Note: This post discusses the plot of Lev Grossman’s “The Magician’s Land” in detail.
At the end of “The Magician King,” the second book in Lev Grossman’s trilogy about a young magician who misses the point of his magical education, the protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is stripped of his title as king of the magical land of Fillory and then stunned to find that he is also being expelled from the realm. “This isn’t how it ends!” Quentin tells Ember, one of the two gods who rule Fillory. “I am the hero of this goddamned story, Ember! Remember? And the hero gets the reward!” “No, Quentin,” Ember tells him. “The hero pays the price.”
One of the fascinating and often frustrating things about reading Grossman’s trilogy has been how long it takes for Quentin to genuinely absorb this lesson and how much it takes on the part of women in Quentin’s life to teach it to him. After finishing the third book in the trilogy, though, I have come to believe that Quentin’s achingly slow growth is a feature of the series, not a design flaw.
“The Magicians” trilogy is about a lot of things, including fear of missing out, the allure of our childhood fantasies and how damaging it is not to have to have a day job. It is also a powerful portrait of the way men and women communicate, or fail to communicate, and how badly women have to suffer for men to notice.
In “The Magicians,” Quentin cheats on his girlfriend Alice Quinn shortly after they graduate from the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. His actions are motivated by a combination of boredom, drunkenness and a desire to set fire to his comfortable life. Even though he does her great harm, when Quentin and his friends are threatened by a powerful magical monster, Alice sacrifices herself to save him, casting a combination of spells that transform her into a niffin, or demon.
Quentin believes that she is dead, and as punishment, he exiles himself from the magical world, taking a do-nothing job and self-indulgently marinating in his guilt. This hardly seems onerous, but after some time passes, Quentin’s other friends show up and beckon him back to Fillory, the magical land of his childhood yearnings. “Come on, Quentin, you’ve done your time,” his friend Janet declares. “Everybody’s forgiven you but you. And you are so far behind us.”
Quentin is eager to seize on the idea that he has done penance enough. In the sequel, “The Magician King,” we find Quentin in Fillory, telling himself that “It was hard to accept all the good things he had now, when Alice hasn’t lived to see them. But he had to. Otherwise what had she died for?” This is an impressive exercise in self-justification, and Quentin is more than up to the task.
But “The Magician King” loops around on Quentin. Among the friends who come to bring him back to Fillory in “The Magicians” is Julia, a high school friend. Like Quentin, she was selected to take the entrance exam for Brakebills, but unlike him, Julia failed. And Brakebills failed to do what it was supposed to do and wipe her memory of the experience. In “The Magicians,” she is clearly distraught, offering herself up to Quentin if only he will help her learn magic.
Quentin, like the reader, takes Julia’s reappearance at the end of the first volume as proof that she found her own way into magical practice and turned out all right. “She always wore black, like she was in mourning, even though Quentin couldn’t think of anything she should have been mourning for,” he thinks at the beginning of “The Magician King.” “Julia made her own kind of sense.”
“The Magician King” is all about how mistaken that assumption is. We — and Quentin — learn that Julia learned magic on her own at a terrible cost. While experimenting with a spell to summon Our Lady Underground, a French deity, Julia and her friends accidentally conjured up Reynard the Fox, a local trickster. After he kills a number of her friends, Julia offers up her own life to save the lone survivor. Reynard rapes Julia instead, tearing out her soul in the process. Quentin is too limited as a man and a magician to ever have imagined anything so terrible.
But his education is incomplete. Quentin offers to take on Julia’s punishment for certain magical transgressions so that she can leave for another realm where she will be happier. The problem with his offer is the idea that he will actually have to pay up. “I’m already not going to the Far Side,” he points out to the characters who are assessing what he owes. Then, Quentin worries that a woman named Poppy will be thrown out of Fillory — she and Quentin had a brief affair, and so it comes to Quentin that she might be taken away from him.
There is something amazing about Quentin’s incomprehension that he might have to suffer actual consequences. When his judges strip him of his title of king of Fillory, he is complacent. But when Ember announces that Quentin is going to be kicked out of Fillory, Quentin is outraged. “I don’t understand,” he tells the god. “Look, enough is enough.”
Enough is enough? Everything that has happened to Quentin up to this point has happened to him through someone else. Alice had her humanity stolen. Julia was raped in the most violent way possible. And the worst thing to happen to Quentin himself is that he has to try to find a way to live in a world that has magic but is not magical to the core.
If this self-pity and lack of resilience are pathetic and infuriating, I came to the conclusion while reading “The Magician’s Land” that this is exactly as Grossman means it to be. In the final third of the trilogy, Quentin must confront someone who behaves with the same toxic self-regard he has exhibited in the two previous volumes, and convince her to abandon it.
That person is Alice, who turns out not to be dead. Through a complicated magical working, Quentin finds her niffin and restores her humanity to her. What follows has some similarities with a famous plot from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
In Joss Whedon’s pioneering television show, friends of the titular slayer (Sarah Michelle Gellar) resurrected her in the beliefs that she must be suffering in hell and that the world needed her. This turned out to be mistaken: Buffy was in heaven and has to reckon with the fact that “I was torn out of there. By my friends.” Quentin believes that he has rescued Alice from a life of unbearable torment. It is true, Alice tells him, that turning into a niffin was agonizing. But it also freed her to act much as Quentin has acted for much of his life.
“When I pulled his head off it was more like a toast, like popping a cork,” Alice reminisces of the monster she killed to save Quentin. “A toast to my new life! You want to know what it’s like to be a demon? Imagine knowing, always and forever, that you are right, and that everyone and everything else is wrong….Remember what a good girl I was? Remember how meek and pleasing I was to everybody? For the first time in my life I could just be. That was always part of the problem, Quentin. I felt like I had to be interested in you all the time. You wanted love so desperately, and I thought it was my job to give it to you. Poor little lost boy! That’s not love, that’s hell. And I was getting a taste of heaven. I was a blue angel now…Then listen: you robbed me…I was perfect. I was immortal. I was happy. You took all that away from me. Did you expect me to be grateful? Did you? I didn’t want to be human again, but you dragged me back into this body.”
Alice is speaking out of spite, but that does not mean that what she is saying is not true. It is exhausting for the women in Quentin’s life to have to relive their worst experiences over and over again in service of his enlightenment.
The harm done to women in Quentin’s life is caused by magic. But the real work of the series is done by words.
Just as Alice and Julia have to explain what has happened to them in excruciating detail for Quentin to reach even a limited understanding of the world they share, women in the real world have to explain every day that sexual assault, casual sexual harassment and online harassment are mundane for them. Men are shocked by these stories, and it is frustrating that they are surprised even as that shock and the thoughts that follow from it are gratifying.
The temptation to break our staffs and drown our books and leave the world to the hard work of changing itself is strong. But “The Magicians” trilogy insists that even if the price is formidable, the power of speaking the truth is immense.