Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Another Boy Wizard: Re-reading Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy

Today we are excited to introduce a new contributor to Fantasy Matters--Adam Porter, Chair of Religion and Philosophy at Illinois College.  Adam is rereading Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy, and today marks the first installment of his reflections on this trilogy.

I recently re-read Jonathan Stroud’s Amulet of Samarkand (2003), which I first read years ago with my sons. Stroud’s trilogy, published at the height of Potter-mania, has been compared to Rowling’s works and, indeed, the series share some superficial similarities: both start with a young male protagonist, who become magicians, and, at the end of the book, save the day.

But Stroud’s story deserves more attention than it has received. Where Rowling’s magicians run the gamut from good to bad, Stroud’s go from bad to worse. One of the reasons for this is that Stroud’s explanation of how magic works (how carpets fly, amulets protect, and so forth) makes the choice of being a magician only attractive to amoral individuals.

Magicians in Stroud’s universe make magic by enslaving spirits from “the Other place.” There are different sorts of spirits (such as imps, foliots, djinni, afrits, and marids), each with its own level of power and intelligence. But all of them suffer great discomfort being forced to exist in our world and serve the magician who summoned them almost entirely because the magician can inflict even more pain on them. Some magicians may try to salve their consciences by describing these entities as evil, tricky, and “demonic.” By dehumanizing and (literally) demonizing them, they can make their role as slave-owners more palatable.

But the magicians behave immorally not only with their summoned slaves; they are also immoral with other humans, whether fellow magicians or “commoners.” Stroud’s magicians are Machiavellian to an extreme; they inhabit a world where might makes right, and with enough power, you can do anything you want. The most powerful magicians are always looking for signs of weakness in their peers and if discerned, they strike to destroy them. Magicians -- even those who are lower level -- are akin to royalty: they get numerous privileges that commoners do not. They tend to be isolated from the commoners and disdain them. In short, Stroud’s magicians are an unsympathetic lot, vastly different from those in the Potterverse.

One reason the magicians look so bad is that a large part of our knowledge of them is provided by Bartimaeus, a djinni who has been serving magicians for 5000 years. Bartimaeus is not the most powerful djinni and certainly not as powerful as an afrit or marid. But he overcomes obstacles and opponents by using his wits. In this, Bartimaeus follows the basic pattern of trickster heroes, such as Loki, Brer Rabbit, or Coyote. Bartimaeus provides a tart and amusing running commentary on the human world. He explains who the different spirits are and how they relate to each other, how their perception differs from that of humans, and most importantly, their attitude towards humans. Bartimaeus (understandably) dislikes magicians and reserves his harshest comments for them, but he feels some sympathy towards commoners, whom he sees as fellow victims of the magicians. Because of this nuanced distinction, Stroud achieves the neat trick of having a “demon” as a sympathetic protagonist.

The other protagonist in the book is Nathaniel. We follow him from the time he is six years old, when a battery of tests reveals his aptitude to become a magician. Following standard procedures, he is taken from his family and becomes an apprentice to a magician, who raises him. This experience is emotionally traumatic for Nathaniel, but his master’s wife, Mrs. Underwood, comforts and cares for him; in return, he feels affection for her. Towards his master, however, he feels little but contempt; he is talented and ambitious and his master, while a magician, is a duffer of middling skill.

Nathaniel summons Bartimaeus at the beginning of the The Amulet of Samarkand, and over the course of the book, the djinni begins to hope that Nathaniel will not become as dreadful as the other magicians. The question running through the Harry Potter books is “Will Harry be able to defeat Voledemort?” -- that is, to defeat an external evil. Harry may occasionally be tempted to get revenge against Malfoy or other tormenters, but, as Dumbledore reminds us repeatedly, Harry is so full of love that the reader never really fears that he will join the dark wizards. Nathaniel’s story is very different: in The Amulet of Samarkand, he has to save the Prime Minister and other important magicians by defeating an external evil. He prevents a coup against the British Prime Minister, led by the magician, Mr. Lovelace. But the real conflict and tension arises from the question of whether Nathaniel will become as awful as all the other magicians who surround him.

Nathaniel differs from other magicians: he tries to take responsibility for his actions and to protect Mrs. Underwood. After Lovelace kills her, Nathaniel seeks to avenge her death. Noting that Nathaniel seems to have some personal honor and feelings, Bartimaeus begins to hope that he might not become a typical magician. But after he and Nathaniel successfully save the Prime Minister and other important magicians, Nathaniel reverts to magician-form. He lies to cover up his mistakes and recasts his role in the events surrounding the coup. His dramatics succeed in impressing the PM, who rewards him by assigning him a new master. She is more prominent and far more skilled than Mr. Underwood, a useful a stepping stone towards his goal of becoming a famous, powerful, and important magician.

At the end of the book, Bartimaeus gives him a final bit of advice: “You’ve got a conscience, too, another thing that is rare and easily lost. Guard it.” But we are left wondering, at the close of the first book of the trilogy, whether Nathaniel’s conscience will be able to overcome his ambition in the dog-eat-dog world of magicians. Unlike that other boy-wizard, Nathaniel’s future path -- whether to be moral or immoral -- is far more uncertain.