A book of Fillory tales

The Magicians
by Lev Grossman.
Arrow Books, 2009.

Martin Chatwin was not an ordinary boy, but he thought that he was. In fact he was unusually clever and brave and kind for his age, he just didn’t know it. Martin thought that he was just an ordinary boy…
— Christopher Plover, The World in the Walls

You will of course have heard of the popular Fillory series by the late Christopher Plover (pronounced ‘Pluvver’, like the wading bird). In order the five titles are The World in the Walls, The Girl Who Told Time, The Flying Forest, The Secret Sea and The Wandering Dune.

You will also know all about the Chatwin children — Martin, Rupert, Fiona, Helen and Jane — and how they manage to escape to the magical land of Fillory, where they have adventures before they are called back to their own world.

And you will remember that Martin was the only sibling to remain in Fillory because after The Wandering Dune the series just stopped, not long before Plover died in 1939.

The Chronicles of Fillory

You don’t remember? Surely you must — there’s even a Facebook page, Christopher Plover: The Fillory Series, to remind us. At least, it’s a page maintained by Lev Grossman or his publishers … but, ah, hang on. Doesn’t the Fillory series smack a bit of The Chronicles of Narnia? Of course it does, because Fillory is very much a deliberate exercise by Grossman to create something metafictional as well serving as a homage to Narnia. I have to say that in The Magicians Grossman carries off this particular sleight of hand extremely well (it’s fooled some gullible readers): it’s all about worlds within worlds – or, rather, parallel worlds.

In fact the novel describes a world very like our own except that real magic exists; the Narnia books never appeared but the Fillory series did; and J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books certainly get referenced (Hermione, threstrals, broomsticks, wands and the cottage in the grounds) but there is no South Pole Base in Antarctica. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that fantasy world of Fillory really existed on some plane of existence which one could readily access? Well, wouldn’t it?

© C A Lovegrove

Quentin Coldwater is seventeen, and is off down Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue to be interviewed for Princeton. It doesn’t go according to plan. There’s a dead body, a mysterious messenger and an enigmatic manuscript entitled The Magicians: Book Six of Fillory and Further. Then there’s a space in some waste ground which shouldn’t exist…

Somehow Quentin joins the new intake of Brakebills College, a higher education institution like no other in North America. Imagine the Hampden College student clique from Donna Tartt’s The Secret History plonked into some kind of Hogwarts University; remember the same intensity, the similarly obscure subject matter, the same possibilities for violent death — with the addition of magic. We see everything through the main protagonist’s eyes — family, staff, friends, enemies — while, simmering in the background, there is the clique’s collective obsession with the childhood novels of Fillory, and the fantasy that it may be a real place. But how dangerous would it be to enter this fictional world if access were ever possible?

I really did enjoy this book which, despite its nearly 500 pages, kept me reading avidly. It takes us at a steady pace through five years of Quentin’s education and beyond, with a tightknit quintet of friends, lovers and fellow students — Quentin, Eliot, Alice, Janet and Josh — sharing leisure, study and experiences. There are no paragons of virtue here, and they all have their weaknesses and foibles as well as strengths of character and magic abilities.

Grossman somehow managed to sustain this reader’s affection for these flawed oddball characters, particularly Quentin: on the surface it’s hard to like a student who finds A grades easy yet spends much of the time vacillating and being depressed, but at a deeper level it’s easy to empathise with the growing pains of adolescence and the sense of being an outsider. I also rather suspect that there is a lot of Grossman himself in the figure of Quentin, which must lend depth to his characterisation.

Fiction dealing with the possibility of magic in a ‘real’ world for me preferably has to provide some kind of rationale for its nature and its limits, or at least construct a framework on which to hang it. All through The Magicians characters try to get a handle on this without the author actually specifying either nature or limitations; they theorise and experiment and create, they are catalysts at times or the magic is channelled through them.

But always the narrative drives any reservations I might have aside, for example in the epic journey of the geese from New York to Antarctica (perhaps inspired by Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose, with the concept of a person’s spirit reincarnated in the body of a bird). For all its length there’s a deep satisfaction in the author’s plotting, where incidents apparently casually dropped into the action are shown to have significance later when you’ve all but forgotten them.

Renaissance pentagram

I have mentioned the occurrence of the number five — five undergraduates, five years of study, five books of Fillory — and it turns up in other ways, such as the pentagram tattooed on the backs of Brakebills graduates. But there is a sense that the number sequence continues. Fillory is the key: six graduates discover the ultimate secret in the sixth year after commencing at Brakebills; the purported Book Six of the fantasy series Quentin glimpses early on is entitled The Magicians, and in a sense Grossman’s novel is that sixth book, with the same title and promising resolution of several mysteries.

The Magicians seems to me absolute recompense for my disappointment in the same author’s Codex. The good news is that it’s part of a trilogy, subsequent volumes having been well received (though I’ve taken care to avoid reading any spoilers). The ultimate test for me of any book is, would I read it again? The answer, to paraphrase Christopher Plover, is that this is no ordinary book, and that it will go on the appropriate shelf for a revisit. Along with the realm Fillory.

@WyrdAndWonder Flying witch artwork by astromoali, magic portal artwork by Tithi Luadthong

Review first published 29th January, 2015, slightly edited. Another review, by Lizzie Ross, appears here: HP for adults. Book 2 follows; the trilogy forms an interesting addendum to the #Narniathon21 readalong

#Narniathon21 image after Pauline Baynes

19 thoughts on “A book of Fillory tales

  1. For a moment, before I clicked the “read more” button on my reader, I thought that Grossman wrote the Fillory books for Magicians fans to enjoy! Then I realised my mistake, ahaha. I enjoyed this book but never did pick up the second or third book. Wonder if they live up to the first.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the Fillory books could be ‘reconstructed’ and expanded according to the clues in this novel! It wouldn’t be the first time this has been tried — I think that’s been done with Lovecraft’s ‘forbidden’ tome, The Necronomicon.

      I’ll certainly look out for the sequels — I think no 3 has not long been published.


  2. Plover’s Facebook page could be a bit of fan fiction — for instance, I’m friends with E M Forster, and several thousand people are following Geoffrey Chaucer’s tweets.
    But regardless of who’s responsible, the fact that there are even covers for the Fillory books says much about how well Grossman has done his work creating two worlds so believable, we get confused about the line between the real and the real-ish. I know Plover and his books don’t exist, yet I was disappointed when the Facebook link to Plover’s website took me to a Not Found page.
    PS: Thanks for the ping back.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The mockumentary evidence for Plover and Fillory is such that even though intellectually we know it’s all faux there’s still a part of us that emotionally would like to willingly suspend disbelief.

      The pingback was in grateful recognition of your part in introducing this to me, Lizzie, but I see WP is awash with reviews for it and the sequels. Luckily I’ve chosen not to look closely at these!

      By the way, Lizzie, how do you pronounce Fillory? Is it Filory to rhyme with ‘gory’, as I first took it to be? Or is it Filory to rhyme with ‘pillory’ as I eventually thought it must be?

      I also wondered why he alighted on this particular hapax legomenon other than because no-one else had used it — and decided that it was close enough to the word ‘fairy’ without it being obviously so. In other words, the Physical Kids (and before them, the Chatwins) go off to Fairyland or the Faerie Realms.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Definitely Fillory to rhyme with pillory (is there only one way to pronounce the latter?).
        Thanks for “hapax legomenon” — a term worth its weight in movable type/Gothic.
        As for how Grossman happened upon “Fillory”, I have no insights. I do wonder, however, why many real and imagined country’s names end in -y. Something about the diminutive nature of that suffix.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, Lizzie, so many three-syllable countries and regions ending in -y (Hungary, Germany, Italy; Brittany, Picardy, Sicily) — some influenced by French versions of Italian/Latin placenames, typically Italy itself: l’Italie, Italia. Certainly the stress shifts with the more Latinised words like Romania, Nigeria, Columbia…

          And now my mind is in freefall word association — filigree, or Philadelphia … Must stop, that way madness lies.

          Liked by 1 person

            1. The first two books I borrowed from the library, the last I bought through Amazon, but if your local bookshop or bookstore can’t or won’t order them for you (though they’re very popular) a search online will easily locate them.


  3. I really love the concept of basing part of a plot on unreal books. Unreal! Even though the author’s name is somewhat off-putting – but I should Lev the gross man part alone, perhaps.
    I think I must contrive to read this somehow, even with my current zero reading time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t read his first novel but on the evidence of his second, Codex, he likes his metafiction, as this latter is based on the premise that a previously unknown medieval work actually exists, the codex of the title. As he’s a book reviewer such conceits would come naturally — I’ve done it too with a review on April Fool’s Day last year so I understand this kind of imperative.


  4. Pingback: Re-enchantment’s of the World Third Anniversary! | Re-enchantment Of The World

  5. I am definitely looking this book up. Reading your description I immediately think of Neverending Story, and one of the most terrifying yet desirable wants of my childhood: to walk the land of beloved books. Excellent post as always. x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the appreciation, Jean, and also for all your retweets of previous posts. I’ve not read The Neverending Story though of course the appeal of being able to travel somewhere where your favourite books come to life is always there!

      I’ve reviewed the first two in this Magicians series but not the third, but now it’s been so long I’ll have to read it again. Ho hum.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Aonghus Fallon

    It’s been a while since I read these. Think the first book was the best?? Ember the Ram* was a nice touch.

    * the equivalent of Aslan in Fillory (for those who haven’t read the series).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Each book had its own feel, Aonghus, so it’s tricky for me to say which was ‘best’ – I prefer to think of the trilogy like LOTR, it’s the totality that matters more than the individual parts.

      I’m rereading the third book now as I never got round to reviewing it in 2015, and most of the details I’d forgotten in the interim, but it’s proving just as enjoyable as before, thank goodness.


  7. Well, you got me! I was thinking I must be really out of touch since not only had I never read the Fillory books, I’d never even heard of them! What a relief… 😉 It does sound like quite an interesting mash-up of Narnia and Hogwarts – not sure it’s my kind of thing, but I’m strangely tempted…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Be tempted, FF, calling it “Harry Potter for adults” (does HP not appeal to grown-ups?!) is merely part of the picture: the rollercoaster ride and the colourful if flawed characters really sold it for me – along with Fillory taking the place of Lewis’s impossibly moralistic Narnia.

      Liked by 1 person

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