I have just finished Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, which despite being a New York Times bestseller has been read by only one person I know so far (the woman who passed me her copy, after seeing it on my Amazon wishlist), and I am contemplating turning it over and reading it again. I don’t think I’ve done this since Ursula Le Guin’s Beginning Place. It is that good, if you are a Fillory kind of person.

Fillory — the name evokes a picture of a theriomorphic and equine Secretary Clinton, but that is my sick mind I guess — stands in for Narnia in Grossman’s universe, a world chronicled lovingly in iconic children’s books cherished by a certain type of discontented person, the sort of person who never quits believing on some level that magic could exist and there could be a door to another, realer world — in the wall, through a wardrobe, along the light cast by Mars, through the Lotus Room or through a looking-glass, as it has happened in one book after another.

Grossman is a bit of a deconstructionist at first blush. His story, despite the Fillory references in the opening chapter, comes across more as a gloss on the Harry Potter books, and he seems to be saying that genuine magical education would be more difficult and gritty, yet simultaneously less ennobling, than it is in the books of Rowling and all those who influenced her. He is a master of the hand-clapping “yes!” moment when his reader recognizes a familiar text reworked — the flight of Wart as a goose from White’s Sword in the Stone, the Wood Between The Worlds (deftly re-imagined as a deserted city whose buildings contain only books) from Lewis’ Magician’s Nephew. But he is also cruelly adroit with the wincing “Yeah, you’re right” moment in which it becomes apparent that a young, privileged, arrogantly bright kid from the modern world, confronted by these infinite possibilities and realities, is just as likely to be, well, an asshole as any of his mundane peers, preoccupied with achievement and crushes and the liberty to drink and squander his talents.

But Grossman has put his finger on an important thing: the yearning for the window to open and let us through, the desire to escape — as Lewis said, “escapism” is usually pronounced condescendingly, but what if the escape imagined were from a prison?

I imagined that door opening when I was young, over and over again.

“Oh, Kitty, how nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-Glass House! I’m sure it’s got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let’s pretend there’s a way of getting through into it somehow, Kitty. Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it’s turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It’ll be easy enough to get through — ” She was up on the chimney-piece  while she said this, though she hardly knew how she had got there. And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist.

“In another minute Alice was through the glass, and had jumped lightly down into the Looking-Glass room.”

Or in Grossman’s words:

“It was almost like the Fillory books — especially the first one, The World in the Walls — were about reading itself. When the oldest Chatwin, melancholy Martin, opens the cabinet of the grandfather clock that stands in a dark, narrow back hallway in his aunt’s house and slips through into Fillory… it’s like he’s opening the covers of a book, but a book that did what books always promised to do and never actually quite did: get you out, really out, of where you were and into somewhere better.”

I am going to be fifty-seven my next birthday, and I don’t find any codified religion, for example, worth my investment because they all seem to be foolproof methods for misinterpreting the life you have, but the same could be said of the secular value systems, bloated with smug conventional wisdom, that insist everything is all about self-esteem and appropriateness and success and social contracts and shit like that.

I took a side path out of a local park one day when I was not so young, but far younger than now, and for a moment as I emerged from the trees I could see no work of man, only a long light-drenched meadow, and thought holy crap, I’ve done it, I got through. Of course it was over in an instant, the horizon cluttered with houses and power poles and road signs.

I keep hoping to get through somehow, nonetheless.


31 thoughts on “Fillory

  1. I love those moments when I’ve broken through to the other side, even though I know I really haven’t … and then the spell-shattering car appears in the distant road, like the one edited out of the background when Frodo and Sam step out of the Shire. But I didn’t read many of those books, actually, and couldn’t stand what I read of Potter. My doorways to alternate worlds more often turned up in Lovecraft collections. Still and all, it’s a magical thing to pass through a sidewalk gate and discover an abandoned garden, fluttering with leaves, a mysterious up-ended box by the wall, beckoning like a cellar door.

    • I read my first Lovecraft when I was ten, and if you know the “Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” then you know he was all over the whole concept, and for a reason that strikes home to me.

      The closest I come to Fillory or any version of it is the feeling of significance and meaning that comes in dreams: everything is more real than real life, nothing is trivial or banal, even if it is alarming or disturbing. Life awake is mostly like a balloon that’s started to leak and shrivel: it takes an effort to pay attention to it.

    • I know. It creates a priceless grounding effect when I read your blog.

      I never really did from the start; in my earliest memories there remains a sense that “I was someplace else, and now I am here — what the fuck happened?” It took me more than half the time I’ve lived so far to resign myself to living in the world as it is, and it felt like making the best of a bad deal. What is it I want instead? Difficult to pin down, but it would have something to do with not being surrounded by cheapness and point-scoring, whether it’s in the form of schoolyard nastiness or cheesy advertising aimed at pumping up people’s egos. With people all living for better reasons other than to reproduce and keep breathing in and out.

      Lewis saw the solution in Christianity, I don’t, but either way the issue was one of a vision which took in the large and the small of life and didn’t settle for chintzy excuses at any scale: one of his wonderful late stories, “The Shoddy Lands,” wrapped it up pretty well.

      In his context, Fillory would perhaps be the “Kingdom of God” that “is all around you, and ye see it not.” So getting there is a matter of what we choose to engage with, and part of the problem is the degree to which most of the people I run across seem unaware that there’s more to life than shoddiness (think of your perplexity about Facebook).

      • Oh, I didn’t like it to begin with. It was mostly quite awful most of the time… but then somewhere along the way I decided to make it work for me rather than wish I was somewhere else.

        I’ve always quite liked that kingdom of god quote, and always thought it referred to here. You just have to open your eyes and your heart and let it in… well, not *all* of it of course, one must be somewhat discerning.

        What other people do is their business, unless it directly affects my quality of life, or that of someone I love. So things like Facebook and McDonalds are just minor annoyances.

        Really, what could be better than this??

  2. I thought I was doing such a fine thing by reading C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman (I like him, too) and Tolkien to my kids. Now, my son (just turned 20!), who is having a very hard time figuring out adult life, says to me the other day, partly in fun, but partly not: Mom, I look into the sky and I see no dragons, and I am not content.

    Actually, I don’t think it matters what I read to him. Temperament, I suppose. Still, I’d like things to be easier for him.

    This is beautifully written, Sled.

    • I don’t think you did any damage by reading him those books. The books find us. And discontented people find doors and open them — which isn’t a bad thing to hope for your son, even if it isn’t always an easy life. I had a hard time figuring it out too (I may never, entirely), just because so much of what matters to most people seemed like bullshit to me, and still does.

      I come back to Lewis so much because he was one of the discontented tribe who reflected articulately on the matter — the difference between fantasy as wish fulfilment or “flattery to the ego” and fantasy as the longing for a world that was stronger and more coherent and complete, with an inner logic or deep meaning manifest in whatever supernatural features existed. He was a raging Pagan underneath who sensed an intelligence pervading everything — that’s how I experience the dryads and talking animals of Narnia — and wrote eloquently of the horrible disconnect between industrial-age man and his world:

      A new scent troubles the air — to you, friendly, perhaps —
      But we with animal wisdom have understood that smell.
      To all our kind its message is Guns, Ferrets, and Traps,
      And a Ministry gassing the little holes in which we dwell.

      You don’t have to be an absolute Luddite or religious hardliner to want to stand athwart History and shout Stop (that’s another passionate reactionary, William F. Buckley), at least when History involves short-sighted despoilment of the Earth, or of the human spirit in the form of demented attempts to make everyone “normal.” I think the longing for Fillory is the revolt against that (and Grossman’s book has some meaningful cautions for the people who can see Fillory, but only as another resource to be exploited, I’m thinking of the people who reduce fantasy to video games or tacky third rate imitations of Tolkien). People who can hang onto the vision of Fillory may be the people who give us the most humane solutions to human problems, whatever their calling happens to be.

      • Your Lewis quote reminded me of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, another book I love.

        I’m still laughing at your Jewish Wonderland. Reminds me of a lovely “Alice” in Salt Lake City who married a Jewish man and followed in Ruth’s footsteps, so much so, that she chanted Torah at her son’s bar mitzvah. As she descended from the bimah, after the reading, an old Jewish woman in the congregation, barely looking up, says:

        Not bad for a shiksa.

        Ladies and Gentlemen: Your Jewish Wonderland.

  3. This sounds like just my kind of book. Despite being basically agnostic, and always being a bit aware of the undercurrents of racism in some of the Narnia books, I loved them as a child, as a teenager, and I still love them now. Even at my advanced age, the end of Voyage of the Dawn Treader brings me to tears because I know it can’t ever be real.

    And oh, Uncle Andrew! “A dem fine woman.” The delightful pen-and-ink illustration of the rather unexpected woman from Charn, taking over a hansom cab, is etched indelibly in my memory.

      • 30 pages into “The Magicians” and I am having the strange reaction I have to some books where I can hardly bear to read it because I know how upset I’m going to be firstly to keep realizing that it’s not real, and secondly to keep realizing that it’s going to end.

          • Just finished, and I am gobsmacked. I see there is a sequel due in July of this year, and I will pre-order it as soon as it is possible to do so. I was pleased to note that even my beloved voyage of the Dawn Treader made an appearance, in the funhouse mirror way that so many things did.

          • No, not just you … it also had an echo of a book called Momo which is, if I recall correctly since I’m too lazy to look it up, by the guy who wrote The Never-Ending Story.

  4. Jenny, please tell your son that there *are* dragons, and in the sky, too. You just have to know where to look. To my mind, dinosaurs are the closest earth ever got to dragons – mysterious, ancient, huge creatures who thrived for millions of years before we were even walking upright – and their direct descendants are the birds of today, in all their many-splendoured forms. They walk, they fly, they dive, they swim, they climb. Okay, so they don’t breathe fire, but a Martial Eagle is still a pretty bloody impressive beast 🙂

    Sled – I remember little about the Ursula K Le Guin books, or the Narnia series, other than that I adored them as a child. And I daren’t re-read them now in case they disappoint my memory of their magic. But that is what I look for in every book I read, even now – the ability to transport me to that world. Some of those worlds are so real to me (the world of Sherlock Holmes particularly) that I swear I’d be able to fit right in if ever I fell through the looking-glass…

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