The Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 700

The number of characters who are clearly definable is small, since several change roles so often that one never knows when or if they ever stand unmasked. The girl impersonating Lily Montgomery is explained as a schizophrenic patient of psychiatrist Conchis. Nicholas soon learns that she is really an actress...

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The number of characters who are clearly definable is small, since several change roles so often that one never knows when or if they ever stand unmasked. The girl impersonating Lily Montgomery is explained as a schizophrenic patient of psychiatrist Conchis. Nicholas soon learns that she is really an actress named Julie Holmes, accompanied by her twin sister June, whose name later changes to Rose. Then Julie Holmes becomes a Dr. Vanessa Maxwell in a foreboding trial scene in which Nicholas is bound, gagged, and humiliated. He is later forced to watch an explicit love scene between his beloved Julie and the young black man who has played several parts in the masque. Nicholas realizes with a shock that he himself is involuntarily assuming the role of the venomous Iago. Whoever she is, Nicholas is mercifully cured of his infatuation and begins to yearn for the good, earthy benison of his lost love, Alison Kelly.

Alison receives limited characterization, as a person somewhat lost and out of step with conventional society. She seems unrefined, almost crude at times, but unusually perceptive and warmhearted. She is quite conscious of Nicholas’ shortcomings but offers him a love that he has not really deserved.

Nicholas himself reveals his character most openly, partly because he is telling the experience after the fact. He describes himself at school in England as a “wartime aesthete and cynic with expensive habits and affected manners.” He greatly admires D. H. Lawrence. “I got a third-class degree and a first-class illusion: that I was a poet. But nothing could have been less poetic than my seeing-through-all boredom with life in general and with making a living in particular.”

From this lingering adolescent green sickness, he makes a distinct, though not always steady, progress in self-knowledge, marked by several milestones. While he is on the island, for example, he realizes that he is not a poet and tears up all of his poetry. He tries to shoot himself in the eerie quietness of the pine forest but thinks better of it. At last, he ventures into the sanctuary of Conchis, and life is never the same again.

Conchis, the enigmatic old man who plays the “godgame,” is the most mysterious character of all. His name is pointedly close to both “conscious” and “conscience.” He seems in most scenes benevolent, though a certain indifference in his penetrating eyes makes Nicholas think of Svengali exercising some baleful influence on the two girls who do his bidding. He is skilled in hypnotism, is well educated in several fields, plays the piano and the harpsichord with finesse, and collects fine paintings and art objects.

The ultimate experience of Conchis’ life, as he tells it to his guest, happened during the war. He had accepted the role of mayor of the village during the occupation, a job no one wanted because of the implication of collaboration. When some Greek freedom fighters were apprehended on the island, the Germans ordered that he must personally execute them in the public square or a considerable number of villagers would be killed. He was given a rifle, but it was not loaded. He realized to his horror that he was expected to beat them to death. When one of the men, already viciously tortured, turned to him and shouted the Greek word for “freedom,” Conchis refused to perform the execution. He joined the hostages before the firing squad, but in the subsequent massacre, he was unaccountably only wounded. He found a way to escape and hide. Villagers afterward said that he should have performed the brutal executions and thus prevented the reprisals.

Though Nicholas’ later investigations cast doubt on much of Conchis’ autobiography, this story seems the most authentic, containing at least a grim kernel of truth, a dreadful witness to the loneliness of personal decision in the face of evil alternatives. After this episode, the staged fantasies grow darker and more menacing, like a journey into the underworld of personal guilt. Nicholas becomes more mindful of his terrible secret, a letter from England that says that Alison has killed herself. He has no way of knowing, at that point, that that letter was false, arranged by the Magus.

Characters Discussed

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Nicholas Urfe

Nicholas Urfe, a young Oxford graduate who mistakes himself for a poet and takes a job teaching English at the Lord Byron School for boys on the island of Phraxos, Greece. An only child of deceased middle-class parents, in his mid-twenties, he is honest and perceptive but an Oxford dandy and a self-centered existentialist who exploits the affections of women. He goes to Greece because he is bored, needs a new mystery, and is not ready to marry Alison Kelly, his latest romantic interest. On the lonely island, he is disillusioned to discover that he is inauthentic and not a poet after all. He becomes depressed to the brink of suicide but falls in love with Greece, with his role in a masque (or psychodrama) conducted by the mysterious Maurice Conchis, and with Lily, an ideal woman who plays several roles in the masque. Conchis shapes his consciousness, making him suffer and learn. In the course of his experiences, Nicholas compares himself to Adam, Narcissus, Icarus, Candide, Theseus, Eumenides, and Orpheus. In the end, he is “disintoxicated” by the idealized Lily and returns to England, where he seeks to reconcile with Alison as his true love, his “reality” and standard by which to live.

Alison Kelly

Alison Kelly, a young Australian woman living in London who falls in love with Nicholas. An independent yet waiflike girl in her early twenties, she has a thin boyish figure, a deep tan, long hair that is bleached almost blonde, truth-seeking gray eyes in a hard face, and a salty directness. She is not beautiful, often not even pretty, but has a natural warmth and aura of sexuality. She has had an abortion and has not been happy since, and she is breaking off an affair. To Nicholas, she seems intensely vital, daring, bluntly honest, and somewhat crude. Although she is an expert coaxer and handler of men, she cannot induce him to marry her and goes off to become an air hostess. She is hurt so badly by him that she conspires in the masque of Conchis and pretends to have committed suicide, then later reveals that she is alive after all but makes him wait more than three months before giving him a chance to talk to her. At the end, it remains uncertain whether she will ever forgive him.

Maurice Conchis

Maurice Conchis, a powerful rich old illusionist, or Magus, with a villa on the island of Phraxos. He is the godfather of Lily and Rose. Brown as old leather, short, and nearly bald, he is sixty to seventy years old, with intensely dark simian eyes that seem not quite human. He resembles Pablo Picasso and is also compared to Prospero, Svengali, Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi, Johann Sebastian Bach, Hades, Zeus, and God. His mother was Greek. During the German occupation in World War II, he was mayor of the village on Phraxos and survived being shot by a firing squad. At present, he has a heart condition and may die at any time. He seems to have business interests all over the world and is a connoisseur of art, a musician, a medical doctor, a hypnotist, and a sort of novelist, creating with real people. Every year, he draws a teacher at the Lord Byron School into a psychodrama, or “godgame,” that tests and may build character. He teaches Nicholas the meanings of freedom, hazard, responsible individualism, and the smile of wisdom.


Lily, a rich and cultivated young Englishwoman who plays several roles in the godgame of her godfather, Conchis. Beautiful, elegant, cool, aloof, highly cultured, multilingual, and extremely intelligent, she is everything the more normal Alison is not. She has very white skin; long, silky blonde hair; a Botticelli face; cool hyacinth eyes with tilted corners; and a Mona Lisa smile. As Artemis, Isis, Astarte, and Kali in the psychodrama, she is a goddess; as Lily Montgomery, she is a pure and genteel lady of the Edwardian period; as Julie Holmes, she is a contemporary liberated woman; and as Dr. Vanessa Maxwell, she is an “advanced” psychologist who reduces Nicholas to a negative case study. In her disintoxication of Nicholas, she makes love in front of him with her actual lover, a black American named Joe.


Rose, Lily’s twin sister, who acts with her in the psychodrama, for a while in the role of June Holmes. Nicholas differentiates between the twins by noting that Lily has a scar on her wrist and that Rose has a much more modern face.


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Nicholas Urfe is the protagonist who becomes the questing hero. The important woman in his life, whom he does not value at the outset, is Alison. Nicholas flees Alison and the complications of love for what appeals to him more: the mystery of Greece. There he meets Maurice Conchis who provides a mystery of another kind, the one that will lead him to the center of himself. But Conchis knows that Nicholas must be tempted into the godgame, so he offers the temptation in the form of a beautiful, mysterious woman, Lily, who later becomes Julie, then Dr. Maxwell, as she adopts different masks to mirror the aspects of Nkolas's personality.

In archetypal terms, Nicholas is the animus, the male logical thinker. Alison is the anima, the female repository of feelings, and Conchis is the wise old man, the one who leads the quester on his journey because he has the knowledge. Since Carl Jung, the psychologist who first catalogued these archetypes, was very important to Fowles when he was writing The Magus, it is easy to see the depiction of the various archetypes through his characters.

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Critical Essays