Living with Magic: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Image What would Harry Potter have been like if it had been packed with self-conscious allusions to The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia and Alice in Wonderland? If ‘magic’ and its science had been explored, not at high school level, but in the considerably more dangerous and research-intensive corridors of college, complete with flying hormones and long-term relationships both—can you imagine it then?

Well, if you can’t, there’s someone who’s done it for you. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is a fantasy fanboy’s homage to the tradition his own work hails from and seeks to be a part of. Grossman takes the traditional elements: the quest, the imaginary world, the ragtag bunch of fellows, adds the boarding school flavours of Rowling, and creates a thoroughly believeable sub-world of magic, intrigue and terror.

Quentin Coldwater, along with his friends James and Julia, is on his way to a Princeton interview when his life abruptly changes course from the gifted-and-talented track he had seen it following. Not only is his interviewer found dead, but Quentin receives a mysterious book, the unfinished last in a series about a land called Fillory that he has loved since he was a child. Unable to contain his curiosity, Quentin flips the book open during his walk home and a piece of paper floats out. For some reason, he decides to chase the paper and suddenly, inexplicably, magically finds himself in a compound in upstate New York, staring at the edifice of a building that turns out to be Brakebills Magic Academy.

You know the drill: Quentin gets into this private college, Quentin cannot believe magic exists, Quentin meets a bunch of oddball professors and students, Quentin starts to feel more at home in Brakebills than he ever did with his distant parents. Grossman introduces his own changes to the set formula though, the biggest, perhaps, being the fact that he condenses Quentin’s entire Brakebills tenure (a four year period) into one book and even has room left over for a chronicle of what he and his friends do post-college.

What did I like about this book? I loved its references, its teasing of magical theory that was absent in (nor, indeed, the main focus of) Harry Potter. But what I found most compelling was Quentin himself—how Grossman managed to make him evolve through the course of the book, capturing the change imparted by college, something that comes over most of us. The boy who starts out as idealistic and eager to impress gradually becomes a cynical, jaded figure, one for whom magic is not ‘foolish wand waving’, but the result of long, laborious hours of research and practice.  Magic, Quentin realizes, is bloody hard.

But what Grossman really seems to be interrogating is the ‘purpose’ of magic, especially in a world where a) there doesn’t seem to be any ‘dark lord’ or identifiable force of evil and b) the magicians’ powers are hidden from the knowledge of other, ordinary people. It’s Harry Potter without the politics and Dark Lords, without the societal rot. So with no evil to fight, what do all these brilliant magicians do? Quentin reflects on this on the eve of graduation:

It was not considered the thing to look panicked or even especially concerned about graduation, but everything about the world after Brakebills felt dangerously vague and underthought to Quentin… What was he going to do? I mean, what exactly?…This wasn’t Fillory, where there was some magical war to be fought. There was no Watcherwoman to be rooted out, no great evil to be vanquished, and without that everything seemed so mundane and petty-ante. No one would come right out and say it, but the worldwide magical ecology was suffering from a serious imbalance: too many magicians, not enough monsters.

Without any ‘great evil’ to fight and the world at their fingertips, the young magicians collapse into puddles of drunkenness, debauchery and general lassitude. These kids, once the best and brightest from their school, do nothing after college. Until a Quest rouses them and they embark upon it, glad to have ‘meaning’ reinstated in their lives. Of course, none of them find exactly what they expected, as might, of course, be expected.

The Magicians is not exactly an easy read. It took me a while to get through it, but when I had closed the covers it was with a feeling of having taken a long, leisurely stroll through a museum full of fascinating ideas. Grossman subtly underlines the many assumptions readers bring to fantasy fiction and shows why they exist. He’s right—without ‘evil’, where does magic go? What do you do with your life if you’ve achieved everything you ever wanted by 22 and no longer have to work for a living? Doesn’t it make life a ‘little too perfect’? Dean Fogg, the ‘Dumbledore’ of this universe (only middle-aged and a lot less paternal) says to the graduating students:

‘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. …

‘ ..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. ..Language gets tangled up with the world it describes…

 ‘Tell me this: can a man who can cast a spell ever really grow up?’

And that’s the question you’re left with at the end of the book. Has Quentin really grown up? Have his friends? And, most worrisome of all, do we, the readers, trapped in our humdrum depressingly ‘real’ world, really want magic in our lives?

Think about it.

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Growing up Potter: Becoming Ron

  In my early adolescence (think 13), I spent many hours doing stranger and stranger ‘personality’ tests in an attempt to discover myself. I would copy paste the results on a Microsoft Word document and pore over them later, analyzing every word in those descriptions (probably written by girls only a little older than me) and convincing myself that these computer-algorithm-based assumptions told the truth about me.

 It was, as I said, a phase.

 Of course, I did tweak my results at times, especially when it came to those ‘Which Harry Potter house would you be in?’ or ‘which character are you?’ tests. I always worked it so that I got Gryffindor (I was such a populist) and more often than not, aimed to be classified a ‘Harry Potter’ in the ‘character’ tests. When I was a little more honest with my answers, as I grew older, I was told I should be in Slytherin or Ravenclaw, and that I was Ginny Weasley. The last, I think, was chiefly because I answered with absolute adoration when asked how much I liked Harry himself, admitting that I wanted to marry him.

 And then, at the age of twenty three going on twenty four, I took a mandated MBTI test. And was told I now had the same personality initials as … Ron Weasley.

Image Yes, this was a surprise. No, I had never seen myself as Ron, Ron—the least conventionally ‘academic’ of the trio, the most traditional in terms of blood status, the most prone to being used for random comic relief. I am not a Ron, I thought. I don’t like to think of myself as a side-kick, a second-fiddle. I am not perennially insecure about my own abilities, needing a boost before every test. I am not the ‘funny’ one in my group.

 The shock and, dare I name it, outrage that gripped me for a couple of seconds after getting the result is telling, I think. It reveals a lot about my inherent snobbishness (seriously, I might have preferred the rich and aristocratic Draco Malfoy, budding Hitler Youth though he is), but it also says something about Ron. If someone who’s read the books back to front countless times can’t recall anything especially emulation-worthy about him in a second of being confronted by his name, whither the appeal of this character?

 I sat back, and I thought about it, and I realized what my problem with Ron was.

 Through books 1 to 4, Ron is undoubtedly Harry’s best friend. He is, in many ways, Harry’s guide to the wizarding world, volunteering as ‘second’ in a planned midnight duel with Draco, sacrificing himself in a game of chess to enable his friends to move forward, providing Harry a family that welcomes and takes him to their hearts. It is a matter of course that these two ‘partner off’ in most lessons, including reading each other’s tea leaves in that memorable first Divination class in Prisoner of Azkaban. Harry does not seem to share the same sort of unquestioned, deep-seated bond with Hermione; in Azkaban, there is a period of time when Hermione’s ‘interference’ results in a fight within the group, with Ron and Harry refusing to speak to her. When compared to the rift that Ron’s jealousy creates within the Trio in Goblet of Fire, however, and the amount of emotional energy Harry expends in ‘hating’ Ron, the break with Hermione seems inconsequential. Rowling devotes large portions of her text to how angry and betrayed Harry feels at Ron’s seeming lack of interest in his fate.

 I would argue this is not only because of Harry’s ‘dark’ teenage angst surfacing (it comes into full throttle in Order of the Phoenix), but because the idea of Ron turning his back on his best friend is so incomprehensible as to shock Harry out of his (until now) usual emotional quietude. Harry is curious or nervous or determined, he is very rarely bitterly angry until this point in the books. Another point to note is that even before they became friends, Hermione has shown a tendency to interfere and boss over Harry and Ron; recall the ‘Midnight Duel’ chapter of Philosopher’s Stone where she waits up to waylay them in the Gryffindor Common Room as they sneak out to meet Draco. Rowling even states that ‘Harry couldn’t believe anyone could be so interfering.’

 Ron’s betrayal was necessary for his, as well as Harry’s, character development. The ever-loyal best friend was shown to have depth and a bit of a petty streak (only natural when you’re usually the underdog, even in your own family), and Harry was forced to make do without one of his usual emotional crutches and so begin his long and lonely hero’s journey. It also allowed him to bond with Hermione, who really begins to steal the limelight at this point in the series.

Image So given that the betrayal has already happened once, and Ron has walked out on Harry when needed already, why have a repetition of the same in Deathly Hallows? Aside from the improbability of Ron managing to get home and stay undercover without putting both his family and himself in grave danger (in the middle of a media campaign which paints his known best friend as Undesirable No. 1), his departure has no significant effect on the plot. He might as well have stayed, stewed, rescued Harry when needed and then destroyed the Horcrux. The information he brings back, that Voldemort’s name is now Taboo, is relayed too late to be of any use.

 This, really, is why I don’t have great fondness for Ron, or the way Rowling treats him in the latter half of the series. The staunchly loyal strategist with a marked flair for improvisation (he was the one who bashed the troll with its own club in the infamous bathroom scene in Philosopher’s Stone) becomes a young man who needs a book to charm the supposed love of his life (who he’s known for six years), who chooses the comforts of home and effectively abandons his best friends and is the only one of the Trio to persist in calling Voldemort ‘You-Know-Who’ (though he is, ironically, vindicated for his nervousness). He’s even stupid and petty in matters of romance, his insecurity laid bare when Ginny lashes out at him and calls him jealous because both Harry and Hermione have ‘snogged’ people. The best Ron has done, Ginny whines, is be kissed by Auntie Muriel.

 Ron had a big moment in Book 5, when he becomes prefect and is given responsibility that even Harry does not have. Again, we are witness to his surprise and insecurity when he says that he expected Harry would get the title. Of course, it turns out that the only reason, ostensibly, Harry didn’t get the job was because Dumbledore thought he had far bigger worries. Poor Ron.

 I do  think the Horcrux-destruction in Hallows was very important and certainly called-for, given the sustained reminders we’d been getting of Ron’s insecurity and inferiority complex, but I’m not sure it was enough. I don’t deny that the movies have also played a huge role in the undermining of this character, the most memorable being the stealing of Ron’s lines in Azkaban in the Shrieking Shack. In the book, Ron, bed-held by a broken leg, screams out ‘If you kill Harry, you’ll have to kill us too!’; in the movie, Hermione, both legs sound, throws herself in front of Harry and delivers the same line. Ron is silent.

 And I’m not even going to mention the fact that in Hallows Part 2, Hermione volunteers to accompany Harry to the Forest while Ron stands around looking macho. Okay fine, I mentioned it.

 I feel sort of, sad, when I think of Ron now. I feel like I often overlook the brave little boy who faced a cold, stone-faced White Queen, not knowing what was going to happen, to help his friend. The unquestioning right-hand man who braved his worst fears and went into the Forbidden Forest, convincing himself with a glance at his Petrified friend. The friend who wasn’t too proud to come back and confess to his mistakes, not once, but twice. Instead I remember the insecure boy who runs around screaming ‘HERMIONE!’ when he really should be keeping his head cool and figuring out a way to get the hell out of that basement.

 But at the same time, I can see why I, or most people for that matter, would be Ron. Constantly beset by insecurity and doubt, measuring ourselves against other, seemingly more ‘collected’ people and feeling and responding to peer pressure in the most immature ways possible. Ron’s is a messy growing up, with ups and a hell of a lot of downs. Ron’s is, therefore, perhaps the most realistic growing up. We don’t all have Dark Lords and prophecies riding on our shoulders, but we sure as hell do have pettiness, jealousy and insecurity to contend with.

 And that’s when Ron becomes a hero.