It seems recently I have been reading several post-modern versions of two of the most foundational books from my childhood: Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia. The post-modern Lord of the Rings, is of course A Song of Fire and Ice series (also known as Game of Thrones) by George R. R. Martin and the post-modern Chronicles of Narnia is Magicians by Lev Grossman.
Both Chronicles and LOTR have a strongly developed sense of right and wrong, heros that follow the traditional troupes of quest, chalenge, doubt and eventual defeat of evil. Almost all the characters in these books are also easy to label good or evil. Even the traitor Edmund in Chronicles, is brought to a full redemption by the end of the first book and it is only the seventh book that introduces the idea of a battle you can’t win. Which fittingly enough is easily redeemed by the gorgeous heaven that awaits the heroes and their loved ones. In LOTR, evil is also, conveniently,almost entirely non-human in origin: orcs, trolls, nazgul, uruk-hai, etc and you can tell who all the good people are because they either make it through the battles, return from the dead or after giving into temptation they die in self-sacrificial ways to regain their sense of honor.
The Magicians and Game of Thrones take a very different approach to similar themes. For instance Game of Thrones is an epic fantasy that brings together a sense of impending doom (in this case Winter instead of Mordor) with richly detailed descriptions of a whole world of lands, languages and cultures. Except in Game of Thrones, fighting to uphold honor, bring justice or defeat evil are no guarantees for the success or long healthy life of characters. In fact is just the opposite, as the vast majority of characters who seek the greater good end up in a variety of horrific fates. And too top it off the “bad guys” are fully fleshed out characters with damaged pasts, complex motivations and a high level of unpredictability. Also unlike the zoomed out sweeping battlefield violence of LOTR, Game of Thrones is bloody, in your face violence that ravages whole towns, women, children and the vast majority of characters.
As for The Magicians, it’s basic plot line draws strongly from Chronicles with a touch of Harry Potter, except once again for most of the book there is no fiendishly evil villain or all powerful figure/god of goodness. Instead the main character Quentin gets invited into the world of magic, only to find magic is much more hard work than innate talent. Also magic, unexpectedly doesn’t give the people who wield it a renewed sense of purpose, in fact just the opposite. Knowing that you can with very little effort live a life of incredible priviledge and ease, leaves Quentin feeling unmoored and lost. However, The Magicians truly becomes the post-modern Chronicles when Quentin and his friends encounter Fillory, a fictional land that had formed the setting for a series of children’s books. In the Fillory books, the children had stumbled into the magical land of talking animals by accident and discovered a mystical land full of noble quests, just waiting for humans to come and rule, looked over by two god-like rams. During the course of the Magicians, Quentin has long secretly wished that Fillory actually existed and believed that traveling there would cure him of his great unhappiness and fill his life with meaning. Yet as this book unravels, the issues of what it takes to find meaning in life for each individual continues to play itself out as Quentin and his friends discover the huge cost of seeking adventure with good intentions. Also similarly to Game of Thrones, The Magicians takes a much more harsh look at sex and violence, sprinkling both into the book in such a way that makes it clear this is no fairy tale for children.
Overall, despite the violence and tragedy of these books, I ended up enjoying the chance to visit epic fantasy worlds or get another take on the idea of a magical world full of talking animals. However they are also both books that at times anger me, depress me or frustrate me, but they also cause me to think and question the world around me in interesting ways. While I still believe in many of the tropes of Chronicles and LOTR, that good is worth fighting for, that there exist divine beings and that evil will ultimately be defeated; I enjoy how Game of Thrones presents a more realistic portrayal of the muck and pain of living in a medieval era fantasy world and The Magicians brings up some important questions about how the abilility to do magic would effect one’s worldview and philosophy.
Have any of you read any of these books? If so what are your thoughts?