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Chosen Ones and Extraordinary Things

Over the past couple of weeks I watched two shows I’d been looking forward to for a while – The Magicians and A Series of Unfortunate Events. A Series of Unfortunate Events is about three adorable orphans, the Baudelaires, and Count Olaf, a villain who is plotting to get their inheritance. The Magicians is a Harry Potter-ish story involving a pack of archetypical college kids (the smart one, the pretty one, the gay one, the punk one, the depressed one, and the ethnic one) whose names are utterly irrelevant and will be heretofore referred to as the Magicians.

My husband and I watched The Magicians at night after the kids were in bed, and the kids and I watched A Series while my husband was at work. I found the shows dovetailed nicely in a dual binge-watch. Couldn’t put my finger on why, exactly, but they seemed like weird mirror images of each other. Even though they seemed very different on the surface, they echoed each other.

Both involve seemingly ordinary people who are revealed to have special talents, fighting against an unstoppable evil. But the Baudelaire orphans’ gifts, despite being rather ordinary (inventing, reading books, and biting things), repeatedly save them, while the the magicians in The Magicians have amazing abilities (CGI magic of various sorts) that are apparently good for nothing but leading them deeper into danger. Every cool trick the Magicians perform seems to bring a disaster. The orphans have no magic; they’re armed only with hard work and ingenuity. The Magicians fail despite having an impressive magical arsenal at their disposal. The Baudelaires succeed with nothing but hair ribbons, books, teeth, and willing hearts.

The orphans are surrounded by useless adults and are forced to take every opportunity to teach themselves, while the Magicians ARE useless adults and tend to complain an awful lot about how no one is teaching them anything. The Baudelaires, while young, are self-possessed, mature, and in charge of their own fates. They’re clever and winsome and likeable. The Magicians, while adults – the “college-age” actors look about 35 – do little other than whine helplessly about how hard life is and how miserable they are. Most of the characters in The Magicians are stupid and greedy and lazy, and they are all selfish and unlikable. I don’t require perfect characters; I very much prefer some nice juicy flaws. But I do have to be able to like a character at least a little to care about their fates. I care about the Baudelaires. I didn’t care about the Magicians. Not one bit.

We may be living in the golden age of TV and everything, but despite that, a lot of what we get, even in good shows, is made to cater to the least common denominator. The Magicians, while enjoyable enough for what it is, is firmly in this camp. It’s a Twinkie show, it’s junk food. The entire setup is irretrievably silly. “Like, wouldn’t it be cool if there was a magical boarding school like Hogwarts, only it’s for grownups!! And the grownups have magical adventures and do drugs and have sex and (snicker) even three-ways!! And they are awful, awful people, quitters and losers, just like we are!!!” The bad guy is unscary and his machinations and motivations feel contrived, meaningless. The “danger” our heroes are in never really feels like DANGER-danger, it feels like plot points ticked off a checklist in an attempt to make the viewer care about people who are tough to care about. The archetypical heroes face an archetypical villain. Yawn.

A Series of Unfortunate Events, on the other hand, has more sharp edges, more hard corners. It’s not pre-chewed and palatable. It has roughage. The mistreatment that the Baudelaires suffer at the hands of indifferent and self-interested adults actually feels unsettling. Count Olaf, while terrifying, is campy and over the top, but the supporting characters are all too real. A judge who fails to listen because she thinks she has a chance to be famous, a lawyer who cares only about his next promotion, an aunt and uncle who are so preoccupied with their own issues that they can’t protect their charges. Even the nice grownups are entirely useless. The kids are so sweet and good, and they try so diligently in the direst of circumstances, that even though the bad guys are mostly played for laughs it’s often uncomfortable to see the children in danger. The peril that the orphans are in feels genuine.

If you read all this and decide that I’m saying The Magicians sucks, yeah, kinda. Watch A Series instead, it’s by far the superior show. But despite their many differences, there just seemed to be some common thread between the two shows that kept bugging me. It felt important somehow, culturally significant, meaningful in an important way.

Finally I realized it’s this – The Magicians is a children’s show made for adults. A Series of Unfortunate Events is an adult show that is made for children.

Watching The Magicians is like watching a child’s fantasy of what adulthood is supposed to be. “Someday you grow up and find out you are special for absolutely no reason at all and then you get to do all the fun exciting grownup stuff without doing any of the hard boring grownup stuff.” The obnoxious passivity of the characters is probably by design. The Magicians are meant to be childish, infantile even, but they still get to (over)indulge in every adult privilege with very little effort on their part. It’s a show for spoiled twenty-somethings who don’t understand why the world hasn’t handed them the keys to the kingdom yet because god knows they’re better than all of this. The only character in the entire show who shows a spark of intellectual curiosity for its own sake, the only one who fights hard to achieve a goal not because it was forced on her by outside forces, but because it was something that she desperately wanted, is sternly punished for her temerity.

A Series of Unfortunate Events, on the other hand, is no fantasy. It’s a metaphor about the painful reality of childhood. Being a child means through no fault of your own, through choices made by your parents and guardians that you have utterly no say over, you’re often thrust into rather terrible situations and expected to get through them somehow, at times even without the benefit of antidepressants and professional counseling. The fate of the Baudelaires lies, as is true for many children, in the hands of adults who at best don’t care, and at worst are actively trying to exploit and harm them. They have to get themselves out of one scrape after another while raising a baby sibling and searching for a safe haven in a hurricane (literally). This requires not melting into puddles of moist self-pity every time their arch nemesis or some other villain shows up, not crumbling when the few decent adults they meet invariably let them down. If the Baudelaires indulged in the kind of narcissistic swooning that the Magicians do constantly, they’d be captured and dead by the end of the first episode.

It is interesting to me that the target audience of The Magicians is probably people who read the book version of A Series of Unfortunate Events growing up. What happened? Is the vision of unearned specialness just that compelling? Is it Harry Potter syndrome, have they not yet learned that not everyone can be the Chosen One? Is it better to be an undeserving Magician with no redeeming qualities, handed phenomenal cosmic power just cuz, than a normal, decent person who tries their best to develop the meager, ordinary skills they possess? Or is it just a matter of Hollywood having lost its way, dumbing things down so often that they don’t remember how to tell smart stories any more and so they need Netflix to reteach it to them?

I’d like to lean towards the latter explanation, but then again Hollywood doesn’t make stories that don’t have an audience. People want the Chosen Ones. It’s a beloved trope. They want Harry Potter and Neo and Luke Skywalker and Kung Fu Panda and Buffy; if they didn’t, no one would watch. It was tough for me to think of a single megahit since the turn of the millennium that doesn’t involve a Chosen One. It’s downright ubiquitous, especially in the sci-fi/fantasy genres. But it’s such a childish idea, really. The idea that sometime someone will swoop out of the sky to pick out YOU, who me, yes YOU, you’re the Chosen One, YAY!!! I certainly get the appeal, but it’s not exactly an adult lens through which to view the world.

The trope has become so commonplace that we don’t even really take notice of it any more. The majority of the most successful children’s books of the last 20 years have involved Chosen Ones. Charlie Bone, The Princess Diaries, Percy Jackson, the Divergent series, Animorphs, the Hunger Games, and Twilight have all involved people who are plucked from obscurity by some external force, be it birthright, mutated DNA, alien intervention, Prim’s horrible luck, or because they’re super attractive to vampires for some reason. The Magicians is based on a book series; while too mature to be YA, it’s definitely skewed for a younger audience. A Series of Unfortunate Events may be an exception to the trend, but it’s just a blip, really. If you grew up in the last quarter of a century, you grew up with The Chosen Ones.

According to the Myth of The Chosen One, childhood is not the time of your life in which you learn many lessons and experience harsh realizations about the world you live in and grow as a person and figure out who you are and how to be the best you you can be. Childhood to a Chosen One is a dull torture that must be endured until someone comes along to reveal a glorious destiny, whereupon you’ll be taken to a better world where everyone likes you and you’re a superhero. Going to school, doing your chores, being with your family, playing with friends, sports and Camp Fire and tap dancing lessons – this isn’t childhood, it’s Harry Potter’s room under the stairs. A prison of tedium you’ll escape someday when you’re Chosen and then you’ll show everyone, all those people who didn’t understand you.

I am an older mom. I grew up on a steady diet of Little House and Lois Lenski and Beverly Cleary, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Where the Red Fern Grows. I was not disappointed on my 11th birthday when my letter from Hogwarts didn’t arrive. Childhood was an adventure in and of itself, the adventure of growing up in the world you happen to find yourself born into, and finding a way to live in it successfully. While many of the tales of my youth did involve ordinary people doing extraordinary things, it was not because they were Chosen Ones. It was because life sometimes calls upon ordinary people to do extraordinary things, even if they are young. That’s the way most children’s books used to be. The protagonists weren’t born inherently special, they achieved their goals through hard work and kindness and endurance.

Most stories were about children who were faced with real problems in real life and had to adapt by doing something that was difficult for them. It wasn’t magic, it was life stuff, it was real. Tales of poor families saving money for red coon hounds and to buy plots of land someday. Sagas of farmers and their children desperately protecting wheat from locusts and strawberry crops from rampaging cattle. Beverly Cleary could make compelling drama out of an unemployed father cooking pancakes. Laura Ingalls Wilder had me at the edge of my seat with stories of a cold and hungry family trying to keep a fire going through a long winter. Star Wars was fun and everything, but it was decidedly not the norm. Maybe that’s why I really loved A Series of Unfortunate Events, maybe it reminded me of the books of my own childhood.

I’m not saying that these books are better, but they are certainly more diverse than books from the Chosen One genre. They tell stories about a lot of different things and a lot of different kinds of people. They relay a much wider variety of life experience and yet manage to speak to the commonality of human experience. I think there’s value in that.

My youngest children are as of yet too young for Harry Potter. Maybe those books have to go away for now in favor of some more realistic stories about people who are not Chosen. It’s not that they’re bad, they’re fun, I enjoy them myself, but they’re like dessert reading. A couple times a week maybe, if you ate your string beans and read Anne of Green Gables or Johnny Tremain you can have a little bit of The Chosen One.

Not too much, though, guys. You’ll ruin your appetite.

Image by Mark Morgan Trinidad B


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Kristin is huge geek, a libertarian, and a mother of 4 sons and a daughter. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state and works with women around the world as a fertility counselor.

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263 thoughts on “Chosen Ones and Extraordinary Things

  1. I read the book that “The Magicians” was based on (same name, at least for the first book, by Lev Grossman) and found it fairly depressing. It’s kind of like Harry Potter viewed through a more-dystopian lens.

    I WANTED to like it but wound up not really liking it. I haven’t read the other books in the series.

    And the idea of Chosen Ones is kind of seductive and in some ways kind of awful: I was a good student. Some teachers claimed I was “gifted.” I was told I’d grow up to do Great Things. Instead, I wound up as a biology professor at a small, obscure, perpetually cash-strapped school. I feel like I’ve either failed the potential I had, or that I never had it to begin with and either people lied to me or I fooled them somehow.

    My favorite book I’ve read as an adult was “Middlemarch” because it contained a lot of people who failed to live up to expectations or who made poor choices in life, but who managed to live with those choices and make the best of them, and I think that – playing the hand you’re dealt and realizing that none of us is actually special – is probably a better lesson than the Chosen Ones books.

    (I grew up before Harry Potter; I read the Narnia books a lot, though. And Jean Craighead George’s “My Side of the Mountain,” and the Little House books, and Margery Sharp’s “Miss Bianca” books, and lots of “talking animal” books in general….)

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    • And the idea of Chosen Ones is kind of seductive and in some ways kind of awful: I was a good student. Some teachers claimed I was “gifted.” I was told I’d grow up to do Great Things. Instead, I wound up as a biology professor at a small, obscure, perpetually cash-strapped school. I feel like I’ve either failed the potential I had, or that I never had it to begin with and either people lied to me or I fooled them somehow.

      In some ways that was my experience. For me, though, going to grad school and (eventually) getting a PHD would have counted for those people as doing Great Things (not that I believe it’s that great a thing). I also got the sense, especially in high school and as an undergrad, that even an office-drone job would be success and a Great Thing. (From my perspective then, it sure beat the food service jobs I have. From my perspective now, it does, too, but I’m less snobbish about those jobs than I was when I actually worked them.)

      I always knew deep down that I wasn’t particularly gifted, and that knowledge was confirmed when met truly gifted people in grad school–one had gotten his BA at around the age of 18 or 19 and was in the PHD program with me, for example. I was, however, precocious and I liked learning (and I worked hard). That took me pretty far.

      Finally–and this is going to sound like the white liberal virtue signalling it probably is–I probably got a lot of breaks in part because I was/am the kind of person to whom it’s easy to give breaks: I’m clean cut, male, white, straight, etc. My success, such as it is, would have been different, and probably more limited, if I didn’t have that basket of advantages.

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      • It also didn’t help the other kids accept me any more.

        A bitter joke: what makes a kid less popular than being in the gifted program at school? Being nominated for it, but not quite making it in.

        that was me.

        I found out later it was because a teacher said my handwriting was too bad, and I should spend my time working on THAT instead of in the gifted program. But of course, the other kids didn’t know that, so I was branded as the one who was “too retarded* for the gifted program”

        (*Sorry if that’s a no-go word here; I know some places it’s the equivalent of the “n word.” But that’s literally the word they used, so.)

        Some days, I think it’s kind of amazing I even made it out of childhood.

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        • The more distance I get from my own childhood, the firmer I get in my thought: to hell with promoting gifted kids – the really gifted ones will find a way, and the others’ parents don’t really need more trophies for their Munchausen-by-proxy shelf – socialize them. They’ll only need to deal with academics for 18 years, but with people for 80.
          Like a lot of people reading this, I never got that experience when it was age-appropriate, in no small part because of programs that actively kept me away from other people, doing redundant academic work. Hell, if both my parents hadn’t been teachers, it would have kept me away from them.

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              • Some humans are simply introverts even as children. I was. I learned all the social skills I needed from hanging around adults and the handful of close family friends that I was comfy with. Being tossed into a pit of not-very-nice hooligans for 13 years was a huge and disastrous setback. It took me through my entire 20’s before I could finally recover from it (inasumuch as I have)

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          • I agree with that, but with a caveat: there are some very prodigious children who are intellectually so beyond what typical children can/do learn that they might merit some special treatment, not in the sense of “promoting” them, but in the sense of addressing their special needs. (If is reading, he might have some interesting thoughts on whether or in what ways I’m right/wrong about this.)

            In my comment above, I mentioned a co-grad student who entered the PHD program very young. He had a lot of challenges when it came to maturity and with interacting with others. Not that I know for sure, but I think those challenges were somehow related to his prodigiousness. (They were also a reminder to me about how I can come across to others who perhaps were not as precocious as I was.)

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            • I haven’t followed the whole exchange here nor am I an expert on this particular topic, but G&T kids are often considered to have “special needs” insofar as their educational needs are well outside the norm. That said, I do not believe they have an legal entitlement since IDEA and other applicable laws are based on serving children with disabilities.

              Speaking more generally, I have spent my entire career teaching preK in fairly to very progessive (educationally speaking) environments. This combination means there is lots of differentiation or individualization offered for a host of reasons.

              What I think you’re asking about is kids with truly prodigious cognitive abilities and they surely exist and may stretch what can be accomplished simply via differentiation or individualization.

              My belief is that problems arise when we mistake academic skills for cognitive abilities (they’re linked but are not the same thing) and when we focus on only one area of development. If a kids cognitive abilities are off the charts but his social-emotional development is typical, you can’t just cater to the former.

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            • The number of true prodigies are rare though. The kids in gifted programs might be very intelligent and hard workers but very few of them are what you really call prodigies. Most of them are just smart with an early ability to focus on work.

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              • Real life anecdote

                I usd to have a coworker that came to work one day with the news that they had found their two years old could read -on his own. The boy had just grabbed a soccer ball with the names of World Cup countries and started reading them aloud (he couldn’t even speak well at that time). After a battery of tests, yes, the boy was gifted almost off the charts. He would recognize classical music (of which his father was a fan) and would ask for a specific composer Bach, or Mozart, played, and wouldn’t stop asking until the correct composer was playing in the stereo).

                Their older, eight year old, had always been a nightmare in school, having being close to expulsion for indiscipline. Testing of the older boy showed he too, was gifted, but not anywhere near his brother. He was acting up because he was just incredibly bored in school.

                The parents and the older brother school accommodated him as follows: the boy would have to stay in class and behave, but he would not be required to pay attention if he didn’t want to. Instead, he would be allowed to read on his own in his desk about whatever subject he wanted (he was passionate about biology and space exploration -boys will be boys) and he would be allowed to ask the teacher any questions he had after class. He would also have to take all the standard school tests.

                The accommodation worked, disciplinary problems ended, and the boy’s grades soared. Note: At the time I also felt the kid responded well because he fealt he was being taken seriously instead of being punished.

                I left that job before the younger kid had reached school age, but the parents were very concerned, because they couldn’t afford the private gifted schools that were being recommended for him.

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              • I was very good at test taking.

                As an adult, I’ve learned that being good at test-taking is worth fish-all in the real world.

                I have a good memory, and that’s served me well, but these days I’m more likely to say I’m the opposite of a genius than a genius.

                I fall firmly in the camp that says kids should be praised for their hard work on something rather than any innate ability (“You’re smart.”)

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                • Part of the problem is a lot of people confuse “good memory & recall” with gifted. My sister has a scary good memory, close to photographic, so school was easy for her, all the way through high school, since most of the work is memorization and recitation, with a bit of deductive reasoning tossed in.

                  College killed her, because she’d spent the past 13 years being the smartest kid in town, and couldn’t pivot to not being able to memorize and do a bit of reasoning.

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                      • Much of our education is geared towards those lower tiers. And we shouldn’t look down our nose that those skills or the people who excell at them, but we shouldn’t make them the end-all, be-all goal of our system.

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                        • Which is kinda my point. 20 years ago, the school system thought my sister was gifted because she had a natural affinity for the first 3 tiers, but failed to really push her to see if that affinity extended past that. A person with good memory and basic analytical ability can appear gifted, but advanced analytic ability is learned, not inherent.

                          Prodigies just master the higher tiers much faster than the norm.

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                          • …advanced analytic ability is learned, not inherent. Prodigies just master the higher tiers much faster than the norm.

                            I’ll disagree somewhat. There are people who are good at math right up until what’s needed is the intuitive leaps to see how to prove particular theorems. Even within the group who develop that talent, it can be narrow — if I had stayed in for the Ph.D., it would clearly have been in some branch of analysis, because I could be creative there. In algebra, not a chance.

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                            • There is an interesting wall in Calculus, when methods of integration are taught. Suddenly, for the first time, you have a style of math that doesn’t have a cookbook answer. (Which, actually it does [1], but one that humans cannot really master.) But in any case, here you have problems that do not have closed-form solutions, and solution techniques that require guesswork, trial and error, sudden flashes of insight, etc.

                              I suppose you get some of that in high school Geometry, but symbolic integration seems a different kind of problem.

                              Anyway yeah, in my view that is when you start doing “math.”

                              [1] Symbolic integration is a decidable problem with an algorithm. The thing is, Mathematica knows it. You don’t.

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                              • There was a saying in my STEM only college

                                Doing derivatives is for those that want to
                                Doing integrals is only for those than can

                                it’s cooler in Spanish, and it rhymes, too

                                Deriva el que quiere
                                Integra el que puede

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                              • Learning integration was fascinating. Developing integrals that solve real world problems is as exciting as developing matrices to crunch numbers.

                                Solving both is why we have computers & Wolfram software.

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                            • Michael,
                              I know someone who basically faked the math to get his papers published. (These were empirically tested, so knowing the set theory was not a requirement for “actually has a good idea”).

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                    • Now that I’ve googled it, I have heard of it before. I do remember in one of my elementary school G&T programs presented what appears to me to be a modified (or earlier?) form of what I found online, where “judgment” was “the highest level of thinking ” (It’s been a while, but I think that’s the phrasing the teacher used. I don’t recall any mention of creativity, however.)

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                  • Common problem for university math departments. Freshmen declare a math major, thinking that they’ve always been good at, and enjoyed, math. In fact, they were terrific at memorizing the rules and algorithms and to some extent, applying them. With sufficient care in course selection, they might be able push that all the way to a B.S. or B.A. in math. More likely, by about their junior year — and for damned sure in grad school — they’re going to run into courses that are going to require them to create original (eg, not seen in class or in the text) proofs. Watched a lot of ’em crash and burn at that point over the years.

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                        • Mike,
                          A friend of mine hit that wall with Algebra. He was fine actually doing high school physics (although he understood cosine and sine a little more functionally than most kids in class) because that was actually concrete, despite still failing algebra.

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                          • Physics was my best subject in high school.

                            Math was my worse one.

                            I could easily understand the qualitative physical concepts, and could easily follow the math to reach quantitative answers (and keep on with the math to extrapolate the physics to the next level).

                            But abstract math that I could not tie to a physical concept was hard (algebra was a breeze, because trains going from city A to city B were physical constructs).

                            In college I had to study line and surface integrals, and could not make head or tails of it. A year later, we studied electromagnetic theory and all that math suddenly became crystal clear to me.

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                      • Math education is in a tough place.

                        Until the last couple of generations, the pre-college goal was to produce human calculators with varying levels of ability. By the time they finished sixth grade, everyone was supposed to be a basic four-function calculator. For most, that meant mind-numbing practice and repetition. The notation and methods were fixed — hundreds of years of experience showed that they minimized human errors. Fractions, algebra, transcendental functions — calculators of increasing sophistication. Geometry and the occasional derivation in other classes as a sop to show that there’s more to math than being a calculator. For most people who take calculus and differential equations, the emphasis is on being an ever better calculator.

                        Suddenly, over two generations, that’s effectively all out the window. Calculators that can do any of the stuff listed above are ubiquitous (assuming you’ve loaded the appropriate front-end app in your phone). What should be taught in their place? That’s a hard question.

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                            • One can debate what a “novel” algorithm is, but yes, genetic algorithm approaches have developed algorithms that are “new.” But then, they are typically cryptic and impossible for a human to untangle. As a contrasting example, one can argue that Deep Mind’s approach to winning Go was a “novel” algorithm — or was it? After all, recurrent neural nets are “human invented.” it’s just all that parameters and levels and weights.

                              What is the divide between “model fitting” and “programming” anyhow, when your model might have a recursive structure and a “computational” feel?

                              In any case, it seems as if the successful approaches blend some degree of human model selection and machine fitting. It’s just, the models are getting very large and the fitting procedures rather uncanny in their abilities. And this is now. What about ten years?

                              We’re in a world now where any dipshit can download Tensorflow and start playing. Of course, they won’t have a 10,000 CPU cluster to play with.

                              But I do.

                              (Fortunately for humanity I’m mostly interested in large dimensional optimization stuff, which is rather ancillary to the current thrusts in ML. For now. But I’m just one cog in a very large and very smart machine.)

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                              • Ugg. I do not like calling genetic algorithms as novel algorithms.
                                (Blame bad experience with pngwolf. Perhaps it was the wrong problem space).

                                When the computer program will rewrite itself usefully, then I think we’ve got novelty.

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                  • Oscar,
                    I know someone who does have a photographic memory. It’s not nearly as useful as you think. (For one thing, it’s functionally illiterate — he can remember anything, but can’t read while doing it).

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                • I fall firmly in the camp that says kids should be praised for their hard work on something rather than any innate ability (“You’re smart.”)

                  Here’s where I have to preface things by saying I’m neither a parent nor educated in early childhood development.

                  With that out of the way, I’ll say I mostly agree with that standard: praise for hard work and not for innate ability. But I’m not quite prepared to jettison praise for innate ability entirely. Sometimes–perhaps rarely, but sometimes–it can be a good thing to have approval and love without having to work for it or demonstrate desert. Sometimes praise serves the role of signalling approval and love, even if it’s not synonymous with them.

                  I do believe, however, that it’s possible to overdo it or to put a child in a quandary where they’re praised for something they have no control over and yet they come believe believe that deep down they don’t have that trait for which they’re praised. So for the most part, I’d endorse the same standard you do.

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                  • There’s pretty good research on the importance of praising that which can be controlled over that which can’t.

                    I also think there is a subtle difference between acknowledging and praising. We should certainly acknowledge inherent talent; what is gained from pretending it doesn’t exist? But what does praising its mere presence offer? Praise its application, use, or refinement.

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            • — Back in grammar school I achieved the rare distinction of being simultaneously in the “gifted” program and in the “special ed” program (the latter I assume because of undiagnosed neuro-diversity). Which is to say, in the morning I went to class with the droolers and then in the afternoon I got excused to attend our few “gifted” classes.

              That said, they did teach math at my level, and I did meet kids who like RPGs, and I did get to play with computers before most kids of my generation. So, it all helped I guess.

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                • And there is a good chance he’s used mine.

                  I guess one point I’d make, I wonder what would have happened to me if I’d had a really good/cool/interesting school life with teachers who understood me. A few tried, but so much was stacked against me.

                  I did pretty okay in life, obvi. But still, there were some moments, if something had zigged rather than zagged —

                  — that’s true for everyone. But all the same.

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  2. I don’t recall reading too many “chosen one” stories as a kid, which might explain why such stories generally fail to speak to me as an adult. Enough so that unless the story is written by an author I trust, I rarely make it past the flyleaf.

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    • I dunno. The idea of “chosen one stories” as an adult repulses me in the same way the “every professor should be a SUPERSTAR” narrative repulses me. I’m not a superstar and I know I’m not; under the narrative I mentioned I should probably not be employed. I’m good at what I do but I am not a SUPERSTAR.

      The “superstar” narrative, I think, makes people with ordinary talents and the capacity for hard work feel kind of….lacking, sort of. It used to be “80% of life is showing up,” now it’s “Be yourself, unless you can be Batman, then be Batman, but you really SHOULD be Batman.”

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      • Most modern “Chosen” one stories fail because in order to succeed, the “chooser” has to be an important thing, a part of the reason for the story. Else it is just a story about power.

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          • Precisely… the joke is funny because there is a presumed chooser. That they mis-identify the chooser is irrelevant to the joke.

            You can’t even make a joke out of midichlorians that doesn’t make a joke out of the entire point (if there is one).

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            • Do you recommend that series? A very long time ago I tried reading the first installment (based on what I took at the time to be non fake news). I say “tried” because, for reasons I can’t recall now, the whole thing felt flat and I put it down. Is it worth picking up again?

              And adding to that, I absolutely love a good “chosen one” story. In a certain sense it’s the first mythology (or pretty damn close).

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              • The first Thomas Covenant book is awful. They get quite a lot better over the course of the series and I did enjoy reading them at the time, but you have to push thru the first one.

                As Kim points out, “at the time” was 20 years ago and there are some objectionable elements in them. That having been said, it’s not played for titillation but is actually something that haunts the lead character. I was able to set that aside when I read them.

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                  • As much as we’ve had our differences, I can’t recommend that. The third book of the original trilogy was probably peak Donaldson. And while I understand that the whole point is that he’d caused so much damage to people who loved him solely because he was an insufferable git, and that caused him immense psychological pain – it doesn’t change the fact that he caused so much damage to people who loved him solely because he was an insufferable git…

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                    • I didn’t think there was much point to the series after the end of the first triology because once the ambigiuty that is at the heart of the story’s metaphor and moral question was resolved the whole thing became massively less interesting.

                      It also doesn’t help the Covenant series that the generation after him did dark fantasy much better than what they were doing in the eighties.

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                • The first Thomas Covenant book is awful.

                  Huh. As I said, I’ve never read them, but I heard GRRM discuss the business side of them at a book signing. Basically, the first one was such a whopping success that his publishers considered everything else Donaldson wrote a disappointment.

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              • Hard to say if I’d recommend them… I think they are in the uncanny valley of being too close to the 70s that they might “reek” of them too much. I find there’s a period where books that were good at the time, need a little more distance before the time that spawned can be approached anew.

                That said, their strength is mythopeiac but their downfall is a certain denseness to the mythopeia that is interesting, but perhaps too eclectic to make sense… i.e. the 70s.

                As mentioned above (below?) the protagonist commits a grave sin that follows him between worlds and between ages… a major theme is whether the world is real (or which world is real), and the fact that he is both the chosen and the fallen haunts him in both.

                As I say, the question of being Chosen demands a Chooser, and much of the story is unpacking that. My fear (today) is that while unpacking I would find just so many bell bottomed jeans and leather fringe vests that I wondered why I ever made the trip in the first place.

                I’m afraid to go back to them, and thus can only recommend their idea, not the actual books. (But I’m not not recommending them).

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                • Have you read his final trilogy in that world? I’m rereading it now and it’s just delish (a little heavy with his archaic words but I’d say any trace of the 70’s stuff is gone*).

                  *though yes it’s ambiguous that the author loves horses. No shame in that.

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                  • I read the Second Chronicles and thought you meant that until I saw that he published a third set of Chronicles in the 2000s.

                    So, no.

                    I’ll have to contemplate whether I dive back in – I’ve been out of the Fantasy genre for decades (except for Tolkien, which has gone beyond 11 on the nerd scale…almost into scholarship).

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                    • I, of course, adored them.
                      Pondering your earlier comments I have a feeling that you might enjoy the latest set as they do have an element of cutting off the bell bottoms of the past series/retroactively explaining some of those elements in a way that I thought really worked.

                      They also really tied stuff up well for me. YMMV I suspect especially depending on your opinion of Linden Avery. She figures even more prominently in the latest set. If you disliked/hated her I wouldn’t recommend the new books. If, like me, you liked/loved her then you may well love the new books.

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            • I’ve not, though they’re certainly the sort of thing I do read.

              And midichlorians was the dumbest idea Lucas ever had, along with Anakin’s never-again-discussed virgin birth.

              “Strong with the Force is this one! It is by the medical lab confirmed!”

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            • Holy Agnostic Jeebus I love the Covenant series. They might well be one of my favorite series even though as others have noted there’s some seriously rough immoral crap that happens in the first book. The only defense I can offer is that it plays directly to the theme/philosophy of the series and that it rightfully haunts the main character from then on.

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  3. I actually like The Magicians a lot, and somehow this characterization feels unfair.

    Yes, most, or all, of the characters are selfish, whiny, ennuied. But, all of them, are incredibly courageous. And most of all are capable of putting away their selfishness to sacrifice their life, their freedom, their soul, for others.

    The way I see it, in The Magicians, magic alters your life in a way nothing else can. Hedge witches, those who know and have some magic, but are banned for some reason from the community of Magicians, describe magic as a drug, and would do anything to learn a new spell, no matter how trivial it might be.

    Like the Roman elite of old, Magicians can do anything. When nothing is out of reach, everything is worthless, and orgies are just a way to make time pass. Even gods (the Magicians’ world also has real gods, as far above the Magicians as the Magicians are from us) are bored and selfish, and would chase anything that could excite them, even briefly, in an eternity of total power

    The Magicians’ main characters, the pretty one, the gay one, the punk one, etc., more unconsciously than consciously, reach the conclusion that they have a duty to fulfill. That the “cartoonish” foes are too powerful and too dangerous and something has to be done. And, since nobody else is doing it, they will. It rings true to me that they do it even though they’d rather not. Their selfishness tells them they should give a fish. And many times they are about to just give a fish and go back to the orgy. But they persevere. And, as the gay one (*) says when asked why he accepted never to be able to return home (to the orgies) in exchange for advantages in their quest, “I made the sacrifices i made because i didn’t expect i would survive”.

    To me, the Magicians are not failed characters that “magically” stumbled onto magical powers. It’s the power that comes from the magic itself what distorts ordinary people into the caricatures they all become, even the hedge witches. But underneath what magic brought, there’s a substrate of real people trying to do their best. It’s this dycotomy, not lhaving magic erode your humanity (**) what I find most interesting about the show.

    (*) I find Eliot, the gay one, the most interesting character of all. When we meet him, he’s probably the most damaged of them all. He has truly embraced an existence of pleasure, sex, and drugs. But he’s also the one most desperate for real affection. He’s the one who first offers friendship to the very unlikeable main character. And it’s through Eliot, and thanks to him, that the protagonist is fully accepted and able to start building his own relationships. Eliot, the most selfish and vain of all, is also the first to fall in love, madly, and (mild spoiler alert) he is forced by this love onto an impossible situatuon that almost destroys him. I almost cried there.

    (**) [Not] curiously, the older you are in The Magicians world, the more selfish, arrogant, and not giving a fish you are, as magic has eroded all that made you human. Older Magicians truly don’t give a fish when the protagonists come to them for help. The older Magicians fully know the capabilities and dangers of the foes, but can’t be bothered to help, even though they know the foes might destroy them too. And, of course, the gods are much further ahead onto this path of magic erasing everything.

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      • It actually generated a lot of criticism when it was produced. Non-Jews, especially conservative Catholics for some reasons, seemed more open to its message than many Jewish responders. I think the critics of the essay where missing the point of the article. There are a lot of Jewish fantasy novelists but nearly none of them borrow from the Jewish tradition in the same way that Lewis and Tolkien borrowed from the pagan and Christian traditions of Europe. Even in fantasy novels with lots of what TVTropes called fantasy counter part cultures, the persecuted minority group that fantasy novelists borrow from medieval and Renaissance Europe are the Roma and not the Jews because lets face it, sexy vagabonds in colorful are a lot more fun than bearded merchants and scholars and their modestly dressed women.

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    • Lee,

      I think this person hasn’t played or seen Fate/Stay Night. That’s a perfect example of a Jewish fantasy — where the magic is really incidental to the choices people make, and where the choices are the fundamentals of the story, around which the magic bends. Good and evil as choices, not as externalized “things.”

      I think the author is looking for the cheapness of Evangelion, more than Narnia. Evangelion pulled a “weird world” out of christian symbolism.

      But that’s not really what sells a Jewish fantasy…

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    • I have read the Magicians trilogy (I enjoyed all of them but thought the final book was weaker than the other two). I’ve watched probably half a dozen episodes of the first season of the show, which for me is a lot – I don’t tend to watch much TV. So my impression is largely on the strength of the books rather than the TV show.

      I agree with you on the appeal of the dystopian view of magic and the various Harry Potter tropes. That was part of what I liked about the books – that it took the whimsical premise of Harry Potter, and tried to take it somewhat seriously.

      Like: Let us accept that you can be chosen, quite without preparation, to study deep and recondite power. If you are chosen you can no longer be open with any of your loved ones, no matter how much you want to, about what you’re doing at school. And those who fail the entrance exam have a gap in their memories to protect both the school and the rejected student – except it’s not always entirely perfect. And once you’re done school, where at least you were in a community of scholarship – well, while your economic survival is assured with minimal effort thanks to your powers, now you really have practically nobody around whom you can be open and unguarded.

      So, of course this leads to magicians being full of pain and alienation and self-medicating and taking stupid risks; how would it not?

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  4. I watched the first two episodes of the Magicians yesterday. I enjoyed the show and think JA’s description reads more fairly.

    The show also works as a parody of grad school and the kind of people you meet there sometimes.

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  5. I haven’t seen the show, but this line sounds like it’s a repetition of all the cliche’s we’ve been hearing about Millennials:

    It’s a show for spoiled twenty-somethings who don’t understand why the world hasn’t handed them the keys to the kingdom yet because god knows they’re better than all of this.

    This makes me suspicious. Maybe there’s some failed satire in there?

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    • I’ve only read the first book of the series but it was explicitly critical of aimless lives of privildeged and talented twenty-somethings. A big point was how self-destructive these people who spent their lives striving for achievement in the structured world of school became when they graduated and there were no more grades and prizes to be won.

      Similarly, the main character’s arc seems to be about accepting that the fantasy of being a choosen one on a epic quest wouldn’t make him happy and that he needs to build up actual interpersonal relationships and accomplishments.

      The show is different but working on similar themes. Main character’s season one arc is all about him gradually figuring out awful he is and leading to a decision where he hands of the chance to be the big epic hero to somebody he knows is way more qualified for the job than he is.

      So yeah, I think the original poster here is making far too common mistake in criticism of mistaking depiction for endorsement.

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      • All I can say is how it came off to me – which was that it was a depiction meant to be relatable to the audience as an everyman. I’m not saying the creators of the show intended it to be an endorsement, just that they intended it to be relatable to their intended audience.

        I didn’t read the books and it’s entirely possible I’d have a different opinion had I been able to get in the character’s heads a bit more.

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  6. I have a serious problem with the chosen one stories that you see in a lot of fantasy because it is damned elitist and aristocratic. HP is destined to be a great man and he goes to a super elitist school that is modeled on the kind of British boarding school that destined one for high service.

    Why is this good to teach to children? What are the democratic and republican values being taught here?

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    • An interesting thing about the government in a lot of fantasy novels set in Medieval pseudo-European settings is that they contain many less representative institutions than actual Medieval Europe. Medieval Europe wasn’t exactly a place filled with democratic values but it wasn’t all feudal and absolute monarchy also. There were parliaments, estates-generals, diets, city council, manor leets, guilds, courts, and other representative institutions in government.

      I guess a big problem that they don’t exist in fantasy novels is that we all know that even the best intentioned representatives institutions can get petty and short-sighted at times and might mix the big picture. Its hard for the hero to battle the encroaching armies of the Demon Lord King when the Estates-General is wondering whether diplomacy will work better or whether the cost of war is worth it.

      Harry Potter’s treatment of the Ministry of Magic is actually a good representation of the problem of representative governments in fantasy. The officials of the Ministry of Magic kept getting in our heroes way when it came to Voldemort and refused to believe that Voldemort was back despite all the evidence waiving in their face.

      Now it turned out they were all corrupted but you could easily imagine a non-corrupted and well-intentioned Ministry of Magic not getting it. These are school children and the job of fighting Voldemort should be left to adults they will say. The rules and protocols still need to be followed. There needs to be a thorough discussion before action is taken, etc. Its like Walter Peck in Ghostbusters (1984). He seemingly only wanted to do his job as an ETA agent but he stubbornly refused to admit what was going on despite all evidence to his face. Even if he did admit, he might still feel a need to enforce the rules.

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      • Lee,
        When there’s an opportunity for diplomacy, you let the characters at least consider it.
        I think the fantasy novels are getting better about fractitious nobility. GRRM does a good job of it, Sanderson does a good job of it — hell, even Robert Jordan did a good job of it.

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      • I really liked the Ministry of Magic and the Dolores Umbridge character at first and was very disappointed to learn they were (mostly( under Voldemort’s sway. I really, really wanted them to just be your average run of the mill bureaucrat-types.

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      • Well we should also consider that representative bodies are a lot harder to write fiction for period. You have more people with the decision making power divided up between them. Compared to autocracies or monarchies it presents a serious challenge for drama and characterization and then on top of it after some given period the whole lot of them get flushed and you start over.

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        • North,
          not at all. If you have representative bodies, you get political drama. GRRM’s world is a decent example of it. So’s House of Cards. Representative bodies devolve into “Who are the Power Brokers?” games. Well, that and blackmail.

          Plenty of drama there — but you have to WANT that in your world.

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  7. First off, +1 for the use of the word “roughage.”

    Second, however, you almost lost me with the passing dismissal of Buffy. Yes, Buffy was the Chosen One. That was repeatedly and explicitly stated. But it turns out that being the Chosen One really sucks. Even in the happy early seasons a recurring theme is how much she wished she weren’t, and could have a normal life. Then in the late seasons we have PTSD Buffy as a direct result of her being the Chosen One. Which is to say that this is another example of Whedon taking a standard trope and turning it on its head.

    I watched the first episode of A Series of Unfortunate Events with my nine year old. I enjoyed it more than she did. I don’t know if this is because it is really a grown-up show disguised as a kids’ show, or just one of those random things about what clicks and what doesn’t. I will probably watch the rest by myself. I probably won’t watch The Magicians, if only because my potential viewing material far outstrips my actual viewing time.

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  8. I haven’t seen either of the shows, but I’ve read the Magicians trilogy and probably liked it more than fillyjonk and less than J_A. J_A’s analysis rings true, but my problem with the trilogy was in its execution. It seemed to be too self-consciously a “hey, you thought fantasy fiction was for children? Well, think again. I’m writing one for adults!” book. Maybe not the gravest sin in literature. But I couldn’t shake the notion.

    As for “chosen one” tropes, I guess for me it depends on how chosenness is conceived and “lived” in the story in question. If it’s just that someone has an undeserved gift and then does cool and righteous things with it, I agree with Kristin’s take. However, being “chosen” comes with its own responsibilities and heartache and loneliness, and if “chosen one” literature takes that into account, it can be part of a stimulating and thought-provoking story.

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    • It seemed to be too self-consciously a “hey, you thought fantasy fiction was for children? Well, think again. I’m writing one for adults!” book.

      ..which is an odd conceit given that more or less all modern fantasy is derived, directly or indirectly, from The Lord of the Rings, which is decidedly aimed at adults.

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    • I suppose my review of it has to be leavened with the observation that I generally dislike fantasy that is explicitly aimed at adults, because

      a. often evil wins, or good really isn’t that good
      b. there’s a lot of explicit gore and explicit sex, neither of which I enjoy reading.

      I am a Simple Bear of Very Little Brain so I prefer simpler fantasies. (I am currently working my way through Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence). Part of it is I want some reassurance that Good really WILL win in the end, and you don’t always get that with “adult” fantasy.

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      • I generally like twists of the sort in your item a. I’m also a pretty big fan of good character development. To me, we don’t see a lot of that in the Magicians, especially in the first book of the trilogy. (Or it could be that I just didn’t like Quentin. He reminds me of a couple people I know and am not particularly fond of. That, however, is not the author’s fault.)

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      • Interestingly I dislike fantasy because of the simplicity even the so-called complexities of Harry Potter often seem very simple to me. “Gee you have a villain who was a teenager during WWII and he and his followers are obsessed with blood purity. I wonder who that is a stand in for?”

        I don’t believe in good and evil usually. I believe in people and we do things. Lots of good people are capable of being defensive, petty, jealous, self-serving, gluttonous, greedy, etc. This does not negate acts of kindness or compassion but black and white views of the world never appealed to me.

        One of the reasons I go on and on about the need for “highbrow” is I have heard too many people, especially people born 1977 or after, say that they use art and entertainment as security blankets. They don’t want to acknowledge that the world is complicated, morally gray, and sometimes it is really hard to determine the right thing to do. Everyone seems to have concepts of hyper-justice and holds to them with the simplicity of a kindergartner.

        The world is not often black and white (though it can be) and a lot of stuff comes in shades of gray. I resist this too at times but so many people seem to want ultra-escapism. There is nothing wrong with a little escapism, we all need it but I am a bit distressed that a lot of adults are constantly rushing back to Harry Potter and Narnia. It sort of proves the point of the Magicians and Quintein’s obsession with Fillory.

        Admitedly grim-dark has problems too because letting evil win just because is more of a Slate Pitch than good writing.

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        • I think it can be easy to miss the point of Fantasy along these lines. The fact that there exists some uncomplicated evil in a story doesn’t mean that the story is about black and white morality or that it’s incapable of dealing with the difficulties and complexity of the real world (which isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of bad fantasy novels out there that very much fit this stereotype, but then it’s hardly fair to judge a genre by the worst works it contains). Done right, fantasy isn’t about simple good vs evil; if you have a big bad in a story it’s because there’s value in seeing how other characters react to the threat that the big bad poses.

          I’m not going to go to bat for Harry Potter; they’re fine for what they are but they aren’t my favorite books. But if your complaint about the genre is that you don’t like simplistic morality or childish escapism, go read The Kingkiller Chronicles or A Song of Ice and Fire or The Prince of Nothing or just The Lord of the Rings. These works might have their own problems, but simplistic morality and escapism don’t count among them.

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        • “I dislike fantasy because of the simplicity even the so-called complexities of Harry Potter often seem very simple to me. “Gee you have a villain who was a teenager during WWII and he and his followers are obsessed with blood purity. I wonder who that is a stand in for?””

          Seems quite powerful if you’re a kid and that’s the first time you’ve encountered a Nazi allegory.

          What concerns me are the grown-ass adults encountering their first Nazi allegory in Harry Potter.

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        • Saul,
          You haven’t read Harry Potter as an assignment for work.
          May I ask you what my friend who did was asked to answer?

          “Why does Harry Potter make losers feel better about themselves?”

          … to focus so much on the conflict between good and evil detracts tremendously from what the books actually do well.

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    • Yeah, the wink-wink angle of the show put me off for the same reason. I mean everyone has that idea “wouldn’t it be fun if such-and-such kids’ book was for adults”…heck, it’s kinda the whole point of fan fiction…but it seemed very self-aware and self-congratulatory. It was like, how far can we push this – like pushing the envelope was the point and the story was in service to that.

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    • Just a note that I haven’t read the books (though I might in the future)

      As far as internet comments go, the consensus appears to be that the series improves on some aspects of the books as well as adding some interesting characters on the Julia side of the story – Marina, for instance, is not in the books

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  9. It’s not that they’re bad, they’re fun, I enjoy them myself, but they’re like dessert reading. A couple times a week maybe, if you ate your string beans and read Anne of Green Gables or Johnny Tremain you can have a little bit of The Chosen One.

    Concerning Johnny Tremain: I read that book for 8th grade and reading it was one of things that prompted me to see the American Revolution as unjust. I didn’t admit it right away, and I found parts of it, such as James Otis’s speech, inspiring in the way that the author and pro-Revolution apologists probably wanted me to. But a part of me revolted at the story. In part, I disliked the way the title character “patriot” treated his subordinate (Dell, I believe his name was). In part, the novel did a little too-good (for its purposes) of a job of humanizing the British, and I had a hard time reconciling the vigilante justice the tone of the novel seems to prescribe with the British soldiers’ humanity.

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    • Heh. I read more British children’s novels than American/Canadian ones when I was a kid. (And yeah, I do think that has affected my syntax and writing).

      Some friends and I were just having a discussion this morning about how messed-up the whole Mr. Toad thing was. (I actually googled “Psycopathy of Mr. Toad” and got two very relevant hits).

      Apparently though, British kid-lit written by fathers for sons – the son’s lives never seem to turn out all that happy. (Kenneth Grahame’s son, in particular)

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      • You’ve heard of bioshock? One of the devs decided to use his daughter’s avatar in the game.

        3d Avatars are quite useful for producing pornography, as it turns out…

        (Yes, He Was Warned).

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      • Fairy tales in general (in their original) are some messed-up stuff. Not just Andersen. I have the whole Andrew Lang set and I like to read them sometimes but sometimes you have to take them in small doses. Lots of people being killed in pretty creative ways.

        then again, they are mostly BAD people, so it’s kind of okay ;)

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          • It’s funny how the Horrible Deaths in fairytales don’t bother me like Horrible Deaths in modern fiction do.

            I suppose it’s because I figure on some level, “Well, in those days, if you made it through childhood without dying from typhoid/plague/smallpox/non-specified bacterial infection/crushed in a mine accident, you were one of the incredibly lucky ones” and that the stories kind of reflected the general high mortality rates.

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            • I once had the opportunity to sit down and read through transcriptions of a batch of letters written by one of my ancestors who had, along with many other folks, moved across the Mississippi River into what is now Iowa to establish farms before it was legal to do so. The letters were going back to relatives in Kentucky and all started with the typical “You have to jump back after you throw the seeds on the ground to avoid the plants growing so fast they hit you under the chin” richness of the river bottom soil. But all of them got around to deaths. John was tortured and murdered by Indians. Sarah died from consumption. Little Anna just withered away. Two babies died; one of their mothers also while giving birth. Pete cut half his foot off with an ax and died of of the corruption even though we removed his leg at the knee and cauterized it.

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    • Lee,
      That’s just silly. A Wrinkle in Time, The Rats of NIMH (and yes, that acronym means what you think it does), The Blue Sword — there’s tons of great fantasy American books.

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      • They were all written after Worlf War II though orvreslly all after 1960, long after the deep Protestantism was gone and frontier-pioneer ethos was nothing but a TV fantasy.

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        • Millions of Cats, The boy who was, Shen of the Sea.
          (I’m just pulling from Newberry Medal winning stuff, in case you can’t tell).
          I didn’t mention these simply because I hadn’t read them, and I figured you hadn’t either.

          Still, the literature was certainly fanciful.

          (What stands out, more than anything, is actually the worldliness of the American Authors — Sweden, China, Japan, Amerind — not just frontiersman)

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    • Lee, after a moment to ponder it, I wonder if the reason why Brits prefer the more fantastical children’s tales (if indeed that is the case) is because their culture was fairly rigid, and social norms were largely set in stone and little could be done to escape your lot in life. To some extent (at least historically) biology was destiny and there was a fairly narrow range of acceptable behavior. People behaved because that was what was expected of them and the social penalties for misbehavior were huge – example, when Lydia runs off with Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, her entire family was ruined. I can imagine in that sort of world, a fantasyland you could go where the rules don’t apply would be very refreshing.

      In American kiddie lit. it makes sense that it might reflect the idea that hard work and being “good” could actually get you something in life – because to some extent, they could. I would suspect if you live in a culture where hard work and morality was just something that was expected of people, yet you could do it your whole life and not get anything out of it other than not being punished with the ruination of your entire family, tales of little goody two shoes behaving themselves would indeed come off as preachy and Puritanical.

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      • +1. I shelved my first reaction to Lee’s comment (not the one you directly responded to, a subsequent one) and on reflection came to something similar but not nearly so precise as what you wrote up there. The spirit of deep Protestantism isn’t gone in America, and the frontier-pioneer ethos is alive and well. Which is to our credit, actually, even tho reality might get the short end of the stick during the evaluation process.

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      • I’m not sure if British society was ever as rigid and hidebound as you present it to be or whether American/Canadian society rewarded hard work as much as we mythologize. There were a decent amount of self-made millionaires and business people in the United Kingdom during the late 19th and early 20th century and a middle class was growing bigger and bigger in ranks since the early to mid-9th century. There were also millions of British people migrated to places like Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand to build a new and better life for themselves. The first self-help book, entitled Self-Help, was published in the UK in the 19th century.

        This was an aspirational, energetic society and filled with the same deep Protestantism as American society. They also had a frontier of sorts in the colonies and the dominions. The class hierarchy might have been stricter and the chances of improvement through work lower but not that bad to encourage fantasy over realism in children’s literature.

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        • Well, I’m not intentionally presenting it that way, I’m just saying the way it is portrayed via literature. Real life is of course always much messier and more diverse/complicated than the mirror imagery of literature. I’m honestly not sure I do accept the Atlantic articles’ premise, just trying to imagine IF that is true, why might that be, based on my working knowledge of the literature of both cultures as a jumping off point.

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      • I find this debate quite interesting as now the pendulum seems to have swung back. Although they do still publish realistic stories for kids, they aren’t anywhere near as popular as they were during the 70’s and early 80’s. Everyone was reading Judy Blume and SE Hinton in the way that they read Harry Potter a few years back.

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  10. The more I think about it, there is a good comparison to the magic is real and grad school comparisons.

    I’m a big defender of liberal arts education here and making sure college is affordable and grad school is affordable. Sometimes I get a lot of pushback over this because of opportunity costs and this is a time when people can be out and making money. The is also a lot of pushback against grad school in general in the current zeitgeist. I see a lot of pieces arguing against grad school programs in the arts and humanities because people end up spending more money than they will ever make in those fields for too few opportunities.

    There is a lot of truth to this but I think there is a big reason a lot of people go to grad school for the arts and the humanities even though they know it will not lead to a tenured position, a lucrative arts career, and might give them a lot of student debt. The reason is that this can be the one time in their life that they can devote a few years to their true passion and live it and breath it deeply.

    Grad school is not perfect. There are lots of petty rivalries and you do have the too cool for school kids who pretend to be above the intensity of their interest. In the two episodes of the Magicians I saw, you see this in William ‘Penny’ Adiyodi and his girlfriend (I can’t remember her name). But deep down, the too cool for school kids really love the amount of time devoted to their passion.

    So for someone who really loves an obscure subject or has an artistic bent, whether it is writing or theatre directing or the art of Byzantium, grad school is wonderful. You have time and resources to spend doing what you really love that don’t exist when you are out in the working world. Even with the Internet and/or living in a major metropolitan area, studying and finding time and/or the resources to do this stuff can be very hard. Grad school provides opportunities in terms of time and access to travel and get to some primary source documents kept in the Greek National Archives or what not.

    This is also why there is major money to be had in setting up “writer’s conferences” because it is summer camp where you can ignore the world for a weekend or a few weeks and devote it to writing even though most people who attend will never be published or even attract a big readership if they self-publish.

    Community theatre doesn’t really cut it for the types who go to grad school because they want to do new work and/or do the serious stuff like Beckett and Brecht and Churchill. They don’t want to be involved with the umpteenth production of You Can’t Take It With You or some other chestnut.

    And for all the people who are “wasting” money by going to grad school for degrees that might be economically worthless and/or leading to poverty, there are others who really want the chance but could not get in like Julia. Maybe she would be better off with an MBA from Yale in a strict financial sense but she knows something wonderful exists and she was denied access for whatever reason. I think this is especially true in arts grad school.

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    • Actual writers conferences that are designed to help people succeed, as opposed to just patting people on the back, teach people how to create worlds. It shouldn’t surprise you that Sanderson’s been to a few — his writing’s solid.

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    • And I say this as someone who also really likes being a lawyer and has a fair deal of realism in him.

      When I was in my first year of my theatre program, I decided that the chance of becoming a professional was close to zero. I debated briefly between going on to a PhD and going to law school. I decided on law school because I could see the writing on the wall and that my fantasy of being a college professor (tenured and at a college or university in the Northeast or Northwest with charming old stone buildings and a kind of permanent fall or spring*) was very different than the reality (adjunct hell and near poverty.)

      I don’t regret my decision. I liked law school and I really like being a lawyer as well. But there is still a strong power in the academic over me. I wasn’t the best student in undergrad or grad school but I do have fond memories of hitting the stacks for books for papers and semi-free Bohemian days when I did not have class with sometime aimless wandering. One of my favorite tasks in being a lawyer is legal research and brief writing because it reminds me of academics and writing papers.

      *Autumn is my favorite season and I fell hard for those university catalogs that showed students walking along tree-lined paths filled with trees in autumn glory. I went to Seattle a few years ago on a mini-vacation by myself. I went in October and got the luck of a perfect Autumn weekend (instead of lots of rain) and man was it good to walk on the University of Washington campus among those old stone buildings and autumn leaves.

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      • I still have idealistic dreams of what college could or should be.

        When I was a high schooler, my image of university was very much in the “Willie Gillis Goes to College” vein – someone sitting in a window seat at the library, reading a Great Book as the leaves fell outside.

        I was somewhat disappointed to find that relatively few people saw it that way once I got there. That it was more about how much you could drink or whom you could hook up with. I became somewhat of an extreme prude as a counter-reaction.

        I think part of the reason I became a prof is that on some level I am still chasing that dream of a brick row, a quiet library, the Great Books, and leaves falling outside. It’s more distant now than ever, but it still lives somewhere in me.

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        • If you read Stephen Zweig’s memoir, the World of Yesterday, you will find that university students in Austria in the end of the 19th century were primarily interested in seeing who could drink the most beer.

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          • Yeah, I know. And one of my favorite pieces of classical music (Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture”) is mostly a pastiche of drinking songs.

            (Then again, Brahms wrote it mostly as a joke – he was awarded an honorary degree or the equivalent and the awarding institution was like “oh, and maybe you might want to write a piece of music for us, hint hint” and Brahms was like “okay, but it’s going to be all drinking songs”)

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    • The reason is that this can be the one time in their life that they can devote a few years to their true passion and live it and breath it deeply.

      This is probably one of those things where you’re imagining something completely different than what I’m imagining.

      Because I’m imagining this:

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      • And, seriously, if we’re talking about something like art or culture, we’re talking about spending… what? Five figures? (Mid to high five figures?) to devoting a few years to their “true passion”?

        We’re talking about 24 year olds. We’re asking them to spend more than the price of a down payment of a house for the ability to devote a couple of years to their true passion?

        While I’d be more than willing to say that the number of people who would benefit, at age 30, from having done this six years prior is non-zero, I’m not sure that “true passion” merits that price for at least half of them (and probably more).

        Sure, it’s romantic… but there are a lot of ways to get almost as many endorphins as “true passion” provides for pennies on the dollar.

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        • Here is the thing. I agree with you that the current system is untenable from a financial prospective but I am just reporting on my own personal feelings and what others have said. above expressed the same thoughts and I have heard it from others. There is a lot of competition and pettiness in grad school, just like there are office politics that are petty and useless. But grad school politics are interspliced with seminars on stuff that really interest people and being able to spend time in the stacks plus what Dragonfrog mentioned above.

          I suspect we have different end goals here. I would like a world where grad school is more affordable and an option and more than the very privileged can do it without debt or much debt. I suspect your end goal is different.

          The academy and formal knowledge is important to me. I really don’t get the self-educated autodictat thing that many libertarians and people on the right seem to like. I don’t know is this is cultural heritage or not. Judaism always stressed group study and debate over a solo reading of the Torah and Talmud. Knowledge is learned through dialogue and argument. I wonder if there is a connection between Protestant anti-clericalism and a dislike of formal educational structures.

          A person can study on their own all they like but it ends up being a recitation of fact without analysis and without having had their ideas tested via debate and disagreement.

          So I agree with you in broad strokes that the current debt loads are morally wrong and that there need to be ways to a decent living without a college education or a grad school education but I don’t wish to burn down the academy either and just have people doing self-study in their free time while studying IT and Commerce. The world needs dreamers and I will always have a soft spot for people in the arts and humanities.

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    • What is your take on low-minor baseball players, with no shot at the bigs, who’s salary will probably max out in the $20K range, and who may spend a decade of their life riding busses and crashing with “host families”?

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      • The same thing. If I am sympathetic to someone getting a Masters or MFA despite knowing their will never make it. I need to be sympathetic to someone staying in the minors.

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  11. “Beverly Cleary could make compelling drama out of an unemployed father cooking pancakes.”

    That was a really interesting bit for me, because when I was a kid and reading it I was horrified, pretty much on the same level as Ramona. As I’ve gotten older I started thinking more like “well he was probably just goofing around, she didn’t understand, stupid kid”. And then I started thinking “but how would she have known that?”

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    • I like how it just was capturing the reality of that moment. Kids see stuff their parents do, and it seems like nothing, but as a kid somehow you just KNOW there’s more going on than that.

      I haven’t reread this for a few years but as I recall the context was that Ramona’s mom had gone out and gotten a job when the dad wasn’t able to, and now the mother was trying to take over the pancake cooking and dad wanted to prove he was doing something better than the mom was. The mother, on the other hand, wanted to prove that just because she was working outside the home, she was still able to do mom stuff and was largely dismissive of the dad’s ability to cook pancakes. There was a lot of ego wrapped up in the pancake thing on both the mom and dad’s part.

      Ramona rightfully interpreted it as being a bigger issue and much more tense than the situation warranted. She was actually pretty insightful. I remember things like that from childhood and feeling so relieved when it all dissolved into laughter at the end.

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  12. I think that kinda hits it on the head with descriptions of grad school life, but from watching it a few months ago (admittedly halfheartedly like most TV) my take-away wasn’t grad school so much but the really small, really insular SLACs such as Bennington or Swarthmore as described by high school friends (from California admittedly) or presented in novels such as Rules Of Attraction or The Secret History. I will also admit that this genre of chosen one does little to entice me, nor do I read much fantasy, adult or otherwise. The show presented some characters interestingly, though Quentin least of all. But surrounding him are some interesting stories, such as the girl who was almost a chosen one, or bits of “evil” sneaking through in ways we often wont suspect (red hair being the clue, says the ginger.) And as points out, the jewishness of the author may be a strong clue as to this, along with being an immigrant from a land that has a strong mythological tradition,though one that the enlightened west isn’t used to.

    I have no opinion of Series Of.., other than I remember them being one in a long list of kids series coming out seemingly one after another in bookstores that I managed in the ’90’s. That they seem to have struck a chord is mildly interesting.

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    • Bennington is a lot smaller and weirder and more remote than many liberal arts colleges considering it has fewer than 800 students and is in middle of nowhere Vermont.

      Swarthmore allows for escape to NYC or Philadelphia in theory at least. Swarthmore is also home of the expression “Anywhere else it would have been an A”, make of this what you will.

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    • Come to think of it, that’s my impression of the school in the Magicians, more of what I imagine a SLAC to be (based on my own guesses and what others have told me) and much less of what I experienced grad school to be. Perhaps on some, mostly subconscious, level, that’s one reason I dislike the trilogy.*

      *Note to all SLACkers here: I realize that my prejudice is just that: prejudice. I’m not saying all or even any SLAC’s fit my imagination of what they are, except in the sense that I’m primed to see those examples that prove my prejudice and to non-see those examples that don’t.

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  13. The criticisms of The Magicians here are a bit odd. I mean, the criticisms of the *characters* are spot on, they are very unpleasant people, and complete screw ups. I can’t object to that characterization…but the rest of the criticisms are odd.

    The Magicians brutally deconstructs the concept of the ‘Chosen One’, in the same way it deconstructs everything. (Well, I lie. Sometimes it just slightly mocks the things it deconstructs. But most of the time it’s violent and horrific.)

    I mean, the premise of the universe is basically Harry Potter grew up reading Narnia books, discovered he was a wizard, and also ends up going to Narnia, which everyone, including the magical world, thought was just books. Except everything is completely horrible and nothing ever goes right and the heroes have no damn idea what they’re doing.

    And there is no ‘Chosen One’. Seriously, the entire premise of a Chosen One story is that, uh, the protaganist is the Chosen One, and, overcoming odds, they win, because fate or something.

    And that’s simply not true in The Magicians. It’s as ‘not true’ as it is possible to be not true.

    Near the end of the first season, the ‘Chosen One’ protagonist is all ready to save the day, with his trusty sidekicks…except, when it’s time to power up to kill the monster, he says…uh, wait. Maybe the super-powers should be given to the *extremely competent and skilled magic user* who’s been doing this all her life, instead.

    “Here you go, Hermione. You take the Elder Wand and go kill Voldemort because you’re *better at magic than me*.”

    Seriously…please point to the character you think is the ‘Chosen One’, because I am completely baffled you’re seeing this. Who is it? Quentin? Alice? (And if you think it was Alice…please indicate you are caught up on Season 2.) In a Chosen One narrative, people should not have trouble *identifying* the Chosen One!

    But, reading carefully, I get that you maybe think they’re a *group* of chosen ones? Like, all of them, collectively?

    First, that’s not how the Chosen One narrative works, and second…no, not really. They aren’t even the first people to get to Fillory. And half the plot is following some *other* person who isn’t even part of that group. Does Julie become one of these ‘Chosen Ones’ when they all meet up at the end of the season? …but that obviously can’t be right, considering what happens.

    But if they, *collectively* (Minus Julie) are the Chosen Ones, please make sense of the events of Season Two when they confront the Beast again? If they’re all the Chosen Ones (?) shouldn’t they all at least *be at and participate in the fight*?

    Are Alice and Quentin, but no one else, the group of Chosen Ones? Huh?

    If this is a Chosen One narrative, it’s a Chosen One narrative that literally doesn’t seem to understand the concept. Of course, that’s because it’s *not* one, it’s a deconstruction of a Chosen One narrative.

    Actually, I’m wrong. *Julie* is the Chosen One, but the villain is actually *Renard* and all the Beast stuff was some weird subplot? I mean, if you really want to cram a story into the Chosen One framework, that at least has the bonus of having only *one* hero, a villain that is actually unstoppable, and no one will help her in her quest. Seriously, *Julie* almost works in that narrative…but I have a feeling that’s not what you were going for. (Also, Chosen Ones probably should not leave that many innocent dead bodies behind them.)

    This is while the other bunch of idiots are currently screwing around pretending to be kings and queens (Because appointing any random group of earth people as kings and queens makes sense, because, again, this is Narnia. As do arranged marriages to gay people…and I’m not even sure what that is making fun of.), and have the help and support of the entire magical community in their quest to…teach people to farm? *plays heroic quest music over diagrams of crop rotation*

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    • *plays heroic quest music over diagrams of crop rotation*

      I really appreciate that you didn’t say *plays heroic quest music over diagrams of what really saved the day”. That would have been funnier than what I can handle this early in the morning.

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    • I think the error that some of us, including me, are making are what another person said above about mistaking representation for endorsement. I tend to do that when I read. I trust the narrator too much if it’s a first person narrative, and I’m too little suspicious of the 3d-person omniscient narratives when I read those.

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      • I think the error that some of us, including me, are making are what another person said above about mistaking representation for endorsement.

        I would get that if the post was, like, talking about how story is ripping off Narnia or whatever, when parts of it are clearly just a satire of Narnia. (Let us determine who is actually from Earth…by test of earth trivia!)

        But…the story isn’t parodying a Chosen One story. It’s not like, there’s a Chosen One and he’s a total screwup, or however you could deconstruct things and still have them exist.

        There clearly…isn’t a Chosen One. There is someone, for a short of amount of time, who appears to *think*, mostly subconsciously, that he’s in a Chosen One narrative, he’s discovered that he has magic and the fantasy world he’s read about all his life is real, and he needs to go there and save it, and the audience is sorta allowed to buy into that frame…

        …and then reality asserts itself and he’s like ‘Wait, maybe we should actually learn some combat stuff and have the actual most competent magic user do this stuff to stop the murderous madman, instead of the white straight male audience surrogate.’

        And then they…completely and utterly fail in every possible way anyway. In the sense they are only not dead because they get betrayed.

        It is as close to an explicit rejection of the Chosen One narrative as you get without a narrator explaining what’s going on. I can’t figure out how anyone mistakes it for an actual Chosen One narrative.

        Maybe The Magicians need to borrow Lemony Snicket. ‘So it turns out that our young heroes, and I use the term loosely, are actually no match for a magical user powered directly by a magical land and who has spent 60 years learning magic. That was a really stupid thing to think. Almost as dumb as Quentin assuming he was any sort of Chosen One, or that Chosen One are real things.’

        But, again, the writer seems to assume there can be such a thing as a *group* of Chosen Ones, which is not how that works.

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    • Actually, I’m wrong. *Julie* is the Chosen One, but the villain is actually *Renard* and all the Beast stuff was some weird subplot?

      From the beginning, not having read the books, i felt this was actually Julie’s story….

      And we found our later that there were reasons why she was rejected. That she’s fighting to get back what was taken away from her was part of a plan from above.

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    • I wrote the essay just before Season Two aired; for a variety of dull reasons it only just now was published. I haven’t watched Season Two yet.

      The Magicians is a group of ordinary people finding out they have magical abilities. There are LOTS of Chosen Ones, just like there are lots of kids getting letters from Hogwarts on their 11th birthday. Now, is it “THE Chosen One” specifically in the “there can be only one” sense, no, but that’s not really how I intended it. They’re all “chosen” by some outside force and given special abilities.

      There is the larger idea of the Chosen One in which normal people are suddenly bestowed with magical abilities and then the more specific Chosen One in which one and only one person is THE main hero.

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      • They’re all “chosen” by some outside force and given special abilities.

        That’s not a Chosen One narrative, that’s literally how all low/contemporary fantasy works.

        ‘How dare this fantasy have protagonists with magical powers in it!’

        I mean, rereading, that does, in fact, appear to be what you are complaining about.

        If you want to watch stories where regular people without magical powers live in a fantasy universe go up against powerful magics, but *don’t* have any powers, I have to suggest you’re probably looking for ‘horror’, not ‘contemporary fantasy’.

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        • Whether it fits in some narrow category or not, the idea of a Chosen One is that for some reason a person or people are handed unbelievable cosmic power. Whether it’s ONE in terms of ONE person or ONE in terms of a group (after all, there are many Green Lanterns, and yet they’re all chosen) it’s irrelevant.

          Now, after several people are chosen, could there not be then a further choosing process in which one of them ends up being further selected for one specific task, of course. But that doesn’t mean that Hermione is not more “chosen” than Meg on Family Guy or whatever. Hermione is still a chosen one, chosen to go to Hogwarts, even she wasn’t chosen to defeat Voldemort.

          The upshot of my entire essay was that maybe I’m gonna dial it back on that stuff in favor of some real world literature for my children (while I still have the ability to do so). Not because I hate it on general principle, but because it’s become ubiquitous and I wonder if it means something larger and possibly negative, in a cultural way.

          That doesn’t exactly translate to the notion that I protest to the general idea of fantasy stories involving magic.

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          • That doesn’t exactly translate to the notion that I protest to the general idea of fantasy stories involving magic.

            No, you just appear to be objecting to all of *contemporary* fantasy, not all fantasy.

            Fantasy set in the ‘real world’ (Aka, contemporary fantasy) requires that not everyone have magic for the simple reason that, if everyone had magic, the world would not look like the ‘real world’.

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            • “Fantasy set in the ‘real world’ (Aka, contemporary fantasy) requires that not everyone have magic for the simple reason that, if everyone had magic, the world would not look like the ‘real world’.”

              Congratulations, you’ve identified one of the long-standing criticisms of urban fantasy.

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              • Congratulations, you’ve identified one of the long-standing criticisms of urban fantasy.

                Erm, yeah. That was my point. That she wasn’t complaining about a Chosen One trope, which The Magicians (explicitly) does not have…she just doesn’t appear to like the inbuilt tropes of contemporary fantasy.

                I mean, if she doesn’t like contemporary fantasy, fine. I have no objection. I would suggest she might want to stop watching it, but, hey, I watch things I hate. (One day I really am going to start hate-blogging about Scorpion.)

                I was just clarifying that the Magicians does not have a Chosen One narrative, and when I learned what she meant by that (That only a few special people only were magical), that such a thing is an inherent premise, or at least a corollary to an inherent premise, of the contemporary/urban/low (Whatever people want to call it. Fantasy set in the ‘real world’.) fantasy genre.

                Pointing that out is like pointing out that artificial gravity doesn’t even have a hypothetical possible basis or that forensic anthropologists are called for maybe five crimes a year in the entire US or that police departments do not hire psychics or that particle accelerators do not give people superpowers or that House would not be able to get medical malpractice insurance for *any* price at this point.

                In contemporary fantasy, some portion of the population has magical powers/is witches/werewolves/vampires/bigfeet and has been hiding it from everyone, at least until recently. It’s how the genre works. You either accept it or not.

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        • “‘How dare this fantasy have protagonists with magical powers in it!’”

          How did they get the powers?

          Did they get the powers through hard work, discipline, long and useful study, seeking and learning from mentors, a realistic assessment of one’s own capabilities and how to best employ them in unique and powerful ways?

          Or did they just meet a weird alien who said “you can turn into animals now”?

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          • Also, what are the nature of those powers? Do they just make problems go away without thought or effort, or are they complicated and limited and pose problems of their own for the characters that use them? These are all plot elements that can be done well and can be done badly. Obviously if they’re done badly the result is a bad story, but that’s not a reason to throw the whole concept out.

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            • Do they just make problems go away without thought or effort, or are they complicated and limited and pose problems of their own for the characters that use them?

              No, it’s the third: Almost entirely useless in most circumstances for the protagonists.

              Mainly because this, uh, isn’t Harry Potter where kids are fighting with magic in hallways. It’s a world where almost no one is fighting with magic…except the hedge witch desperate magic spell grubbers, and the Brakebill students are so knowledgeable they can just walk all over them….despite Brakebills deliberately not teaching combat magic.

              The power levels and knowledge are so different between various people that, if it’s someone you cannot immediately defeat with magic, then it’s someone you do not want to go up against with magic *at all*.

              We see it when the Brakebills kids have to interact with the hedge witches and totally outclass them and then later when anyone interact with the Beast or Renard (The two big bads)…if they do not have a plan and can’t *immediately* get some sort of crippling or paralyzing injury in before those two react, they are *dead*. Well, if they’re *lucky* they end up dead.

              Their powers are not any sort of simple solution to anything. *Nothing* is a simple solution to anything.

              That said, that’s *Earth*. Fillory, the other dimension(1), is…weird. Not in combat, there’s still not a lot of that, but in the strange amount of deux ex machinas and whatnot just laying around…because, in fact, it’s a parody of Narnia (With a bit of Alice in Wonderland and Wizard of Oz thrown in.), and somewhat illogical.

              So *magic* still won’t be a simple solution in Fillory, but our ‘heroes’ might stumble across some weird creature that will give you exactly what they want, or a magic healing spring, or whatever….except this always backfires horrible or it’s some sort of limited time thing that doesn’t work in time or they end up in an arranged marriage. Everything is always totally cocked up, because, again, parody of Narnia.

              Seriously, I can’t actually explain too much without getting into spoilers, but nothing ever, in any way, goes right. Hell, one group has ‘succeeded’…in a way that has a) rendered them unable to stop the *other* big bad, and b) is probably going to destroy Fillory and incidentally take earth’s magic with it. Yay, team!

              Oh, also they ended up kings and queens of Fillory. Which…so…hmmm. That’s like, a lifetime job, right? Uh…does anyone know how to run a kingdom?

              (Strange knights lying in ruins distributing 90s trivia quizzes is no way to run a government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from the ability to quote Dirty Dancing!)

              1) Well, the *other* other dimension. There is also the dimensional nexus place, which played a large part the first season while finding Fillory, but is probably not that important now.

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          • How did they get the powers?

            The way magic appears to work in that universe is that, basically, a certain small percentage of the population *can* do it, and most of them just have some weird things that sometimes happen to them, because they don’t actually know any magic spells.

            But, again, this is a required trope of contemporary fantasy. Fantasy set in the ‘real world’ obviously can’t give *everyone* access to magic, because, duh, then everyone would know about magic…and we wouldn’t be in the ‘real world’ anymore. (We would, instead, be in *high* fantasy.)

            Even if the masquerade has been broken, like in the Hollows or Sookie Stackhouse, access to magic has to be historically limited so that *history* is mostly the same.

            Contemporary fantasy requires a world like ours, with our history, which requires magic be (Or have been until recently) a secret, which requires it not being something everyone can do. It’s a basic corollary of the entire premise of the genre.

            It’s like complaining that space operas have FTL. Well, yes. Yes they do. Because otherwise the genre doesn’t work.

            Did they get the powers through hard work, discipline, long and useful study, seeking and learning from mentors, a realistic assessment of one’s own capabilities and how to best employ them in unique and powerful ways?

            Erm, yes. Because they were tested for magical affinity and went to grad school for a year, learning magic.

            The education included testing people to see what fields they were most suited for, and how to best do what they can.

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            • “again, this is a required trope of contemporary fantasy.”

              No, “you just have powers and can use them” is a required trope of juvenile wish-fulfillment contemporary fantasy.

              “Because they were tested for magical affinity and went to grad school for a year, learning magic.”

              So your contention with Kristin is not, actually, “YOU ARE JUST DESCRIBING ALL FANTASY THEREFORE YOU’RE REALLY SAYING THAT YOU HATE ALL FANTASY”, it’s “the characters in The Magicians aren’t all-powerful right out of the box like you suggest, they actually have to work quite hard to develop their talents”.

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              • Thank you, DD.

                It very well may have been much better portrayed in the books. I didn’t read the books. All I saw was the first season of the show and it felt very wham, bam, here you go powers, now off to Fillory. They give slight lip service to the powers having costs and that they had to learn to use them illicitly but I didn’t find that at all believable when compared to many other fantasies. It felt like boxes ticked off a “plot points” list in a screenwriting book.

                I actually told my husband after we watched it that the first season should have been two seasons and/or 22 episodes and/or they should have cut out some of the stuff that happened. Then they could have taken their time with it and made it believable, or not spent time on episodes that didn’t really advance the plot (because there were at least 4 that were mostly pointless) But they didn’t, and because they didn’t, it didn’t work for me in the way that I wish it had.

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              • I am unfamiliar with Knights of Sedonia, but reading the description on Wikipedia, it doesn’t sound like a space opera.

                A space operate basically requires travelling from planet to planet each week, having dramatic adventures in new civilizations before moving on, along with some space battles. Granted, it’s *theoretically* possible to do it without FTL. Just build a universe where there are enough planets close enough together you don’t need FTL, or even have a sleeper ship or something like that.

                Of course, it’s also theoretically possible to do contemporary fantasy without limiting magic to a subset of people:

                All you have to do is make it where magic *was* limited, or even almost nonexistent, (Making history correct.) and then suddenly, bam, everyone can do it.

                Of course, this violates fictional parsimony, where writers, especially of *serial* stories, try to keep the world matching reality as much as possible, so people can keep imagining it as ‘the real world’. Viewers can imagine a secret subset of magic, they can even imagine those magic users outing themselves and we all learn it’s real. But just giving everyone magic is an entirely different level, and it’s such a large change I can’t even think of a work of fiction that did it…

                …except Shadowrun, but that’s an RPG and has different rules about what sort of fiction is expected.

                You can also try to rewrite history where magic has always existed and been common and known, and yet *somehow* we have the same history. But trying to match technological levels and history almost turns the things into a joke. The only two examples of that I can think of are the Incarnations of Immortality series, and the Case of the Toxic Spell Dump, both of which are taking that concept not very seriously. I’m not sure of those even count contemporary fantasy, or if we should consider them high fantasy where the world just superficially looks like ours.

                For some reason, I’m thinking I’ve discussed this before here, and came to the conclusion we should call those ‘middle fantasy’.

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      • The whole thing of the Magicians is that they aren’t being bestowed with magic without effort, they’re selected into what amounts to an elite school and put into intensive training to learn the skill at the highest level.

        The barriers to magic aren’t inherent inborn or bestowed by an outside force. They are technically equally availible to everyone, but realistically only a tiny few with the talent and luck to get choosen to get the elite training get to practice it at a high level.

        Which is how any elite field our society works. In theory anyone can practice law, but its a tiny few with the talent plus the luck to get through a somewhat arbitrary system of gatekeepers that get to do it for real.

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        • I agree, Brent, but the execution of the show was NOT that. There was something off with the pacing, or something, I don’t know. They did not pull off the feeling that time had passed, that the characters had really learned, or even that the school had any real vested interest in teaching their students at all. This was all very puzzling to me – I mean why would the school go to all this trouble to single these people out as Magicians and then not teach them how to use magic? Unless the point is some subtextual thing about how hard it is to function as an adult in the real world and the grownups won’t let us DO anything, those big meanies (which is how I took it)

          So the idea “it’s a magical school, they earned their stripes that way” doesn’t ring true to me since a huge part of their repeatedly-stated trouble is that the school isn’t helping them learn how to use their magic. I think those things are mutually exclusive to each other – either they learn to use magic by suffering and working hard, like Julia did, and which was the best part of the whole show, or they’re taught it, right? But sitting in a class like twice, followed by an easy magical workaround and a 10 minute montage of “fight practice” (that then paves the way for a spicy 3 way) – that doesn’t cut it for me. That feels like, as Density Duck said, a juvenile wish-fulfillment fantasy.

          I don’t know if you’ve seen the show “How to Get Away With Murder”, it’s really kind of a similar vibe only about law students plus sex and criminal shenanigans. But at least the students are shown going to class, working on papers, helping with cases, etc. I buy into the idea that they’re actually law students and learning stuff along the way, even though the point of the show is mostly the sex and criminal shenanigans.

          The Magicians seems focused mostly the sex and magical shenanigans and the learning part is cut back as absolutely bare-bones as it can be. The writers did pretty much the absolute barest minimum that was required in the learning department. So it made it hard to buy into the elite education angle.

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  14. fillyjonk:
    I suppose my review of it has to be leavened with the observation that I generally dislike fantasy that is explicitly aimed at adults, because

    a. often evil wins, or good really isn’t that good
    b. there’s a lot of explicit gore and explicit sex, neither of which I enjoy reading.

    Good point. And much of both of those things are not there for any purpose, but to set it apart as “This is totes for grownups, guys”

    Totally different vibe to me than something that is legitimately exploring good/evil or violence/sexuality. It’s not that I’d never read/watch something that has those elements, but more that when it’s simply done for shock value, tacked onto what overall feels a fairly pedestrian child’s story, it doesn’t turn my crank.

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