The Magician’s Land

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Beginning to read a trilogy with the third book doesn’t sound like a good idea, but that’s what I recently (and accidentally) did. The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman, is a fantasy, and rather well done. It doesn’t have a lot of new ideas, but recycles some old ones well, and is fairly imaginative.
The thing about it that got me, though, is that it’s largely based on C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, which I have always loved. It has some Harry Potter thrown in (a school of magic), but that’s less interesting for me. The idea of a magical world one can visit and come back from certainly fascinated me as a child and later. I loved the Oz books too, but they don’t resonate for me as they once did. I suspect that idea is still an attractive one for many children.
If the plot and dialogue in this novel aren’t up to the minute, they’re still pretty hip and entertaining. But what really made me sit up and take notice was an exploration of the underside of the Narnia idea.
The magic world is called Fillory, and has two rams as its gods. Four English children who have been more or less abandoned by their parents and foisted on an aunt (or some similar sort of relative) who has little time or attention for them, are drawn into the magic world, where they become kings and queens, and then return to our world to find only five minutes or so have passed. This happens during the First World War. So far so similar. Rams instead of a lion, WWI instead of WWII. No great difference.
One great difference does emerge, though. The oldest of the children (about 12, maybe a year or two older) begins to be frozen out. He doesn’t get summoned to the magic world as often as the others, which he bitterly resents, because he doesn’t feel there’s anything for him in England. He more or less forces his way into the world, gives himself to its gods, and is turned into a monster for his pains, or so I gather. No doubt there’s more about this in the preceding two novels. One character (I think one of the two gods) comments that he sacrificed his humanity to stay in Fillory. That’s the Peter Pan theme, and there are certainly people who want to remain in childhood. I’m one, and pursuing that desire was clearly not a good choice. It may be far worse for others than it was for me.
The author, in the voice of one of his characters, reflects that maybe Lewis’s message to children to face everything with courage and honor isn’t the best possible advice for adulthood. That’s an interesting point, which hadn’t occurred to me. Much as I love the worldview of the Narnia series, I hadn’t considered Aslan (the god of Narnia) playing favorites, and that is what seems to happen in much of life, adult or childhood. Lewis implies, like most storytellers, that behaving well will bring a happy ending. Not always true in this world, and few of us know about any others. I still think Lewis’s advice is generally good, but Grossman’s novel shows Narnia’s goodness as being a bit superficial. Not as superficial as some–Lewis wasn’t a particularly superficial man–but it lacks the seeming realism of a world where Good DOESN’T always win.
I happen to believe there are higher worlds, and possibly these more closely resemble Narnia, though I suspect they are also a great deal more complex. Narnia isn’t a bad conception, but it may be slightly over-optimistic, which is why it’s still seen as a children’s series. Lewis brings some fairly complex ideas into the books, but can’t deal with them in great depth. He has to walk something of a line to do as much as he does.
One great difference in Grossman’s novel is that other children are later drawn into the world that have no connection with the original children, except that some of them have read some of the books written about the children and the world by a man the children run into in England, to whom they tell their stories. It is one of these children, now grown up, who saves the magic world.
Grossman’s novel is NOT for children. And it does still manage to have a happy ending in a fairly traditional way. The hero grows up, finds his love, saves the world. The magical world, that is. Not bad, but not a masterwork either. Despite any of its flaws, Lewis’s series, in my opinion, is more attractive, if only because it doesn’t try to be hip. It does have a sense of fairness that doesn’t seem justified by what we seem to see in the world around us. Oversimplified it probably is, but I’m not so sure that Lewis’s vision was that wrong. The series is one I hope to read to my grandchildren, if Narnia hasn’t already been spoiled for them by the movie version. I hope it hasn’t.

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