The first time I ever heard of Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians was in a comment posted on Twitter. I follow a lot of avid (even rabid) readers, and one of them had, apparently, stepped out of their comfort zone to give this book a try. She had decided to follow the crowd and read this novel that was being called “Harry Potter for grown-ups.” She was not a fan. She called it a rip-off and accused Grossman of stealing from her beloved J.K. Rowling. Her response was so strong, so passionate, that my curiosity was piqued.
I looked up Grossman to see what he had done before. It turns out that he knows something about good writing. Grossman is the lead book critic for Time and has made a career out of both praising the efforts of writers who take risks and calling out those who he felt were overrated. He knew that he was entering dangerous territory when he set about writing a book that bears even a passing resemblance to anything as recognizable as the Harry Potter franchise. It was a big risk to take, but it has paid off, as evidenced by the The Magicians’ bestseller status.
The anticipation for his follow-up, The Magician King, has been building all summer, with some readers looking to it to fill the void left by the final Harry Potter film. It is well-suited to the task. Like The Magicians before it, the book is a collection of carefully chosen allusions to the books that have influenced Grossman as a writer. While these allusions were off-putting to some readers, they are a large part of the appeal for the readers who grew up reading the same books he did. I have to admit; each new reference that I stumbled across made me smile a little wider and drew me in a little further.
After seeing the wide-range of responses that the book has received, I found myself hoping that responses like the ones that first caught my attention were in the minority. Grossman has assured me they were.
The Millions: What sort of comments have you had regarding the many literary allusions that are found throughout The Magicians?
Lev Grossman: There have been fewer than you would think. There was a lot of focus on it before the book came out, which was worrying. Publishers Weekly dismissed the book as “derivative.” Viking’s own lawyers delayed the book’s publication – they demanded rewrites to make clearer the differences between Fillory and Narnia. But following publication almost all the readers and critics I heard from have read the similarities correctly, as allusions rather than theft. People like them – they like the fact that they’ve read the same books I have. It’s a way of recognizing our shared culture.
TM: Has anyone ever questioned you about similarities that they saw between what you wrote and another book? What did they point to, and how did you respond?
LG: I’ve seen it here and there, in blog comments and Amazon reviews – people harping on the Harry Potter allusions. But it’s a very small minority. Early on I toured the Harry Potter conventions, talking about what I was doing and the spirit in which it was intended, to try to get the word out. I think that helped. But when people do think you’ve plagiarized from another writer, rather than alluded to them, the reaction is extreme. They get angry. It’s a dangerous game; you have to get it right. Allusions can be very polarizing.
TM: As you wrote the novel, were you aware of your inspirations? How did you keep them from overtaking your story? How did you keep from crossing the line?
LG: I think I’m more aware of my influences than some writers – maybe it’s my training as an academic, but I look for them: Rowling and Lewis, obviously, but also writers like Ursula Le Guin, Neal Stephenson, Waugh, Hemingway. In truth, it’s difficult sometimes to know where the line is, to avoid getting overpowered by a strong influence. But it’s also energizing. I think Harold Bloom was right in Anxiety of Influence: some writers need to feel like they’ve gone to war with their literary progenitors, then made their peace with them.
TM: One of the criticisms that I have seen regarding the allusions in the text is that so many of the references (Gulliver’s Travels aside) are to relatively recent works. The expectation is to see mythology or Shakespeare or some other “classic.” Are the modern references lost on readers? Does it make a difference?
LG: It’s interesting, isn’t it, how allusions to contemporary works have a different resonance than references to “classic” literature. They’re certainly not lost on readers, but they can sound a bit cheap and hollow. It’s a difficult line to walk – you want your characters to live in a realistic version of the contemporary cultural environment you see around you, but if you get too specific with your references, they can take on that gimmicky quality. And they date rapidly. I spent a lot of time and effort fine-tuning the allusions in The Magicians, to get the right balance.
TM: If you had to explain the difference between alluding to another work and copying that work to a classroom full of students, how would you go about it? What sort of examples would you use? Would you refer to your own writing?
LG: The key, to me, is making it clear to the reader that you’re borrowing another writer’s elements for a reason. You have to make sure they know not only what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it. It can be confusing for a writer. Initially when I would make allusions to C.S. Lewis, I would avoid overtly criticizing or satirizing Lewis’s work, out of respect, and a worry that I would outrage Narnia fans. I quickly realized that the danger isn’t going too far, it’s not going far enough. If you’re going to borrow from Lewis, you have to travesty him, openly poke fun at him, say something about him. Anything less and readers will see your allusions as merely plagiarism.
TM: What is your favorite literary reference in the novel? Do people pick up on it?
LG: The Magicians is a web of allusions – they’re thicker than most people realize, and nobody gets them all (even me, probably). One of my favorite sequences in the book has Quentin and his friends turning into geese and flying south to Antarctica. This is an allusion to one of my favorite moments in one of my favorite novels, The Once and Future King, in which a young King Arthur is changed into a goose by Merlin as part of his education. I thought it stuck out by a mile when I wrote it, but surprisingly few people catch it.
TM: What references have others pointed out to you or asked about?
LG: People most often point out the more obscure references – it’s a good feeling when you pick up on a reference to something that’s really arcane, that you know hardly anybody else is going to spot. Cellists sometimes write to me about the Popper exercises that the characters at Brakebills have to do. They’re a reference to a famous book of cello etudes that I tried, and failed, to master during my brief career as a cellist. It’s something I put in there for myself, really, but when people spot it, it makes them happy.
TM: Were there any new influences that you were aware of as you wrote The Magician King? What should readers be watching for as they read?
LG: The Magician King’s ancestry is a little different from that of The Magicians, so it draws from a somewhat – but not entirely – different palette of references. It’s a book about journeys and quests, so there are allusions to T.H. White’s and Malory’s accounts of the Quest for the Holy Grail, and to The Odyssey and The Aeneid as well. It’s also a little more of a mystery than The Magicians was, so there are nods – there’s one in the first paragraph – to Raymond Chandler. But the most consistent presence is still C.S. Lewis, in particular Lewis’s own take on the epic, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Grossman has put together A Brief Guide to the Hidden Allusions in The Magicians for Tor.com. It paints a pretty interesting picture of the world that Grossman lives in and the one he has created. The Magician King is full of the same pop-culture references and allusions to the works of Rowling, C.S. Lewis, and George R.R. Martin as The Magicians. Some are a bit more direct, such as Quentin referring to Janet as “Fillory Clinton.” They are also more time sensitive.
What The Magician King has that was a bit lacking in the first is a rich undercurrent of mythology and folklore. When searching for the root of all magic, it only makes sense that they turn to the “old gods,” an allusion to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. They are the ones who harnessed the magic that gave rise to Fillory, and, it would seem, they are none too happy that it has fallen into mortal hands. Here are a few of the less modern references from Grossman’s new book The Magician King:
p. 8: “Good luck,” Julia said. “Dryads fight. Their skin is like wood. And they have staves.”
“I’ve never seen a dryad fight,” Quentin said.
“That is because nobody is stupid enough to fight one.”
In Greek Mythology, the dryads are tree nymphs most closely associated with oak trees. They appear extensively throughout literature, typically as shy creatures who keep to themselves. It is C.S. Lewis who made them fighters, putting them alongside Aslan and the Pevensie children.
p. 22: “Et in Arcadia ego.”
A Latin phrase, meaning “I too was there in Arcadia.” It was meant as a memento mori, or a reminder of one’s own mortality. Here, Quentin is remembering that Alice’s death was not then end of the darkness that exists in Fillory.
p. 101: “They straggled to a stop in front of it, a brave company of knights assembled before the Chapel Perilous.”
The Chapel Perilous first appears in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. It is where Sir Lancelot fends off the advances of the sorceress Hellawes. This is just one of many Arthurian references throughout the novel, though it is the least direct.
p. 182: “At the end of the poem, hadn’t he run to the Goat (by which he meant the constellation Capricorn, a footnote gallantly informed her) to find New Love? Or was it lust?”
Julia is referring to John Donne and his poem “A Nocturnal Upon S. Lucies Day.” By the end of the poem, Donne has decided to move on, just as Julia decides to leave magic behind for good.
p. 185: ViciousCirce and Asmodeus
The screen names of Julia and one of the other members of Free Traders Beowulf (a reference to the sci-fi role-playing game Traveller). ViciousCirce is a refrence to Circe, a minor goddess of magic in Greek mythology who plays an important role in The Odyssey. Asmodeus is the king of demons, mentioned in The Book of Tobit. Julia is very surprised to find the person behind the screen name is a 17 year old girl.
p. 321: Reynard the Fox
A European trickster figure from medieval times, Reynard is described by Grossman as “some kind of anti-gentry, anti-clerical hero of the peasantry.” There are references to Reynard in both The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
p. 338: “Benedict is in the underworld. He is not a ghost. He is a shade.”
A shade, in various mythologies, refers to the spirit of someone that is residing in the Underworld. Quentin is sent to visit Benedict there, making a trip similar to the one Aeneas makes to visit his father in The Aeneid.
The Magicians is very much a product of the world that Grossman grew up in and the type of life he led. Geeks everywhere could find something to identify with in that book, be it Harry Potter or Advanced D&D. The Magician King appeals to a wider audience, bringing the old and the new together, and creating a whole new mythology.
Time’s book critic Lev Grossman made a splash on this week’s NYT bestseller list, debuting at number nine in the hardcover fiction category with his second novel, The Magicians. The book has gotten a healthy publicity push, but strong sales numbers also suggest that readers are responding to its hook: “a kind of Harry Potter for grown-ups.” I haven’t read The Magicians yet, but its premise – the academic and extracurricular adventures of a contemporary East Coast Wizard – puts me in mind of an unjustly neglected fictional opus: John Crowley’s Aegypt Cycle.
After Matt Ruff chose Aegypt for our 2007 Year in Reading, I picked up the first novel in Crowley’s tetralogy and was hooked. Wands and fairies – er, faeries – were never my thing, but I probably learned more about magic, myth, and historiography than I would have from any work of nonfiction this side of Joseph Campbell. Moreover, Crowley is a beguiling stylist, a constructor of Joycean intertextual games, and (ultimately) a passionate humanist. For several years, The Solitudes, Love & Sleep, and Daemonomania were out of print, but now Overlook Press has brought them back into print, and Small Beer Press has published the concluding volume, Endless Things.
The Times points to an interview where Grossman muses about “all the things that were missing from J. K. Rowling’s Y.A. series, from sex and booze to . . . fantasy novels”; those are the very sorts of inclusions that make Aegypt so rewarding. This is not to undermine the originality of Grossman’s approach; rather, it is to demonstrate one of Crowley’s big ideas: that we make new stories, and new magic, out of the old.
Bonus Link: Michael Dirda on Aegypt in The American Scholar.