Last spring in an honors seminar on modern fantasy literature, I had the opportunity to teach Lev Grossman's The Magicians. Overall, it was a very positive experience, with many of my students later telling me how they had recommended the novel to others. We spent three 75-minutes class periods on the novel, and while I certainly felt like we could have continued the discussion even further, this amount of time was enough to cover the main issues at stake in the novel.
Instead of providing a detailed account of everything that we did during those three days of class, I will focus on one of my main strategies for teaching the novel, as well as one of the major challenges that presented itself during our discussions. [note: the rest of this article will contain potential spoilers] I then hope that others who have taught this novel will post their own experiences in the comments!
Teaching Strategy: Pair The Magicians with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
I had my students read The Magicians immediately after reading C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The connection between the two novels is a fairly clear one, particularly in the way that the Fillory novels resemble the Narnia books. The differences between the two, however, are also quite significant, and I had my students read them sequentially to highlight the ways that Grossman was doing something new and different in his work.
One specific point of comparison that we discussed at length was Lucy's initial entrance into Narnia compared with the way that Quentin finds Brakebills. In both cases, Lucy and Quentin are focused on something else, and there is the physical act of pushing through something (coats and bushes, respectively), but we also noticed that Lucy moves from warmth into cold, while the shift in temperature is the opposite for Quentin--cold to hot. Quentin is also described as being physically uncomfortable during his passage--something that is never described with Lucy. The basic similarity in Lucy and Quentin's experiences then opened up discussion about why Grossman changed the things that he did, and what significance these differences had for our understanding of The Magicians.
One key theme that this comparison with Narnia illuminated was how there are many more layers of magic in Quentin's world that there are in Narnia. With Narnia, there is the Pevensie's real world, and there is Narnia. In The Magicians, the novel opens with Quentin practicing magic tricks (of the sleight-of-hand variety), he then finds his way to Brakebills (a magical place within his real world), and only in the second half of the novel does he find his way to a completely new, magical world. This layering of magical worlds, and the slow move from reality to fantasy world, is a stark contrast to Narnia, and really brought into focus the metafictional nature of Grossman's novel and one of the major themes of the novel--the blurring between fantasy and reality. The pairing with Narnia was also helpful in highlighting other key issues, including the treatment of religion and sexuality.
While I'm certain that my students would have discovered these issues without reading Lewis' book first, starting with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe made these issues stand out as they read The Magicians, and also provided context for the way that Grossman is treating these themes in new ways.
Biggest challenge: Resistance to Quentin
The biggest difficulty I had while teaching The Magicians was that I found many of my students to be resistant to reading Quentin as a hero. They found him to be entitled and whiney, and didn't understand why someone who had all the magical skill, money, and opportunities that he did was so disillusioned with life. It was particularly frustrating for those students in my class who were graduating seniors (a majority), many of whom were uncertain about their own futures and would have loved to have the security that Quentin's skills and money would provide.
Certainly, this resistance to Quentin did open up several productive lines of discussion, including whether or not Quentin is actually a hero, as well as the significance of the lack of a central authority figure in the novel (as well as the deaths/impotence of the god figures in Fillory). But while many students were able to acknowledge where they saw Grossman going with these themes, their inability to empathize with Quentin prevented them, I think, from fully engaging with these issues.
Perhaps next time, I'll work to do more to get students inside Quentin's head--having them write his journal that accompanies the events of the narrative, for example--so that they can understand his choices better, even if they don't agree with them.
I'd love to hear others' suggestions for other ways I could teach this--post your thoughts in the comments!