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The Magicians > What Lev Grossman (Supposedly) Got Wrong About Harry Potter

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message 1: by Anne (last edited Apr 14, 2012 05:19AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Anne Schuessler (anneschuessler) | 637 comments Talking about The Magicians, I often heard that it's supposed to be a darker, more grown-up version of Harry Potter. I've also heard the term satire. I don't know if Lev Grossman actually said so himself, but that's what keeps on popping up.

What irks me is that in my opinion, Harry Potter itself is pretty dark most of the times. Talking about making it "darker" and showing that magic isn't fun all the times, somehow makes it sound like the Harry Potter books are light and fluffy with only occasional drama involved, which is so far from the truth that I don't even really know where to start.

Let's start with the fact that Harry's parents were killed. Once he gets to Hogwarts he's thrown into a new world where he is popular and has to deal with being an outsider of sorts. There is a lot of bullying going on, teachers are usually pretty strict, and magic as it is described in Harry Potter is nowhere near easy or painless or purely fun.

I'm pretty sure one of the reasons why the books are so popular and have such a devoting fanbase is because J.K. Rowling manages to invent this magical world in such detail and the stories are pretty tightly told. Yes, the magical world of Harry Potter is wonderful, but not because it's all fun and games, but because it is magical and dark and relatable. It's also pretty consistent.

If The Magicians really is supposed to show how a darker more realistic college Hogwarts, it fails because it assumes that Harry Potter is not dark and that the magic in Harry Potter is achieved simply by waving a wand and saying a couple of words. The Magicians in that respect is just Hogwarts with all the wonderment sucked out of it and Quentin is like Harry Potter without the ability to suck it up and deal with stuff. (And believe me, there were moments in the later Harry Potter books when Harry annoyed me like hell, but he still managed to come around and get his sh*t together.)


Melissa (beelissa) | 10 comments I totally agree that Harry Potter is already dark. And I'm noticing some similarities in the details (I just started reading and it is the first day of classes): there are 20 students in Q's year and he lives in a tower room.

But there's no hint yet that Q has been singled out as the chosen one -- maybe that's the difference? I guess I'll have to keep reading to find out.


Louis | 13 comments I'm finding the Harry Potter comparisons to be excessively shallow. What we have is stories about boys who go to boarding school. Shall we compare them to A Separate Peace as well?

Grossman is taking few -- if any -- cues from Rowling, in my opinion. He is instead borrowing heavily from the likes of C. S. Lewis and his imitators. The whole thing so far feels like an Americanised account of the lives of Peter and Susan, Edmund and Lucy when they're not hanging out with Aslan.


Mike S (silvermike83) | 18 comments I wouldn't be drawn in to making Harry Potter comparisons except that Grossman basically demands them of us, having his characters reference Harry Potter at least three times that I counted. One throwaway line would just be a cute reference, but three? Especially since one mocks Potter-style magic? I think that this is a comparison we're being asked to make. Narnia is obviously huge too, but Brakebills and Hogwarts are being explicitly compared here.

And yeah, I'd say Potter is probably the darker text, on the whole. He just takes it easier on the sex and curse words. And it's slightly unclear how much of whallop you get from a butterbeer.


Louis | 13 comments I just ran across one of those references you mentioned a few minute ago ("I've got to go get my Quidditch robes and broomstick..."). That doesn't invite Harry Potter comparisons to me. It invites a Watchmen comparison.

In the Watchmen universe, there were no pirates, but there are superheroes. The comic books in that universe are all about pirates as a result.

Grossman's world doesn't seem to have Narnia (at least not that I've seen directly referenced) but it does have Harry Potter. It also has students at a boarding school in a world that includes Harry Potter novels and very likely movies. Of course Quentin & Co. are going to refer to Harry Potter in conversation: it's a part of their (our) culture.

At most, it's lampshade hanging; Grossman is saying, "see, I know you're going to make this comparison because that's the world we live in, but I'm putting this here to let you know that I'm aware of it. Now, can't we all just move along?"

Compare it to the way he handles the Fillory/Narnia parallel (at least up to where I am at this point, around 40% of the way through). He talks about the Rams, and the kids going from our world to Fillory, about the unfair ejections at the ends of the stories. He's doing everything EXCEPT hitting us with a broken off bar from a lamp-post.


Mike S (silvermike83) | 18 comments Oh, I don't doubt that Narnia is the more important comparison here. But the book can be about two things. I don't think the Harry Potter stuff is a ripoff, or that the book's purpose is to satirize Harry Potter. There's more going on that that.

But the direct references are there—as lampshade hanging, sure—because the comparisons are really inevitable. And I think because of that, Grossman at several points tries to distinguish Hogwarts and Brakebills.


Skaw | 116 comments Its more then just referencing. Grossman seems to deliberately introduces certain elements of the Potter universe just to make fun of them.
There's a magic game that all schools take part in, but its stupid and none of the main characters are really into it. They go to a tournament but lose right away and no one cares.
The school has prefects but they're pointless.
To me that's more then just acknowledging the potential comparisons, it saying that they're deliberate.
I think just having a magic school doesn't necessitate a Harry Potter rip off or comparison. Rowling didn't invent the magic school idea; she just did a really good job with it.


Brenton (brentonsmithson) | 12 comments I too agree, I see the Harry Potter similarities, but I like this book so far better than Harry Potter. Mainly because Harry Potter is so mainstream and popular and kind of cliche when it comes to magic. This book seems the same, but I like that it is more adult


Alex Ristea (alexristea) | 601 comments So, you liked Harry Potter?

Check out these fallacies:

http://officerincivvies.posterous.com...

Disclaimer: I love Harry Potter and these don't take away from my enjoyment, but it's good to see where some of Grossman's critique comes from.


Kate O'Hanlon (kateohanlon) | 769 comments When I was a wee girl of 10 I decided life was too short to continue reading The Babysitters Club, in all innocence it was noted by one of the girls in by small book-reading clique,
"It's so unrealistic, they're supposed to be our age, but they don't curse."


There's a weirdness veneer of unreality in the YA ghetto, that pushes certain things that young people do routinely to the background. There was emotional realism in Harry Potter and it can be dark, as Anne points out, but none of the characters experienced school anything like the way I did. On the other hand part of what I loved about The Magicians was that it basically captured my college experience exactly.


Nicole | 12 comments The Harry Potter series is so amazing because of the way that as the characters grew in to adults the story grew darker and more adult as well. Although we never heard the characters curse in later books Rowling would frequently write something like "Ron said something that he would never say in font of his mother" This is a fantastic way to make the characters more believable but also allow for young children to read and enjoy the book. But this shying away from the four letters allows for the book to have an blithe spirit and make even the darkest moments have a bit of dawn.

When I think of Harry I always think of him as that little boy in the cupboard under the stairs. I feel that a lot of people will forever view Harry as a little boy much like you will always view a younger cousin as being a teenager even though they are married with children in high school. The first few books were just peppered with darkness but by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallowsyou had to search for any flicker of light and then even when you would find one like a wedding or birth they would quickly be extinguished.

Rowling was also very careful to create a world all of her own that was unlike any other. She could have easily drawn on features from The Worst Witchseries but she goes at magical education alone. This allows her to gain a strength because she is not bound by comparisons to other authors or series.

In the world Rowling creates there is a coexistence with the real world much like London Below and the real world of London in Neverwhere. Focusing on the real world and one mythological world an ease to the storytelling that can not be obtained when you add in another layer to a third world.


Amelia June (ameliajune) | 31 comments Harry Potter is dark, sure, but it is also juvenile. The kids get into trouble, but they don't really do anything wrong.

No sex to speak of, no drugs, very little drinking or consequences of drinking. The kids don't cuss or sneak smokes or worry too much about grades. I'm not complaining, I think that Harry Potter's world works just fine as-is.

But I LOVE that The Magicians feels more real. Not darker, just more realistic. More like what I imagine it might be like if magic existed. Harry Potter is far more fanciful. I don't mind the comparison, and the tongue in cheek references, because that's what would happen if you scooped up a kid and plunked him in magic school. It would be inevitable.

I guess what I'm saying is it isn't darker, it's more realistic. And I like that.


Mike S (silvermike83) | 18 comments Amelia wrote: "Harry Potter is dark, sure, but it is also juvenile. The kids get into trouble, but they don't really do anything wrong.

No sex to speak of, no drugs, very little drinking or consequences of drink..."


I'm totally on board with Grossman's goal of making magical college students act like traditional college students, but I didn't really feel the payoff of it. It should be integrated with the magical aspects, not stand next to them. Other than some fox-on-vixen action in Antarctica, the sex, drugs, and rock & roll in the book seemed to be tamer than what Quentin could have expected at Princeton.


P. Aaron Potter (PAaronPotter) | 585 comments Amelia wrote: "I LOVE that The Magicians feels more real. Not darker, just more realistic..."
and
Mike wrote: "I'm totally on board with Grossman's goal of making magical college students act like traditional college students..."

I didn't find any "realism" in Grossman's caricature of college life. Real college students don't act like that...at least, not the ones who have the slightest chance in hell of making it to graduation. Sure there are some slacker, party-crazed alcoholics on campus, but generally they're on academic probation within a term or two, and flunk out sometie around the middle of sophomore year. And that's at the state schools where I went and now teach. At the magical equivalent of Harvard, there's no chance anyone with the vapid hedonism which characterizes Quentin and his crew would make it to fourth year, much less be advanced over their more diligent peers. In its eschewing of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, HP is a much *more* realistic depiction of school life than Grossman's vision of a demanding university as 'party central.'


Mike S (silvermike83) | 18 comments P. Aaron wrote: "Amelia wrote: "I LOVE that The Magicians feels more real. Not darker, just more realistic..."
and
Mike wrote: "I'm totally on board with Grossman's goal of making magical college students act li..."


What's tricky is that the scenes at Brakebills are so rushed we don't really have a great sense of how much time is spend partying, just that they do have alcohol-fueled blowouts at least...I dunno, twice. It's part of why their world feels so flat, I think: we see incidents at school, but I never get a feeling for what life is really like there.


Marcelo (shinigamichelo) | 3 comments I don't think the intent was to make people more "real," but to show that real people who find themselves in a world where they can do magic would behave nothing like the real people we know!
In HP kids study hard so they can get good grades to get a decent job, which will allow them to find the right partner to spend their lives with and start a family.
What Grossman did was say "hey, that's stupid, why do I need a good job when I can just make anything out of nothing? So, why do I need good grades again?"

I think every magician in this magical Brooklyn knows this, and if they find someone slacking on their homework, well, it's not like they'll have any problems when they graduate anyway. Let them do whatever they want, as long as they can pass the basic tests. And that feels more like the reaction I would have if I found myself in that situation, so I'll call it "more real" than whatever the kids in HP did.


Amelia June (ameliajune) | 31 comments P. Aaron wrote: "Amelia wrote: "I LOVE that The Magicians feels more real. Not darker, just more realistic..."
and
Mike wrote: "I'm totally on board with Grossman's goal of making magical college students act li..."


Yeah I agree we didn't see like, daily life at Brakebills much. Lots of parties don't necessarily=endless parties and no homework. I think it would have been great to see a little more practical magic use in the book overall. A lot of times the characters just seem to forget they can even DO magic.

I don't know about you all, but I knew a LOT of very high achievers who drank a LOT in college (and high school). Maybe it's my unique set of friends, but I knew a lot of people who were very much like Q and his friends and still managed to excel in school (not all, of course, but many. Others had breakdowns. Type A overachieving perfectionism will do that to you).


Mike S (silvermike83) | 18 comments Amelia wrote: "P. Aaron wrote: "Amelia wrote: "I LOVE that The Magicians feels more real. Not darker, just more realistic..."
and
Mike wrote: "I'm totally on board with Grossman's goal of making magical college ..."


Yeah, I don't think they're especially debauched, even for high achievers. My complaint is that they're not *magically* debauched. Magic should appeal powerfully to the teen id, and get all tangled up in it whenever possible. There's some hint of that with Emily Stonestreet's drama, but none among the main characters.

I have to believe this would get very dark very quickly: magic could serious distort concepts of consent. But even if Grossman doesn't want to explore that (I don't begrudge him that), you could at least have some hijinks: magical hangover cures, complex magical-powered hookahs or beerbongs, hallucinogens, etc.

It's sort of the worst of both worlds—he writes about teen partying like it's essential to the adolescent experience but utterly boring at the same time. It reminds us that they're young without reminding us that they're individuals as characters or moreover, teen magicians.


P. Aaron Potter (PAaronPotter) | 585 comments Amelia wrote: "...I knew a LOT of very high achievers who drank a LOT in college....I knew a lot of people who were very much like Q and his friends and still managed to excel in school (not all, of course, but many. Others had breakdowns. Type A overachieving perfectionism...."

Sure, that can happen, if (and this is a big if) the person in question cares enough about the actual end result (good grades, job prospects, curing cancer, whatever).

Does that seem to match Quentin's character, as written? Hardly. Quentin cares about precisely nothing. Even magic, which supposedly would be his raison d'etre given the first chapter's set-up of him as a big fantasy nerd, becomes kind of "meh" after two chapters of finger drills, and then, as Mike notes, seems to simply disappear frmo the text altogether. It's like Grossman wanted to write 'Catcher in the Rye,' but without all that, you know, characterization, so he went for 'Less than Zero,' but that had already been written, so he just slapped some magic on it because that sells right now.


Amelia June (ameliajune) | 31 comments P. Aaron wrote: "Amelia wrote: "...I knew a LOT of very high achievers who drank a LOT in college....I knew a lot of people who were very much like Q and his friends and still managed to excel in school (not all, o..."

it is true that he doesn't seem to be driven. I think that's one of the best parts of the book (now I feel we're off topic, shoot). I like that he calls out the lack of awesome in being "the best" or the "most talented." I wonder if the author comes from the group of us who grew up in that "you can do anything" generation.

Where I can't disagree with you, though, is toward the big battle. Q finally started to really tick me off when he just wouldn't do ANYTHING to help. He went from being disenchanted to being just lazy and helpless in my mind. I am not quite done with the book, and I'm hoping he redeems in the second, but I can't argue that he doesn't take the reigns when he's finally given the opportunity.

OTOH--how human.


terpkristin | 2648 comments Amelia wrote: "I don't know about you all, but I knew a LOT of very high achievers who drank a LOT in college (and high school). Maybe it's my unique set of friends, but I knew a lot of people who were very much like Q and his friends and still managed to excel in school (not all, of course, but many. Others had breakdowns. Type A overachieving perfectionism will do that to you).

Yep. Also, every person who I know who made Eagle Scout is also a pothead. I'm not sure if there is a causal link there, but it's been an odd observation (I know about 10 Eagle Scouts).


message 22: by Blair (last edited Oct 18, 2012 11:43AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Blair Beveridge | 8 comments My initial reaction was like a lot on here, in that is I think Grossman had a lot of potential to do something great, but he just did not deliver. I wanted to smack a bunch of the Brakebills in the head and one character I liked, he removed.

But it made me angry at times, so I took pause and wondered why. And I think I came up with an answer.

JKR created a void in a world I was heavily invested in and enjoyed, and when I heard of this book I was drawn to it, perhaps subconsciously to fill that void. Perhaps Lewis fans had a similar reaction. But this book doesn't fill that void, and it is unfair of any reader to expect that of Grossman.

So once I removed the emotional factor, I was left with a book with a lot of holes and forgotten plot lines, that I think rushed too much at times. But was entertaining enough to not only allow me to finish, but start the sequel right after.

As well I hate the apathetic teenager / young adult personality trait. So it is tough reading for me at times. I need to like the protagonist, and I don't much like Quentin. He is, as described earlier, pretty much a Dbag


 Hunter (hunterthestarwarssaga) | 14 comments Alex wrote: "So, you liked Harry Potter?

Check out these fallacies:

http://officerincivvies.posterous.com...

Disclaimer: I love Harry Potter and these don't take away from my enjoyment..."


I know they're not your points, but I wrote a retort anyway: Counter arguments, however flawed:
1. Unoriginality is Hermione's flaw. She can't learn anything unless it's in a typed book,
2. Superman is a bad character. Invincibility makes external conflict way to complicated.
3. Voldemort has kind of interfered with the student's ability to be creative.
4. That burst of creativity also created a surge of classicism, which created, in extreme cases, Death Eaters. People going back to the old ways. This creates fear, and at Hogwarts creativity seems to be actively discouraged, as there is no obvious room for experimentation. (Would that have been the function of a standard DADA class?)
5. The killing spell is a moral dilemma. The bigger problem, really, is that there is a total rejection of modern technology for no obvious reason. What happened to guns?
6. Adding magic to the world is an inevitable problem. Harry Potter is the narrator-ish of the 3rd person limited story, and the more he knows about magic, the more he would notice what he's learned.
7. Unbreakable vows are another moral dilemma. It's not an acceptable thing to do. Love is strongly supported as the ultimate magic. The only difference Peter being under the Unbreakable Vow is that his death would have been James and Lily's work, instead of Voldemort's years later.
8. Ministry corruption prevents anything from getting done, therefore why use truth serum when you could just shove political opponents in prison to appease a very obviously oblivious public? J.K. Rowling makes a point of showing that the Ministry is utterly incompetent.
9. Portkeys are probably more complicated than is let on. As you point out, we don't know how they're made, but it probably require being in the location you depart, therefore requiring "Moody" (Crouch) to place it.
10. Vanishing Cabinets are a result of fear and the creativity of the last generation. Hogwarts' wards are not up to snuff for all this new magic. They should also probably block the Marauder's Map.
11. Fiendfyre is a purposefully broken spell. It will consume casters, and I expect this is true of most stronger magic.
12. Trust, love, that is the more powerful magic, and anyone who doesn't at least see that message, not necessarily agreeing with it, would see why wizards have to trust people.
13. Hogwarts doesn't teach crafts, you have to learn from a crafter. I would expect the creation of brooms and wards to be jealously guarded secrets. The specific mechanics of a spell being revealed would probably make countering it much easier.
14. Most people can't kill. Look at Book 5, Order of the Phoenix, in the Ministry, when Harry tries to kill Bellatrix. He can't do it. Again, it isn't morally OK.
15. And finally, why do all these little technical errors detract so much from your enjoyment of the books? Why does it matter?


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Books mentioned in this topic

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (other topics)
The Worst Witch (other topics)
Neverwhere (other topics)