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A Brief Guide to the Hidden Allusions in The Magicians


A Brief Guide to the Hidden Allusions in The Magicians

Home / A Brief Guide to the Hidden Allusions in The Magicians

A Brief Guide to the Hidden Allusions in The Magicians


Published on August 11, 2011


For all your fans of The Magicians, we’re reposting this rundown from Lev Grossman himself (originally appearing here on July 7) regarding all of the hidden allusions in the first book of this series. Keep it in mind while gulping down The Magician King!

I have a habit—it’s not a bad habit, not a good habit, just a habit—of hiding allusions in my books as I write them. I’m not sure why I do this—it’s a tic, maybe even a compulsion. As a result The Magicians is full of little semi-secret nods and shout-outs to books and other things that I love. Some of them are fantasy and science fiction, some of them aren’t. They range from the huge and obvious—anybody who’s read it knows the whole book is a kind of three-way Stoppardian mud-wrestle with J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis—to the borderline subliminal. Probably there’s stuff in there that even I’m not aware of.
It’s not meant as a puzzle, just little touches that I hope a few people will notice and get some pleasure from. Some of it’s part of the worldbuilding: I had a rule for myself with The Magicians, which was that everything that exists in our world has to exist in the Magiciansverse. So for example, even though the characters go to a college for magic, I also thought that they all should have read Harry Potter. Inevitably little references to him creep into their conversation. I didn’t go overboard with it, because that would have gotten too cute and meta. I just thought it was realistic. Like Hermione hasn’t read the Narnia books a million times! But she never talks about it.

(Though if I’m being honest, I broke my own rule with Narnia. In the Magiciansverse, C.S. Lewis was never born. If he had he and Christopher Plover would have collapsed into each other and formed a space-time singularity. Which would be cool in a different way. But that would have been a whole other novel.)

You don’t need to catch the allusions to experience the book fully. Some of them are so tiny as to be essentially untraceable anyway—like I said, it’s a compulsion. But if you’re curious, here are a few of them. If nothing else it will give you a sense of how totally, unredeemably nerdy I am:

p. 3: “Quentin.” The name is borrowed from another overly bright, way too self-conscious young man: Quentin Compson from The Sound and the Fury.

p. 6: “the five Chatwin children” Another borrowed name, this time from a real person, the writer Bruce Chatwin, who was, like the Chatwin children, an intrepid traveler.

p. 38: “Ricky, the man behind the counter” Anyone named Ricky who sells magic tricks can only be a reference to the great magician and magic scholar Ricky Jay.

p. 45: “the Sea” It’s not an accident that there’s a big field of grass called the Sea at Brakebills. It’s a steal from George R.R. Martin’s peerless “Song of Ice and Fire,” which of course features the original sea of grass, the Dothraki Sea. (Though in my book I invented a fake etymology for it…)

p. 52: “Amelia Popper’s Practical Exercises for Young Magicians.” You may not know that I spent a large chunk of the first half of my life as a serious student of the cello. But if you’re a cellist yourself, you’re definitely familiar with the 40 murderous etudes in David Popper’s brutal but indispensable “High School of Cello Playing.”

p. 59: “his marble (nickname: Rakshasa!)” If you’re an incredibly old D&D player like me, you’ll remember the bad-ass drawing of the tiger-headed rakshasa in the Monster Manual—he looks like a combination of Hugh Hefner and one of Larry Niven’s kzinti.

p. 65: “The interloper was Eliot. He was kneeling like a supplicant in front of an old orange armchair…” Not a straightforward allusion, but this scene is definitely borrowed. It’s a rewrite of the brilliant moment in the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, when, after 150 pages of dewy childhood recollections, Marcel stumbles on a lesbian couple having a sado-masochistic affair.

p. 73: “Sir Hotspots.” This isn’t an allusion, it’s an allusion to an allusion—I’m taking off on Martin Tenbones, a denizen of The Land in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman books, which is itself, unless I’m way off base, an allusion to Narnia.

p. 74: “amused leopardly coolth.” Every editing pass, someone would try to take out that word “coolth,” but I hung on to it. It’s a Fritz Leiber word, from the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser story “Beauty and the Beasts” (and probably elsewhere). It basically means “coolness.” I read it as a child and never forgot it.

p. 78: “‘Walk this way!’ Gretchen said finally.” Gretchen is, of course, doing Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein, complete with the limp.

p. 101: “It used to be you could say ‘friend’ in Elvish and it would let you in,” Josh said. “Now too many people have read Tolkien.” This one glosses itself: Josh is referring to the magically locked gates of the Mines of Moria. Mellon—the Elvish for ‘friend’—was the password.

p. 102: “And Bigby. You know Bigby, right?” Another D&D reference. Bigby was a powerful wizard in the Greyhawk setting, and a couple of spells in the Players Handbook are attributed to him: “Bigby’s Grasping Hand,” etc.

p. 127: “the books fluttered from shelf to shelf like birds” This isn’t a traceable allusion, but it’s definitely a steal: one of the levels from American McGee’s Alice, a PC game released in 2000, featured flying books.

p. 138: “She had become a large gray goose, and so had he.” A nod to one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite novels, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. In the first book, The Sword in the Stone, young Wart, later (spoiler!) to become King Arthur, gets turned into a goose by Merlin as part of his education.

p. 145: “Okay, Mr. Funnylaffs.” This epithet is borrowed from Achewood, one of my favorite webcomics, and for that matter one of my favorite things anywhere. It’s from the one where Roast Beef is writing an unauthorized Harry Potter sequel entitled Harry Potter and the Difference Between Alternating Current and Direct Current.

p. 158: “Chkhartishvili’s Enveloping Warmth.” Another borderline ungettable allusion: Grigory Chkhartishvili, a borderline untypable name, is the real name of the author of the great Fandorin mystery novels, which are wildly popular in Russia. Probably wisely, Chkhartishvili writes under the pen name Boris Akunin.

p. 164: “Wizard needs food badly.” If you ever played the arcade game Gauntlet, you’ll be able to conjure up in your mind the sound of the booming voice that says this line, right before you die.

p. 173: “a simple Basque optical spell called Ugarte’s Prismatic Spray.” “Prismatic Spray” was a brutally effective illusionist spell in AD&D.

p. 173: “Real magicians called them hedge witches.” When I wrote this I honestly believed I was nodding to George R. R. Martin—in Westeros a masterless, wandering knight is called a hedge knight. But “hedge witch” is a phrase that seems to circulate widely, and predate Martin. Definitely not my coinage.

p. 176: “He was all chyort vozmi!” I have enough Russian to know that chyort vozmi literally means “devil take it,” or something like that. But X-Men fans will recognize that Mayakovsky’s Russian ejaculations owe a lot to Piotr Nikolaevitch Rasputin, aka Colossus, who said stuff like that all the time.

p. 217: “a pentagram tattooed on your back. Five-pointed star, nicely decorative, plus it acts as holding cell for a demon.” It would be worth doing these annotations just so I can properly confess to this, probably the closest thing to a straight steal in the whole book. It comes from Larry Niven’s “Not Long Before the End,” one of his few but precious fantasy stories. The hero, whom we know as the Warlock, has a shadow demon trapped in a tattoo on his back. He lets it out at a crucial moment. I once spotted Niven at a bar and apologized to him for this specific borrowing. He had no idea who I was. I think he gave me his blessing just to get rid of me. (Elsewhere Niven turns the screw on this premise when a demon gets a pentagram painted on his own body, leading to a disastrous recursion…)

p. 247: “The bunnies call this place the Neitherlands—because it’s neither here nor there.” The Neitherlands is, or are, in part an allusion to the Wood Between the Worlds from The Magician’s Nephew. (It’s another allusion to an allusion: Lewis was referencing William Morris’s novel The Wood Beyond the World.) At one point Quentin spots a sapling poking up through the paving stones of the Neitherlands; I like to think that the Wood will one day grow up there in that same spot. Or maybe whoever built the Neitherlands paved over it.

p. 270: “I’m not going over there with just my dick in my hand.” Eliot, knowingly or not, is referencing The Godfather here. Quentin definitely knows he’s alluding to Scarface when, at a key moment later in the book, he yells “Say hello to my leel friend!” It doesn’t work out much better for him than it did for Al Pacino.

p. 324: “The ruins of an enormous brass orrery” This is, of course, Aughra’s orrery from The Dark Crystal, though it’s somewhat the worse for wear.

p. 327: “Also present was something fleshy and headless that scrambled along on four legs.” Though they call it a grimling, this horrid beastie is in fact a slightly modified intellect devourer from, again, the Monster Manual.

p. 336: “Boom, bitches!” Penny gets so excited at his successful fireball spell that he spontaneously quotes from the interrogation scene in my brother’s novel Soon I Will Be Invincible.

p. 338: “A giant house cat popped out from behind a tapestry” The house cat is in fact Llyan, the oversized orange cat from Lloyd Alexander’s The Castle of Llyr. Though in fairness to Llyan she could probably have taken Fen. She could definitely have taken Quentin.

p. 370: “a woman with the body of a horse.” The centaurs in The Magicians are, with their insufferable sense of correctness and superiority, a reference to the Houyhnhnms, the righteous horses from Gulliver’s Travels.

p. 384: “Standing there in plain view, looking huge and ethereal, was a white stag.” The Questing Beast is a gloss on the the White Stag from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which grants wishes. I always felt sad that the Pevensies didn’t catch the stag, and that it didn’t come back in any of the later books. I wanted to correct that in The Magicians. (And how did its power relate to Aslan’s? Was it magical or divine? If there was a fight, who would win? It raised so many questions.)

p. 386: “the hills of the Chankly Bore” Edward Lear invented this fascinating geographical feature. It first appeared in either “The Jumblies” or “The Dong with the Luminous Nose,” whichever he wrote first.

p. 394: “Grunnings Hunsucker Swann.” “Grunnings” is the name of the firm Mr. Dursley works for in Harry Potter. They must have diversified from drills into management consulting.

p. 400: “Silver stars were falling all around her.” This is  a borrowing from a great Penny Arcade strip from 2004, entitled “A Being of Indescribable Power.” A man is complaining that his spouse leveled up in World of Warcraft without him. “I just played a little bit while you were at work!” she says. “A little bit? You’re riding a huge cat! And stars are falling all around you! What are you, like, level two hundred? Million?” If you’ve made it to the end of The Magicians, you can see why the illusion makes sense. I originally had Janet riding a black panther, too, like in the strip, but then I thought: no, too much.

One bonus allusion, from The Magician King, p. 3: The book’s first paragraph is modeled closely on one of the greatest first paragraphs ever written, from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Chandler’s ends: “I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.” Mine ends: “He was everything a king of Fillory should be. He was hunting a magic rabbit.” And thus the nerdiness continues.

Lev Grossman is a senior writer and book critic at Time magazine, and the author of several novels including the widely-acclaimed The Magicians (Viking, 2009). The sequel The Magician King will be published on August 9.

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Lev Grossman


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