The Magus

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Magus by John Fowles.

John Fowles The Magus

I went into this novel with some trepidation. I was not intimidated by its doorstop size, nor by its reputation as sophisticated metafiction. But it had received a solidly negative review from my Other Reader, and the book’s own author John Fowles lamented it as “haphazard … a novel of adolescence written by a retarded adolescent” (6, 9). These worries were mitigated by two factors. First, the version I read was a “more than … stylistic revision” (5) perpetrated over a decade after its initial publication. Second, I had encountered the two-page “fairy story” of “The Prince and the Magician” excerpted in the “Magic Shows” issue of Lapham’s Quarterly (Summer 2012), and found it wonderful. I can now report that it loses none of its luster in its original context (550-552). There was a big twist at the end of part two (562), which I had seen coming for at least 200 pages, so that was underwhelming.

Like any “novel of adolescence,” The Magus is a story of initiation, but more explicitly so than most. The fact that the ceremonial aspects of the rite are largely non-consensual, and that the candidate (i.e. the first-person narrator Nicholas) is so profoundly unlikable, were perhaps contributing factors to my Other Reader’s thorough disgust with the book. There is an explicit Sadean element here, with or without sadism. It is in some respects a more naturalistic approach to the content of Bernard Noel’s Castle of Communion.

In the course of the novel, an elite conspiracy perpetrating a system of “experimental” initiation has as its upshot an opposition between freedom and faith. “There is no god but man,” and “Love is the law, love under will” (none of these quotes from the book). The closing epigram reminded me of the words of Liber CLXVI: “This Path is beyond Life and Death; it is also beyond Love; but that ye know not, for ye know not Love.” Aleister Crowley gets one solitary name-check here, when . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . [Spoiler: hover over to reveal] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The magus of the title is the inscrutable psychopomp character Maurice Conchis, whom I found more reminiscent of Gurdjieff than of Crowley. The most esoteric influence mentioned by Fowles in a discussion of his sources is C.G. Jung, but it is possible that there was a Gurdjieffian element. The metaphysical concept of “hazard” emphasized by Conchis was key in the work of John G. Bennett, who was active in England promoting Gurdjieff’s teachings during the extensive period of the composition of The Magus. (I synchronistically stumbled across a cheap used copy of Bennett’s book on Hazard on the same day I finished reading The Magus.)

I did enjoy this book, although it does tend to have the weaker side of the comparisons in which I find myself most likely to include it, whether with Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Pynchon’s Vineland, or Irwin’s Satan Wants Me. I’ll still plead for the virtues of “The Prince and the Magician,” though, a teaching story on a par with the Bektashi parable of “The Shrine.” [via]