The Magicians: Expelliarmus Escapism


**Spoiler Alert**

Like my Horns review this essay is for 2 groups of people: those who have already read The Magicians, and those who have no intention of reading the book.


Expelliarmus, as Harry Potter fans may recall, is an incantation whereby a magician disarms an opponent. The opponent I hope to disarm through this essay is Fiction as Escapism. Like David trying to topple Goliath, I feel woefully ill-equipped to this task, as many many people buy into the lie that fiction in general, and fantasy in particular, can offer nothing more than a temporary flight from the cruel world we see to a light-filled Narnia/Middle Earth/Fillory we hope for.

This subject is, by the way, very personal to me.  There was a period of several years when I watched close family members submerge themselves in an endless wave of media. Tuesdays at their house involved a trip to the local Blockbuster, followed by several hours of watching through every new movie that came out that week. The in-between time was consumed by reality television, old movies, re-runs of old sitcoms, as well as several current sitcoms that just had to be watched.  It felt very much like watching Mildred, the wife of Montag in Fahrenheit 451, whose over-consumption of television created a chasm between her and her husband (and the world), and eventually led to her failed suicide attempt.

Dialogue did not exist in my family members home. Creativity did not exist. Their memories of the real world were being slowly burned away, as was their humanity. And like Martin Chatwin in The Magicians who fled into the fictional woods of Fillory, what was left was nothing more than a monster. In their desire to flee the cruel real world, they became egotistical, selfish, grumbling echoes of their former selves.

And so we meet Quentin Coldwater.

The protagonist and main character of The Magicians, Quentin is a ridiculously intelligent student who graduates at the top of his class in Brooklyn. We meet him en route to an interview for admission to Princeton; he is also hopelessly depressed and infatuated with a dream of entering the world of his favorite childhood books, Fillory and Further (a fictional series of books that Grossman “wrote” for use in The Magicians).

Quentin’s entire life has been a series of disappointments, despite his outstanding academic achievements, as he discovers that obtaining what he thinks he wants does not bring him the satisfaction he hoped for: “He had performed all the necessary rituals, spoken the words, lit the candles, made the sacrifices. But happiness, like a disobedient spirit, refused to come.

Through a series of magical encounters Quentin discovers that magic is real, and he is offered admission to Brakebills, a magician’s school in upstate New York not unlike Hogwarts.

At first everything is magical: he meets interesting people; he discovers a latent talent that he never knew he had; he even meets the woman of his dreams. But Quentin soon discovers that magic is not as enchanting as the Fillory books made it seem. Magic is hard grueling labor. It involves taxing mental concentration, a daily rigorous grind of finger exercises, and memorizing painstakingly long lists of spells, circumstances, and exceptions. And despite the initial excitement, Quentin learns that there is no transfiguration spell for the heart. He is still the same depressed, unhappy man that came to Brakebills.

The heart of this story is Alice, the woman that Quentin falls for. Unlike the other magicians, who are jaded by the world and then respond with hedonism, Alice maintains an adept’s heart, even when the man she loves betrays her. She understands Quentin as no one else does, and yet loves him. She is also the source of some of the book’s greatest insights.

Alice speaking on what a life with magic would really be like:

I know you think it’s going to be all quests and dragons and fighting evil and whatever, like in Fillory. I know that’s what you think. But it’s not. You don’t see it yet. There’s nothing out there.” She is referring to her family, describing what it’s like to be the child of magician parents, and how they’ve pittered their lives away on selfish, foolish, destructive hobbies. They have tremendous reality-bending powers, but their use of this power only results in more isolation, a greater widening of the relational gap between parents who do not love each other and cannot adequately love their daughter.

It is interesting to me that this magician family has the power to alter reality with their words, and yet they isolate themselves in silence from one another. They live in an enchanted Roman palace that grows ever more elaborate even as it widens the gap between them.  They become incapable of speaking into one another’s lives, and thereby unable to shape each other’s world.

This relational gap between people is one of the key themes of the book. Grossman does not explicity state why this gap exists, though he alludes to the price of being the smartest, the best, the top tier, as the reason for this isolation. And there is certainly something to that. But the true source of the gap is sin. Alice’s parents hated one another, and this resulted in isolation and devastation. Quentin cheated on Alice, which led to Alice cheating on him, and a wedge was driven between them. And at the heart of Quentin’s unhappiness is a tightly wound ball of bitterness that isolates him from everyone.

It is this bitterness–against his parents, against himself, against his experiences–that fuels his desire to escape into the fictional world of Fillory. At his core, he believes that this will save him.

And he gets what he wants. He goes to Fillory…and is miserable. And in danger. And more isolated than ever. It is Alice, faithful Alice, who calls him out on his real problem:

Do you want to be the only asshole who went to Fillory and was miserable there? Even in Fillory? Because that’s who you are right now.

And Alice gives him the advice that only someone who truly loves him could give:

Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.

Escapism is the lie that a change of location will bring a change to happiness. Grossman wrote this book partly in reaction to Lewis’ Narnia books, and the belief that many Christians have that Narnia (aka “Aslan’s country” aka “heaven”) is real. Quentin discovers that Fillory is real, just like many Narnia readers discover that Lewis wrote about something he, too, believed was real.

I have met many Christians whose hope in the Rapture is little better than Quentin’s hope in Fillory: their attitude is terrible, their lives are a disaster, but they maintain the hope that an escape to heaven will bring the happiness they long for.

The sad reality is that heaven is real, just like Quentin discovered that Fillory was real, just like Lewis understood that Aslan’s country was real. But it is not Aslan’s country that brings happiness. It is Aslan himself. What Quentin needs, what I need, what all of us are longing for in escapist fiction, is an escape from ourselves. And like Eustace discovered in the The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,  we are all dragons who need our hardened skins torn off.  

You have to let me undress you,” Aslan told [us].

Eustace could not remove his dragon skin just as Quentin could not remove his bitterness. Quentin goes from Brooklyn to Brakebills to Fillory, longing to escape, never realizing his prison was his own heart.

It is Christ, Aslan, God Himself, who alone holds the key to our prison. And though it tear us to pieces, though it wound us, though it humiliate us to ask for help, we must ask him to tear off our hardened skins. We must ask him to disarm our own hopes of escape. We need him to speak magical words that only He can utter:

“Child, your sins are forgiven.”


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