Back in 2009, when I reviewed Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians for Christ and Pop Culture, I called it “one of the most painful books I have ever read.” So, naturally, I bought a copy of the sequel, The Magician King, as soon as it was released last month. The Magician King is certainly emotionally draining, though in a different way from its predecessor. Gone are most of the Harry Potter parallels of the first book, but The Magician King continues Grossman’s loving-yet-cynical engagement with the Chronicles of Narnia. If you plop jaded twenty-somethings into Narnia—or Fillory, as it’s called in Grossman’s parallel universe— they’re bound to ask questions like, “Why does Ember (the Aslan stand-in) show up only after all the hard work has been done, to kick the heroes out of Fillory?”
This question seems to be weighing particularly on our cultural consciousness right now with regard to Narnia. Last December, when I saw the movie version of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (which I didn’t have the heart to review for Christ and Pop Culture—it was that bad), the only moment that felt sincere in the whole film was Lucy’s heartbreak when Aslan sends her away from Narnia—for good—at the end. His assurance that she’ll find him by his other name in her own world? Cold comfort. Her grief is what’s real.
Similarly, anger and despair at being expelled or excluded from some idyllic world (or at least a world that’s perceived to be idyllic) are what haunt me about the characters in Grossman’s novels.
The Magician King picks up where The Magicians left off, with perpetually dissatisfied Quentin and his friends ruling as the four Kings and Queens of Fillory. Quentin, on the surface, is inhabiting the perfect world, but we’ve seen him in perfect worlds before, and we aren’t surprised that he retains his restlessness and his hope that Meaning and Significance lie just beyond the horizon. So he goes on a quest—a quest bearing no small resemblance to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (in fact, this aspect of The Magician King parallels the movie version in that the quest involves seven MacGuffins—the difference being that both Grossman and Quentin will deliberately refer to their MacGuffiny status during the novel . . . making them meta-MacGuffins?). Accompanying Quentin on board the good ship Muntjac is Julia, now one of the Queens of Fillory, but formerly Quentin’s high school classmate. As we learn in a series of flashbacks interspersed with Quentin’s present-day quest, Julia took the entrance exam to Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy but was denied admission. The standard Brakebills memory-wipe failed to work on Julia, and she becomes obsessed with the world of magic, the world she caught a glimpse of, the world that she feels should have been hers. What plunges Julia into depression is that she knows that this world is real: “it wasn’t a dream or a psychotic hallucination—but they weren’t going to let her have it. There was a place out there that was so perfect and magical that it had made even Quentin happy. . . But Julia wasn’t. She was out in the cold. Hogwarts was fully subscribed, and her eligibility had lapsed. Hagrid’s motorcycle would never rumble outside her front door. No creamy-enveloped letters would ever come flooding down her chimney.”
So Julia learns magic on her own, the hard way, trading sex for spell recipes, racking up as many levels as she can on the “hedge magic” circuit. It’s never enough, though, because she knows that she’s still cut off from the true world of magic. She mourns her expulsion from an Eden she saw for only a few hours.
In Grossman’s world, if you’re kicked out of Eden, you can either try to fight your way back to it, or you can seek out some sort of consolation in human community. Julia experiences something of the latter with an online support group called Free Trader Beowulf, whose members she eventually meets and lives with at Murs, on the coast of France. Everyone in Free Trader Beowulf is seeking the same access to magic that Julia is, but for many of them this is no mere Promethean power-grab. Even if you’ve never had much sympathy for Faust, you do feel pity for the Free Trader who reveals that he wants to call down a god to earth, not to boost his magical capabilities, but because he has to take such a high dose of Nardil (the last-ditch effort medication when other antidepressants haven’t worked) that it isn’t sustainable in the long term, and he wants the god to take him “home.” All the Free Traders have similar, if less extreme, brain chemistry: depression figures here as a kind of exile from Eden, but it’s also what binds the exiles together.
Julia only belatedly realizes that, with the Free Traders, she has finally found a satisfying substitute for Brakebills. “She came to Murs looking for magic, but she was also looking for a new home, and a new family, and she’d found them all, all three, and it was enough. She was content: she didn’t need anything else, least of all more power. Her quest had ended and she hadn’t even known it till this moment. She didn’t want to become a goddess. All she wanted was to become human, and here at Murs it had finally happened.”
And then the community at Murs is completely and totally destroyed.
If we long for the Eden we’ve lost, we seek solace in human community, but that community is so precarious: once it becomes Eden to us, Grossman suggests, some higher power takes it away. (And I feel I should mention that that’s not all that’s taken away from Julia. Rape is one of those plot points that many sensitive readers want to know about beforehand, spoilers or no, and rape by a god might belong in a special category all its own.)
You may notice that I haven’t mentioned Quentin much so far. Many reviewers have noted that Julia’s plotline in The Magician King is more compelling than Quentin’s, and I suspect that this is at least somewhat intentional on Grossman’s part: as Quentin muses at one point, “Everyone wanted to be the hero of their own story. Nobody wanted to be comic relief.”
Quentin does get to be a hero, though, in a sense, as does Julia. Heroism is nothing like what they expected. Facing yet another Eden-expulsion at the end of his quest, Quentin realizes that “this was hard in a way he hadn’t counted on. You couldn’t kill it with a sword or fix it with a spell. You couldn’t fight it. You just had to endure it, and you didn’t look good or noble or heroic doing it.”
Quentin initially thinks that a hero’s quest is to find something, as heroes have done in countless tales. Readers of The Lord of the Rings (and Quentin would be one of them) are familiar with a hero’s quest to lose something. Heroism, in The Magician King, is neither finding nor losing, but rather enduring all that the gods take away from you.
All of this makes it rather ironic when Quentin, thinking bitterly of Ember the ram god’s apparent lack of power, asks himself, “What kind of god wasn’t at the top of the food chain in His own world?” Quentin doesn’t want a god who can suffer, because it strikes him as weakness (and, in Ember’s case, this seems to be true). The world of The Magician King is devoid of a God who would who would choose to exile himself from heaven and suffer as a human. Grossman’s cosmology makes room for apotheosis, but not incarnation.
Despite all their hyper-referential snark, Grossman’s novels strike me as genuinely longing for a lost Eden. They reflect a zeitgeist in which we know we can’t build the perfect society. We know that heaven can’t be earned, only granted—but, entitlement-prone generation that we are, we feel that it ought to be granted to all of us, as our rightful inheritance. To those with this mindset, what the gods choose to give and take away seems purely random. As Grossman wrote recently in an essay about his inspiration for The Magician King, “sometimes when you open a wardrobe you get to go to Narnia. And sometimes you just get busted for snooping and sent back to London to watch the bombs fall.”