Death and Self-Identity in the Contemporary Fantasies of Philip Pullman, Garth Nix, and Steven Erikson
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Death is inevitable yet inherently unknowable in its experience. The possibility of persistence within death lacks evidence but compels the mind. Through imagined narratives we can conceptualize possible experiences of death and afterlife spaces to address the fears and uncertainties associated with death’s unknowability. How death is represented in a narrative work offers a mirror through which to understand socio-cultural norms and dominant ideologies. To better explicate narrative representations of death I identify three possible meta-forms for death: death as a determinate ontological state (in that a self can be dead); a physical space with constituent landscape (in that a self can be in death); or an embodied identity (in that a self can be Death). I apply this framework to contemporary fantasy in case studies of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Garth Nix’s The Old Kingdom, and Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen to explore how each representation of the three forms of death and their interrelations allows for more nuanced readings of the texts themselves, while also reflecting dominant social perspectives towards death in their period and cultural context. I seek to expose the lines of influence between death forms while offering a traceable continuity from traditional beliefs and classical engagements with the afterlife to contemporary representations. In examining the orientations of self relative to each form of death, the framework opens space for analysing how death itself is altered by identity-driven and spatially-centered assertions of agency. The death found in these case studies is materially-oriented rather than purely spiritual, divorced from strict sacred belief but indebted to their precedent, prioritizes being over acts, and privileges landscape at the core of its experience. These deaths are indicative of a cultural shift towards a secularization of death, reveal a preoccupation with embodiment, and balance a growing tension between increasing individuality and personal agency on the one hand, and a social need for community support and interpersonal relationships on the other. Imagined narratives work to map some of death’s infinite possibility and many forms and I seek to offer a language for their analysis.