Great myths and fantasies enable children to come to terms with their fears indirectly, battling figurative monsters, lighting imaginary darkness, conquering abandonment through confidence. The uses of enchantment are many, but surely one is to help us grow up. What then do we make of fantasies created not for children, but for adults?
That question runs through Lev Grossman’s provocative Magicians Trilogy. Five years ago, in the first book, Grossman introduced Quentin Coldwater, an angst-ridden teen who had been enthralled by a set of children’s books about Fillory, a fantasy series echoing the Narnia of C.S. Lewis.
At the beginning, Quentin gains access to another secret place, Brakebills College, hidden in the Hudson valley, an urbanized, hipsterized and Americanized Hogwarts. He learns magic and discovers that Fillory is not just a myth, but a real place. With a small gang of college friends, he makes his way there, only to confront very real dangers. In the second and darkest book, Quentin and his friends return to Fillory, become its kings and queens, undergo journeys of self-discovery and deal with the loss of innocence.
Now, the final book of the trilogy, “The Magician’s Land,” opens with Quentin in exile. Chastened, he returns to teach at Brakebills, where he promptly gets swept up in a prank that goes horribly wrong. He and a student become entangled with a group of magicians hired to steal a talismanic briefcase and along the way discover that Fillory itself is dying. Piecing together clues from ancient texts and a journal from one of the original children in the Fillory series, Quentin discovers a spell to create new lands. The exiled king returns for a chance at redemption, a chance to save through magic and imagination that broken treasure from his childhood.
“The Magician’s Land” ties together the characters and plotlines from the first two books and provides a wholly satisfying and stirring conclusion to this weird and wonderful tale. Grossman, who reviews fiction and writes about technology and culture for Time magazine, has long championed fantasy as on par with literary fiction, touting the revolutionary energy of genre fiction as “the technology that will disrupt the literary novel as we know it.”
It is hard to dispute the long marriage between fantasy and realism. All cultural mythologies summon gods and monsters. Shakespeare writes about faeries and ghosts, witches and magicians without any qualms. Mary Shelley gave us Frankenstein two centuries ago, and Charles Dickens and Henry James cast nightmare visions. In our age, fabulists as disparate as Neil Gaiman, Stephen Millhauser and Louise Erdrich play with magic and the supernatural, disrupting realism with the unreal.
The critical question is not whether to accept fantasy as serious and worthy of our attention, but how to judge individual works. The Magicians Trilogy can easily be seen as a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age tale, the quest of the hero to discover a meaning and purpose to his life. Or read it as a classic romance: Boy meets girl in magic school, boy loses girl to a monster, boy finds girl again as a supernatural being.
Within this conventional plot, however, Grossman is relentlessly subversive and inventive. His method is bricolage — a mash-up and remixing of fantasy’s tropes — into patterns both familiar and strange. Magnificent creatures abound. We meet the great snapping turtle that carries the weight of the world on his back, hippogriffs with attitude, a chalk figure carved into the landscape who can walk about at will. Then, there’s the mysterious Neitherlands, a literal place between fantasy and reality.
The books bristle with allusions to other books and myths. Jokes and puns, techno-slang and snarky asides crowd the page in an excess of wit that undermines, at times, the dramatic impact of the scene. But Grossman can also write like a magician: “Every way you looked the landscape of Fillory composed itself into even lines, ridgelines and tree lines, near, middle and far distance, each one a shade paler than the last, gently sloping to the left and the right and the left. A long, heavy tranche of cloud lay above the horizon, utterly still, its outline etched finely against the sky, like the silhouette of a breaking wave cut out of paper.”
In these elegiac moments, Grossman reminds us that good writing can beguile the senses, imagination and intellect. The door at the back of the book is still there, and we can go back to those magical lands, older and wiser, eager for the re-enchantment.
Donohue is the author of four novels, including the forthcoming “The Boy Who Drew Monsters.”
THE MAGICIAN’S LAND
Viking. 401 pp. $27.95.