Posts Tagged ‘Narnia’

I once wrote a column about imaginary places that would be interesting choices for summer vacations: Neverland, Treasure Island, Oz, Middle-Earth, Avalon, Wonderland, Narnia. The latter was my favorite because of the thrill of pushing aside stuffy coats in the wardrobe to walk into a snowy world infused with magic. Narnia remains high on my list, but right now I’d like my passport stamped for Fillory. Oh, and while I’m there, I want to be a reigning monarch and ride a horse named Dauntless.

That’s what Quentin Coldwater is doing at the beginning of Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, the sequel to  The Magicians, my favorite fantasy of recent years. In that first novel, Brooklyn teen Quentin Coldwater matriculated at Brakebills, a secret, Ivy League-like college of magical pedagogy, where he learned real magic while fooling around with a select group of friends. All had grown up on a series of children’s novels about a magical land called Fillory — a sort of mash-up of Narnia, Middle-Earth and classic fairy-tale realms — and, after graduation, they discovered it was a real place. Adventures ensued, but so did tragedy, and Quentin returned to New York.

The Magician King begins two years later in Fillory. Quentin, two more Brakebills grads, and his high school friend Julia, who had to acquire her own magical powers after being rejected by Brakebills, have assumed the four thrones of Castle Whitespire and discovered that ruling over Fillory is a bit, uh, boring. But then Quentin and Julia sail to the Outer Island, hear the story of the Golden Keys and embark on a perilous quest that eventually finds them far from Fillory and struggling to return.

Interspersed is the backstory of Julia gaining her fierce magical powers, which are stranger, and perhaps stronger, than that of Brakebills. This becomes apparent when ancient forces threaten the portal Neitherlands, and the fate of Fillory hangs in the balance.

Dreams do come true, but not without great cost. Hearts are broken, hopes quashed, sacrifices demanded. Happily- ever-after is for fairy tales, and despite its fantastical flourishes, The Magician King is not a fairy tale. It’s an involving literary novel about what comes next after you’ve made the third wish and gotten what you thought you wanted. It’s sometimes thrillingly dark and dangerous but also frequently funny, filled with pop culture references and asides. Narnia is invoked, as are Harry Potter and Monty Python. Quentin and company refer to a diplomatic monarch as Fillory Clinton.

Early in the book, a character notes the things one likes about magicians; they are “disgustingly bright and rather sad and slightly askew.” Real. Like magic. Like Fillory.

Open Book: I bought the e-book version of The Magician King by Lev Grossman (Viking) as soon as it went on sale last week, downloading it in the middle of the night. Then I decided to reread The Magicians so I could spend as long as possible in Fillory. Now I am going through a box of old buttons. Fellow readers will understand.

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How hot is it? My Dad once said it was so hot that he saw the chain on his bicycle slither off into the woods like a snake to try and get cool. I stole that line and used it in a Sentinel column I wrote years ago about weathering the heat by reading about cold, snow and ice.

“It was dusk — winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees.”

Brrr. The first lines of childhood favorite, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken, always make me shiver. Part of it is Aiken’s evocative writing, but part of it is also anticipation of what lies ahead — two brave cousins, a wicked governess, and wolves howling in the darkness of the snowy English countryside. What fun! I happened to pick up my paperback copy while moving some books this morning and read it straight through. The resulting goosebumps reminded me of other favorite literary chillers.

Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising is a magical kids’ book as Will Stanton, the seventh son of a seventh son, opens his eyes to a mysterious snow-blanketed world, a “Midwinter Day that that had been waiting for him to wake into it since the day he had been born, and he somehow knew, for centuries before that.”

And who can forget the icy evil of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” or the White Witch ruling over Narnia in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass  has snowy vastness and armored polar bears.

Want more adult fare? Mark Helprin’s novel Winter’s Tale is set in a fantastical New York City where a Brooklyn milkhorse realizes he can fly, a 19th-century village is lost both in winter and in time, and a mayoral election is won on a promise to restore snow.

Charles Dickens excels at cold, bleak houses and cities, as well as merry Christmas scenes, as in The Pickwick Papers. The Russians — Pasternak, Tolstoy — are old hands at deep freezes. Martin Cruz Smith’s chilly thrillers include Gorky Park, where blood freezes on the snow, and Polar Star, where a killer tracks his prey across the ice caps of the Bering Sea.

The great blizzard of 1888 howls through “Wickedness,” the lead-off tale in Ron Hansen’s Nebraska. In short vignettes, he chronicles the story’s heroes and fools, from a schoolteacher who shelters her charges in a haystack to a teen who walks across a railroad trestle over the Missouri River. “Every creosote tie was tented in snow that angled down into dark troughs that Addie could fit a leg though. Everything else was night sky and mystery, and the world she knew had disappeared.”

The snow “is general all over Ireland” in James Joyce’s delicate story “The Dead” from Dubliners. “He watches sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight.” The flakes are purely imaginary in Conrad Aiken’s dreamlike tale “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” representing a young boy’s retreat from reality.

This time last year I was cooling off by standing on a glacier in Alberta, Canada and gazing at snowy mountain peaks. Now I’m hibernating from the Florida sun with the AC on high and my book of Robert Frost poems. I will watch the woods fill up with snow. Then I’ll bid farewell to a young orchard. “Good-by and keep cold.”

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I’m going to wait on butterbeer. My Theme Park Ranger pal Dewayne assures me it’s kind of yummy, but I can’t imagine that it’s good enough to make me stand in line when the the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opens June 18th at Universal Studios here in Orlando. Snow may be glistening on the turrets of Hogwarts, but it’s going to be crazy hot and crowded for months to come. So on the advice of friends who work there (and will not tell me ANY secrets because then they would have to kill me), I’m going to wait for winter — in some undetermined year — to visit. Maybe by then there’ll be diet butterbeer.

Meanwhile, I’m returning to Fillory, the enchanted kingdom at the center of one of my favorite books of recent years, The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Out in paperback now, it’s Harry Potter writ dark for adults who also are familiar with the transporting worlds of C.S. Lewis, T.H. White, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin and Lewis Carroll. Also, assorted fantasies, fairy tales, comic books, graphic novels and video games. Yet Grossman’s alchemy creates its own kind of magic.  Real magic.

After reading The Magicians last year, I’m pretty sure Fillory exists. You may think that it’s made up, like Narnia, and if you just find the right wardrobe, there’ll you be. Kid stuff. Well, that’s what Quentin Coldwater assumes before he walks down a Brooklyn alley and finds himself in upstate New York at Brakebills College, the Ivy League of modern sorcery. There’s drugs and drink and sex, and lots of  lying around and talking, because this is college. But the curriculum is difficult and dangerous. It’s more than smoke and mirrors and memorization, which can be boring. As Quentin and his classmates learn, you have to merge with magic. But to what end?

Ah, there’s the rub. What’s a young sorcerer to do in Manhattan these days? Find Fillory, of course — providing this mythic land exists outside the pages of a series of children’s books.

I’m following Quentin. I suspect a sequel’s in the works. That’s because borders.com is featuring a new short story by Grossman, “Endgame.” It stands on its own, but the end sounds like a beginning. Hope so.

Open Book: I bought my copy of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (Viking) when it came out in hardcover. I also have a copy of Grossman’s first novel, The Codex, which is different and good.

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