It’s hard to put a finger on The Magus, the third novel of British novelist John Fowles. Each page pulses with mystery and intrigue in the guise of a coming-of-age story. Except it’s hard to say if the character really “came of age.” At the end of the novel, Nicholas Urfe, after enduring the mind games of the enigmatic Conchis, retains his cynicism, stubbornly refusing to be changed by all the events the spun him around.
The Magus is a page-turner, gently leading you along its labyrinth of deception, eroticism and Jungian concepts. Originally titled The God Game, the story tells of a lost and disillusioned young man (Urfe) accepting a teaching post in the island of Phraxos, where he befriends a mysterious man named Conchis. At the start of the novel, Urfe confesses to needing “a new mystery” to jolt him from the uncertainty of his life. He finds it in the games and web of mystery weaved by Conchis, of which he becomes a willing participant and is ultimately confronted with the greatest mystery of all: himself.
It’s hard to separate the fantasy from the reality within the novel, as we readers are sucked into Urfe’s confusion and cynicism thanks to tight and focused storytelling. At its core, The Magus is a character study of Urfe, delving into his psychological makeup by making him feed off the illusions and mind games of Conchis. He is a nut being cracked open, being taught a lesson, being toyed with through all the ouzos, idyllic lunches and eerie acts in the meta-theater.
It is through that last bit that Urfe’s psyche was flashed before him–the meta-theater, Conchis’ devious plan to have people adopt certain “roles” in an unscripted play, served as the projection screen that flashes metaphors and allegories that seem to be acting out events from Conchis’ life, though what Urfe doesn’t realize is that they are aimed at him, mocking his cowardice, selfishness and pseudo-intelligence. The purpose of the “godgame” of Conchis is open to interpretation: could it be a test to direct Urfe to self-acceptance, to punish him for dismissing the love of Alison, or to open his heart to love?
The Magus is a fantastic read, ambitious in its scope but doesn’t fly off on some wild tangent (the first-person POV certainly helps). The focus is on Urfe alone, keeping the rest of the characters in shadow when it comes to their intentions and desires. This novel is the dark mirror to the usual coming-of-age story—Urfe’s self-revelations are only doors that lead to even more questions, a painful reminder that our self is the greatest mystery of all, which only time and experience can unravel.