The Sustaining Power of Fandom: Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus

I have some absurd gaps in my reading life. Given how much I read for work, for research, and for fun, it’s truly silly how erratic my reading can be. It’s like I’m careening through a library whisperscreaming “Serpentine!” as I yank books off shelves. Until recently, The Night Circus had occupied a perennial spot on the top of my TBR Stack, lounging seductively, winking at me from across the room, promising caramel apples and magical realms and sighing romance.

But sometimes I’m a titanic idiot, and don’t respond to flirting books nearly soon enough.

I am delighted to say that I finally made time to run away with the Circus, and it was one of the best reading decisions I’ve made all year! This book was exactly the kind of thing I love: fun and whimsical, but with an undercurrent of real stakes and depth that keep it from being so much cotton candy. But also, there’s no real antagonist, except I suppose Time, which is refreshing. But the thing I loved most, that I want to talk about, is les rêveurs.

By one hundred pages into the novel, Le Cirque des Rêves‘ rules and aesthetics are well-established. We’ve entered a stripey black-and-white wonderland, met the main players, colorful supporting characters, and a trio of children who will prove vital to the book’s resolution. But then on page 185 we’re introduced to a new element of the circus, one I wasn’t expecting: the rêveurs.

The fandom.

It starts with Herr Thiessen. Thiessen is a German clockmaker who designs an elaborate clock to stand at the Circus’ gate. The clock’s evening chimes mark the moment the gates open-end the corresponding early morning notes act as the alarm that breaks the spell and closes the Circus for the day. Morgenstern’s description of Thiessen’s work is rich and preposterous:

The changes are slow. First, the color changes in the face, shifts from white to grey, and then there are clouds that float across it, disappearing when they reach the opposite side.

Meanwhile, bits of the body of the clock expand and contract, like pieces of a puzzle. As though the clock is falling apart, slowly and gracefully.

All of this takes hours.

The face of the clock becomes a darker grey, and then black, with twinkling stars where the numbers had been previously. The body of the cock, which has been methodically turning itself inside out and expanding, is now entirely subtle shades of white and grey. and it is not just pieces, it is figures and objects, perfectly carved flowers and planets and tiny books with actual paper pages that turn. There is a silver dragon that curls around part of the now visible clockwork, a tiny princess in a carved tower who paces in distress, awaiting an absent prince. Teapots that pour into teacups and minuscule curls of steam that rise from as the seconds tick. Wrapped presents open. Small cats chase small dogs. an entire game of chess is played.

Which is lovely, and I thought that would be the last we’d see of Thiessen and his work. But then the clockmaker decides to visit his creation, and falls in love. Not with a particular performer (as some of the Circus’ more gossipy performers believe) but with the spirit of the Circus itself.

The first time Herr Thiessen attends the circus, most of his attention is focused on his clock—he’s pleased that it has been well taken care of, and focuses on quotidian matters. “He wonders if it might need a stronger varnish, and wishes he had been informed that it would be used out of doors when he was constructing it, though it looks none the worse for wear.” But once he’s actually inside the Circus, his attention shifts. The place feels “familiar, comfortable”—which is not a common description of the alluring tents and magical performances—and he wanders at random until he finally leaves only because he’s too physically tired to stay out any longer. He’s “completely and utterly besotted.” He returns several times, and soon finds the Circus’ themes creeping into his work for other clients.

A few years later, he gets another chance to go to the Circus, and this ends up changing the course of his life. He receives advance word of its arrival in Dresden, goes early, attends almost every night it’s open, and finally, unable to let go of his time there, writes an essay about the experience. The essay proves popular, and suddenly the clockmaker is also a freelance essayist. His writings introduce more people to the Circus, and begin to codify the nebulous experience of attending. Some people only experience it through his work, while others find that he captures ineffabilities they couldn’t themselves. His writings around it make it real to other people, and turn a trip to Le Cirque des Rêves into a unique activity of its own.

He even, somewhat unintentionally, starts a fashion trend amongst the rêveurs. He comments at a dinner in Munich—where many of the dinners are held near his home, though they are also held in London and Paris and countless other cities as well—that when he attends the circus he prefers to wear a black coat, to better blend in with his surroundings and feel a part of the circus. But with it, he wears a scarf in a brilliant scarlet, to distinguish himself from it as well, as a reminder that he is at heart a spectator, an observer.

Soon this becomes not just a way to show respect to the Circus, but also a way for the rêveurs to spot each other. Soon they create an official uniform—black and white to honor the circus’ theme, but with a splash of red in the form of a flower, a hat, or most often a scarf, to avoid overstepping themselves. Morgenstern makes a point of checking in with the rêveurs periodically. Nearly every description of a night at the Circus mentions a red-scarved acolyte. We see a woman handing a rose to a living statue. We learn that they’ve developed networks to stay informed of the Circus’ movements, and essentially become Victorian Deadheads, dedicating holidays to following the Circus for a few weeks. Thiessen, as the acknowledged head of the fandom, is even invited to one of the special dinners that the Circus’ founder throws for his coworkers. Thiessen makes clocks for fellow rêveurs, and the rêveurs themselves knit each other scarves and trade all sorts of arts and crafts in honor of the Circus. They hold meet-ups in central locations when the Circus is away. The book creates a very real sense that the Circus has a certain mood that can’t be found anywhere else, and thanks to the rêveurs we know that this isn’t just the magic that’s animating a lot of the tents, or the Game being played between Celia and Marco—it’s the shared wonder of the rêveurs themselves. They can create echoes of it when they’re denied the full experience.

Now what I love about the book is that it would have been easy to make the rêveurs look silly, or like wanna-bes or groupies. Instead, Morgenstern acknowledges that they’re part of the Circus. The performers themselves love the rêveurs. And—well, the next bit is spoilery, so skip down a paragraph if you haven’t read the book.

In the end it’s the rêveurs who inherit the Circus. After Thiessen’s death, the rêveurs keep going. They notice when the mood shifts along with Celia and Marco’s Game, but they don’t allow that to overshadow the wonder of the place they’ve come to love. And finally it’s a rêveur, a boy named Bailey, who allows Celia and Marco to end their game through his own sacrifice. He’s the one who takes the Circus over, because he knows that its magic is more important that the battle between the two lovers. It’s the power of fandom that brings the Circus back from the brink of collapse, and keeps it going to the present day.

OK, end of spoilers.

When I embarked on The Night Circus, I expected a tale of magic, a tragic romance, a mystical battle. I didn’t expect to find one of the most loving explorations of fandom that I’ve ever read, but I’m so glad I did.

Leah Schnelbach knows that as soon as this TBR Stack is defeated, another shall rise in its place! And they really want to visit the Cloud Maze. Come engage in magical battle on Twitter!

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