The Magus or Magician is a card in the Tarot deck. “This card signifies the divine
motive in man, reflecting God, the will in the liberation of its union with that which
is above,” writes A.E. Waite in his influential 1911 guide
The Pictorial Key to the
. In most illustrations, the Magus wears the robes of a conjurer and holds a
wand in his right hand that he lifts to heaven.  His other hand gestures downward
to the earth.  

Maurice Conchis, the magus of John Fowles’s 1966
novel, is equally contradictory and enigmatic in his
gestures. Like a Tarot card, he can be interpreted in
a multiplicity of ways, his meaning constantly shifting
on the basis of context and perspective. Sometimes
the upward pointing hand seems most appropriate—
indeed, Fowles originally considered using the title
The Godgame for his novel. But in many instances, a
darker terrestrial, or even infernal, motivation seems
to underpin his ruses and machinations.

A magician requires an audience, yet Conchis is
content to enact the grandest spectacles for a single
observer, Nicholas Urfe, a British teacher who has
taken an appointment as English instructor at a
private school on a sparsely populated Greek island.
Urfe has heard puzzling stories about Conchis, the
island’s wealthiest inhabitant, who lives in a secluded
estate on the far side of Phraxos—a fictional local based on Spetses, where
Fowles taught for two years in the early 1950s. Urfe shows up unannounced at
Conchis’s villa one day, and finds himself gradually entangled in a strange real-
life drama with as many twists as King Minos’s famous Cretan maze.

I’ve never read a novel that was so bold in constantly redefining its own terms of
engagement. Certainly few narratives are less predictable in their unfolding than
The Magus. Every thirty pages, more or less, you will be forced to reassess your
interpretation of what Conchis’s game is all about—by the same token, any
provisional assumptions you might make on the meaning of Fowles’s novel may
change a dozen or so times over the course of reading the book.    

The complexity of the plot is so pronounced that actor Michael Caine, who starred
in the 1968 movie adaptation, complained that the film was compromised from
the outset since "nobody could figure out what it was about." Even Fowles later
griped about the movie, for which he had written the screenplay, and Woody Allen
once quipped that if he could his life over again, he wouldn’t change a single
thing…except he wouldn’t go see The Magus. Despite this cinematic debacle, I
am convinced that The Magus could be adapted into a gripping mini-series—say,
a ten-hour adaptation that allows the director to give full weight to the surprising
twists and turns in Fowles’s ingenious story line. A story that merely confuses when
squeezed into two hours, could keep viewers riveted as, say, a HBO full-season

At first Conchis seems to be a mere eccentric with a taste for the occult. He
claims to be able to communicate with other worlds, perhaps even with the dead.
Urfe is skeptical, yet is drawn deeper into the maze by the strange events that
take place at the villa, usually late at night or when no one else is around. In time,
the characters of Conchis’s overheated imagination are transformed into real
flesh-and-blood. A beautiful young lady named Lily appears suddenly one night,
and may be Mr. Conchis’s long-dead love come back from the grave…or else a
hired actress brought on to the scene for unclear purposes. Other personages
are drawn into the drama, usually at the most unexpected junctures, and both Urfe
and the reader are left with an uncanny sense that some game is taking place,
perhaps manipulative or liberating, maybe even both.   

We soon are convinced that Conchis is not just an eccentric.  But what is his
game?  Is he staging a new kind of drama, an extension of Bertolt Brecht and
Samuel Beckett but with an aleatory component akin to John Cage and Merce
Cunningham? Or is Conchis a brilliant psychologist, a daring thinker who is
taking Freud and Jung to the next level?  Or is Conchis caught up in his own
personal demons, re-enacting key junctures in his own past life in search for a
kind of catharsis.  Or, finally, is he a manipulative genius whose delight lay simply
in constructing the ultimate maze for his audience of one?

This is a rich, multi-layered work. You can read it as a deep psychological novel
or as the ultimate coming-of-age story. You can read it for its radical rethinking of
human relationships or as one of the great existentialist novels—not out of place
listed alongside the works of Camus or Sartre.  Or one could profitably explore
the literary echoes—of Shakespeare or Greek mythology—that crisscross the
landscape of Fowles’s modern narrative. Perhaps this novel is a modern
Tempest…that is, when it isn’t an updated
Othello or A Midsummer’s Night’s

Above all, don’t believe those who tell you that this story is too difficult or too
arcane. For all the philosophical and psychological trappings at work here, John
Fowles has written a stunning page-turner, a work that will draw the reader into its
maze just as surely as Conchis enticed young Mr. Urfe.
The Magus, in my
opinion, one of the great modern novels, all the more impressive for it refusal to
conform to expectations—just as, for the acute reader, it might even point, ever
so tantalizingly, towards a path beyond expectations that require us to conform.  

Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture.  His most recent
book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by Oxford University Press.

Published November 6, 2015
Revisiting John Fowles's
The Magus (1966)

by Ted Gioia
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