The Magician’s Land: Why Lev Grossman’s Trilogy is My Fillory
Sometimes a story means more than the books that hold it.
When I re-read The Magicians and The Magician King in preparation for the release of Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land, I found one paragraph in The Magician King that my eyes had overlooked — or my mind had devalued — on the first several readings.
It’s where the story drops the real reason Julia failed her Brakebills test:
The uppermost thought in her mind was, why are you all sitting here doing differential geometry and generally jumping through hoops when fundamental laws of thermodynamics and Newtonian physics are being broken left and right all around you? This shit was major. The test was the last of her priorities. It was the least interesting thing in the room. Which she still stood by as the reasonable, intelligent person’s reaction to the situation.
Lev Grossman’s Magicians books are precious to me in the same way that the Fillory books are precious to Quentin. I use the word “precious” very seriously. When I read The Magicians, I needed a story about saying goodbye to school and facing what appeared to be the anticlimax of “real life.” When I read The Magician King, I was ready for a story about people who stopped waiting for things to happen to them and started getting down to work. Now, with The Magician’s Land, the characters and I are both on the other side of 30, and we have a story about what it means to be an adult.
(Grossman has stated that he probably won’t write another Magicians book, but we all know what the next story is, or should be: the book of whether — and how — to become a parent. I already regret not being able to read that story, three years from now.)
All great literature has at its core the question of how to live. It is the only question that matters. We’ll leave the argument about whether The Magicians trilogy is “great literature” for the commenters to sort out, and focus on the important part: it does not shy away from this question. It hits it in the face, and takes the punch, simultaneously.
Each of the three Magicians books reads as a reflection upon, or a reaction to, a piece of magical lore: The Magicians is Harry Potter and the schoolroom narrative, The Magician King is the quest story and a specific response to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Magician’s Land is straight-up Dungeons & Dragons. When our party of adventurers, each with a special skill, is invited to sign up as freelancers on a fetch quest, I mentally ticked off the metaphor. When the fetch quest expands into saving a magical world — at which point we upgrade from D&D to Final Fantasy — well, there’s the surface-level plot for you.
Luckily, with Grossman’s books, the surface-level stuff is the least interesting thing in the room.
When I write that the Magicians are my Fillory, I don’t mean that I literally dream about entering the urban fantasy world that Grossman has created the way that his characters dream about traveling to Fillory, the Narnian analogue of their childhoods.
(I did fantasize about traveling to Narnia when I was a kid. I went through an entire phase in which I dressed every day as if I needed to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. I wore a cardigan, because it might be cold, and I carried the cardboard case that my Mickey Mouse watch came in, in case I needed to protect it.)
Instead, I turn to the Magicians books when I need to read about other people wrestling with the big questions of life and love and humanity. I’d never make it as a magician; I don’t know enough calculus or Old Church Slavonic. I just want to be around people who are thinking seriously about the same things I am.
It’s the same reason I re-read Anna Karenina or Little Women or Cryptonomicon. The Magicians are a bit more special to me, however, because we’re peers. We share the same references. We’ve grown up together, and are now seeing each other into full-fledged adulthood.
Quentin and I, for example, are both learning the first steps of adult relationships at the same time. (The difference between Quentin’s adolescent and adult response to the question what does it mean to love and be loved? is enough to make the entire series worth reading.) I kept Julia as my mental model the entire time I was hustling my way into a career. If there’s a question about adulthood that needs to be answered, there’s a character in the Magicians books who is trying to answer it.
The Magician’s Land takes us to the Neitherland libraries and shows us that each of us have our own story. Janet is not Poppy, and I am not Alice or Julia or Quentin even when I wish I were. The way each character answers the question of how to live so distinctly is a reminder that there are many paths, and the scene in the library, in which each character is shown the book of his or her life and advised not to look at the pages, is a reminder that in the end we can’t turn to a book as if it were a walkthrough. Not even if it is a book we truly love.
The best part of The Magician’s Land is that Grossman manages to take the hoariest of clichés — you have inside you what it takes to save the kingdom, your one true love is the first girl you meet in high school — and make them feel earned.
More than that. Grossman finds the truth behind them. The reason why they’re real, even when they’re not real.
The concept of you have inside you what it takes, for example, is something I’m only beginning to understand now that Quentin and I are both in our 30s. The latter half of that sentence, to save the kingdom, is irrelevant. It’s learning that you have inside you what it takes to be an adult. The type of learning that only comes with experience, and mistakes, and discovering that there is so much more to the world than anyone ever showed you. Discovering that there is so much more to you as well; that as an adult, you have the privilege and the responsibility to make choices and take action.
And, of course, love. Perhaps one of the reasons why the cliché always involves two lovers who initially meet in high school and build their relationship over years is because that’s an easy way to show how love requires time and growth and commitment even through obstacles, and how love can form between two imperfect people who are still learning.
Or, to quote The Magician’s Land directly:
“Here’s what I don’t get. If you were so unready, if you had all that stuff left to work out, why do you think she loved you?”
Quentin went back to mixing the smelly reagent he had been working on before.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I never did know.”
“That would be a good one to figure out.”
It’s a scene I know I’m going to read, and re-read, until I’ve figured it out too.
Julia knew, when she took her Brakebills test, that the structure of the test — and of the school itself — was the least interesting thing in the room. The structure of any fantasy book or movie where a group of plucky individuals band together to save the universe is, simultaneously, the least interesting thing about it.
And yet I wish I could see what Quentin and Alice and the rest of those plucky individuals are going to do next. But the time always comes to be gently removed from the magical kingdom; to hear the authorial voice say “well, we’ve taken you this far, it’s time for you to figure out how to become an adult on your own.”
And that’s also right, and how these stories always end, and how it should be.
But I’ll always have the books to return to, when I need them.
All photos CC BY 2.0.