Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Rereading Bartimaeus, Part III: Ptolemy’s Gate

In The Amulet of Samarkand, Jonathan Stroud introduced us to Nathaniel, a precocious and ambitious magician. Nathaniel differs from other magicians in that he has some conscience and consideration for other people, but at the end of the book, he is well on the way to suppressing these positive attributes in his quest for advancement. In The Golem’s Eye, Stroud spends more time following the activities of Kitty Jones, a young woman who enjoys a natural resistance to magic and belongs to a group of similar individuals, dedicated to overthrowing the yoke of the magicians. Nathaniel appears in this book, too, and although he still has a modicum of compassion, it seems to be fading.

The finale of the Bartimaeus Trilogy, Ptolemy’s Gate (2006), draws together both narratives, spending almost equal time on Kitty and Nathaniel. As the story opens, Nathaniel has accomplished some of his goals: to be a powerful and important magician, serving on the Prime Minister’s Council. Bartimaeus, his most long-serving djinni, continues to see glimmers of good in him, but suggests that he needs to conceal them to get ahead in the magicians’ world. [this review contains spoilers]

Still, at one council meeting, Nathaniel assesses his colleagues and their behavior. He realizes that they are irrational and amoral, motivated only by self-interest. He realizes, with some surprise, that to survive among them, he has embraced this ethic. In the midst of this self-reflection, Nathaniel seeks out his old art teacher, a commoner. When they meet, although he has fond memories of her, she makes it clear that she, like Bartimaeus, does not like what he has become.

But Nathaniel isn’t  like the other magicians, since he exhibits compassion and retains a sense of morality (however atrophied). Thus, when Bartimaeus returns from a reconnaissance mission dangerously weak, Nathaniel dismisses him, allowing him to return to his home to regain his strength. The other magicians cannot believe this and criticize him as “sentimental and weak.” But he feels sympathy for Bartimaeus, unlike other magicians, who value their enslaved spirits purely based on what they can do for the magician. Later, when he sees a magician using a commoner as a laboratory rat, he tells the magician that “the feat is morally dubious.”

Disgusted and looking for an alternative to the magicians’ pattern of behavior, Nathaniel recalls Kitty Jones and how she helped her friends, even at her own personal risk. When he finds out that she is still alive, he locates and meets her. Kitty has been working as a servant for a old, eccentric magician, who has taught her the rudiments of summoning spirits.

Kitty uses this skill to summon Bartimaeus. He is quite surprised: he has never been summoned by a commoner and, even more, Kitty does not want anything from him. Rather, she wants to talk to him about his former masters and the history of magical empires. Bartimaeus has only had one magician express this sort of interest previously: Ptolemy. He went so far as to send himself into the spirits’ realm, the only magician to ever try this.

This sort of magical experimentation is dangerous, as is demonstrated shortly thereafter, when a magical experiment results in the release of a group of destructive and vengeful spirits in London. The idea that led to this catastrophe grew out of one story element in The Golem’s Eye. On his death-bed, Gladstone forced a spirit, Honorius, to inhabit his skeleton to ensure his body and personal effects would not be disturbed. In Ptolemy’s Gate, some rogue magicians explore this technique by summoning djinni into their bodies, hoping to have the spirit’s power directly available to and controlled by them. Unfortunately, Mr. Hopkins, the first magician to attempt this experimental endeavor, summons Faquarel, a djinni who quickly destroys Mr. Hopkins’ mind and takes over his body. But he tricks the other magicians by pretending to be Hopkins and encourages them to follow in his steps.

Many relatively weak magicians, craving, as always, power and authority, summon djinni into their bodies, but the leader of the rebel magicians, Mr. Makepeace, summons Nouda, an exceedingly powerful entity. The spirits follow Faquarel’s model: they quickly destroy the minds of the magicians and take over their bodies. While they cannot escape our world (since there is no magician to dismiss them), they relish the opportunity to take their revenge on humans for millennia of enslavement. Once they have mastered their material bodies, they set out across London on a rampage of destruction.

To fight the spirits, Nathaniel and Kitty make an alliance. He retrieves the Gladstone’s Staff, an enormously powerful magical relic, while she follows Ptolemy’s footsteps and sends herself to the “Other place.” While there, she persuades Bartimaeus to help her and Nathaniel and then returns to Earth.

After her success, Nathaniel summons Bartimaeus into his body -- like the other magicians had done. But the results are quite different: Bartimaeus wants to help Nathaniel and wants him to remain alive, so that (if for no other reason), he can cast the dismissal spell to send him home. Armed with the Staff, Nathaniel/Bartimaeus succeed in destroying most of the spirit/magicians, after they have terrorized central London. Bartimaeus/Nathaniel find Nouda and his minions in a large greenhouse and destroy many of them. But Nouda is too powerful to be destroyed easily and Nathaniel’s body is terribly injured in the attack.

In his weakened state, Nathaniel relies on Bartimaeus to keep Gladstone’s Staff under control. They jointly decide that to destroy Nouda, they will have to release the Staff’s power all at once, ensuring both Nouda’s death and their own. But Nathaniel, redeeming himself and conclusively demonstrating that he’s not a typical magician, utters the dismissal spell, sending Bartimaeus home and allowing the Staff to destroy Nouda (and himself).

As I argued previously, there are striking similarities between Stroud’s work and that of J.K. Rowling. But Stroud is consistently darker and his ending follows this pattern. In Deathly Hallows, Harry Potter dies, meets Dumbledore, and rises again, to defeat Voldemort forever, and initiate a new era in magical history. Harry is clearly modeled on Christ, although he is a secularized version.

In Stroud’s finale, Nathaniel, too, is a Christ-like character. Stroud highlights this by having Nathaniel’s grievous injury be a wound in his side. Nathaniel’s sacrificial death redeems him from his previously dubious actions, at least in Bartimaeus’ eyes. Because magicians will assume that Bartimaeus died as well, it ensures that Bartimaeus won’t be summoned to earth again. And, as in the Potterverse, his death ushers in a new period in magicians’ history: for perhaps the first time, a government is formed based on magicians and commoners working together as equals, led by Kitty and Nathaniel’s disciple Ms. Piper.

Thus, both these boy-wizard stories conclude with the death of their main protagonist. But where Rowling’s hero returns to life, Stroud’s hero doesn’t rise again. For those of us who enjoyed the Bartimaeus trilogy, this ending may be disappointing since it precludes sequels. Yet, given the magical universe Stroud creates, it is almost a narrative necessity.