‘The Magus’ is a psychological thriller where a number of themes, from mysticism to war, are explored via the perspective of Nicholas Urfe, a somewhat feckless charactter who in many ways acts as a pastiche of the conceited, feckless antihero who is so wrapped in a sense of ennui and existential angst that his self-absorption shields him from those around him and his impact on them. In fact in many ways ‘The Magus’ is about the gradual unravelling of Nicholas’s personality, from his meetings with the odious Mitford who acts as a caricature of Nicholas’s worst excesses, to the surreal and somewhat ridiculous performances which punctuate Nicholas’s time on Spetses and which act as an exploration and dissection of Nicholas’s id and ego. In fact it is easy to get distracted by the unreality of Nicholas’s experiences on Spetses and lose focus on the core theme of the novel which is that of a man who is forced to confront the most unsavoury aspects of his personality; the stage-show of the novel is Nicholas’s mind and not the various mythical and historical scenes which are enacted during the novel.
Fowles’s lyrical descriptions of the idyllic island of Spetses are the strongest parts of the novel. Fowles is able to bring the island to life, with the sense of somnolence which pervades it and the unfettered beauty which surrounds it;
“There were deep-blue eastern shadows and lilac western slopes; pale copper-green valleys, Tanagra-coloured earth; the distant sea dreaming, smoky. milky, calm as old blue glass.”
The picturesque beauty if the island stands in stark contrast to its inhabitants; from the parochial school where Nicholas teaches, to its past association with an atrocity committed by Nazis to Conchis, the magician who has woven his spell across the entire island and the puppet master who dangles the fates of the characters in his fingertips. Many of the most interesting exchanges in the novel take place between Nicholas and Conchis, whose motivations from the start are unclear and become disingenuous as the novel progresses. Less convincing are Nicholas’s interactions with the various women who populate the novel-from his girlfriend Alison to the mysterious twins he encounters on the island, the women are frequently depicted as being glib and superficial, however this is likely more a reflection of Nicholas’s egocentric outlook on the world.
‘The Magus’ is an original and at times very fun exploration of one man’s psyche; the sense of incredulity which the reader frequently experiences as the story develops is held in check by the fact that the sense of ridiculousness which overtakes Nicholas’s experience is slightly tongue-in-cheek and reflective of the fact that Fowles is more concerned with symbolism than realism.