The portals into the lands of childhood are well established: wardrobes, mirrors, rabbit holes, mysterious letters. Known, too, are the obvious pitfalls: evil sorcerers or witches, malicious and capricious monarchs, fantastic and fearsome beasts. These lands have rules; protocols apply to the formula. Like cooks plugging ingredients into a recipe, many authors have created their own variations from this mold. Just as any home cook can follow a recipe, any author can step into a trend. The difference between the creation of a pallid copy and genius lies in the understanding of the fundamentals of the craft and in the creator’s ability to deconstruct and completely recreate the mold.
I’ll admit to some trepidation when Lev Grossman’s The Magicians was first released in hardcover. The comparisons to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter intrigued me, yes, but they were also cause for concern. In the hands of a less inventive author, the basic premise of a troubled teenage genius finding his way to a magician’s college could have resulted in an uninspired journey to an ersatz Hogwarts. However, The Magicians instead demonstrates the alchemy produced when a master builds upon an idea. Just as a Michelin-starred chef may deconstruct and rebuild a sophisticated fantasy from a concept as humble as mac-n-cheese, so Grossman has taken the nursery fantasy world to a darker, richer, and far more sophisticated dimension.
Lev Grossman appears to have recognized the inevitable linkage in the popular mind of his collegiate sorcerer, Quentin Coldwater, with Rowling’s boy wizard. Rather than attempt to obscure the connection or to blink coyly away, Grossman inserts several sly nods to Rowling’s world, and indeed comes right out and makes the comparison himself, knowing perhaps where the judgment of the discerning reader will lie.
A chill settled over the group, where they lay on the sun-warm turf. Even Quentin knew that using magic to alter one’s physical appearance never ended well. In the world of magical theory it was a dead spot: something about the inextricable, recursive connection between your face and who you were – your soul, for lack of a better word – made it hellishly difficult and fatally unpredictable. When Quentin had first gotten to Brakebills, he’d wondered why everybody didn’t just make themselves ridiculously good-looking. He’d looked at the kids with an obviously flawed feature – like Gretchen with her leg, or Eliot with his twisted jaw – and wondered why they didn’t get somebody to fix them up, like Hermione with her teeth in Harry Potter. But in reality it always ended in disaster.
If Rowling’s world is literary comfort food, Grossman serves up his version of adolescent fantasy piquantly spiced, truffled, and accompanied by a fine, astringently dry, wine. Brakebills College is no Hogwarts. No wise headmaster exhorts the students toward a greater nobility. Instead, upon graduation, the world weary dean passes bottles of whiskey around the circle of graduates and delivers his theory of the role of magicians.
“…I think you’re magicians because you’re unhappy. A magician is strong because he feels pain. He feels the difference between what the world is and what he would make of it. Or what did you think that stuff in your chest was? A magician is strong because he hurts more than others. His wound is his strength.” Indeed, at Brakebills, we see all of the coping mechanisms of the anguished teen: heavy drinking, rampant, and often indiscriminate sex, vicious and sometimes dangerous practical jokes. These magicians are not wide-eyed with the wonder of their powers; they are jaded, angst-ridden, and terrified of the void that lies beyond the bounds of the college. They are young adults.
One of the rules of fantasy is that magic does not solve all problems. This rule is reiterated until the reader wants to scream “I get it; I get it; magicians have problems, too!” Then, classically in fantasy, the rule is broken as some deeper magic emerges, deus ex machina, and winds the insoluble into a tidy ending.
Lev Grossman refuses to stoop to conformity. He does not tell us the rule. He shows us, with stark lines, that reality is inescapable even for those who can bend it to their will. “That’s exactly the problem, Q. You don’t have to do anything. This is what you don’t understand! You don’t know any older magicians except our professors. It’s a wasteland out there. Out here. 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.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” goes the axiom. The appeal of magical lands lies in their ability to sweep us away from the terrifying hollowness of mundane life. “All of it just confirmed his belief that his real life, the life he should be living, had been mislaid through some clerical error by the cosmic bureaucracy. This couldn’t be it. It had been diverted somewhere else, to somebody else, and he’d been issued this shitty substitute faux life instead.” At the end of high school, Quentin “a solid member of the middle class” with a “GPA…higher than most people even realize it is possible for a GPA to be,” is unhappy. “He had painstakingly assembled all the ingredients of happiness…But happiness, like a disobedient spirit, refused to come.”
Quentin takes solace, even at the threshold of adulthood, in a series of children’s novels. “Christopher Plover’s Fillory and Further is a series of five novels published in England in the 1930’s. They describe the adventures of the five Chatwin children in a magical land that they discover while on holiday in the countryside with their eccentric aunt and uncle.” Fillory is Narnia. In each book, the children “find their way into the secret world of Fillory, where they have adventures and explore magical lands and defend the gentle creatures who live there against the forces that menace them.” As he does with the Brakebill/Hogwarts comparison, Grossman leads us along a familiar path through Fillory. We know this land: instead of a lion, two giant rams guard Fillory; instead of a witch who freezes people, “the strangest and most persistent of those enemies is a veiled figure known only as the Watcherwoman whose horological enchantments threaten to stall time itself…” We know this place, the rule established in Fillory match Lewis’s rules for Narnia. Time operates in leaps and bounds. Children outgrow Fillory and cannot return.
And, “in Fillory things mattered in a way they didn’t in this world.” Children’s fantasies are not written for the well adjusted; they appeal to the kids who realize the futility of exercises such as homework, piano practice, and running from one padded square to the next after hitting a white sphere with a stick.
There is a reason that you won’t generally find the homecoming king and queen at a sci-fi convention, or lined up in costume at midnight for the release party of the next installment in a favored series. Fantasy is created for those who long for a world with a point beyond the conventional markers of success.
We know this place – except that we don’t. Grossman’s seductively familiar path leads to unknown territory. Fillory is Narnia – except when it isn’t. Grossman does drop clues along the way that point to the basic fallacy inherent to the dream of magic lands: whether hanging out at Starbucks or cavorting with satyrs, humans are still human and not meant to be satisfied. The hunger for something more, something unfulfilled haunts us regardless of status, powers, or location. “But there was a more seductive, more dangerous truth to Fillory that Quentin couldn’t let go of.”
The seductive, dangerous truth to Fillory peeks through the cracks of the novel as Quentin immerses himself in the fantasy of college-life, only to confront the emptiness facing him at graduation. Once Quentin finds himself in Fillory, he is faced with the danger of fulfilled desires. Grossman plays with the rules and traditions of fantasy; like a cat eviscerating a mouse, he turns the norms of fantasy inside out, exposing the sharp points and decaying underside of our dream worlds. What happens when we are given the powers to access our hearts’ desire? What do we become?
As a child, I would press my hands against the glass of my bedroom mirror or walk into the row of coats lining my parents’ closet, hoping to vanish from the tail-chasing circle of every-day life into Wonderland or Narnia. I held the theory that if only I believed hard enough, I could step into my rightful place in one of these magic lands, away from this person trapped in the same petty, pointless life as every other person. But I was always careful never to believe completely. Complete belief would break the spell: either it wouldn’t work, and I would have to stop believing entirely, or it would work, and I would be forced to face the reality of my fantasy worlds. It was far safer to wander through the books and pretend. In The Magicians Lev Grossman breaks the safety of the book and forces us to walk through the wardrobe, to face the reality of our dreams. Be careful what you wish for; Lev Grossman will make you grow up. Here, have a nice glass of wine with your fantasy; it's full-bodied with a bit of a bite.