Aug 11 2011 2:36pm

A Brief Guide to the Hidden Allusions in The Magicians

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

I have a habit — it’s not a bad habit, not a good habit, just a habit — of hiding allusions in my books as I write them. I’m not sure why I do this — it’s a tic, maybe even a compulsion. As a result The Magicians is full of little semi-secret nods and shout-outs to books and other things that I love. Some of them are fantasy and science fiction, some of them aren’t. They range from the huge and obvious — anybody who’s read it knows the whole book is a kind of three-way Stoppardian mud-wrestle with J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis — to the borderline subliminal. Probably there’s stuff in there that even I’m not aware of.

It’s not meant as a puzzle, just little touches that I hope a few people will notice and get some pleasure from. Some of it’s part of the worldbuilding: I had a rule for myself with The Magicians, which was that everything that exists in our world has to exist in the Magiciansverse. So for example, even though the characters go to a college for magic, I also thought that they all should have read Harry Potter. Inevitably little references to him creep into their conversation. I didn’t go overboard with it, because that would have gotten too cute and meta. I just thought it was realistic. Like Hermione hasn’t read the Narnia books a million times! But she never talks about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benjamin Blattberg
1. Benjamin Blattberg
“Prismatic Spray” was a brutally effective illusionist spell in AD&D.

I think that's another AD&D borrow from Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories.

Also, who uses illusionist spells? My specialist necromancer can't and he's ok.
Benjamin Blattberg
2. Amy A. Sisson
Speaking of the geese, I have to say that the Brakebills South chapter is perhaps my favorite single chapter I've ever read.

I was amused by "Wizard needs food badly." I never knew the reference, but my husband has been saying this to me for years so now we both use it to express when we're hungry.

Really looking forward to the new book!
Benjamin Blattberg
3. Michael B Sullivan
Yes, the AD&D spell Prismatic Spray is, in fact, an allusion to the Excellent Prismatic Spray of Jack Vance's Dying Earth. Here's a passage from the Turjan stories:

"Your body, Turjan!" cried the prince, babbling the spell. Instantly the blazing wires of the Excellent Prismatic Spray lashed from all directions at Turjan.

Shane Stringer
4. ShaneStringer
The phrase "Wizard needs food badly!" also appears in the computer game Hack/Nethack, which is a close comtemporary of Gauntlet.

Also, delighted to see that you've written a sequel! Man, are all the great books coming out this summer, or what?!?
Benjamin Blattberg
5. Theophylact
Had no idea Austin Grossman was your brother. I loved Soon I Will Be Invincible.
Paul Jessup
6. pauljessup
And now it's my turn to out geek you-

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

And that was borrowed from Jack Vance, who had prismatic spray be a spell in Dying Earth. Course, in Dying Earth they were like rainbow missles of doom.

DAMN! My first post foo was messed up having to log in. Benjamin Blattbergbeat me to it.
Tony Bussert
7. KingBoo
Didn't realize you had a new book coming out, awesome! Not sure if you remember, but I left a comment after I finished the 1st one and you were surprised that I had already read it as you just sent the 1st copies to an ALA conference (where my wife snagged it and brought it home). Anyway looking forward to picking up your latest! All the best to you and yours.
Melissa Shumake
8. cherie_2137
wow... i only picked up on a few of them, and the ones i got were only borderline geeky... but still all of this was awesome to read through. i see no problem with borrowing and tweaking, especially since you do neat things like this and own up to them!
Eli Bishop
9. EliBishop
Nice! I did notice a few of these, and figured there must be a lot more.

I hesitate to ask, but is there also sort of a furry joke in there? IIRC, the term "yiff" in furry fandom - which started out as a general expression of glee, and later acquired a sexual connotation - was supposedly derived from the sound made by a fox, specifically an arctic fox. I have no idea why I know this, but the arctic fox scene in The Magicians reminded me of it.

Anyway, I really loved the novel and I'm eager to see the new one.
Benjamin Blattberg
10. Benjamin Blattberg
Also, some of the dungeon scenes in The Magicians have a real strong "roll for wandering monster encounter" vibe to them.
S Barlow
11. Lizzibabe
I think Fritz Leiber got coolth from somwhere himself. I've seen that word in ancient fairy tales in books pubhished in the 18-umpty-umps.
Benjamin Blattberg
12. Courior
@1 How the hell did you survive the early levels of Wizarding without it? That spell must have saved my ass and pissed off my DM more times then I can count.

Also loved the Magicians and Soon I will be Invincible. Cant wait for yours and your brothers next book.
Mike Scott
13. drplokta
The Dothraki Sea is not the original sea of grass. There's one in Dan Simmons' Hyperion (rather prosaically called "The Sea of Grass").
shawn keeling
14. longerwaves
I know I am like the third or fourth person to say this but the "Excellent Prismatic Spray" was appropriated from Jack Vance by Gary Gygax when coming up with spells for the first D&D rule books. He also borrowed some other ones but I forget which. Anyone else out there remember?
@ Jeff Grossman- If you have not read any Jack Vance I suggest you stop everything and read his 'Dying Earth' series or if pressed for time, 'The Last Castle', 'The Dragon Masters' or 'The Miracle Workers".
Binyamin Weinreich
15. Imitorar
Isn't the Questing Beast also an allusion to the Once and Future King? It was the name of the animal King Pellinore hunted.

Also, the goose transformation wasn't in the original version of The Sword in the Stone. In the original, the Wart turned into an owl and met Athena. But when T. H. White published all four books together, he altered bits of The Sword in the Stone and added in pieces of an in-progress fifth novel in the series, The Book of Merlyn, which ended up being published separately after White's death. The Book of Merlyn was much more philosophical than the others, even The Ill-Made Knight and The Candle in the Wind, and focused on man's urge to make war. It includes the Wart's tranformations into an ant and a goose, word for word the same as in The Once and Future King, because The Book of Merlyn is where they were originally meant to be. But if you find an edition of The Sword in the Stone published alone, you'll find that the Wart turned into a snake instead of an ant, and an owl instead of a goose. There were some other changes too, but those two and the removal of Madam Mim were the big ones.

And hedge wizards are mentioned as cheap, low-level magicians in Diana Wynne Jones' Charmed Life, published in 1977, so before George R. R. Martin. I don't know if anyone had used them earlier than that, though.
Anna S
16. Anarkey
p. 384: “Standing there in plain view, looking huge and ethereal, was a white stag.” The Questing Beast is a gloss on the the White Stag from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which grants wishes. I always felt sad that the Pevensies didn’t catch the stag, and that it didn’t come back in any of the later books. I wanted to correct that in The Magicians. (And how did its power relate to Aslan’s? Was it magical or divine? If there was a fight, who would win? It raised so many questions.)

Think you can probably rest easy on this set of questions, since a great deal of this is asked and answered in Susan Cooper's "The Dark is Rising," which has a spectacular wild hunt scene. I'm wondering, now, if it's in deliberate conversation with Narnia about the stag and powers of good or whether this is coincidental because they both pulled from the same source material on the wild hunt. Cooper went with neither of the light nor the dark but wild magic beholden only to itself and more powerful than either. I think that was how it ended up out of Prydain, as well, which again, probably same source material.
Benjamin Blattberg
17. Aerik

My S.O. and I are re-reading The Magicians in preparation for coming to your book signing in Atlanta in late August.

I've just read past the opening scene of Quentin and friends walking down the sidewalk. You describe Julia's outfit as a kind of blue french coat, and all I can picture is a Beauxbatons school uniform. Was that an intentional reference, or is my imagination overactive (read: it is)?

Anyway, thanks, I ADORE the book!
Benjamin Blattberg
18. AdrianT
I'm not sure it's appropriate to bring up this scale of allusion, but I really liked the nod to Peter Pan toward the end. (More specifically, the nod to Captain Hook, the croc, and the clock.) It fit very neatly all the rest of the clock symbolism, but it was also its own thing.
Benjamin Blattberg
19. SarahP
p. 73: “Sir Hotspots.” This isn’t an allusion, it’s an allusion to an allusion — I’m taking off on Martin Tenbones, a denizen of The Land in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman books, which is itself, unless I’m way off base, an allusion to Narnia.

The Land in Sandman's A Game of You arc is actually borrowed pretty directly from Jonathan Carroll's Bones of the Moon. Carroll's Martin Tenbones is a giant dog named Mr. Tracy.
Benjamin Blattberg
20. Raskos
There's a white stag in one of Yeats' poems, which he must have encountered staggering about in the Celtic Twilight - it's an Arthurian motif, as I recall, and probably originated a long time before the medieval Mallorification of thes stories.
Benjamin Blattberg
21. Huimang
"...something fleshy and headless..." Are you sure this wasn't an allusion to one of the (many) memorable lines from James Thurber's The Thirteen Clocks? "Strike a light or light a lantern! Something I have hold of has no head."
Benjamin Blattberg
22. Erik N. Nelson
The post missed a couple of allusions. (I think)

The topiary beasts that walk around the lawn are referred to as "slow-thighed." This looks like a reference to Yeats' poem about the creature "moving its slow thighs... slouching towards Bethlehen to be born."

The scene where Janet recalls the story of Emily Greenstreet, who lost her face while under the influence of a mysterious creature who came into this world through the fountain; is this perhaps influenced by the fact that C. S. Lewis wrote a book called Till We Have Faces, inspired by the Cupid and Psyche myth?

The Beast (who I can't refer to by his real name without a spoiler) is described as wearing a suit and having his face obscured by a branch. Somehow that made me think of Magritte's painting where there was a man in a suit with an apple in front of his face.

Somehow, some of the real-world scenes make me think of Douglas Coupland, and some of the Fillory scenes make me think of Philip Jose Farmer.

The idea of Dean Fogg's memory-erasure spell ("you will be sent home with a plausible alibi") is reminiscent of E. Nesbitt's The Five Children And It, where one wish they request from the wish-granting creature is that the servants not notice when their wishes are granted.
David Schaich
23. daschaich
I definitely did a double-take at those "Popper etudes", but I figured it must be a coincidence...
Benjamin Blattberg
24. Gabi
“the books fluttered from shelf to shelf like birds”
Flying books probably 0ccured first in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series.
Benjamin Blattberg
25. BrandochDaha
"something fleshy and headless" also resembles Ged's magical nemesis in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Wizard of Earthsea .

And as for memory-erasure spells: is it relevant to mention Puck's use of oak, ash and thorn leaves in Puck of Pook's Hill to keep the children from talking at home about their adventures with him?
Benjamin Blattberg
26. SilencePlease
Eliot Waugh is a reference to the claret-loving, confirmed bachelor Sebastian of _Brideshead Revisited_, written by Evelyn Waugh. Eliot could be a nod to T.S. Eliot.
Benjamin Blattberg
27. Nogitsune
In discussing magical theory, Alice references authors "Culhwych and Owen." That would be a reference to the Welsh hero Culhwych, who undertakes a series of impossible quests, including a hunt for a magical beast, as a condition of marrying Olwen, a princess.
Benjamin Blattberg
28. Bijutsu
I also got the feeling that The Beast looked a lot like Magritte's A Son Of Man, and I'm glad I'm not the only one. :)

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment