When I re-read Harry Potter, I start from the third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban. It’s where the first hints of darkness come into the series and begin to taint the innocence and adventures of the earlier books – when the stakes are raised from pre-teen adventures with Basilisks and diaries to a more sinister plot involving an escaped murderer and literal joy-sucking prison guards hanging around a school. It’s more exciting. Frankly, the first two Harry Potter books feel too simplistic now, too naïve – I can’t return to that original feeling of untarnished wonder that so captivated me as a child. This disillusionment is not a unique feeling – almost an entire generation can be described as post-Harry Potter, raised in the world of Hogwarts. But just like the titular magic boy himself, we have graduated. Lev Grossman’s fantastic Magicians Trilogy exists because of disillusionment – it’s written for the post-Harry Potter generation.
If you haven’t read the Magicians Trilogy (in which case I recommend you go and read it now instead of this article, otherwise it will be spoiled!), it was described semi-snarkily by the New York Times as ‘what could be crudely labelled as Harry Potter for adults’ due to the very established parallels. Like Harry Potter, it’s about a secret magic world that exists uneasily alongside the “real” world, and takes place mostly in a school. In The Magicians, the first book of the trilogy, Quentin Coldwater, a kind of disaffected, ennui-ridden Brooklynite gets mystically accepted to Brakebills College, an obvious Hogwarts equivalent. Rather than discovering that magic is purely wondrous and joyous, he instead finds it’s perniciously and punishingly complicated, and furthermore, vaguely useless. There’s an overarching question of what one is supposed to actually do after they’ve learned to literally change the world via magic. Magicians can no longer comfortably fit in with regular society, as they now transcend the majority of concerns that humanity shares – their survival is easy because of their magic. Graduated wizards either devote their lives to esoteric and mostly pointless pursuits, or end up back at Brakebills as teachers. Grossman, who has also done his fair share of time in academia, could well be making a point about postgraduate study. It’s also a fair point to make that Quentin, a weird, Young Adult-book-obsessed depressive, is maybe meant to represent us, the adult reader of Harry Potter.
Quentin, a weird, Young Adult-book-obsessed depressive, [may represent] the adult reader of Harry Potter.
It’s this theme of magical ennui which I believe places the Magicians Trilogy as the ‘Harry Potter for adults’, rather than just simply following the obvious plot similarities. The disaffection that the characters almost routinely suffer from in The Magicians is a harsh juxtaposition to practically every emotion felt in Harry Potter. The ground has already been laid for a twist on the established magical school formula that J.K. Rowling both perfected and made insanely popular. Furthermore, while we can all still enjoy Harry Potter, we have been ejected from the books in a sense. They finished being published years ago, and now exist very much as something from the past. Revisiting the concept of a magical world as adults, but through the far more jaded eyes of Lev Grossman, leads not so much to ennui, but to a strong sense of disillusionment.
Disillusionment is very much the concept that Lev Grossman is playing with in his books – not only does The Magicians benefit from a post-Potter readership, but the text clearly focuses on stripping back any safe harbor for both its characters and the audience. This is where Fillory comes into play. Fillory are a series of books that exist inside The Magicians, and is Grossman’s ‘Narnia’, complete with magical beasts, fairy castles and peppy British kids ‘the Chatwins’ who go on adventures in the summer holidays.
Quentin Coldwater is obsessed to the point of social dysfunction with the Fillory books, and after realizing that Brakebills and the world of magic is both limited and kind of sad, he makes the shocking discovery that Fillory, a fictional world, also actually exists. A double bluff is clearly established here – Brakebills is no Hogwarts, but at least we have a whimsical world of satyrs and talking mice to take refuge in. Fillory is set up as a utopia – but once Quentin and his pals manage to get there, they discover that while the wonder does exist in spades, it is a poisoned utopia. The introduction of humanity has soured the perfection that Quentin had dreamed of so much – there is no innocence. The terrifying villain of the series, The Beast, who lives in Fillory, ends up being Martin Chatwin, a missing Chatwin boy. His story is deliberately dark and horrifying – sexually abused by the beloved author of the Fillory books, Christopher Plover, he is expelled from Fillory for being ‘impure’. After forcing his way back in to the books, he sacrifices his humanity to become powerful enough to stay forever. Quentin feels that it is both his destiny to stop The Beast and to become a King of Fillory. While both do eventually happen, Quentin’s girlfriend Alice dies horribly in the process, and eventually Quentin himself is expelled, back into the dreariness of reality.
For the Harry Potter fandom, there could also be a notion of Hogwarts being slowly poisoned by age and reality.
Utopias are dangerous concepts for people in Grossman’s novels – not because of the peril that might exist in Fillory, which is very real and dangerous (including hostile ram gods and marauding armies), but because of the false hope that a utopia inspires, and the unbearable disillusionment that occurs when they fail to live up to that hope. It’s not that the situation in Fillory becomes unliveable and dystopic for Quentin – it’s that because he wanted it to be perfect, and it failed to live up to that hope, his life either there, or back in the real world, becomes unbearable to live in, without the idea of somewhere ‘better’ to be. There’s the notion of poisoning your own utopia – for Quentin, if Fillory had remained as a pure yet untouchable concept he would never have had the pain of having his illusion dispelled. It’s similar to the pain that I could imagine a homophobic Harry Potter fan would have experienced after learning that Dumbledore was canonically a gay man, according to J.K. Rowling. The only romantic love of Quentin’s life ‘died’ in Fillory, forever bringing notions of mortality and loss into his fairytale world. He now has to live with the knowledge that he was ejected from his closest ideal utopia that he could find. Similarly, for Martin Chatwin, the effort of trying to hold on to his utopia literally corrupted both him and the world. In The Magicians, utopias are bad – or at least trying to engage with them is a bad practice, trying to turn them from impossible to possible a ruinous activity.
For the Harry Potter fandom, there could also be a notion of Hogwarts being slowly poisoned by age and reality. It seems only a few months can go by without J.K. Rowling releasing yet another addendum to the story – such as the fact that we’d all been saying Voldemort’s name incorrectly, certain character motivations, and canonical confirmations about the characters’ post-book lives. While ‘poisoned’ is a strong word for what is mostly harmless posthumous additions that aren’t entirely supported by the text, it is interesting that the adult fan-base is holding on so tightly to these beloved books that the world of the text is changing as a result. I’m definitely not saying that re-reading Harry Potter as an adult is a bad, dangerous or sad experience – I re-read them once every year at least. But it is a different experience from doing it as a child, and one that will continue to change the more you age. I can only imagine what it would be like reading the books you loved as a child to your own children. Both sweet and sad, I’d envision.
While the Magicians Trilogy could be seen as a rather cynical re-working of the Harry Potter universe, actually it’s not. The premise is put forth that we can always read the wondrous books of our youths – our Potters, our Narnias, our Fillorys – but we can never be a kid, reading it for the first time again. There’s something a little bit sad, but very real and inevitable about this. When we re-read Harry Potter, we do so as adults, and while we can still hope to pick up echoes of that original joy and wonder, we also bring with us new, adult appreciations. The Magicians Trilogy acknowledges and celebrates that – as an adult, I love those books with a fierce joy, made entirely possible from being a kid who read Rowling. Quentin Coldwater isn’t a more adult version of Harry Potter, but rather a new character, and a new world, for adults that love Harry Potter. During the second book, The Magician King, Quentin spends his entire time desperate to return to the magical world of Fillory, forced to reside in the bland, mundane real world – it’s at this moment that I think Quentin represents us as adults, always aware of what we’ve left behind.