Ever since the publication of the first book in Lev Grossman’s Magician’s Trilogy, children’s booksellers have pondered whether a book so profoundly concerned with coming of age was appropriate for younger readers. Worth considering since they are the folks bracing themselves for that very passage. With the publication of The Magician’s Land, the third and final volume in the trilogy, it is time to have a stab at an answer.
“Sheep get like shepherds, and shepherds like sheep, it is said,” and this is particularly true of epic fantasies. Their narrative form and structure reflect their substance and creation. The task of completing the quest successfully is shared by author and protagonist.
In The Magician’s Land, the reader encounters an epic fantasy work which both embodies and transcends this paradigm by welding together the concepts of coming of age and world building. This is a powerful insight. Coming of age really is world building.
Grossman re-imagines the riddle of the sphinx here. We walk in fantasy worlds in our youth, experience adolescence as the upheaval and disorder which threatens that fantasy world, followed by the all or nothing apocalyptic stakes of building an adult world which both sustains, continues, and yet consumes its roots.
Quentin Coldwater, whose coming of age is the focus of the Magician’s Trilogy, suggests in The Magician’s Land that the fantasy world building paradigm established by Tolkien is one with training wheels. ” ‘What do you think magic is for?’ ‘I dunno. Don’t answer a question with a question.’ ‘I used to think about this a lot,’ Quentin said. ‘I mean, it’s not obvious like it is in books. It’s trickier. In books there’s always somebody standing by ready to say hey, the world’s in danger, evil’s on the rise, but if you’re really quick and take this ring and put it in that volcano over there everything will be fine. But in real life that guy never turns up. He’s never there. He’s busy handing out advice in the next universe over. In our world no one ever knows what to do, and everyone’s just as clueless and full of crap as everyone else, and you have to figure it all out by yourself.’”
On the surface this seems true. After all Gandalf is the ultimate parent. He’s always there for support, but will only give just enough support for you to be able to stand on your own feet and do it for yourself. But if no one is really there what are we doing looking over Quentin’s shoulder? We do have to figure it all out for ourselves, but watching someone else figure it out for themselves doesn’t hurt.
Is the Magican’s Trilogy appropriate for young adults? It depends on who they are, just as it depends on who you are, and what questions you are asking.
Perhaps you were wondering what it all means, and what the price of everything is. What it costs to build a real magical world interconnected with and responsive to the needs and hopes of your former selves, and the debts you owe to your intimate friends. What can an older person who has made and atoned for the same mistakes you made, give you that will actually help you breathe life into your world?
The Magician’s Trilogy has the answers. Read it and get to work, I say.