Reviews of Lev Grossman’s new novel The Magicians have touted it as a version of Harry Potter that adults can read without embarrassment (lesson: many book reviewers must keep sad company if most of the adults they know are indeed ashamed to be caught reading Harry Potter). Most of the novel may occur at a place called Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy and may contain playful references to “welters,” a magical game played by teams of students—but don’t be fooled: this is no romp through Hogwarts. The bitter, disappointed heart of the novel lies in Narnia—or, as it’s called here, Fillory. For those of us who, like The Magicians’ protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, always dreamed of finding that one closet whose back wall would disappear and usher us into Narnia, Grossman’s novel is agonizing: I can honestly say that it’s one of the most painful books I’ve ever read. And that’s a compliment—mostly.
When we first meet Quentin, he’s a high-achieving seventeen-year-old in Brooklyn, on his way to a Princeton interview. Though successful in academics, Quentin is troubled by ennui, and whenever he wants to retreat from his everyday life, he mentally escapes to Fillory, the magical land featured in a series of novels by British writer “Christopher Plover.” In the Fillory books, the five Chatwin children travel to Fillory to rescue the talking animals who live there from a series of villains, including the Watcherwoman, who traps “all of Fillory at five o’clock on a particularly dreary, drizzly afternoon in late September.” Sound familiar?
Grossman pokes some affectionate fun at the parts of the Narnia series that can come across as twee, but he has clearly felt the Narnia-longing himself:
“But there was a more seductive, more dangerous truth to Fillory that Quentin couldn’t let go of. It was almost like the Fillory books—especially the first one, The World in the Walls—were about reading itself. When the oldest Chatwin, melancholy Martin, opens the cabinet of the grandfather clock that stands in a dark, narrow back hallway in his aunt’s house and slips through into Fillory . . . it’s like he’s opening the covers of a book, but a book that did what books always promised to do and never actually quite did: get you out, really out, of where you were and into something better.”
“In Fillory,” Quentin muses, “things mattered in a way they didn’t in this world.” And with that sentence, Grossman earns the right to critique Narnia all he wishes—because he gets it. He really does. He’s no Philip Pullman, derisive of Narnia simply because he hates the Christian belief underlying it. Grossman may not embrace Christian belief, but he understands that the longing for Fillory/Narnia is, in essence, a spiritual longing.
Quentin hopes, when he first walks through a hedge onto the campus of Brakebills (which happens to be in upstate New York), that things in life will start mattering, that the real existence of magic will grant significance to everything. The Brakebills brand of magic turns out to be rather quotidian, however: it involves hard work and monotonous practice. It can be extremely unpredictable and dangerous, too, as we learn fairly early in the novel. However, the possibility of great power and great danger doesn’t automatically grant the kind of significance Quentin is looking for (in fact, U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” could be the theme song for The Magicians). When young magicians graduate from Brakebills, they do many of the things that gifted college graduates often find themselves doing: drinking, sleeping around, and wondering if they have any purpose in life.
Only after extreme disillusionment does Quentin begin to wonder whether the lack of meaning in his life may be an internal rather than an external problem. It’s not the world around him that’s empty—it’s himself.
It’s difficult to move from this epiphany to a satisfying conclusion, however, and this is where The Magicians falls short. I’m not demanding some sort of religious conversion on Quentin’s part, but the novel ends with a rather blatant sequel-baiting note that also seems to contradict the rules of the world that Grossman has created.
The Magicians begins with an epigraph from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the magician Prospero’s famous lines in which he finally forswears magic:
“I’ll break my staff
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.”
The magician Prospero here resigns magic, but, more importantly, resigns his habit of using magic to control other people and to make himself invulnerable. It’s a possibility Quentin considers, too, but ultimately rejects, though we’re not quite sure why. Quentin doesn’t need to choose the same fate as Prospero at the end of The Magicians, but if he’s going to choose otherwise, we need to understand that decision. As it is, the end of the novel sounds a fairly hollow note of, “Well, at least Quentin’s still got his buddies. Yay for friendship!”
Most of The Magicians is made of finer stuff than this, however. There are certainly hints in the novel that Grossman may be as disillusioned with God as Quentin becomes with Fillory, but he asks honest questions. What is the purpose of Narnia for those lucky enough to find their way in? Quentin initially believes that being part of a grander story and possibly rescuing some kindly creatures will make his life more meaningful. But there’s more to Narnia than that, as Grossman suggests. Narnia can do nothing for those unwilling to confront the emptiness within themselves. At the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan tells Lucy and Edmund that the whole reason they were brought to Narnia was so that they may come to recognize Him, by “another name,” in their own world. The Magicians follows the excruciating trajectory of those who cannot find—or do not want to recognize—Aslan in our own world.