Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Re-reading Bartimaeus II: The Golem’s Eye

Last week, we ran the first installment in Adam Porter's series on Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy.  Today, he writes about the second novel in the series--The Golem's Eye.

In The Amulet of Samarkand, Jonathan Stroud introduces us to Nathaniel, a young, ambitious, and skilled wizard, and to Bartimaeus, one of the spirits he summons from “the other Place.” Kitty Jones appears only as a minor character, but in The Golem’s Eye (2004), Stroud makes Kitty and other “commoners” who resist the rule of the evil magicians the focus of much of the novel.

It is through Kitty’s eyes that we learn how dreadful it is to live in London under the magicians' rule. The courts are rigged, the commoners “slave away in [magicians’] factories and workshops” (p. 423). Some people long for the “people’s parliament,” which was dissolved when Gladstone (the first truly great English magician) seized control and established the magicians' reign. But most people have been brainwashed -- the magicians control the schools and feed a steady diet of misinformation into their “commoner” subjects. Ironically, the magicians also believe their own narrative and thus have little interest in history. This creates an enormous blind-spot when it comes to people like Kitty.

Kitty discovers that she has a natural resistance to magic. When a djinni tries to harm her and her friend, he is hospitalized and she suffers almost nothing. She is soon recruited into a small group of other people with similar abilities: some can see the magicians’ enslaved spirits, others can detect magic items, and so forth. Her little band engages in petty theft and vandalism, trying to demonstrate to the people that the magicians’ regime is not as strong as they have been led to believe.

This impression is also supported by other acts of destruction. These go well beyond petty vandalism: destruction of parts of the British Museum and National Gallery, as well as a major shopping venue. The government magicians blame these activities on the Resistance and Nathaniel, now called John Mandrake, has been assigned the job of finding and eliminating the Resistance. To do this, he summons Bartimaeus to assist him.

Bartimaeus had been hopeful about Nathaniel in The Amulet of Samarkand, but is less so in this novel. The way to succeed among magicians is to be cruel and Nathaniel has become harder and harsher (p. 167) during the 32 months that Bartimaeus was away. When he discovers Kitty’s identity, he threatens to take her to the Tower of London to be tortured. Towards the end of the book (p. 439), Bartimaeus reflects on Nathaniel’s character, concluding that he was following the well-trodden path for magicians seeking “power/wealth/notoriety” (p. 439) by becoming “an officious little beast” (p. 476). So, for example, although he promised to release Kitty in return for her assistance, he decides not to honor his promise.

Yet, Nathaniel remains an unusual magician: he wants to keep his promises and when he contemplates “forgetting” them, his conscience bothers him. He may have kept his promise to release Kitty, but because he was being observed by his superiors, he felt forced to betray her. When Bartimaeus reports that Kitty has died, Nathaniel is relieved that he would not have to break his promise. But within a page or two, Nathaniel shows his callousness towards “commoners” as he follows his magical prisoner -- a golem -- back to Westminster Hall. And, at the end of the book, his success further ingratiates him with the Prime Minister, who grants him further promotions and honors, of the sort all magicians crave. Thus Bartimaeus’ fears seem to be coming true: Nathaniel is turning into a normal magician.

Kitty, on the other hand, is not a normal commoner. Beyond her resistance to magic, both Bartimaeus and Nathaniel admire her. Nathaniel recognizes in her a “remarkable energy, talent, and willpower, far more than any of the great magicians,” traits he sees in himself as well (p. 540). Bartimaeus has a fairly lengthy conversation with her -- one of his few with a non-magician -- and comes to like her. She is loyal to her friends, smart, and willing to help other people, even if she is endangered by it, and even if they wouldn’t do the same for her. Thus, she rescues Nathaniel from destruction, although she knows he intended to arrest her and her friend.

Stroud thus offers two very different ways of being human: Nathaniel, who may have been good at one point, but who is learning that to be a success in the Machivellian magicians’ world, anything can be justified, if it achieves your goal. The alternative is Kitty, who is generous, considerate, smart, and kind.

The question at the end of the first novel is whether Nathaniel will be able to retain his good heart or if he will abandon it for worldly success. The answer in The Golem’s Eye seems to be that Nathaniel is more ambitious than good: he seems poised to become as loathsome as the other magicians, but there are still hints -- fleeting -- that he might still follow Kitty’s model and recover some of his better qualities.