The Magus (novel)

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The Magus
Themagus cover.jpg
First US edition
Cover artistTom Adams
CountryUnited Kingdom
PublisherLittle, Brown and Company (US)
Jonathan Cape (UK)
Publication date
1965 (revised version 1977)

The Magus (1965) is a postmodern novel by British author John Fowles, telling the story of Nicholas Urfe, a young British graduate who is teaching English on a small Greek island. Urfe becomes embroiled in the psychological illusions of a master trickster, which become increasingly dark and serious. Considered an example of metafiction, it was the first novel written by Fowles, but the third he published. In 1977 he published a revised edition.[1] In 1999 The Magus was ranked on both lists of Modern Library 100 Best Novels, reaching number 93 on the editors' list, and 71 on the readers' list.[2] In 2003, the novel was listed at number 67 on the BBC's survey The Big Read.[3]


The Magus was the first novel John Fowles wrote, but his third to be published, after The Collector (1963) and The Aristos (1964). He started writing it in the 1950s, under the original title of The Godgame. He based it partly on his experiences on the Greek island of Spetses, where he taught English for two years at the Anargyrios School.[4][5] He worked on it for twelve years before its publication in 1965. Despite gaining critical and commercial success, he continued to rework it, publishing a final revision in 1977.

Plot summary[edit]

The story reflects the perspective of Nicholas Urfe, a young Oxford graduate and aspiring poet. After graduation, he briefly works as a teacher at a small school, but becomes bored and decides to leave England. While looking for another job, Nicholas takes up with Alison Kelly, an Australian girl he met at a party in London. He still accepts a post teaching English at the Lord Byron School on the Greek island of Phraxos. After beginning his new post, he becomes bored, depressed, disillusioned, and overwhelmed by the Mediterranean island; Nicholas struggles with loneliness and contemplates suicide. While habitually wandering around the island, he stumbles upon an estate and soon meets its owner, a wealthy Greek recluse, Maurice Conchis. They develop a sort of friendship, and Conchis slowly reveals that he may have collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.

Nicholas is gradually drawn into Conchis's psychological games, his paradoxical views on life, his mysterious persona, and his eccentric masques. At first, Nicholas takes these posturings of Conchis, what the novel terms the "godgame", to be a joke, but they grow more elaborate and intense. Nicholas loses his ability to determine what is real and what is artifice. Against his will and knowledge, he becomes a performer in the godgame. Eventually, Nicholas realises that the re-enactments of the Nazi occupation, the absurd playlets after Sade, and the obscene parodies of Greek myths are not about Conchis's life, but his own.



  • Nicholas Urfe – The protagonist, a 25-year-old Englishman who goes to Greece to teach English and one day stumbles upon 'the waiting room.'
  • Alison Kelly – Nicholas' recent Australian girlfriend, whom he abandons to go to Greece.
  • Maurice Conchis – Wealthy intellectual who is a main player in the masques.
  • Lily Montgomery / Julie Holmes / Vanessa Maxwell – Young woman who is involved in the masques and with whom Nicholas falls in love.


  • Joe – young black gypsy, involved in the masques.
  • Maria – Conchis's maid.
  • Demetriades – fellow teacher at the school.
  • Lily de Seitas (older) – Lily's mother.
  • Rose de Seitas – Lily's identical twin sister.
  • Benji de Seitas – the younger brother of the Seitas twins.
  • Kemp – Unmarried woman who rents Nicholas a room in London.
  • Jojo – Young girl whom Nicholas pays to accompany him.

Story characters[edit]

  • de Deukans
  • Gustav Nygaard
  • Henrik Nygaard
  • Anton
  • Wimmel


The book ends indeterminately. Fowles received many letters from readers wanting to know which of the two apparently possible outcomes occur. He refused to answer the question conclusively, however, sometimes changing his answer to suit the reader. The novel ends quoting the refrain of the Pervigilium Veneris, an anonymous work of fourth-century Latin poetry, which has been taken as indicating the possible preferred resolution of the ending's ambiguity.[6]

Literary precedents[edit]

John Fowles wrote an article about his experiences in the island of Spetses and their influence on the book.[7] He acknowledged some literary works as influences in his foreword to the 1977 revised edition of The Magus. These include Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes, for showing a secret hidden world to be explored, and Richard Jefferies' Bevis (1882), for projecting a very different world. In the revised edition, Fowles also referred to a "Miss Havisham," a likely reference to a character in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations (1861).

Critical reception[edit]

  • 'A major work of mounting tensions in which the human mind is the guinea-pig... Mr Fowles has taken a big swing at a difficult subject and his hits...are on the bull's eye' (Sunday Telegraph)
  • 'A deliciously toothsome celebration of wanton story-telling... Before one quite realises what is happening, one finds oneself no less avid for meanings and no less starving amid a plethora of clues than is Nicholas himself' (Sunday Times)
  • 'A splendidly sustained piece of mystification… such as could otherwise only have been devised by a literary team fielding the Marquis de Sade, Arthur Edward Waite, Sir James Frazer, Gurdjieff, Madame Blavatsky, C.G. Jung, Aleister Crowley and Franz Kafka. (Financial Times)

Representation in other media[edit]

  • In Jasper Fforde's comic detective novel, The Well of Lost Plots, (part of the Thursday Next series), The Magus wins the "Most Incomprehensible Plot" Award at the annual "Bookie" Awards, the awards programme that characters in literature give one another.

Film adaptation[edit]

The novel was adapted for film with a screenplay by Fowles, directed by Guy Green, and released in 1968. It starred Michael Caine as Nicholas Urfe, Anthony Quinn as Maurice Conchis, Anna Karina as Alison, Candice Bergen as Lily/Julie, and Julian Glover as Anton. It was filmed in the island of Majorca. The adaptation was generally considered a failure as film.

Caine said that it was one of the worst films he had been involved in, along with The Swarm and Ashanti, because no one knew what it was all about. Woody Allen was quoted in 2005 saying, "If I had to live my life again, I'd do everything the same, except that I wouldn't see The Magus."[9] Despite the critical failure, the film was nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Cinematography.


  1. ^ guardianobituaries.booksobituaries 2005/nov/08 at
  2. ^ "100 Best Novels". Modern Library. Retrieved 28 October 2012
  3. ^ "BBC – The Big Read". BBC. April 2003, Retrieved 26 October 2012
  4. ^ John Ezard, "Obituary: John Fowles", The Guardian, 8 November 2005
  5. ^ Pamela Cooper. The Fictions of John Fowles: Power, Creativity, Femininity. p. 51. Retrieved 17 July 2016.
  6. ^ "Translating the Last Lines of The Magus." John Fowles the Website. Accessed 6 November 2008.
  7. ^ "CBSi". Archived from the original on 20 March 2006. Retrieved 17 July 2016.
  8. ^ "100 Best Novels". Modern Library. Retrieved 28 October 2012
  9. ^ "Movie Adaptations of Fowles Novels". Retrieved 17 July 2016.

External links[edit]