The Magicians is a modern atheistic retelling of The Chronicles of Narnia, with a twist: its message is the moral and aesthetic emptiness of atheism. If Fillory seems flat and cartoonish, that is because we are seeing it through the hedonistic haze of the feckless young adults at the center of the book. They are looking for an entertaining quest and to be anointed kings and queens. That they have stumbled into a land suffering from severe and prolonged anarchy and stalked by forces of evil is simply beyond their capacity to notice.
Quentin is not the hero, he is the antihero. If he seems unlikeable, that is because we are not supposed to like him. This is not the story of a talented but unhappy young man who is redeemed by his acceptance into the elite world of magic; it is the story of a talented but unhappy man who is fundamentally irredeemable. He is alienated from society because he is alienated from himself, and magic can do nothing about that.
Within the first twenty pages, Quentin walks in on a dead man, and all he can think is, “If he didn’t move, nobody could involve him in this any further.” When offered the chance to start at Brakebills, he accepts, but only on condition that he not have to go home to say good-bye to his parents. When his careless student prank gets a classmate killed, does he set off to atone and set things right, like Ged? No. He keeps quiet, glad that no one can finger him for opening a portal to an evil power. He’s competitive, bad-tempered, selfish, faithless, and jealous.
Indeed, The Magicians makes explicit that Quentin, for all his academic and magical adeptness, is fundamentally of learning anything that matters. Others tell Quentin that the unhappiness lies within, but he will not listen. Fogg says, “I think you’re magicians because you’re unhappy. A magician is strong because he feels pain.” Quentin’s reaction? To space out and stare at the ceiling.
And here is Alice, in a scene that is utterly merciless in illustrating how Quentin’s lack of self-awareness is rivaled only by his incapacity for empathy:
Even if this whole thing came off without a hitch, you wouldn’t be happy. … Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better decide to enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.
Quentin’s response is priceless:
There was something true about what Alice was saying. But he couldn’t grasp it. It was too complex, or too simple. Too something.
But Quentin’s moral and personal failings cannot be laid at his feet alone. Brakebills is the Bennington of magical colleges: a playground for the idle, the heartless, and the rich. Its curriculum is academically intensive but narrow: magical practice and nothing else. It offers no science, no arts: philosophical exploration is explicitly discouraged. There is no discussion about how one should make one’s way in the world as a magician; the students are never invited to think about right and wrong.
Quentin and his classmates show all the moral failings one would expect from being let loose at an opulent school with no educational philosophy to speak of. They display a talent for casually wounding each other that would do Tom and Daisy Buchanan proud: indeed, it seems to be their main source of amusement. The drinking — including wine supplied by Brakebills itself — starts early and soon reaches Pantagruelian proportions. The sex is a joyless, competitive sport; the drugs follow in due course. Their chief emotion, and only significant motivation, is boredom. The Magicians is a Brat Pack novel in which there are also talking animals.
Once they cross into Fillory, the religious message becomes overt. The one Christian character, though mocked by the others for his belief, both correctly intuits the basic wrongness of what the others are doing and then arrives just in time to save them. Faced with the closest thing Fillory has to God, Quentin and his “friends” do the exact opposite of what He asks. Motivated by fear and their louche sense of aesthetics, rather than reason and moral cognition, they make one terrible decision after another. Death and disaster ensue.
But of course, they learn nothing. This is not that sort of novel.