The curse of the accomplished critic is often to love and respect art with an overwhelming passion, but to be unable to enter that world as a creator of new material. The problem on the one hand is to be so immersed in the work of others that it can be hard to find your own voice, and on the other hand, to have a critical voice so highly developed that you can find it hard to produce material that meets your own standards. From that point of view, one must applaud Lev Grossman, noted book critic (for Time magazine, among others) and bestselling author of The Magicians Trilogy, first for writing at all, and second for making (to a certain extent) a virtue out of his occupational weaknesses.
The Magicians, the first book in the trilogy, quite openly presents itself as a mash-up of J. K. Rowling’s bestselling young-adult fantasy series, Harry Potter, and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis’s perennially popular classic series of fantasy allegories, The Chronicles of Narnia, except as recast with characters who are older, more contemporary, less innocent, and (if one is being honest) considerably less appealing. It follows the misadventures of Quentin Coldwater, a disaffected suburban wunderkind who has never gotten over his childhood obsession with a Narnia-like series of books about a magical fantasyland called “Fillory.” Upon graduating high school, Quentin is delighted to learn magic is real when he is recruited, not by the real-world Ivy League institutions attended by Grossman, but by a cross between Harvard and Hogwarts called “Brakebills.” Soon, however, he learns that no spell is strong enough to allow him and his selfish, entitled friends to escape the fallout of their own miserable personality defects.
I abandoned the series for several years after completing the first installment. Grossman is undoubtedly a talented and engaging writer, but the novel’s best moments felt stolen from the source material. Like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the book is sometimes less a novel than a palimpsest, with new characters and situations seemingly scrawled right over top of the old ones. Then too, it was impossible not to identify the author with his main character, a fan pining for a lost fantasyland, who miraculously discovers the power to re-enter it (in Quentin’s case, by magic, in Grossman’s case, through writing) but then finds himself helplessly unable to avoid degrading and debasing it.
Fortunately the second and third books turned out to be vast improvements; the characters were more mature, and the writing, by and large, more original. In addition, while Grossman, with a daring shamelessness, continued to import entire set pieces from Narnia, it became more clear that he had a higher aim behind his thievery. Putting the second hazard of his craft, the unstoppable critical voice, to work, he was interrogating the elements of the Narnia myth one-by-one, sussing out their weaknesses and inconsistencies, and tirelessly searching, along with his characters, for the secret of exactly where the magic lies.
It is impossible, of course, to approach Narnia critically without engaging its unique marriage of children’s fantasy and Christian allegory. The entire series, with its playful and occasionally dark magic, is an extended metaphor for the Christian’s journey with God, in the person of Jesus Christ, as portrayed in Narnia by the majestic talking lion Aslan. This results in some undeniable oddities, notably including some unorthodox theological claims. Aside from the uncomfortably pagan portrayal of Christ in the form of an animal (and not even the traditional “Lamb of God”!), the series features the occasional appearance of ancient Greek gods and other nature spirits, as well as a highly non-Biblical insistence on belief in magic as an essential spiritual practice. Perhaps its greatest departure from orthodoxy, however, is the explicit theological claim (in The Last Battle) that the quality and nature of your worship is more important than the name you place on it, or, as Lewis said elsewhere, “I think that every prayer which is sincerely made even to a false god, or to a very imperfectly conceived true God, is accepted by the true God and that Christ saves many who do not think they know him.” (It is perhaps a testament to Lewis’ high reputation as a leading modern exponent of Christianity that he is able to make such statements largely unchallenged.)
Such elements of Narnia are ruthlessly deconstructed and parodied by Grossman, who, I think it is safe to assume, is no believer. Here in Fillory, we find echoes of Narnian travels to the End of the World, the underworld, the interstitial between-world, and the beginning and end of the universe. Here too we see a travesty on Aslan, the noble and divine lion, in the form of two ineffectual and unhelpful twin rams, who (in an unacknowledged nod to Philip Pullman’s savagely anti-Narnian series, His Dark Materials) are slaughtered by the protagonist at the trilogy’s conclusion. As each of Narnia’s set pieces is deconstructed, examined, and hung out to dry, both the characters and the author seem to be asking themselves, with increasing desperation, “Where is the magic? Where is the magic?” There are faint echoes here of the man from the fairy tale who butchered the goose that laid the golden egg, yet failed to find any gold inside.
It is impossible to understand Lewis, I would venture, without recognizing him as a Neoplatonist, and Narnia itself as Neoplatonic in form and conception. The Neoplatonists were disciples of Plato who attached an explicitly religious interpretation to Plato’s description of the sensible universe as degraded imitation of a more perfect reality, of all existence as shadows orbiting around a single perfect, godlike unity called the “Ideal of Good.” The Neoplatonic insight is that evil is not hard to explain, but what is difficult to explain is good. Evil is nothing but imperfection, things working out badly or not at all. Good is miraculous, it demands the existence of an original source. Just as all warm things on Earth ultimately derive their heat from the sun, all good things, in the Platonic view, ultimately derive their good qualities from the Ideal of Good, or as the Neoplatonists would have it, God. From this point of view, anything that brings you closer to the Ideal of Good is good, anything that takes you farther from it is bad.
If you understand this, you understand Lewis, and you understand Narnia. Lewis, who was an atheist throughout his teenaged years and young adulthood, first fell in love with the old myths and fantastic stories of the ancient Norse and Greeks. It was his deeply held desire that the supernatural be real, and his incipient Neoplatonism, that eventually led him back to his belief that Christianity represented the one “True Myth,” in relation to which all the other myths existed as illusionary copies (just like the shadows on the wall of Plato’s famous cave). Viewed in this light, Narnia is what Plato called “the Noble Lie,” a story, wholly fictional and false by ordinary standards, but which exists solely to point people in the direction of a deeper truth. This explains Lewis’ hyper-catholic willingness to include magic, giants, talking animals, witches, dwarfs, and even pagan gods in a story all about Christianity.
Where does this leave Fillory? Oddly enough, even without the author’s cooperation, Fillory falls solidly within the Neoplatonic cosmology. It is a copy of a copy, a shadow of a shadow. Even its characters often seem to have a vague apprehension that they are living in an ersatz universe, a degraded copy of a better original. In many ways, it is reminiscent of the most purely Neoplatonic moment in the original Narnia series, not the end, where the characters travel ever inward through an increasingly perfect (and increasingly unconvincing) set of nested universes, but a smaller and less dramatic moment from The Silver Chair. In that scene, the protagonists are trapped underground by a witch, who attempts to convince them that the Narnia of the surface that they remember is nothing but a dream.
All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a playworld which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the playworld. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.
There is a danger to the Noble Lie. It is a bridge between the world of cold fact and the Deeper Truth, but it can also bridge the other direction, from the fact to the fiction. And in the case that there is no Deeper Truth, the Noble Lie is nothing but a lie, robbed of all nobility. Narnia, as well, is a bridge that runs two directions, from paganism to Christianity, but also from Christianity back to paganism (and on outwards to Fillory and Pullman’s harsh multiverse beyond). And in the case that Christianity is false, then Narnia is a bridge to nowhere.
For all that, however, the elusive secret to Narnia’s magic is simple to explain. It is neither the spells nor the miracles, nor the literary special effects that conjure up dragons and giants, mystical portals and interdimensional forests. Rather it is the fact that it compels the reader to believe in a better world somewhere, and not just to believe in it, but to long for it.
At its best, Fillory contains a bit of that same magic as well, sometimes in its most original passages, and sometimes in its most slavishly imitative ones. It allows the jaded adult reader, for just a moment, to remember what it was like to be a child, and to believe with full faith that magic really exists. I think that would make Lewis happy.
Chris Sunami writes the blog “The Pop Culture Philosopher,” and is the author of several books, including the social-justice oriented Christian devotional Hero For Christ. He is married to artist April Sunami, and lives in Columbus, Ohio.