“The Magus” Month – Introduction



[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1/9

Post 2/9

Post 3/9

Post 4/9

Post 5/9

Post 6/9

Post 7/9

Post 8/9

Post 9/9

Originally published in 1965; the 1977 revised edition is now the default version on the market. Unfortunately. (We’ll get there.)

4.5 out of 5 stars. (original version)

3 out of 5 stars. (revised version) 

The Plot:

Nicholas Urfe is a not-very-good schoolteacher with romantic ideas of himself as a solitary heart and poet. (Really, he’s kind of a womanizing bastard.) He accepts a teaching job on a breathtaking but isolated Greek Island and meets Maurice Conchis, an eccentric, wealthy man who interacts with few outsiders. Conchis tells Nicholas stories of the past, weaving reality and fiction while claiming powers verging on the supernatural. When Conchis reveals a beautiful young woman staying with him – claiming she is a ghost – Nicholas’s infatuation draws him into Conchis’s mysteries and deceits.

John Fowles (1926 – 2005) was an English author, probably best known now for The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Along with novels, he wrote poetry, essays, and translations. Several of his books have been made into films (The Collector and The Magus, along with FLW).

I love most of his fiction despite problematic areas and themes (for a self-proclaimed feminist… ah, we’ll get into that enough later). His intense romanticism sounds incredible when read by my mind-narrator. (I’m using romanticism in the textbook/Wikipedia sense: “characterized by its emphasis on emotion and individualism as well as glorification of all the past and nature.”) I love Fowles’s use of language, the rhythms in his sentence constructs, his experiments with narrative to create layers of reality and meaning.

His work requires an active relationship between author and audience: the reader must find the meaning for herself. My interpretations of his books will vary greatly from another reader’s; we’re using our own dreams and subconscious to find our way. Fowles addresses this in his Forward to the revised version of The Magus:

Novels, even much more lucidly conceived and controlled ones than this, are not like crossword puzzles, with one unique set of correct answers behind the clues (…) If The Magus has any ‘real significance’, it is no more than that of the Rorschach test in psychology. Its meaning is whatever reaction it provokes in the reader, and so far as I am concerned there is no given ‘right’ reaction.


It’s not surprising that I interpret much of The Magus as a novel about writing novels; an allegory about the creative process, the difficulty of creating characters and then trying to control them, of inspiration and muses, of the author’s power to create different realities and travel through time.

I won’t recommend The Magus to everyone. It falls apart as a literal narrative (which is why it’s more satisfying to find allegorical interpretations). The narrator, Nicholas, is self-consumed and unlikable. Conchis’s game never makes literal or logical sense.

But I love it anyway. And I would love to hear other interpretations/thoughts from people who have read it.

During the following month, I’m going to assemble the notes from all of my readings here (I’ve read each version twice; I have a lot of notes). It will take two posts a week to get through it by the end of August. There are several reasons this got so out of control:

The Magus is packed with references/vocabulary. Fowles had a strong working knowledge of art, history and mythology. The most daunting aspect of reading his work is handling all of these unknowns. You can enjoy the stories without looking this stuff up, but taking the time to investigate enriches the world and visual aspect. Also, I learned a bunch of cool stuff and you might learn something, too.

-I’m trying to get a grasp on why I prefer the original so much over the revision, which involves quoting similar passages from each version.

-As someone fascinated with the editing/revision process, I was intensely interested to see even very subtle changes between the two. So you will see me get excited to tell you how Fowles subtracted and added a “that” from the very same sentence in the revision! You guys, this is crazy stuff!

-And, as usual, I’ll note passages I simply like. And I like a lot in this book.

…Some housekeeping notes:

-Both versions of the book will be quoted.

In a passage attributed like this: (p.31 / r.p.37) the first number refers to the page it is found in the first edition, the second number to the page in the revision.

A passage attributed like this: (o.o.p.31) appears in the first edition only.

A passage attributed like this: (r.o.p.37) appears in the revised edition only.

-If a passage is very different between versions, the original is given, then the revised.

-If the differences come down to the addition/subtraction of a couple of words, the passage is given once with the differences marked like this:

{Words in curly braces} are in the original version and not the revised

[Words in brackets] are in the revised but not the original.

-My first edition is edited in American English. The revised (how I love the library!) uses British English. Changes between the two because of this  – colour vs color; armoury vs armory, etc. – are not noted.

-I also didn’t bother noting changes of basic punctuation. Some periods have turned into dashes between the editions; some words have gained or lost a dash (“key words” became “key-words”, etc.).

-I’m not going through every single alteration. There are some huge differences between the versions which won’t be mentioned here at all. I have chosen the passages to discuss by using my notes. I didn’t go out of my way to include anything unless it was something that stood out to me.

Whew. Shall we get started?


12 thoughts on ““The Magus” Month – Introduction

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