The Magus (Review)

Labels: Great Works


The Magus
John Fowles, 1965
672 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
March 2010

Best known for The French Lieutenant's Woman, John Fowles often tells what first appear to be straightforward love stories but are, instead, open-ended, unresolved meditations on the difficulties of knowing. That is...knowing the world and knowing the self.

Enter The Magus, one of Fowles's earliest works, a novel of illusion and deception. The book's epitaph is such:

The Magus, Magician, or Juggler, the caster of the dice and mountebank in the world of vulgar trickery.

Nicholas Urfe, escaping a love affair in London, accepts a teaching post on the Greek Island of Phraxos. Bored and despairing, he takes solitary walks around the island. It is on one of these walks that he chances upon a wealthy and eccentric recluse, Maurice Conchis. Conchis befriends the young man—drawing him into a series psychological "godgames," based in part on Greek mythology.

In the process, Nicholas falls in love with Lily de Seitas, a young woman involved in the games— although it is unclear as to Lily's role and true identity. The games become increasingly elaborate and mysterious till at some point Nicholas is unable to distinguish reality from fantasy, truth from deceit.

The point of these illusions—which become serious, even dangerous—is that Nicholas is forced to confront—and examine—his own unexamined life.

The book ends with cryptic lines in Latin...whose translation (may) mean, "Tomorrow let him love, who has never loved; he who has loved, let him love tomorrow." (There are other translations.) Does this mean that love is fulfilled? Or not? It is unclear—just as in The French Lieutenant's Woman. Reality is uncertain...unclear. And accordingly, fiction should mimic reality.

Many find this book long (I do...and yet I've read it twice). Overall, though, The Magus is gripping and hard to put down. Its mysterious quality makes it a compelling read.

See our Reading Guide for The Magus.

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