by Killian Quigley
Published by Viking, 2014 | 401 pages
Lev Grossman’s “Magicians” trilogy, which concludes with The Magician’s Land, may be the most self-conscious fantasy series ever written. This is, so far as I know, the only fantasy series in which the characters are also reading and talking about a fantasy series: all of the characters in Grossman’s story have read and are familiar what they call the “Fillory books.” And in Grossman’s handling, this self-consciousness elevates the series into a meditation on the nature of fantasy fiction and on the important role fantasy can play in deciding how to live. Yet more than a meta-commentary on fantasy fiction, Grossman’s trilogy is also an exciting and compelling instance of it.
The Magicians, the first book in Grossman’s trilogy, opened with a young man, Quentin Coldwater, applying for colleges in contemporary Brooklyn. Almost immediately, however, he discovers and is accepted to a special school for magic, called “Brakebills.” The echo of the Harry Potter books in the idea of a secret community of magicians going to school unsuspected in the midst of the contemporary world is unmistakable: in fact, one of Quentin’s teachers mocks him by saying he wants to be a great wizard, like “Dumb-bell-dore.” And as with Harry Potter, Quentin quickly develops a core set of friends from the other Brakebills students. In significant ways, however, Grossman departs from Rowling’s mold. Quentin’s best friend Elliot, for example,has gay dominant-submissive sex in hidden parts of the school, and comments ironically on his own developing alcoholism.
But Grossman’s more extended and revealing allusion is to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. The “Fillory” books are modeled fairly closely after Lewis’s novels: in Grossman’s description, the five Fillory books tell the story of a family of children, the Chatwins, who go to a magical land called “Fillory” and have adventures. As with Lewis’s “Pevensie” children, the Chatwins are an early-twentieth century British family, temporarily parentless because their father is fighting in Europe. And just as the Narnia stories used a frame narrative to create the illusion of truth—as the Pevensie children told “The Professor” the stories of their adventures in Narnia—so Grossman invents “Christopher Plover,” the author of the Fillory books, who lived next to the Chatwins and wrote down the stories they told him. But, in the same way that Elliot’s maturity comments on the simplicity of the Harry Potter characters, so Grossman’s variation on the Narnian stories suggests a criticism of the lack of moral complexity of those novels. We learn at the end of The Magicians that Christopher Plover was a pedophile, who abused Martin, the oldest Chatwin, ultimately driving him to go to Fillory in order to escape. This revelation offers a parable for the fantasy novel, for through it Grossman suggests that fantasy fiction is enabled by a naiveté and innocence that avoids or covers up darker and more serious problems.
The self-consciousness in Grossman’s series becomes explicit when it turns out that Fillory is real. Midway through The Magicians, Quentin and his friends discover that Fillory exists and that it is possible to go there. Moreover, when they arrive, they realize that the Chatwins are real too: in fact, Martin Chatwin has become a terrible godlike “Beast,” whom they must defeat to save Fillory. The plot points that initially appeared as genre critique thus turn out to be part of a larger world that itself presupposes and even revels in the generic conventions of fantasy.
In The Magician King (2011), the trilogy’s second novel, Quentin and his friends—Julia, Elliot, and Janet—have become Kings and Queens of Fillory (in the same way the Pevensie children were Kings and Queens of Narnia), who now must go on a quest for magical keys to save the existence of magic itself. At the end of the novel, Quentin makes a heroic sacrifice: in order to save magic, he must accept being dethroned and expelled from Fillory, and expelled correspondingly from the fantasy novel life Fillory makes possible. And in the opening pages of The Magician’s Land, Fillory is under threat again, while Quentin—back in Brooklyn and the real world—discovers a powerful spell, one that seems designed to create a new world.
These might seem to be relatively standard plots for a fantasy novel, but the self-consciousness of the story transforms them. A central idea in Grossman’s trilogy is the threat of meaninglessness. Unlike ordinary people, magicians have the ability to make the things they imagine come true. But this same capacity is also peculiarly debilitating. When everything is easy, nothing takes work, and therefore nothing matters. As one character puts it in The Magicians: “You can do nothing or anything or everything, and none of it matters. You have to find something to really care about to keep from running totally off the rails. A lot of magicians never find it.” To be a magician, in other words, is to be constantly threatened by ennui, to feel as if there is no point to whatever one does.
In the world of Grossman’s trilogy, fantasy fiction offers a solution to this dilemma. As Quentin Coldwater, the protagonist of the series, explains midway through The Magician’s Land:
In books, there’s always somebody ready to say hey, the world’s in danger, evil’s on the rise, but if you’re really quick and take this ring and put it in that volcano over there everything will be fine. But in real life that guy never turns up. He’s never there. He’s busy handing out advice in the next universe over. In our world no one ever knows what to do, and everyone’s just as clueless and full of crap as everyone else, and you have to figure it all out by yourself.
In their clearly defined quests and immediately obvious problems, with archetypal villains and heroes, fantasy novels offer a clear and definite purpose to their character’s lives.
The capacity of the fantasy world to create purpose is incarnated in the magical land of Fillory. Grossman’s characters in the real world of contemporary earth find in it—a fantasy land that really exists—a place where a meaningful life is possible. “In Fillory things mattered in a way they didn’t in this world,” Quentin muses in the opening pages of the trilogy, and at the beginning of The Magician’s Land, Quentin’s friend Elliot, now the High King of Fillory, similarly thinks: “Fuck love, fuck marriage, fuck children, fuck fucking itself: this was his romance, this fantasy land at whose helm he sat [….] It was all he needed. It was all he would ever need.” Indeed, Eliot’s transformation over the course of the series is one of the key indices of the power of the purpose afforded by fantasy: beginning the series as one of the most “staggeringly affected” people Quentin has ever known, he is transformed by what he finds in Fillory. As Eliot thinks at one point in The Magicians’ Land, he “had struggled before he found Fillory, he knew that: he drank too much, he found clever ways to be nasty to people, he never seemed to have an emotion that wasn’t ironic or chemically generated. He’d changed in Fillory.”
In a literal sense, the plot of each of the three novels involves saving Fillory. But at a deeper level, Grossman has structured the series so that the characters aren’t really just saving Fillory. They’re saving the kind of life Fillory makes possible, which is a life filled with meaning and purpose, which is precisely the life of the character in the fantasy novel As Quentin thinks in The Magician King, “He didn’t know what he would do if magic went away […] What you felt and thought, all the longing and desire in your heart and mind, would count for nothing. With magic you could make those feelings real.” Quentin doesn’t want magic itself — what he wants more than anything is a magical life. And it is here that the depth of Grossman’s point emerges.
For by the end of The Magician’s Land and the series as a whole, Grossman has severed the neat link between the fantasy world and the discovery of purpose. Both of the first two novels in the series ended with the recognition that while a fantasy world might seem to charge one’s life with purpose, in fact this was only illusory. Upon first arriving in Fillory in The Magicians, Quentin is, surprisingly, unsatisfied. His girlfriend Alice diagnoses the real problem: “Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better decide to enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.” In other words, the insistence on finding meaning only in some fantastic, magical world could be pathological — one has to find a way to make whatever world one is in meaningful and happy, whether that is Fillory or Earth. Similarly, when Quentin is expelled from Fillory at the end of The Magician King, it’s a peculiar sort of victory: “Somehow, even though he’d lost everything, he felt more like a king now that he ever did when he was one […] he felt real.”
Without giving away the end of The Magician’s Land, a key element of Quentin’s spell—the one that creates a new fantasy world accessible from the mundane world of Brooklyn—turns out to be a feeling: “This is how you felt when you were eight years old, and you opened one of the Fillory books for the first time, and you felt awe and joy and hope and longing all at once. You felt them very strongly, Quentin. You dreamed of Fillory then, with a power and innocence that not many people ever experience.” Thus, we come to understand the real link between fantasy and purpose. In order to create a new world, to write a new story, and to find a purpose—three actions that are ultimately the same—Quentin needs the innocent awe and hope and wonder that led him to enjoy the Fillory novels as a child. Indeed, these are just the feelings that make us read and write fantasy fiction in the first place.
Patrick Fessenbecker is a professor in the Program for Cultures, Civilizations, and Ideas at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He completed his Ph.D. in English at Johns Hopkins University in 2014, and is currently working on “Novels and Ideas,” a book manuscript based on his dissertation. His essays have appeared in New Literary History, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Studies in English Literature, and he has written reviews for Review 19, Modern Language Notes, and The Journal of Literary Theory.