Wherever you go, there you are.
It would be pretty difficult, in the post-Potter age to write a book about a boarding school of magic without reference to Hogwarts. Lev Grossman in The Magicians doesn’t try. I like to imagine the book as a conversation between a cynical crank (who is secretly obsessed with the Potterverse and knows every inch of Potter lore) and someone who reimagines what a secret magical world would look like.
The cynical crank asks: Why is magic always so easy? All these kids need to do is wave around a fancy stick and spout some mumbo-jumbo. Even in Potions, the recipe’s always right there. Any idiot could do it.
The Magicians responds: Actually, magic is incredibly difficult to learn, requiring years of intensive study and months of memorization. You will read until your brain melts and leaks out your eyes. You will suffer, and you will like it, because it’s magic, bitches, and magic is HARD, goddammit.
“It’s different from what you think. You don’t just wave a wand and yell some made-up Latin. There’s reasons why most people can’t do it.”
Cynical crank: Why are kids recruited to Hogwarts so young? These children are inducted into some kind of secret, isolationist cultish society when they are only eleven years old. For Chrissakes, some of them don’t even know how to place a telephone call. How are they going to get along in the modern world of email, texting, Twitter, etc. etc.?
The Magicians: Actually, it just makes more sense to have a school of magic be a college, not a primary school. When students are recruited at seventeen, at least they will have some kind of basic skills for living in the modern world. And being highly intelligent, they will have more than the average knowledge in important areas, like math, and (non-magical) history, and civics and stuff. Also, they can have more sex that way, and also swear. And get drunk a lot.
“So it’s four years – ”
“ – at the end of which I get what? A bachelor’s of magic?”
Cynical crank: What’s the deal with squibs anyway? Why is there so little empathy for people who aren’t magical enough for magic school, but who have contact with it anyway? Are they all evil janitors and crazy cat ladies that we can laugh off like they aren’t human?
The Magicians: Actually, life is horrible for people who know about magic but don’t receive training. It’s more than possible that if you aren’t accepted into magic school, you will drive yourself completely insane trying to get a second chance, dropping out of school and life and becoming a crazy-eyed, self-destructive shadow of your former self. That’s right, you think Filch really would have taken such a miserable, low-paying, low-status job if it didn’t give him the slightest contact with the burning light of magic, beautiful, terrible magic?
“They’re supposed to make you forget if you don’t get in.”
“But I should have!” She straightened up with the flashing red eyes and cold crystal seriousness of the true nutjob. “I was supposed to get in. I know I was. It was a mistake. Believe me, it was.”
Cynical crank: So, what’s up with all the faux medievalism? Would it really be so bad to give these kids a spiral notebook and a couple mechanical pencils? I mean, come on, quill pens?
The Magicians: Yeah, that is stupid, isn’t it?
As fun as that is (and I could go on in that vein), there is more to The Magicians than making fun of Harry Potter. It is an adult book not just because of the sex and the swearing and the drinking. It takes on what it clearly thinks of as a very “adult” idea of the world, that people are sometimes really awful for no reason, and people don’t change.
Quentin Coldwater, the hero of The Magicians is a miserable, self-involved teenager. He dreams of a magical world (the Narnia-inspired Fillory) from a children’s series, secretly wishing that he could live there, that if only he was there, he would be less unhappy. As it turns out, Quentin is recruited to a secret college for young magicians. Though he should be thrilled, and is at first, Quentin becomes disillusioned with magic, and with the school. He is eventually just as restlessly unhappy as a magician as he was as a very smart, very privileged teenager. And when it turns out that the magical land of Fillory is real and he is able to travel there, he is just as miserable there too.
This theme of miserable people being awful to one another comes up in modern fiction quite a bit, it seems. In particular, Quentin and his friends reminded me of the family in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections – they are pretty much destined to be miserable jerks forever. The Magicians posits that adding amazing magical powers doesn’t essentially change that fundamental truth. Take that, children’s literature!
However, here’s the thing – this notion, that going somewhere magical doesn’t make you a different/better person, is pretty fundamental to children’s literature in the first place. Take The Phantom Tollbooth. In it, Milo starts out with a character flaw – he is always so self-involved and so focused on the future that he can’t appreciate the world around himself and is wasting his youth and his life being unhappy. After crossing through the Tollbooth to the Lands Beyond, Milo is not automatically changed into a better person. The very first thing he does is fall into the same old habit of not paying attention and drives smack into the middle of the Doldrums, where “nothing ever happens and nothing ever changes,” the embodiment of his own flaws. It isn’t until he starts actively looking and seeing and asking questions and doing things that Milo wakes up out of his unhappiness and starts to change. Going to the Lands Beyond doesn’t change Milo; Milo changes Milo.
Or take The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Lev Grossman must have re-read the Narnia books before setting to work on The Magicians, as Fillory pretty much is Narnia. In TLtWatW, Edmund is as selfish a little liar in Narnia as he is in the real world. Going through the wardrobe doesn’t change him – it takes time and suffering (and a Jewish carpenter magical lion) to change him.
So saying that magic doesn’t change a person’s nature isn’t really a new “adult” theme that contrasts with the magic-school fantasy. It may take Quentin a lot longer to maybe, kind of, eventually start to think about maybe someday trying to work on his personal issues and be a better person. But just like Milo, I think he might get there. You know, in a sequel or two.