Guest Post: The Unmagical Magicians
The following is a guest post from Lisa A., who I am lucky enough to know in both real-space and on the Internet. It originally appeared on her Tumblr. Thanks to Lisa for putting words to a rumbling discontent I’d been feeling with the same book, and for allowing me to share.
I don’t often write essays about books, but The Magicians struck such a nerve that it turned out to be necessary.
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
The Magicians is a fantasy book for those who find all other fantasy books a load of do-gooder heroic codswallop. A magical academy story supposedly made more relatable by framing it through the much more “realistic” lens of literary fiction. With all the tics—the sad sack but brilliant protagonist! the condescension! the cynicism! my parents ignore me! women are an alien race who might be bangable!—that make that just as much of a genre as the fantasy it disdains. I can’t wait til our culture outgrows its inexplicable need to valorize its Holden Caulfields.
It IS an exquisite portrait of everything that’s wrong with NYC’s “elite” teenagers, consumingly success-oriented, hyper-competitive, stifled, completely jaded, any spark driven out of them by too much homework.
Brakebills, the magical college, is hyper-competitive, hyper-academic, and joyless. The school is structured to be deliberately divisive, and learning together is only done extremely guardedly, if at all. Students see their peers’ successes as a failure in their own records. The teachers all seem genuinely interesting from what glimpses we get of them, but we see very little of them and they never seem to impart any of their own experience or context into their lessons, instead sticking with rote study and drills. Magic is homework, and these jaded students learn it with the same disinterested discipline they had once applied to their AP Chemistry classes.
These students are not excited about having stumbled into the world of magic (except for Penny, who is mocked from beginning to end for his enthusiasm). There is nothing exciting or delightful about this magic. They acknowledge the magical realm with the same sense of entitled privilege a certain set of nonmagical kids feel about their crucial-but-inevitable acceptance to Harvard or Yale. With the feeling of wonderment removed, these poor sods are stuck drudging away toward some abstract academic success just as they’ve been drudging their entire lives. They’re desperate to do well at school because they have been impressed with how elite it is, not because any of them seem to be interested in the actual magic at all.
Because who would be such a NERD to actually enjoy anything, ever?
This is the way you train dark wizards, fostering competition, scorn, pride, and isolation, emphasizing the superiority of knowledge over communication, teaching mastery by rote, systematically eradicating what little compassion and empathy these wretched kids may once have possessed.
“You’re magicians because you’re unhappy. A magician is strong because he feels pain. He feels the difference between what the world is and what he would make of it… A magician is strong because he hurts more than others. His wound is his strength. Most people carry that pain around inside them their whole lives, until they kill the pain by other means, or until it kills them. But you, my friends, you found another way: a way to use the pain. To burn it as fuel, for light and warmth. You have learned to break the world that has tried to break you.”
This is Professor Fogg, dean of the school, delivering the final lesson of their time at Brakebills, teaching them that pain is the core of life and power and they should go forth and break the world with it. And in case it wasn’t clear enough that this attitude is not exactly of the Light Side, he then tattoos them with a trapped demon, marking them with it physically on their own bodies without consent. As a graduation “gift”.
The Brakebills kids don’t realize they’re being trained to be terrible…but they are. Is it any surprise that the majority of graduates are funneled into think tanks and high-powered banking? Perfect fit.
So what on earth makes this gang think they’re heroes in any way? By what right do they enter the world of Fillory feeling entitled to a hero’s role and hero’s reward? Don’t you become a hero by strong moral compass, compassion, and a calling to help? The Brakebills gang have no such qualities. This charming little speech from Quentin is their idea of heroic:
“I don’t want to sound crass, but Ember and Umber are the big shots around here, right? I mean of all those people…they’re the most powerful? And morally righteous or whatever? Let’s be clear on this for a second, I want to be sure we’re backing the right horse. Or ram. Whatever.”
This is a vivid illustration of the “everyone is the hero of his own story” delusion, except I’m not sure the storytelling is intentionally being leveraged that way.
I need this world to contain another secret wizard academy, the opposite number to Brakebills, some hippy dippy liberal arts wizarding school where they learn how to think holistically, how to communicate, how to engage their curiosities, how to share ideas and work together, how to embrace the weird stuff without self-deprecation or scorn; where they exercise their compassion and apply the context of the greater world, its history and its communities, to their work. Where they can grow not just in power but as humans. AKA what I would think of as…the Good Guys.
I did enjoy a lot of the imagery throughout, which was lyrical enough to convey aromas and breezes and quality of light. The bit where they all get transformed into canada geese (an appropriately jerky bird choice) was deeply, viscerally satisfying. And I had fun with the smattering of very specific references to NYC geography.
As an illumination of just what can go wrong when certain social values are taken to their most cynical extreme (“What are they teaching children in these schools…”) I think the book’s terrifically successful. But if we’re meant to be on board with this cynicism, somehow finding satisfaction and commonality in the meanness of this version of the world, then I’ll stay right over here with Aslan and Prof McGonagall* thanks very much.
*Yeah, McGonagall. I wouldn’t swear Dumbledore hadn’t occasionally been a guest lecturer at Brakebills.