110) and cause ‘ crackling sparks {to} jet{ted} out from the creature’s hide.'(P110) The creature is also eventually subdued by plants: ‘…a thistle will return it to the earth, for a time.'(P114)

Magic is not easily accepted by the Ancelstierre residents. Nick, through his knowledge of the Old Kingdom, becomes a bridge between the two worlds. The reader is able to learn about both worlds from this simple exchange.

The challenges of universe establishment are not limited to genre fiction. To a lesser extent they also exist in literary fiction. The difference here is that the reader will naturally understand the environment. For example in Pride and Prejudice the reader understands the ‘need’ of a woman to be married – within the social confines of that time. A writer of genre fiction can still rely on some foreknowledge. This understanding is gleaned from previous familiarity with the genera. Fantasy fiction often draws on myth and legend. Most people will, by osmosis, have a knowledge of such things as: centaurs, elves and magic. There are similar conventions for other genres: such as teleportation in science fiction. The impact of a novel is greater if the familiar is placed alongside the standard fare of the genre.

In ‘From the Lighthouse'(P151-167), one of the characters asks for the ‘altivator'(P163) This is a made-up word but its construction makes the meaning clear. It is made from the words ‘altitude’ and ‘elevator’. Not only is this meaning clear but it hints at an alternate history and a strange world.
Ancelstierre seems Victorianesque, but has some technology in advance of that. For instance there are ‘electrical barrier grilles'(P61), these are perhaps something akin to portcullises with an electric current running through them. There are references to a ‘moving picture'(P26) – rather an old fashioned term for a film.

Nicholas’s uncle is described as: ‘The Most Honourable Edward Sayer, Chief Minister of Ancelstierre.'(P19) In Britain we would normally associate a minister with a democracy. We cannot say for certain that Ancelstierre is a democracy but it is suggested by the head of the government apparently being elected.

There is a class system in place in Ancelstierre. Nicolas refers to ‘a suitable Sayer job [and] a suitable Sayre marriage.'(P16) Nick states that his ‘aristocratic heritage provi[ded] more than enough self-confidence.'(P81) The Sayer family is therefore at the higher end of society. Perhaps marriage outside of one’s station is impossible.

In almost any work of genera fiction there will likely be new words. In relation to the Old Kingdom there is the ‘Abhorsen.'(P50) This position and character are explored extensively in the Old Kingdom trilogy. In the novella we are given just the minimum information necessary to understand. This is achieved by giving a context for the title. The Abhorsen is mentioned in a letter from Lirael, the protagonist of Lirael, the second book in the trilogy, she signs her letter ‘Lirael, Abhorsen-in-Waiting and Remembrancer.'(P50) The reader can guess that the Abhorsen is an hereditary position and, from what other character’s say, we also know that an Abhorsen can be of help against a Free Magic creature.

Like Nix, in my own writing, I prefer to give the reader hints rather than long paragraphs of exposition. Sometimes however the information is so fundamental, to the universe, that a character not knowing about is all but impossible. The Second Word War is invariably refered to as ‘The War’ – if ours was a fictional world this would be confusing. There are many wars so a person outside of our world would not understand the colloquialisms of common speech.

I have considered having one character be a teacher. In a class room setting, the exposition can be given. It is a genuine place where people might be ignorant of the history or other facets of their world.

The direct approach can also be effective. The reader can be told what the character is thinking. If this information flows well, is appropriate to the present moment and does not go on too long, this it can be effective. Nix uses this direct method in ‘From the Lighthouse.’

Margalletta would be [Kilman’s] his enemy then, so she might as well think and act like an enemy now. Logic was not her strong point, but she rarely needed it, having intuition and common sense instead.(P160)

This breaks the cardinal rule of ‘show don’t tell.’ However showing Margalletta’s animosity wouldn’t work. Any indications of deception that might show in Margalletta’s expression would also reveal herself to Kilman.

In conclusion, the creation of a universe is the most complex aspect of writing. It needs to be done, to varying degrees, in all works of literature. Science fiction and fantasy authors have the disadvantage that the worlds they create have to be built without reliance on the reader understanding the fundamentals. Some themes are common to many books of the same genera so this can assist with understanding. These fictional universes are often introduced to us through a protagonist who is ignorant of the world. This characters might be an outsider, such as in the Narnia books, or it might simply be a situation outside of their experience. Most of the people in Ancelstierre, for instance, do not understand magic. This sort of information needs to be given organically within the story. Garth Nix is an author who has the skills to do this. Across the Wall is a window onto thirteen worlds of his imagining. Little information is actually given and we do not get a complete understanding of these worlds. This is not a problem. The giving of sporadic information can better hint at the wider world of the story. It can give the illusion that Nix knows more than is written down. It is this that epitomises an excellent author. The ability to leak information organically through the plot and hint that there is more to this universe than what we read in the story’s pages.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.