Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 685
The Magus was the first novel Fowles wrote, although not the first that he published. After working on it for many years, he finally released it for publication in 1965. Despite its success, Fowles remained dissatisfied with the novel and subsequently revised it for republication in 1977. It is an important work for its portrayal of the protagonist trapped in a meaningless world who must learn to choose life and love, and for its use of myth and mystery to define what is lacking in the protagonist’s life. The Greek island setting is important as the other world in which the journey takes place; likewise, it was important to Fowles as the place where his journey as a writer began.
Nicholas Urfe is the protagonist who becomes the quester. Fleeing England and the love of Alison, he journeys to Greece to find adventure and to escape his commitments. Adventure he does find, but not in the form he expected. He seeks mystery with a small “m”; what he finds is Mystery with a capital “M”: the mystery of himself, which he learns as he quests.
His guide for the journey is Maurice Conchis, who has already taken the journey of self-discovery and who has knowledge to impart to others. As in all of Fowles’s fiction, one of the central themes of this novel is that of unmasking. Each person hides behind many masks; the question is knowing which is the real person. Conchis wears many masks as part of the “godgame” he prepares and presents for Nicholas’s education. Various characters are unmasked, leading up to the unmasking of Nicholas in the central trial scene and the announcement that he is now one of the “elect.” Nicholas knows that he has been exposed and feels changed, but he does not fully comprehend the extent of the change. Thus, as he is evicted from the realm of myth and returned to the real world of London, he comes slowly to understand that the final challenge of the quest will be a reunion with Alison, whom he had earlier rejected.
Since so much of Fowles’s fiction measures the success of the quester in terms of the ability to know and experience love, Nicholas is given the opportunity to demonstrate his changed relationship toward women and to continue to learn from several women: Lily de Seitas, the mother of the twins who play such an important role in the Greek island adventure; Jojo, the young waif he takes in and who falls in love with him; and Kemp, the crusty landlady who is actually one of his guides on the quest. Finally, with the breaking of the plate, the gift that Mrs. de Seitas has given him, and an almost-tearful scene involving Nicholas that subsequently and inexplicably occurs, Kemp knows that Nicholas is ready to receive Alison again, and she arranges it.
Whether they reunite or separate is not important to Fowles, although it continues to remain important to his readers. What matters in terms of Nicholas’s quest is how far he has come in his ability to know and want love and in his ability to share. His journey will continue, with Alison or perhaps with someone else.
What may make this novel such a perennial favorite on college campuses are the techniques Fowles uses to present the tale. The story is told in a first-person narrative by Nicholas after the events have taken place; he nonetheless reveals only what he knew at any given point in the story. Readers tend to want to decipher the truth or mystery of the events just as Nicholas does. They share Nicholas’s surprise, shock, and fear at the strange twists and turns of events. Thus, as Fowles hopes his fiction will do, the book has the potential to change readers. When Nicholas does not tell the new American quester, Briggs, what he will really experience on the island of Bourani, so, too, the reader is as likely not to tell a friend what he or she will experience when reading this book. The adventure awaits each reader.