American fantasy


In Lev Grossman’s delightful, if slightly disturbing, 2009 book, The Magicians, the author draws high fantasy’s sword from the stone one more time, but manages to sharpen and harden the edge to slice and dice a re-imagining of a fantasy world that is tougher, more mature, and more realistic than, say, the high-school world of Harry Potter or that of Narnia’s more innocent children.

Grossman’s modern setting begins in New York, then moves to a pastoral college for magicians in upstate New York on the Hudson. In fact, the literate students refer to both the Harry Potter body of fiction and to a Narnia-like set of book called the Fillory chronicles, Fillory and Further, a set of five novels for children “published in England in the 1930s.” In his fresh, post-modernist look at fantasy, Grossman manages to both playfully mock the conventions of fantasy, and yet to draw from it and add his own vision to that grand literary universe.

A central conceit is to seriously tackle the implications of magic on these young adults. What would these awesome powers of manipulation do to a person’s emotions, to his/her ethics, to daily motivation, to long-term ambition . . . if so much could be conjured and controlled? The characters at Brakebills College suffer a realistic cycle of doubt, exhilaration, ennui, insouciance, personal bonding and betrayal, all pulled down by the hedonism of booze and sex, the difficulty of taking anything seriously when so much is variable.

In particular, Quentin Coldwater and his colleagues struggle with the challenge of imagining any career after school that would have the artificial intensity and systems of expectations and rewards as the world of rigorous academia.

Grossman shows at least one set of parents, magicians themselves, who have descended into apathy, near lunacy, and he talks about other magical graduates with great powers and low ambitions that spend their time in irrelevant pursuits, working at hedge funds making easy money or randomly tinkering with magical problems of insignificance.

What is the motivation for a magician, if they don’t believe in a Narnia-like goodness, with Aslan to reassure in times of doubt? What if they don’t have the slightly narrow-minded pluckiness of Harry Potter and his buddies, ever fighting the good fight?

In The Magicians, the secret for genuine success as a magician is a difficult combination, and there seem to be as many who fail as those who succeed. Magic is tougher than it looks, especially for anyone who’s read the fantasy books — as have Quentin and his friends, as have we all — where stories fall into place, where plucky, good-hearted individuals wend their way through plots designed to challenge, motivate, and ultimately lead to success.

The “real world” of being a magician just isn’t so pat.

From The Magicians (p. 44):

“You don’t just wave a wand and yell some made-up Latin. There’s reasons why most people can’t do it.”

“Which are what?” Quentin asked.

“The reasons why most people can’t do magic? Well.” Eliot held up a long, thin finger. “One, it’s very hard, and they’re not smart enough. Two, it’s very hard, and they’re not obsessive and miserable enough to do all the work you have to do to do it right. Three, they lack the guidance and mentorship provided by the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. And four, they lack the tough, starchy moral fiber necessary to wield awesome magical energies calmly and responsibly.

“And five”—he stuck up his thumb—”some people have all that stuff and they still can’t do it. Nobody knows why. They say the words, wave their arms, and nothing happens. Poor bastards. But that’s not us. We’re the lucky ones. We have it, whatever it is.”

“I don’t know if I have the moral fiber one.”

“I don’t either. I think that one’s optional, actually.”

The moral-fiber part of the equation is the key to Grossman’s literary questioning of fantasy. What if it’s not all so clear?

Amazingly, he manages to let us inside the questioning, while not kicking away all of the parts of fantasy that we love so much.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

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Frederic S. Durbin’s novel Dragonfly (Arkham House hardcover 1999, Ace Fantasy paperback 2005) has a wonderful sense of place, deeply rooted in the central Illinois town Durbin grew up in.

In that dark fantasy novel, 10-year-old Bridget Ann (nicknamed “Dragonfly”) lives in her Uncle Henry’s small-town funeral parlor. As Hallowe’en approaches, strange things are happening, and Uncle Henry summons a mysterious friend, Mothkin, to investigate. Together, Dragonfly and Mothkin discover a doorway in the basement to the spooky underground world of “Harvest Moon.”

Dragonfly begins:

Bad things were starting to happen again in Uncle Henry’s basement. These were things that had happened before, when the wind swung round, when the trees all felt the blood rush to their leaves after the exertion of August and the idling of September; when the chuckle-dark harvest moon shaped pumpkins in its own image, brought its secret wine flush to the scarecrows’ cheeks; when the rich bounties of the land lay plump for the taking and the light left them alone for longer and longer at a time.

In an interview by Nicholas Ozment, Durbin talked about the Midwestern sense of place so present in Dragonfly:

One delightful thing about the rural Midwest is that we have the sunny, upper surface of things—big sky, open fields, honest horizons keeping their polite distance. But then we’ve got these secret spaces: old farmhouses with attics and basements, barns, whispery hedgerows, and the creeks cutting across the land, overshadowed by thick, dark timber. Three steps out of the field, and you’re in this hidden world of shadows. The land itself is like a perfect model for a story.

The novel reminds me of Ray Bradbury, another son of small-town Illinois. And in the Ozment interview, Durbin confirmed he was naturally inspired by Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Mr. Cougar and Mr. Dark’s carnival [in Something Wicked] is a whole lot like my Harvest Moon bunch—and the bad guys even fly around in a balloon! Several people have told me my style reminds them of Ray Bradbury’s. Our “way of moving the camera is the same,” as one friend puts it. I suppose it’s natural, since we’re both Illinois boys from small towns. We seem to think a lot of the same things are numinous.

Here are a few more lines from Dragonfly:

I always marvel at October, how it can be so full of opposites. It’s as if, since the leaves are doing something so dramatic and carefree in changing all those colors, the Earth thinks it can get away with anything.  . . . Take that smoky smell: you don’t see all that many people actually burning things, but that smell is everywhere, drifting behind the rarity of the air like hidden darkness pooling behind the light, like Earth makes it somewhere in secret and slips it into the scheme of things, thinking no one will notice.

Durbin also writes for Cricket (for children), and Cicada (for young adults). Here’s some of his insightful thoughts on the topic of dark fantasy, or horror stories, for young readers, again from the Ozment interview.

Ozment: You mentioned that you grew up reading Grimm’s fairy tales—the real stuff, not the expurgated versions. Do you think a dose of terror is healthy for young imaginations?

Durbin: We have to be very careful how we define “terror.” It is most definitely not healthy to expose children to the cruelty, gore, and sickness that run so rampant today in the horror genre. A friend of mine says, “It matters what images we put into our minds, because we’ll never, ever get them out.” That’s true for adults, and it’s even truer for minds that are young, impressionable, and in full absorption mode.
That having been said, it’s also true that no one can shelter kids from scary ideas. Kids will encounter horror. On the one hand, they have life experiences: pets die, relatives die, people get hurt, and you always hear things. On the other hand, kids seek out horror. There’s a monster in the basement, they know, because they’ve got their ears pressed to the basement door, they’ve opened it a crack, they’ve tiptoed down to the third, squeaky step. Kids will find things to be terrified of. I was so scared of a moss troll doll that my mom had to hide it in a drawer. Every year or so I’d beg her to get it out again, and she’d finally oblige, and I’d be so scared she’d have to hide it again. See? It’s the moth to the flame. Kids passionately want to be scared in a safe environment.

That environment is the key. If a child is happy and secure, with parents who behave like parents, he or she has a sense of perspective. There’s a line between real life and the Dark Woods. In that situation, yes, fictional horror can be a delight and, like any good story, can help kids grow. But I make a distinction here between scary stories and the sick, disturbing stories of cruelty—those aren’t good for anyone. And I can only pray God help the children who don’t have a healthy, safe environment. As fantasists, with our stories of dedication, love, and the triumph of goodness, we try to throw those kids a lifeline.

For the rest of that excellent interview, visit Ozment’s blog, Ozmentality. Nicholas Ozment teaches English at Winona State University, and also writes speculative fiction: fantasy, horror, and magic realism, and reviews horror movies at http://www.downinthecellar.com. His essay “Gandalf’s Staff, Prospero’s Books: The Ethics of Magic in Tolkien and Shakespeare” appears in Tolkien and Shakespeare: Essays on Shared Themes and Language (McFarland Press, 2007).

At the time of the 2008 interview, Frederic S. Durbin had been living in Japan for more than a decade, teaching English at Niigata University.