If you have any familiarity with The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman, you know the books seem to thrive on anticlimax and following established generic tropes only to mercilessly flip them on their head and not fulfill the reader’s expectations.
Helplessly ensconced inside binary oppositions, I had a deep love/hate relationship with this entire fantasy series all the way through (which is probably what the author wanted).
A typical reading session went something like this:
This is fantasy literature! I should love every moment of this book!
I really hate reading about Quentin, the precocious, selfish, egocentric twerp who probably took my place at Princeton once upon a time.
But I really, really love these wintery book covers!
Being told a sly fantastic tale by an affluent kid cussing and loosening his prep-school tie while waiting for someone to bring him a smokey glass of scotch makes it nearly impossible to read any page and become fully immersed in this wry, densely imbricated postmodern yarn.
Grossman is conducting an earnest experiment with style! Keep reading!
And so on and so forth, right?
Well after finishing the great finale to the series, The Magician’s Land, I’ve been going back and giving these texts a second chance. Kind of like what happens in the novels themselves.
So, here are 9 times that The Magicians trilogy was unexpectedly awesome and fulfilling even though Grossman was for most of the series tormenting me with anticlimax after anticlimax after anticlimax. (There are spoilers, you have been warned.)
1 The First Time Julia Cast a Magic Spell
I wanted more magic in this series and more magic things happening.
While technically there was plenty of magic, we are not witness to the usual pyrotechnics that generally occur alongside anyone gifted enough to be using sorcerery.
The trade off is that we get to see just how difficult it is to cast a spell.
[quote]It was two more hours before she got all the way through it for the first time. The words were right, and the pitch, and the rhythm. The hand positions were still a joke, but she was onto something. This was not fuck-all. When she stopped, her fingers left trails in the air. It was like a hallucination, the kind of optical effect you’d get from botched laser surgery, or maybe from staying up all night two nights in a row. She waved her hand and it left streaks of color across her vision: red from her thumb, yellow, green, blue, and then purple from her pinky.[/quote]
This is a thrilling moment in the Magician King when Julia, who essentially didn’t make the cut to get into Brakebills is able to throw spells, creating genuine excitement in the novel. “It was magic! Real magic! And she was doing it!”
2 The Journey to Brakebills South
I really enjoyed this departure from walking, riding a gryphon, or traveling through some magical portal to get to the next destination.
After Quentin and the other Fourth and Fifth years are transformed into geese, they assemble in the “Brakebills flying V” and head to Antarctica, the location of Brakebills South.
Along the way we are privy to some of his goose-thoughts where his new animality predominates and Quentin’s humanity recedes to the background.
[quote]He had no name anymore. He barely had any individual identity, and he didn’t want one. What good were such human artifacts? He was an animal. His job was to turn bugs and plants into muscle and fat and feathers and flight and miles logged. He served only his flock-fellows and the wind and the laws of Darwin. And he served whatever force sent him gliding along the invisible magnetic rail, always southward, down the rough, stony coast of Peru, spiny Andes on his port, the sprawling blue Pacific on his starboard. He had never been happier.[/quote]
3 When Quentin Turns Into a Goose
I thought this was going to be some tepid initiation prank when Professor Van der Weghe leads a small group of Fourth Years and a few Fifth Years up to the roof and makes everyone drops their pajamas, reducing them to a pathetic shivering mob and smearing white chalky paste on each forehead and both shoulders for good measure.
Of course I was surprised when they all changed into geese.
But I was also surprised there were no references to Ovid or Dante in this passage (two poets who concerned themselves with the physical change of humans into just about everything…Dante even boasts he’s outdone Ovid in the Inferno), but it’s entertaining nonetheless:
[quote]“Instantly a huge soft weight pressed down on Quentin, settling on his shoulders, bending him forward. He crouched down, straining against it. He tried to fight it, to lift it. It was crushing him! He bit back panic. It flashed through his brain—the Beast was back!—but this was different. As he doubled over he felt his knees folding up into his belly, merging with it. Why wasn’t Professor Van der Weghe helping them? Quentin’s neck was stretching and stretching out and forward, out of his control. It was a grotesque and horrible dream. He wanted to vomit but couldn’t. His toes were melting and flowing together, his fingers were elongated enormously and spreading out, and something soft and warm was bursting out of his arms and chest, covering him completely. His lips pouted grotesquely and hardened.”[/quote]
After a few moments he realizes it’s not cold anymore and decides to look around, that’s when we find out what has happened: “He looked at Alice and Alice looked back at him. But it wasn’t Alice anymore. She had become a large gray goose, and so had he.”
“Honk!” he yelled. “Honk honk honk honk honk honk honk honk honk!”
4 When Quentin & Alice Turn Into Foxes and…Yea
After turning into a goose, I kind of thought this episode might be redundant or that it might turn into a moment where the author attacked his own work and made the fox boring and mundane.
I was wrong.
Quentin qua fox was one of the highlights not only of The Magicians, but, I think, of the entire series.
“Being an Arctic fox turned out to be a hell of a lot of fun. As soon as the change was in effect Quentin shot out across the snowpack on his four twinkling paws. His little fox body was so fast and light, and his eyes were so close to the ground that it was like flying a high-performance jet at low altitude.”
As so often happens in the affairs of humans, the pleasure of play turns to the pleasure of love, giving way to the famous fox scene. “The snow burned underneath them. It glowed hot like a bed of coals. They were on fire, and they let the fire consume them.”
5 When Penny Got his Hands Back & They Were Magic and Golden
We all remember when Penny lost his hands during the terrible battle with Martin “The Beast” Chatwin (no, that was not his nick name at Eton for scoring a lot in Rugby).
But it was great to see that by The Magician’s Land he was able to start a cult and try to steal that thing.
6 When Quentin Visits Hell Which is High School Gym Class
This probably really is what Hell is, if there is such a thing as Hell, which there certainly might be.
For my own purposes, I imagine Hell is a place where we must watch every single second of our entire lives for all of eternity, just like a reality TV show.
One of my favorite parts of any reading experience is a journey to the underworld (a tradition that goes all the way back to Homer’s Odyssey). So it was cool to see what Grossman did with Fillory’s version of the underworld in The Magician King.
7 When We Learn the Creation Myth of Fillory and How Ember and Umber were Born
I was endlessly fascinated with the gods of Fillory, Ember and Umber, and was deeply saddened by their fate at the end of the series.
I feel like there was a great, looming backstory that could have existed centering on their commentary about the Chatswin children and the races and talking animals in Fillory.
Maybe when Grossman has the time, he will sit down and pen a sly and clever novella containing a discourse between the two rams.
8 When We Finally Get to See Narnia I Mean Fillory
[quote]“Ladies and gentlemen,” Penny said, gravely and grandly, “we are all going to Fillory.”[/quote]
(For those of you who are curious, Narnia is also a bathroom in the Bird and Baby, a pub where C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein and the other Inklings used to meet to write, drink ale, talk philosophy, and complain about their students. I guess there could be magic in here if you are into that kind of thing.)
Since I lean more towards the fantasy part of this series and less toward the deflating irony, I wanted to see what Fillory would look and feel like. I imagine for a lot of people, even though it was deflated, seeing Grossman’s version of Narnia was nevertheless exciting.
9 The Filloryocalypse
Or the Fillorocalypse maybe. Ok I’m sticking with the Filloryocalypse.
I knew when Grossman started making allusions to his admiration for C. S. Lewis’s ability to not only build worlds, but to also tear them down that Fillory was going to be destroyed in The Magician’s Land.
I just didn’t know how it was going to go down.
Or how amazingly awesome amazing it was going to be.
Everything starts fighting and killing everything else and you get to see some legendary monsters settle scores that have probably been going on for hundreds of thousands of years.
So, if you enjoy the complete and utter destruction of the world as much as I do, this was one of the greatest moments of the entire Magicians trilogy.
Bonus! Entering The Neitherlands
Greatest. Word. Ever.
Whenever I say the Neitherlands, I always have to say that.
Seriously. It’s one of my favorite words ever invented, probably because there are deep echoes of Derrida’s deconstruction lurking within this word.
Then there’s the journey to Fillory itself.
You don’t go straight to Fillory. There are detours (something deconstruction and postmodernism have had much to say about).
First you must get a button, like from Highbound the rabbit captain of a ship that sails in a desart. The button takes you to an “in-between netherworld, an interdimensional layover,” known as the Nietherlands—because “it is neither here nor there.”
The button drops you into a cold fountain, but once you swim to the top, then you behold the Nietherlands in all its Italian glory: “They were in the center of a still, hushed, empty city square, treading water in the round pool of a fountain. It was absolutely silent: no wind, no birds, no insects. Broad paving stones stretched away in all directions, clean and bare as if they’d just been swept. On all four sides of the square stood a row of stone buildings. They gave off an impression of indescribable age—they weren’t decrepit, but they’d been lived in. They looked vaguely Italianate; they could have been in Rome, or Venice. But they weren’t.”
What’s even cooler?
Here, I’ll let Penny tell you: “They’re full of books. Whatever they look like on the outside, on the inside every one of these buildings is really a library.”
More Magic than Irony
In creating this selection of magical moments in the Magicians trilogy, there were numerous entries that I had to set aside but which could have easily been included.
This series was billed as something that “deconstructed” fantasy, probed its genric blind spots and tropes, and upended them.
However in retrospect, there were plenty of moments where there was magic, excitement, and moments where my disbelief didn’t have to be willfully suspended.