Saturday, September 22, 2018

Writing Over the Map

The Magicians
The Magician King
The Magician's Land


Lev Grossman

The Magicians was published in 2009, and starts with the main character being admitted to magic school. Inevitably, it was gushed over as "the next Harry Potter." This comparison was even more than usually unhelpful: these books are not YA, in as much as Quentin Coldwater is roughly the same age at the start of his story as Harry and friends at the end of theirs. Brakebills is college, not high school, and Quentin graduates about halfway through the first book.

In any case, Grossman reveals the true literary antecedent of this series on page 6 of the first book:

"Christopher Plover's Fillory and Further is a series of five novels published in England in the 1930s. 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."

It's no great spoiler to say that, although Quentin at this point thinks Fillory is fiction, it turns out to be a real place. Fillory is actually one of a great (perhaps infinite) number of worlds accessible via an enormous (perhaps infinite) cityscape dotted with fountains, cognate to the "Wood Between the Worlds," described in the sixth book of the Narnia series by C. S. Lewis (The Magician's Nephew, itself perhaps the departure point for Grossman's titles). Fillory itself has a number of Narnia-like features, such as a resident deity (actually two) in animal form, a need for human monarchs (set of four, to be exact), an eastern ocean dotted with fabulous islands, et cetera.

But Fillory is far more than warmed-over Narnia pastiche, or even an updated, adult-aged version. It's a brilliantly realized imaginary realm in its own right. In fact...


Like a lot of people my age-- and, I suspect, like Grossman himself-- I read the Narnia books uncritically as a child, and loved the stories. As an adult, I find them not only morally objectionable, but nearly unreadable: I blogged about it in some detail here, and won't belabor the point now. Nevertheless, like Lord of the Rings and A Wrinkle in Time, they had become an indelible part of my psychic landscape. It was a difficult area, one I didn't like to visit but couldn't simply write off the map.

It turns out the map could be written over. By Lev Grossman.

In reading the "Magician" books for the first time, I could feel the map of Fillory fitting itself to my mental map of Narnia and obscuring, if not obliterating, it. Fillory's mountains are higher, its oceans deeper, its magic more dazzling and terrible. More importantly, Fillory is alive with the kind of emotional truth that Lewis only occasionally managed to touch. Fillory is, now and forever, more real to me than Narnia.

The "Magicians" books are not just Lewis deconstruction: there's a lot to them besides Fillory (as if that weren't enough). The story of Quentin and his friends and the land of Fillory ends up being embedded in a much larger story, of which we get only glimpses. Grossman delves into the nature and purpose of magic and the structure of the universe, which many writers simply take for granted or use as window dressing. This is thoughtful fantasy, in amongst the wonders and the terrors and the occasional downright horror.

Read these books at your peril.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

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