The Luminary Postgraduate Magazine Lancaster University

'An 'impulsive leap into the real'1 [Lacan]: How 'portal' narratives offer a return to the Lacanian real.'

Chloe Buckley


Why is contemporary fantasy for young adults so dominated by the 'portal narrative': books which tell of the hero(es) journey from everyday reality to a world ruled by magic and the supernatural? Catherine Fisher, Neil Gaiman, Garth Nix, Philip Pullman and J. K. Rowling are some of the best known contemporary writers of teen fantasy making use of portal narratives. The thesis will address the question: What is particular to 'portal' narratives as a contemporary narrative form and why are so many written for young adults? This essay considers one aspect of this question, exploring whether portal narratives open a doorway into the Lacanian real.

The borderlands between reality and fantasy found in portal narratives open up the dangerous possibility of entering what Lacan termed the 'real', what Zizek calls the 'pre-symbolic substance', the inexpressible space of being before language is thrust upon the speaking subject and it enters the symbolic.2 This possibility is simultaneously exhilarating and abhorrent, liberating and horrifying. As Zizek explains, 'social reality is .. nothing but a fragile, symbolic cobweb that can at any moment be torn aside by an intrusion of the real.' (p. 17) Thus, though the discovery of other worlds is exciting and liberating for child readers, portals which lead beyond everyday 'reality' reveal the fragility of that reality. When the real erupts, delightful possibility can turn to grotesque nightmare if elements beyond the portal threaten to obliterate the safe 'reality' of the symbolic. Yet, in the end, portals to the real must be closed. The real is always out of reach. Narrative restitution means that symbolic order is re-affirmed, the real is kept at bay, and the self can survive intact.

Sabriel by Garth Nix, the first in a trilogy for young adults, follows this narrative pattern. The book sets up a dichotomy between two very different worlds: 'Ancelstierre', a non-magical reality, a nostalgic pastiche of 1920s Britain, and 'The Old Kingdom', a strange land to the north, only spoke of in legends and old stories, a land of magic, necromancy and ancient power. Only those living in the north of Ancelstierre know anything of the Old Kingdom, though no traveller has passed between the two realms for many years and old stories of magic from beyond the 'Wall', the border between the two countries, are not treated with much credence. Sabriel is a young woman just finishing school ('for Young Ladies of Quality') in the north of Ancelstierre and preparing to go on to university further south.3 Sabriel, however, is the daughter of Abhorsen, a powerful necromancer whose job it is to fight the dead in the Old Kingdom and lay them to rest. Abhorsen sent his only daughter to Ancelstierre to live and be educated when she was very young, and Sabriel grows up knowing nothing of the land of her birth. When Abhorsen goes missing, Sabriel must abandon Ancelstierre, take up Abhorsen's bells (the tools of the necromancer) and set out into the wilds of the Old Kingdom to find her father and defeat the powerful dead creature, Kerrigor, who threatens to destroy the Old Kingdom and break through the 'Wall' into Ancelstierre.

In many ways this is a proto-typical fantasy quest narrative. However, as a 'portal' narrative, Sabriel also plays creates subversive borderland spaces. These borderlands, the strange spaces which lie at the edges of the real, allow Sabriel to explore the precarious nature of the self and reveal that the 'pseudo-totality' of the self offered by the symbolic is always on the brink of disintegration from within. (Lacan, 'That Freudian Thing', p. 140) Borderlands are special spaces, Alan Garner says we find them at 'wastelands and boundaries: places that are neither one thing nor the other.'4 Rosemary Jackson sees them in 'enclosures, wastelands, vaults, dark spaces', places where psychic terrors and primal desires can be expressed.5 Sabriel contains a number of unstable and eerily empty liminal spaces. For example, 'The borderlands' around the Wall itself are shunned by people from both realms. The soldiers patrolling the perimeter around the Wall never go more than 10 miles into the borderlands and no maps exist showing any further than this. 'Patrols tend not to come back beyond that distance', the text tells us, implying that they are swallowed up by the unknowable spaces of the Old Kingdom beyond.(p. 44) These are what Lucie Armitt calls the 'never- never places', situated outside the realms of dominant discourse and beyond its coherent articulation.'8

Crossing the border is frightening - a risk: Sabriel crosses the perimeter alone, with little knowledge of where she must go and what she must do, not even knowing where to find Abhorsen's house, her ancestral home. Moreover, beyond the safety of the wall lies miles of wasteland, where no settlements or human aid can be found. The actual gateway from Ancelstierre to the Borderlands is a blasted, broken relic, just 'rusting hinges' and 'sharp shards of oak', 'like teeth in a broken jaw'. (p. 49) Holland tells us that many fantasy texts invite us to enter their worlds 'like a nurturing mother', but there is nothing comforting here.9 Instead, as Lucie Armitt points out, entering the worlds of these gothic fantasies is more like taking a huge 'readerly risk'.

The main risk is that we will lose our place in the symbolic order. The text uses the portal to show a discontinuity between inside and outside, implying that symbolic reality is a flimsy construct:

It was clear and cool on the Ancelstierre side, and the sun was shining – but Sabriel could see snow falling steadily behind the Wall, and snow-heavy clouds clustered right up to the Wall, where they suddenly stopped, as if some mighty weather-knife had simply sheared through the sky. (p. 29)

This discord in the natural world becomes horrifying, as Sabriel sets out into Old Kingdom. The first scenes set in the Old Kingdom designate it as an eerily blank canvas, covered in snow and foggy, thick with cloud. It is onto this space that the Ancelstierre soldiers patrolling the borders project their deepest, darkest fears. Sabriel herself sets off across the landscape, 'a slim, dark figure against the white of the ground', in search of her father, and the unknown evil which stalks her. (p. 51) Yet, though desires are projected onto this fantasy space, they cannot be satisfied: 'what the fantasy stages is not a scene in which our desire is fulfilled,..., but on the contrary, a scene that realizes, stages the desire as such.' (Zizek, p. 6)
The further into the Old Kingdom we travel, the more distinctive and shaped it becomes, and real dissolves back into reality. What we thought was a gateway beyond the symbolic becomes instead a circular path taking us safely away from the object of our desire, back to reality. Lacan tells us that desire is un-satisfiable as it is by definition what remains, what linguistic structures cannot express. The Old Kingdom is not the primordial real, free of the structures and strictures of the social and 'Symbolic'; it is a world with its own hierarchies, structures and organising principles.

Yet, even as this blank landscape is fleshed out and filled with solid 'reality', the text still seeks a portal to the real, and the Old Kingdom seems to offer a closeness to it which we are denied in the more firmly fixed, solid and rational Ancelstierre. Charter stones, hotspots in the landscape where 'Free Magic flowed... natural doorways into the realm of Death', are deliberately broken in perverted rituals, destroying the binding power of a magical superegoic agency – the Charter - that was keeping the doorway closed. (p. 45) These doorways to Death become the text's point of contact with the real, and, as Sabriel continues her journey, more and more doors are 'wedged ajar', creatures 'lurking, watching in the cold river beyond.' (p. 63) 'Free magic' is also a point of contact with the void of the real; when Sabriel reaches into the flow of Free Magic at these hotspots she feels as though she is 'falling, falling into infinity, into a void that had no end and no beginning' it is only contact with the Charter.. which 'gripped' her, halts her 'fall into nothing' and brings her back to reality. (p. 125)

If 'the emergence of language opens up a hole in reality', then Free Magic and Death are what remains, what the Charter does not name, the emptiness at the heart of the symbolic universe. (Zizek, p. 13) The river of Death is what Jackson would designate a 'empty, emptying, dissolving' space it is a borderland between life and death, the void of the Thing, where the waters will 'leech' your spirit, and you will lose yourself in the 'unending blackness', 'mist' and silence:

The First Gate was a veil of mist, with a single dark opening, where the river poured into the silence beyond…
The light, grey and without warmth, still stretched to an entirely flat horizon...
...dark, formless shapes or grim silhouettes, shadowy in this grey light...(pp.10, 23, 67)

The 'river' is always represented in negative terms, as though it is formed from absence, rather than presence. It is also a space without limits, a circular and tricky topography; to try to walk the river from bank to bank would be an 'unending journey' (p. 269). You can only move forward, with the ceaseless current which urges the traveller onward to the 'Final Gate'. This doorway to the real is a corrosive and impossible gap at the heart of reality; for Zizek the 'place between two deaths' (p. 25), for Royle, an uncanny 'death drift', its pull to entropy representative of the death drive's 'compulsion to return to an inorganic state.'6 This borderland between life and death is home to the uncanny, 'the dimension of extimité', 'that no-man's land' where the subject is left 'floating without a point of anchor.'10 That is why it is a landscape consisting of nothing, where form and substance break down and the light gives a 'blurring that made it difficult to see further than you could touch.' (Sabriel, p. 262)

It is from this uncanny borderland between life and death that the glimpse of the real turns into a nightmare, and things abject and uncanny issue forth, threatening to dissolve symbolic reality, like the broken charter stone above the village of Nestowe:

It was only recently ruined,..., but already the door to Death was creaking open. She could almost feel the cold of the currents beyond, leaking out around the stone, sucking warmth and life from the air. Things lurked there too, she knew, just beyond the border. (p. 192)

These lurking ' things' are what Jackson calls the 'nameless things' or 'thingless names' of horror fiction, which occur when the text attempts to 'articulate 'the unnameable'' and the 'gap between signifier and signified dramatizes the impossibility of arriving at definitive meaning or absolute 'reality'.' (p. 41) Thus the 'shadow hand' who comes to attack Sabriel at Abhorsen's house is described as 'a man-shaped blot of blackest night'. (p. 111) Later, Kerrigor is described variously as 'some colossal statue of rough hewn night', 'a raging column of darkness' and 'solid darkness'. (pp. 358-363) A powerful eruption of the real, Kerrigor cannot be given form in the symbolic; his presence is a horrifying absence that threatens to swallow reality. He is what Zizek names the 'black hole', a 'central lack', which must be prevented from 'overflowing' the into reality. (Zizek, p. 19) Indeed, when Kerrigor does emerge over the Wall into Ancelstierre, he brings a 'strange, dense fog' which blots out everything in its path. (p. 331)

As well as darkness, Sabriel is obsessed with the abject: with blood, ritual perversions, corrupt and vile flesh, severed limbs and wretched, sick bodies. Much of the abject imagery comes from the border between Life and Death, and can be seen in creatures like Thralk: a 'thing' of indeterminate gender, no longer human, who manages to 'sneak around the edges and squirm' into life. With 'lidless, rotting eyes', 'carrion breath' and 'slimy corrupted fingers' reaching forward to try and leech the life from Sabriel, Thralk is an abject thing of the real. (pp. 69-73) According to Kristeva: 'The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part.'7

The border between life and death is abjection, and at these border places the body responds to the abject; Free Magic corruptions of the Charter inducing violent convulsions, 'stomach cramps, sudden sweat and dizziness'. (p. 252) The abject is also present in sound, the text having a fondness for the word 'squelching', whenever anything from Death crawls across the page. Kerrigor's voice is described as 'rich but rotten, wet like worm-ridden fruit' (p. 289) and later, characters await their doom, listening to the swarm of dead hands approaching: 'the massed grinding of Dead joints, no longer joined by gristle; the padding of Dead feet, bones like hobnails clicking through necrotic flesh.' (p. 346)

Of course, the most 'fetid stench' of the abject emanates from Kerrigor himself. He comes to 'break the charter', dissolve the kingdom and send the land into chaos and destruction. He is, in Dolars' words, 'the irruption [sic] of the real into “homely”, commonly accepted reality... something which shatters well-known divisions and which cannot be situated within them.' (Dolar, p. 6) The text struggles to adequately describe his presence and his chosen form represents a grotesque Lacanian 'méconnaisance' of the self:"His head was too thin and too long, and his mouth spread from ear to ear. His eyes did not bear looking at, for they were thin slits burning with free magic fires... Take a man, make him malleable, stretch and twist... "(p. 289)
Kerrigor's body is a border where distinctions between inside and outside break down. When Sabriel sends his 'Free Magic' form back to his original body, the mortal flesh that was once 'Rogir' disintegrates, showing the collapse of subject / object, inside / outside. We see 'his mouth peeling back, skin...breaking at the corners, the spirit within corroding' the flesh. (p. 361) 'It is as if the skin, a fragile container, no longer guaranteed the integrity of one's “own and clean self” but, scraped or transparent, invisible or taut, gave way before the abjection of its contents.' (Kristeva, p. 53)

Strangely, Kerrigor is the uncanny double of Sabriel's heroic companion, Touchstone, heir to the throne of the Old Kingdom. As Touchstone's abject double, Kerrigor represents the disintegrating self in the real, 'what I permanently thrust aside in order to live... the border of my condition as a living being.' (Kristeva, p. 3) Touchstone / Kerrigor is a two-faced Janus; Symbolic monarch and demonic overlord of the real, showing that the real is an inextricable part of the self: Rogir melts away, 'revealing the solid darkness within', the real at the centre of the symbolic.

Yet, according to Kristeva 'abject and abjection are my safeguards'.(p. 2) The abject prevents us from sliding into the disintegration of the real. Indeed, the urge to look upon horror, is, according to Reynolds, necessary: "Anything which threatens to undermine the self-identity achieved by the transition to the symbolic is constituted as fearful; as a way of defending the new state, images associated with the domain of the semiotic come to be regarded as loathsome and repugnant... how many monsters are inarticulate, infantile in their constant demands,..., and leak bodily fluids like an untrained infant." (pp. 142-3) Thus the 'squelching' creatures which crawl from the River of Death into life, the pitiful, flopping headless things, even Kerrigor's 'dry, corpse-like flesh', are part of the symbolic defence mechanism against the real. (p. 361) The real is made abject, externalised and then banished so it can be of no further harm.

Interestingly, though this text achieves this banishment in a proto-typical fantasy narrative conclusion, which sees our heroes win the day, it also resists simple resolution by offering lingering images (like the uncanny resemblance between King and Monster) which remind us that, though banished, the real is never far away.

Reynolds tells us that the 'symbolic is achieved at a cost' and 'maintained with difficulty.'(Reynolds, p. 143) This means that portal narratives must constantly struggle against the real at their centre and Narrative restitution can be no easy task. The binding of Kerrigor is traumatic and strangely incomplete. Out of options, 'impaled' on the floor and dying, it looks as though Sabriel will fail. At the last minute, she remembers the strange ring she had used earlier to bind Mogget, a Free Magic creature, back into his harmless cat form, and manages to slip it around Kerrigor's writhing body: 'The ring constricted, cutting through the pulpy flesh of his neck, revealing the solid darkness within. That too was compressed, forced inwards, pulsating as it tried to escape.' (p. 362)The pulsing, abhorrent darkness of the real struggles violently against its shackles, 'a raging column of darkness, constrained by a silver ring.' (p. 363) In the end, Sabriel is able to complete the binding, using the bell of sleeping, binding both Mogget and Kerrigor into the shape of two harmless cats who curl up and go to sleep. Yet, Kerrigor is 'not made truly dead', only imprisoned. The banishment, which Sabriel's father died attempting to undertake, is ultimately unsuccessful, and Kerrigor never makes that trip beyond the Final Gate. (p. 365)

In the end, ultimate banishment of the real is impossible: the symbolic must always be 'hooked onto a “thing”, some piece of the real'. (Zizek, pp. 31-3) 'Barred, crippled, porous', the symbolic order needs a 'little piece of the real' to fill out the 'void that gapes' at its centre.(ibid) Hence portal narratives, like Sabriel, perform a vital psychic function, voicing, for a brief moment, that 'little piece of the real'.



1 Jacques Lacan, 'That Freudian Thing', Ecrits: a selection, trans. by Alan Sheridan (London: Routledge, 1977), p. 153. (all subsequent references to this text will be given in parenthesis after the quotation or reference in the text)

2Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry (Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1992), p. 14. (all subsequent references to this text will be given in parenthesis after the quotation or reference in the text)

3Garth Nix, Sabriel (London: Collins, 2002), p. 15. (all subsequent references to this text will be given in parenthesis after the quotation or reference in the text)

4Alan Garner, Elidor (London: Collins Modern Classics, 2001), p. 60.

5Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy The Literature of Subversion (London: Routledge, 1988) p. 108. (all subsequent references to this text will be given in parenthesis after the quotation or reference in the text)

6Nicholas Royle, The Uncanny (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), pp. 84, 2

7Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 4. (all subsequent references to this text will be given in parenthesis after the quotation or reference in the text).

8Lucie Armitt, Theorising the Fantastic (London: Arnold, 1996), pp. 25-6. (all subsequent references to this text will be given in parenthesis after the quotation or reference in the text)

9Norman N. Holland, The Dynamics of Literary Response (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 35.

10Mladen Dolar, '"I shall be with you on your wedding night": Lacan and the Uncanny', October, 58 (1991), 5-23 (p. 21). (all subsequent references to this text will be given in parenthesis after the quotation or reference in the text)

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