An aged man is but a paltry thing
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing.
— W.B. Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium
Something has been haunting me lately and I suppose I may as well tell you about it, for all the good it will do. I’ve been reading a book about people who can do anything.
The Magicians is not a book you’ll read to your kid. Lev Grossman’s literary novel (and the sequel, The Magician King) combine two familiar themes: a secret school for magic and an enchanted world. But the story, about living with unlimited possibility, is strictly for adults. Let’s just say that things don’t go well.
Here are a couple of Amazon reviews:
Ever wonder what Harry Potter and Narnia would be like if instead of any remotely likable characters, they featured a bunch of selfish whiny alcoholic jerks? Wonder no more!
The Magicians is the best fantasy book I have ever read. Lev Grossman celebrates the classics like Lewis and Rowling while turning the genre on its head and giving it a dose of realism.
I can confidently say this is a book you’ll either love or loathe. As for me, I can’t get it out of my head.
THE GARDEN OF FORKING PATHS
The enchanted world of The Magicians is a place called Fillory. As a child, the hero/anti-hero of The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater, fell in love with the Fillory books, which tell the story of the five Chatwin children. During World War I, the Chatwins were sent to an old, country house in Cornwall where they discovered Fillory behind an upstairs grandfather clock.
Christopher Plover, who lived in the house next door to the Chatwins, wrote down their adventures, which were published in the 1930s.
The Fillory books don’t exist. Christopher Plover doesn’t exist. Which makes the world of Fillory not just a fantasy world, but a fantasy fantasy world. So powerful is its spell that people keep searching for Plover and his books on Amazon anyway.
CLOSER AND REALER
Like George R. R. Martin, who wrote Game of Thrones, Lev Grossman had the hair-brained idea of penning a fantasy novel for literate adults. Unlike Martin, who populated his story with larger-than-life heroes, Grossman opted for postmodern heroes with feet of silly putty. Which makes for a disquieting contrast between his characters and the world they inhabit. It’s a world they’re not worthy of when they stumble on it.
In Game of Thrones you lose yourself in the adventure. In The Magicians you lose yourself, period. I suppose this is the point of meta-fiction, and I suppose that is what The Magicians is. I’ve always disliked the headiness of meta-fiction. But The Magicians, by some alchemy, is not heady. It’s visceral.
Here is Quentin as he encounters the Chatwin house in Cornwall, the actual house, in present time:
Whoever lived here now didn’t use the top floor at all, and it had gone un-restored. Another piece of luck. They hadn’t even refinished the floors. The varnish had worn off them and the walls were old wallpaper with even older wallpaper showing through in places. The ceilings were low. The rooms were full of mismatched and broken furniture, under sheets. The quieter it got, the realer Fillory began to feel. It loomed in the shadows, under beds, behind the wallpaper, in the corner of his eye, just out of view.
Ten minutes from now they could be back . . . . This was the place. This was where the children played, where Martin vanished, where Jane watched, where the whole, terrible fantasy began. And there in the hallway, the back hallway, as it had been written, as the prophesy foretold, stood a grandfather clock.
I don’t want to go to Fillory. I want to go to Cornwall and find that house. I want all that possibility.
As is the fate of parents everywhere, we’ve consumed a steady diet of children’s fantasy in our house for years. Neverland. Oz. Middle Earth. Summerland. Narnia. Redwall. Harry Potter. The Warriors. The Ranger’s Apprentice. Dungeons and Dragons. To say nothing of Superman, Batman and the rest.
It does something to you, the gravitational pull of childhood.
Nick shows no signs of an appetite sated. Because he still believes in limitless possibility. He’s still a child, and the stories are real to him—they could be true.
It’s no longer possible for me to have that experience. The books I read as a child, filled with magic, are not the same when I read them now. Something shimmery is gone.
I know, like all adults, that I must learn to live with my losses. Age, the poet Donald Hall said, is a ceremony of losses. Isn’t that lovely? He really said it about old age, but close enough. Age is a ceremony of losses.
Isn’t it a great seduction of parenthood, to see, again, with the unlimited eyes of a child? I suppose it’s what drove me to The Magicians.
I keep wanting to tell Nick about Fillory, but of course I can’t. This experience is adults only, a parallel trip to all of Nick’s. The peculiar gift of The Magicians is that, while the characters, infinite in their potential, keep crashing and burning, I am somehow clapping my hands and singing. Because I am limited.
Something keeps tapping me on the shoulder.
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Image Credit: Map of Middle Earth photo by Kevan Emmott
What’s tapping your shoulder? Just Add Father is listening. (Add your thoughts by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)
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