In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit I was partying with Lev Grossman last night. He’s here in Reno for this year’s Worldcon, and last night he threw a book party for The Magician King, the sequel to his best-selling fantasy novel The Magicians. As an author, he had a fair amount to celebrate: not only was his book released this week, but the previous book was a New York Times bestseller — and here in Reno, he finds himself nominated for the Campbell Award for best new science fiction/fantasy author. That’s worth a beer or two.
But while Grossman was celebrating many things last night, in today’s Big Idea he focuses on more serious aspects of The Magician King and how some of the elements of this sequel not only follow (and comment on) established tropes in fantasy, but how those tropes intersect with real life in surprising and intriguing ways — which help him make his magical land of Fillory an unexpected place.
I’ll tell you a weird thing about me: My mother was Lucy Pevensie.
Or OK, obviously my mom was not Lucy Pevensie, since Lucy Pevensie is a fictional character from The Chronicles of Narnia. But a lot of the same things that happened to Lucy Pevensie also happened to my mom. Both she and Lucy grew up in London in the 1930s. When WWII started, they were both evacuated from London – sent to a strange house deep in the quiet of the English countryside, to stay with a strange family, while Hitler bombed the crap out of their childhood home.
Lucy Pevensie, of course, found herself in a creaky old mansion with a quirky, avuncular professor. She hid in a wardrobe and found her way into Narnia. My mom — being from a very poor neighborhood, and class tensions in England being what they were – was deemed too uncouth by her hosts and promptly re-evacuated back to London, where fortunately all the bombs missed her anyway.
Later my mom won a scholarship to Oxford, where she studied with C.S. Lewis. Suffice it to say that in our house we took our Narnia pretty seriously.
The last time I wrote a Big Idea column it was about The Magicians. That was a book about an obsessive fantasy nerd who ends up going to a real college for magic, and from there to a magical fantasy world called Fillory. In a lot of ways that book was my way of taking Narnia seriously: What would it really feel like to go there? Would it be like it was in the books, or would it be subtly different? Darker, less perfect, more real? How would you know which side to fight for, Aslan or the White Queen? How would it make you feel to get your heart’s desire and discover that it wasn’t the end of all your problems, it was just the beginning?
Since then I’ve written a sequel to The Magicians called The Magician King. The Magicians was a coming-of-age story, about a bunch of teenagers growing up and learning about magic. Now they’re all grown up (or at any rate the ones who survived are). At the beginning of The Magician King they are – much like the Pevensies were at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – kings and queens of Fillory. The hero, Quentin, is ready to do what heroes do: go on a quest.
The Magician King is my shot at taking a quest story seriously. One of the big inspirations for it was Watchmen. Moore and Gibbons asked, basically, what would it really be like to put on tights and beat up muggers? What kind of person would do that, and what would it do to them? I tried to think seriously about what going on a quest would really be like: Why would you go, and how would it play out, if you did it now, and not in a book but in reality? I don’t know what your life is like, but mine is a lot different from the kind of quest they go on in, say, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. (Great as that book is, and much as I love it.) Sometimes you don’t know what you’re looking for when you set out, and sometimes you don’t realize you’ve found it till years after the quest is over. In stories if you act nobly enough and solve enough puzzles and slay enough monsters, you generally end up sitting on top of a big pile of gold. In reality it doesn’t work like that at all. In reality you generally end up doing your heroic stuff when no one is watching, and even when you win there’s no guarantee you’ll walk away with the prize. Sometimes you end up with less than you had when you started.
That’s the Big Idea in The Magician King: being a hero in real life is a lot more complicated than it is in books, even when your real life has magic and Fillory and all the rest of it in it. It’s harder than it looks, and it’s hard in ways that are very different from what you expect.
Or to put it another way, 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.