Hands up, anyone, if you ever wished you could live in the world created by your favorite writer/s. Top on my list is Anne Shirley’s PEI of the late 1800s, despite the mosquitoes that LM Montgomery never writes about. But second would be Earthsea, Ursula LeGuin’s mysterious archipelago. The combinations of sea and magic, islands and dragons, are irresistible. I want to go there.
In The Magicians, Grossman has created two fictional worlds: one in which his characters live and hone their magical skills at something very much like college, and the second, which is Fillory, similar to Narnia. Quentin Clearwater, the hero, has read every book about Fillory, knows its boundaries and topography perfectly, but knows also that the world isn’t real. It exists only in the series of books that he has read too many times to count. It’s Quentin’s fictional world, within Grossman’s fictional world.
Still with me?
Then Quentin unexpectedly finds himself accepted into a special college in upstate New York. Like Hogwarts, Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy trains magicians in spells and the proper use of magic. It’s a typical college, with houses and dorms, cliques and passable cafeteria food. An off-campus term is spent in the Antarctic, with the final project an unaided trip to the South Pole.
Grossman doesn’t make his magical world easy to adapt to. Here’s a passage that comes after Quentin’s graduation ceremony. Prof. Fogg is speaking to Quentin and his classmates.
Sometimes I wonder if man was really meant to discover magic …. It doesn’t really make sense. It’s a little too perfect, don’t you think? If there’s a single lesson that life teaches us, it’s that wishing doesn’t make it so. Words and thoughts don’t change anything. Language and reality are kept strictly apart — reality is tough, unyielding stuff, and it doesn’t care what you think or feel or say about it. Or it shouldn’t. You deal with it, and you get on with your life.
Little children don’t know that. Magical thinking: that’s what Freud called it. Once we learn otherwise we cease to be children. The separation of word and thing is the essential fact on which our adult lives are founded.
But somewhere in the heat of magic that boundary between word and thing ruptures. It cracks, and the one flows back into the other, and the two melt together and fuse. Language gets tangled up with the world it describes.
I sometimes feel as though we’ve stumbled on a flaw in the system, don’t you? … Is it possible that magic is knowledge that would be better off forsworn? Tell me this: Can a man who can cast a spell ever really grow up?
That final question is a clue to Quentin’s challenge. Does growing up require that he put away all childish things, including magic?
Then (there’s always another “then”) Quentin discovers that Fillory is an actual world to which he can travel, and this is the start of all his problems. Like the Pevensie children in Narnia, Quentin must vanquish an evil beast that threatens to destroy the fantasy world he loves. I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I say that the Beast is someone very like Quentin himself. And, as with so many fantasy novels, the Beast is someone fighting with all its might against inexorable death.
There’s something appealing about a long sea voyage to unknown shores. Ged’s in The Farthest Shore and the children’s in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – even Frodo’s and Bilbo’s at the end of The Return of the King – the unknown destination makes it hard to imagine how anyone can start such a journey, but it’s one we’re all on.
Sorry, didn’t mean to get so gloomy. These are good books, but, like all good books, they leave the reader with plenty to think about.