The Same, Only Not Quite as Good

 

I’m reading the Harry Potter series for the first time—aloud, to 12.75-year-old Younger Daughter. We’re three quarters of the way through The Goblet of Fire. There are some neat, worldbuilding-related details, and some preteen, best friend moments that are kind of touching. But other than that: man, these books are flat. Flat, derivative and dull. Rowling slaps new names on fantasy tropes, murmurs Tolkienorum Rowlingiosa, and makes a billion dollars—and no, it’s not sour grapes talking, here, truly: it’s befuddled boredom.

And it’s not just me. “Oh great,” Younger Daughter sighs, when there’s another quiddich match or Triwizard contest coming, “one more thing Harry’s just going to win because he’s Harry. And if he doesn’t win, he’ll only win BIGGER next time.” And, yesterday, “Characters should change: that’s what makes stories really interesting. But no one’s really changed at all.” *

When I was Younger Daughter’s age, I constructed elaborate fantasies before I fell asleep. I was the Chosen One, plucked from my mundane existence (indeed, from Earth itself!) to take my place among a fellowship of others who were a little older than I was, and wise, and hot, and wielded powers they (or the hottest one among them, anyway) would teach me. Because I had those powers, too. Always had, without knowing it—except that yes, I’d known (somehow, I’d always known): I was different. I was special. And there was somewhere far, far away that was so much more amazing than 20th century Canada. The yearning hurt. The yearning was wonderful. I remember lavishing many, many bedtimes on the plucked-from-mundane-existence part, and on the training-in-magic part. After that, the scenarios got vaguer. So now I’m trained up. I’m ready. I’m listening to the soundtrack to The Empire Strikes Back, and I’m taking on a baddie with my hot companions, and now we’ve won, and we’re celebrating, and there’s some kissing. Aaaaand…back to the beginning. Because what can top the first victory, other than a series of other victories that will look and feel the same, only not quite as good? And really, the best part of the fantasy was being identified as a magical and special being in front of all my school friends—and maybe dropping back to visit them once I’d kicked baddie ass and done some kissing. Definite high points. But the fantasies got thin. They wore out. Because how often can you win? How satisfying is it to strive and suffer in a magical place but to know everything will be okay, always, no matter what?

I’m also reading something else now (silently, to myself): The Magicians trilogy. Sometimes, when I tell non-genre readers that I write fantasy, they say, “Like Harry Potter with grownups?” I always cast about, trying to figure out how to respond (and so many people ask me this question: how is it possible that I have to come up with some new iteration of answer every time?). Next time I’ll say, “No: Lev Grossman wrote those.” He wrote them deliberately, interrogating fantasy tropes, extrapolating and expanding: Boy Magician Grows Up. Things Are Gritty. Magic Isn’t Wonderful; Magical Lands Are Strange and Creepy. Brakebills is Hogwarts and Fillory is Narnia, with pockets of Wonderland and Oz and Middle Earth, and it’s all incredibly intellectually satisfying—the way the story’s mirrors and clockwork reflect and refract it, and all the other stories from which it sprang; the way it buttresses and deconstructs the expectations and longings of both characters and readers. You can’t call it derivative, because it’s so deliberate. Grossman doesn’t just slap new names on old tropes and pass them off as wildly inventive: he lines them up, their former names intact and invoked, and performs careful narrative thought experiments on them.

He’s not just clever: he’s an excellent writer, and a particularly excellent writer of character. His protagonist’s motivations are so painfully true, and so beautifully expressed, that I actually find myself squirming on the couch as I read. And I’m reading fast: the entire first book in a day, and now, on day two, well into the second. (The statutory holidays have helped.)

So this is it, right? The antidote. Smart, well-written escapism (about escapism). I should be loving the hell out of this series. Right?

But I’m not. I’m liking it. A lot. I’m appreciating its layers, its perfect pitch, and its wry self-consciousness (“I just don’t see Plover coming up with all that stuff on his own,” says one of the characters, referring to the author who, in the Magician books, wrote the Fillory books). But it’s precisely this clever self-consciousness that keeps me from loving it. I can’t lose myself in an experiment, however eloquent or successful.

So what do I want?

Once again, as I have since I was about eight, I turn to Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles for guidance. They tread the same well-worn paths so many stories have, before and since. After vanquishing the big baddie with a motley but wonderful group of companions, the orphaned assistant pig-keeper finds out he’s actually the High King. He proposes to the spunky, red-headed princess. The end. Escape complete; fulfillment of characters and reader, total.

But not quite. Moments after the princess has tossed her head and agreed to marry the assistant pig-keeper-turned-king comes this final paragraph (SPOILER ALERT for any of you who haven’t read these absolutely wondrous books, and intend to):

And so they lived many happy years, and the promised tasks were accomplished. Yet long afterward, when all had passed away into distant memory, there were many who wondered whether King Taran, Queen Eilonwy, and their companions had indeed walked the earth, or whether they had been no more than dreams in a tale set down to beguile children. And, in time, only the bards knew the truth of it.

I remember crying, the first time I read this, grinding my fists against my eyes. I loved these characters. They were real to me—only they weren’t. I knew it. The man who’d conjured them knew it. Even that last line wasn’t enough: I still cried, protesting and accepting; so, so happy, and so incredibly sad. It wasn’t the simple regret of coming to the end of a great book; it was a dizzying feeling, of being prodded awake by the author and sent gently back out into the world, suddenly understanding that nothing, no matter how beloved or perfect, lasts. Taran and Eilonwy might have gained everything, but I hadn’t. The yearning was still there, and it still hurt—wonderfully.

Magic that feels organic, not calculated. Longing (the characters’ and/or my own) that’s never completely assuaged. These maddeningly subjective things are what I want.

And now I’m off again to Fillory—though it’ll always be Prydain I’m trying to find.

The_Book_of_Three

*I know that at least a few of you will say, “But you’re only on book 4—things get REALLY DARK in the next one.” I’ll get back to you on that.

 

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Photo by Rebecca Springett

Release Date - October 2015

Published by: ChiZine Publications

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