By Josh Herring
“Sing Muse, Achilles’ Rage, black and murderous” (The Iliad, line 1).
“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns” (The Odyssey, line 1).
“I begin my song with the Heliconian Muses” (Theogony, line 1).
[dropcap]H[/dropcap]omer and Hesiod both began their greatest works invoking a higher power beyond themselves. Rather than seeking to portray something new, the ancients followed the convention that their stories were inspired by Muses and as such partook of the mythic truth overseen by the goddesses. While modern authors rarely invoke deities to begin their novels, the best authors infuse their stories with truth transcending time and space. Lev Grossman is such an author.
Defying genre boundaries in his Magicians trilogy, Grossman’s writing reflects a clear knowledge of literary structure, devices, and intertextuality. It meets all of Tolkien’s criteria for a true work of fantasy: magic is taken seriously, it is set within a believable non-technological secondary world, and it has the “consolation of a happy ending.” The Magicians trilogy could also be taken as a coming-of-age story portraying the journey of a Millennial (Quentin Coldwater) as he grapples with dreams smashed against the harsh post-collegiate world.
While Grossman told a fan that he did not spend much time concerned with religious questions, his novels reflect several key components of Christian theology: the Imago Dei separating man from the rest of creation, the necessity of divine death to resurrect life, and the fallen nature of the world. Just as Homer and Hesiod may not have believed in the Muses yet by invoking them raised a mythos on which their narratives rested, so Grossman invites the possibility of his novels fitting in the Lewis, Tolkien, and Waugh tradition of infusing his fictional world with Christian truth.
Grossman’s magic system corresponds with the Christian concept of the Imago Dei, man created in the image of God. Magic in this world is an endlessly inventive capacity possessed by some who spend a lifetime exploring its potential. As an inherent quality, magic must be developed, and it reaches its fullest expression in new creation. Magic is that part of humanity which aspires to divinity, and livens up a seemingly meaningless world. For those characters who have this quality but have not yet discovered it, reality is a drab, dull place.
These novels are excellently written, and unwittingly provide illustrations of profound truths. The world is a painful place, forcing the innocent to grow wise. Redemption does not come from personal righteousness, but requires the death of God.
Magic endows the world with meaning, and gives magicians a role as stewards of this great power. In Genesis YHWH creates man and gifts him with kingly authority, lordship over all creation. The world is his to work because he alone has the breath of life, the divine spark God breathed into Adam. Longing for beauty, truth, and goodness are all components of this Imago Dei
, and Grossman illustrates the necessity of cultivating humanity through the use of magic. Through magic, his protagonist temporarily rises to the divine in the final book.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Magician’s Land chronicles Quentin’s discovery of a spell of world creation, and concludes in his successfully creating his own land. Before this scene (which functions as an epilogue), Quentin participates in the cruciform conclusion of the trilogy. Michael Gorman coined the term “cruciform” to describe the cross-shaped, sacrifice-oriented way of life Christians should have as they await the eschaton. Cruciform seems the best way to describe the end of The Magicians’ Land. Fillory has a single god who inhabits two rams—Ember and Umber (a di-unity?)—and to save Fillory from self-destruction, the god must die. Only in divine blood can resurrection occur for the dying land.
Thus far, Grossman draws on Christian and Norse tradition, but he pulls from C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra for the finale. In Perelandra the Edenic temptation is reenacted, but Ransom kills the devil-figure, removing the temptation before another Fall can occur. In The Magician’s Land, Grossman explores what might have happened if Jesus (the sacrificial Lamb) had reached the Garden of Gethsemane and been too cowardly to die.
Ember the Ram-God waits for Quentin to arrive, knowing his death is necessary that Fillory must live. At the last moment, however, Ember struggles seeking to prolong His life. In contrast, Umber meekly submits to the sword. In the death of two rams, Fillory is given rebirth. The divine nature and power pass to Quentin, and he recreates the world resembling the Genesis creation account (even concluding in rest).
In Christian theology, rebirth and resurrection are possible only through the death of God. In Christ’s death, sinful humanity’s debt is paid. Grossman does not continue in this vein; he does not have a resurrected savior-figure. He does, however, have a quasi-Trinitarian correspondence.
Where Christianity maintains that God is one and three (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), Grossman concludes the recreation of Fillory with a conversation between three characters each of whom have held some portion of divinity throughout the story. Julia appears, now three-quarters divine and queen of the Dryads. She corresponds to God the Father, explaining the overall story. Alice, the recently restored human who had been a demon for the previous book, corresponds to the Holy Spirit. Quentin corresponds to God the Son, who created and sustained all things. These correspondences are not exact, but they form an interesting parallel at the end of a creation scene. Fillory, however, is done with gods. The power of the gods leaves Quentin and will remain dormant for an age. In essence, Quentin remade the world in a Deistic fashion, winding it up and calibrating Fillory to run without divine supervision.
The final element Grossman illustrates is the Christian understanding of the world as fallen. These novels trace the development of Quentin as an adult, moving from naïveté to disenchantment to finding joy in an evil world. As a child, Quentin longed for the purity and goodness he found in the Fillory books. He thought his magic training would lead him to the place of happiness; as he grows in the first two books, he learns that both Earth and Fillory are complex, evil realms inhabited by broken people. Fillory has a dark side, composed of monsters, villains, and laws which reject Quentin. Earth has disappointments.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n a way, Quentin resembles Odysseus, the “man of twists and turns” whose name translates as “son of suffering.” Out of suffering grows wisdom. From no other path can men grow to understanding, according to the Greeks. By the end of this trilogy, Quentin comes to believe that the world will always be fallen. His joy cannot come from escaping to a perfect, imaginary world like the Fillory of his eight-year-old imagination. Joy comes from struggling in the world, from human interactions. Joy is found in good food, excellent wine, and love worked out across years.
These novels are excellently written, and unwittingly provide illustrations of profound truths. The world is a painful place, forcing the innocent to grow wise. Redemption does not come from personal righteousness, but requires the death of God. Man is made bursting with potential, in the very image of God, yet few realize their potential.
While The Magicians trilogy highlights elements of Christian theology, it operates like half of a syllogism. Internally consistent, it neglects the hope Christianity offers. This broken world will be redeemed, recreated by the resurrected God who died for its sake. God died, but is not dead. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is the proof of redemption. Fulfillment of the Imago Dei is found not in becoming God, but in submitting to God.
Grossman writes a brilliant story, filled with vivid characters. While not himself a Christian, he reached for Christian truths which uphold his narrative. His story is like a tapestry woven on the loom of undergirding truth; because of the strength of the supporting truths, his story is that much stronger. His characters are real, with dark consequences that spiral beyond expectations. Their motivations run deep, pointing to desire for love and significance at the root of human nature.
Image: “Map of Fillory” from levgrossman.com