After a bit of a summer vacation, the Big Idea is back! And to kick things off, author Lev Grossman is here with The Magicians, his new fantasy novel, which aside from starred reviews in Booklist and Library Journal, has prompted no less than George R.R. Martin (who knows from fantasy) to declare that it “is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to weak tea.” Mmmm.. Irish whiskey. But what does such praise actually mean? What about the book makes it a stiff shot of the fantastical? As it happens, Grossman can tell you exactly what it means, and does, below.
Here’s the idea: what if Narnia and Harry Potter were real.
Yeah, on the face of it this doesn’t sound like an especially big idea. It more sounds like the idea I had every day for about 10 years, between the ages of 7 and 17, before I gave up on my prospects of ever getting to Narnia. (It was all about Narnia for me, since I am massively old and Hogwarts didn’t exist yet when I was a kid.) But bear with me.
What if, as a high school senior, you discovered that there was a secret college for magic, serving only the most brilliant kids in North America? This is in the real world, our world, the one with cell phones and the Internet and Dancing with the Stars and all the rest of it. A lot of things would be different. There would be an intense, exhaustively competitive entrance examination. (But you would get in.) There would be beer. There would be sex. Actual sex, not just snogging. People would do stupid, dangerous things with their newfound powers. They would hurt each other. They would hurt themselves.
There would also be fantasy novels. As far as I can tell Harry Potter never read a fantasy novel in his life before he went to Hogwarts. But you have. You’d have expectations about how magic would work, and what the life of a magician would be like, based on the books you’d read. Except those expectations would be wrong, because real life doesn’t work like a fantasy novel.
Here’s what there wouldn’t be, if Hogwarts were really real: Voldemort. Or Sauron, or the White Witch, or any other Big Bad. Incarnations of ultimate evil are pretty rare in real life. So instead of the world being organized into good and bad, white and black, it would all be shades of grey, and nobody would know where anybody stood, including themselves. It would be a much more complicated and confusing place. With Voldemort in the picture, you know what magic is for: it’s for fighting evil. Take him out of the equation, and you get a very different kind of adventure, one that’s less about using magic to fight evil and more about just trying to figure out what the hell magic is for.
Which brings us to Narnia. It wouldn’t be called Narnia, of course, for good and sufficient reasons having to do with intellectual property law, but it would be another world, a childlike, fairy-tale world of green forests and talking animals, about which a series of charming young adult fantasy novels had been written. But this world — which in The Magicians is called Fillory — would be real, not fictional. Which begs the question, how did the novels about it get written? And what happened to the children who went to Fillory? After all, who in their right mind would send a bunch of children to intervene in a civil war in a magical foreign country, where they know nothing about the laws and the culture and the history?
I wrote The Magicians at a difficult time in my life. My writing career was stalled. My marriage was going under. This was the novel I wanted to read then. I’m a grown-up who loves young adult fantasies like Narnia and Harry Potter and The Once and Future King and so on and so on, but when you read those stories as an adult, you can’t help but be aware that the author is keeping the brakes on. It’s like one of those Star Trek episodes with the Holodeck, where they keep the safety protocols on. Maybe it’s just because I’m bitter and disillusioned, but I wanted to know what would happen if the safety protocols came off — what those make-believe stories would look like if you dragged them out into the harsh, pitiless light of the real world. If I did my job right, they might look something like The Magicians.