Book: The Magicians by Lev Grossman: Harry Potter and the postgraduate ennui

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is Harry Potter meets Narnia meets Brideshead Revisited meets Douglas Coupland.

The protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, starts off as a maladjusted geek who’s in love with his best friend’s girlfriend. He escapes into the Fillory books, which describe the adventures of a family of English schoolchildren in a magical land filled with talking animals. After his interviewer for a place at Princeton drops dead, he’s invited to join Brakebills, an elite magical college.

Brakebills is Hogwarts, but with more grit. Without the magic, Hogwarts is an English boarding school. The nearest mundane equivalent to Brakebills is a small Oxbridge college. Undergrads drink and screw, as undergrads do; everyone knows everyone’s business; new arrivals end up reeling from the shock of being given work which taxes them and of being surrounded by people as intelligent as them, if not more so. It turns out that magic isn’t about learning the secrets of the universe, or waving a wand and uttering some cod Latin and having everything just work: it’s more like learning Basque while juggling. So far, so very familar.

The Brakebills section is enjoyable: Quentin grows up a bit, acquires some comrades, chooses to face a trial, and overcomes it. But on graduating, he and his friends are lost. Not just in the come down after the party, or the come down after an intense intellectual effort (recall Philip Swallow in Changing Places, who saw the run up to his final exams as the high point of his intellectual career), but because as magicians they’ve become the idle rich, people who can have anything they want, if only they knew what that was. Only Quentin’s much more sensible girlfriend, Alice, seems to be able to cope with the existential problems of being a wizard. The rest of them need a story to be in, and don’t have one.

Many people in that situation end up finding a religion and writing their lives as fan-fiction. The magicians go one better, and find their way into a story by finding their way into NarniaFillory. Will this finally give their lives some meaning? I won’t spoil the ending by telling you.

Grossman’s borrowings from other works are done knowingly: the Brakebills students are as media-savvy as any teenagers, so of course they make jokes about Quidditch; the Fillory section reads like someone’s report of a dungeon crawl (albeit a particularly well-written one), so the magicians arm themselves with spells they name Magic Missile and Fireball after their D&D counterparts. But Grossman’s not merely mugging for the camera, writing a modern Bored of the Rings. He wants to jar us by combining a modern novel with a children’s fantasy setting, and he succeeds. Watching the magicians stumble through Fillory is like hearing someone swear in a cathedral.

Grossman can write, and supplies us with wit as well as grit. I read the book in one sitting, after which the sound of birds outside the window reminded me that sleep might be a good idea. Abigail Nussbaum (whose review you should read, although be warned it gives away more of the plot than I have) wishes that Grossman had the courage of his convictions. I like the relentlessly grim SF novel as much as anyone, but I find it hard to fault Grossman for giving his protagonist a second chance. I enjoyed it in any case. Recommended.

The Devil went down to Cambridge OR Attacking the Darkness

The ever-reliable Cambridge Evening News reveals that dark forces are gathering in Cambridge: “Magus Lynius Shadee, self-named King of All Witches, has announced he will open in the city centre by December 24” (I don’t know what it means for a magus to “open in the city centre”, but I’m not sure I want to stick around to find out). Local church leaders aren’t too pleased about this, and warn of bad juju.

This set me thinking about the time the vicar at my former church told us that educated Cambridge Christians hadn’t taken the stuff in the Bible about demons seriously enough. Basic theism is all very well at first, but inevitably you move on to the harder stuff. Initially, you’re all “everything that begins to exist has a cause” but before long you start thinking that the Resurrection is pretty good evidence for Christian theism (after all, as the Christian sort of God exists, it’s likely that he would raise Jesus from the dead, therefore the Resurrection is not terribly unlikely; therefore, given the New Testament evidence, the Resurrection happened; therefore the Christian sort of God exists).

Tragically, for some people even that’s not enough. Not satisfied with a Trinity, they crave other supernatural beings. From there, it’s a slippery slope to “I had doubts about the validity of that Resurrection argument / fancied that boy/girl/sheep / had a bit of a funny turn late at night: SATAN DUNNIT!”

When I was a lad, the school Christian Union leaders told us Dungeons and Dragons was a doorway to danger, a gateway into Satanism. I’d like to suggest that Christianity is a gateway to Dungeons and Dragons. This isn’t a completely new idea: arkannath suggested it in the comments of one of my old posts, which you might also enjoy.

Father David Paul’s (Cleric level 1, patron: Papem, god of guilt about sex) warning that “People who go to these things often end up with mental problems” is best read as a caution to people with poor Will Saves. Rev Ian Church is clearly some sort of adventuring cleric (level 3, patron: Jeebus, god of circular arguments) on a quest to put a stop to Shadee (Wizard level 5, necromancer). Our hero has tracked the villian to his underground lair, wherein “there were several ritual and seance rooms and what really struck us was the intense and extreme cold in the rooms”. Church (by the way, am I alone in thinking that naming your cleric “Church” is only one step up from calling your characters “Bob’s fighter 1”, “Bob’s figher 2”, and so on? Not sure what the DM was thinking with “Shadee”, either) neglects to mention how he turned several undead and avoided some tricky pit traps while he was down there, but we can assume he’s just being modest. There were plenty of XP given out that day, I can tell you. Still, it looks like Shadee escaped, and now the campaign is coming to the streets of Cambridge. The local peasants are pretty excited by the prospect.

The Wasteland

People who post D&D campaign reports to their blogs: death’s too good for ’em, I say. I think I’ll make an exception for this one of scribb1e‘s, though.

THE WASTE LAND

‘Antea, in stipendia Roberti, dicerem: ἀποθανεῑν δεν θέλω; respondebat dominus ludorum: alea iacta est.’

<lj-cut text=”The burial of the undead”>
I. The burial of the undead

Hathel is the cruellest month, breeding
Kobolds out of the undead land, mixing
Duty and revenge, stirring
Dire weasels with spring rain.
Joe kept us warm, lighting
A fire in the clearing, feeding
Us with rabbit stew and tubers
Iliriel surprised us, coming up from Arlin
With the falling night; we stopped at the camp
And went on in sunlight, into the castle,
And were shot at, and talked for a minute.
Bin gar kein Kobold, stamm’ aus Arlin, echt Elvish.
And when we were safe, inside the castle,
We climbed the tower with rickety stairs
And we were frightened. We said, Terseus,
Terseus, hold on tight. But down he went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
We watch, much of the night, and clear up the corpses in the morning.

What are the oozes that grapple, what beasts lurk
In this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken mages, who cannot divine
And the trees give no shelter, and the DM no relief
And the dry fountain no sound of water. Only
There is a secret door under this rock
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock)
And I will show you something different from either
Skeletons at morning jumping out behind you
Or zombies at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of rust.

Wo ist meine Rüstung?
Was haben sie getan?
Sie haben es gegessen
Das war rücksichtslos.

‘You engulfed me first a moment ago
They called me the shimmering man’
– Yet when you moved on, later, to engulf another
Your flanks full, and my hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my strength failed
, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the corridor, the shadows.
Ich von Panik erfaßt werde.


scribb1e writes:

The Waste Land seems remarkably easy to do this to. Either because great art is characterised by its ability to sustain more than one interpretation, or because it’s a bunch of easily-imitated, pretentious twaddle.

Apart from scribb1e‘s, the greatest parodies of the poem are Wendy Cope’s and ladysisyphus‘s Harry Potter version.

Attacking the darkness

I recently happened across lumpley‘s Mormon gunslingers game Dogs in the Vineyard. This description from the author and this review give a flavour of the thing, and some details of the poker-like conflict resolution rules. It looks fun, very different from the mechanics-heavy stuff (D&D and friends) and focused on helping the group create a compelling story by pitching the characters into conflicts with no easy answers. Playing the eponymous dogs, you’re in a game world where the religion really is true and your job is to defend it, bringing the towns you visit back onto the straight and narrow, using words, ritual and, when all else fails, a six-shooter.

scribb1e found a bunch of alternate settings for it, all based on the playing characters sworn to defend an ideology the players probably disagree with. My favourite is Fashion Experts on a Reality TV Show, mainly for the fashion version of the game’s “Something’s wrong”, X leads to Y progression.

Following scribb1e‘s further suggestion that there should be a CICCU version, I’ve come up with Staff Workers in the UCCF, in which our intrepid players are running characters who are the paid staff sent to help university Christian Unions. In the game, they’d deal with CUs who’ve strayed from the Doctrinal Basis, so the equivalent to a town in Dogs is a university CU (or possibly a college CU in the Reps in the CICCU variant). The Desert People are the liberal Christians, maybe the SCM (they might also be the other religions evangelising on campus, if there are any). Actually, it might make sense for the Desert People to be Fusion and the SCM represent the corrupt religion of the Territorial Authority, I suppose.

I’ve not quite worked out what the CU equivalent of shooting someone is, any ideas?

Here’s the Something’s Wrong progression:

Pride (manifests as self-righteousness)
-leads to->
Sin (manifests as demons outside, e.g. the Student Union refuses to let you book rooms, the student newspaper writes nasty things about you)
-leads to->
False Doctrine (manifests as corrupt religious practices and heresy, e.g. charismatic stuff like speaking in tongues and falling over; rejection of Biblical inerrancy; rejection of penal substitutionary atonement; acceptance of homosexuality)
-leads to->
False Priesthood (manifests as demons inside, like like CU members going out with non-Christians, sleeping with their boy/girlfriends (esp. if they’re the same sex, obviously), getting drunk)
-leads to->
Hate (manifests as apostasy (defection to Fusion, the SCM or to atheism), schism)

I probably will pay up for the PDF of the Dogs rules, so I’ll have to see how far I can go with this, but it might actually be a fun variant of the game.