The Theme of Premature Burial in Garth Nix's Early Novels

By Mills, Alice | Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature, May 2006 | Go to article overview

The Theme of Premature Burial in Garth Nix's Early Novels


Mills, Alice, Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature


Over the past fifteen years Garth Nix has established himself as a leading Australian writer of Gothic fantasy for children and young adults. His fantasy quest novels mingle elements from sword and sorcery and Gothic horror, with the horror element at its most potent in Sabriel and its sequels. He has been a prolific writer, at his best when working on the larger scale of trilogies and series novels: it is in these more extended works that his talents as an accomplished storyteller and builder of richly imagined worlds are best demonstrated. In this paper I shall be focussing on his earlier novels, The Ragwitch, Shade's Children and Sabriel in the psychoanalytic contexts of the Freudian concept of the uncanny and the Jungian concepts of rebirth and individuation, and arguing that the theme of premature burial functions in these books both as a Freudian locus for the uncanny and as a Jungian locus for individuation and rebirth. It is through this theme of premature burial that the heroic Jungian world view of sword and sorcery in these novels encounters the more pessimistic Freudian world view of Gothic horror, an uneasy point of contact from which Nix's fiction derives much of its idiosyncratic flavour.

It is considerably more common in literary criticism to mount an argument from either an exclusively Freudian or exclusively Jungian perspective, so antagonistic are these theorists. Thus, in his book-length study of the Freudian uncanny, Nicholas Royle has nothing to say about any positive possibilities of rebirth from the grave in his chapter on premature burial. Jung mentions the uncanny nowhere in his collected works, despite acknowledging the 'disagreeable aspects' of the hero's battle for deliverance from the mother, part of his journey to individuation. When Jung describes such a hero as 'sunk in his own depths, he is like one buried in the earth, a dead man who has crawled back into the mother, (1) he is contemplating the same phenomena as in Freud's analysis of the uncanny mother. (2) Nix's fantasy fiction demonstrates that these two understandings of the human psyche, as on an heroic path to individuation and as doomed to an appalling series of uncanny recrudescences, can coexist (if uneasily) in his combination of Gothic horror elements with the hero-quest--though it is only in Sabriel and its sequels that a measure of balance is attained. The Ragwitch struggles with the combination of horror and hero-quest, sword and sorcery and the Gothic, while in Shade's Children Gothic horror prevails, premature burial retains much of its traditional horror, and these two books' happy endings prove as far from convincing as in most classic works of Gothic horror.

Part of Nix's originality in all three of these fantasy texts lies in his treatment of the theme of premature burial, using (as well as conventional imagery of dryness, earth and tightly enclosing coffin walls) imagery of wetness, of watery expanses either within the psyche or underneath the city. The wetness of these sites for premature burial suggests amniotic fluid, the tomb as watery womb capable of devouring and holding fast but also of affording a means of return to life. This imagery of an uncanny watery womb-tomb incarcerating the living dead in premature burial is at its most obvious in Nix's first novel, The Ragwitch, a children's story that invokes the Gothic horror of a doll, the Ragwitch, coming to malign life. The book's child heroine, Julia, finds herself wetly engulfed within the Ragwitch doll's mind, experiencing through the Ragwitch's senses, helplessly observing the doll's evil attempts to reconquer the world from which she was cast out centuries ago. Julia and several other good characters have been taken up into the witch-doll's psyche in a form of premature burial, violently sundered from their former lives. Julia finds herself in danger of becoming completely absorbed within this devouring mother's womb-tomb: 'You are inside me,' whispered the Ragwitch maliciously. …

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