The Magus (novel)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Magus (1966) is the first novel written (but second published) by British author John Fowles. It tells the story of Nicholas Urfe, a teacher on a small Greek island. Urfe finds himself embroiled in psychological illusions of a master trickster that become increasingly dark and serious.

The novel was a bestseller, partly because it tapped successfully into—and then arguably helped to promote—the 1960s popular interest in psychoanalysis and mystical philosophy.



The Magus was the first novel John Fowles wrote but his second to be published after The Collector (1963). He started writing it in the 1950s, originally entitling it The Godgame. He partly based it on his experiences as an English teacher on the Greek island of Spetses. He wrote and rewrote it for twelve years before its publication in 1966, and despite critical and commercial success, continued to rework it until its revised version, published in 1977.

Plot summary

The story concerns a young Oxford graduate and aspiring poet, Nicholas Urfe, who takes up with Alison Kelly, an Australian girl he meets at a party in London. In order to get away from an increasingly serious relationship with her, Nicholas accepts a post teaching English at the Lord Byron School in the Greek island of Phraxos. Bored, depressed, disillusioned, and overwhelmed by the Mediterranean island, Nicholas' hobbies include contemplating suicide and taking long solitary walks. On one of these walks he stumbles upon the wealthy Greek recluse Maurice Conchis, who may or may not have collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War, and apparently lives alone on his island estate.

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



  • Nicholas Urfe - The main protagonist, twenty-five year old English man who goes to Greece to teach English and one day stumbles upon the waiting room.
  • Alison Kelly - Nicholas's girlfriend whom he abandons to go to Greece.
  • Maurice Conchis - Wealthy intellectual who is a main player in the masques.
  • Lily de Seitas - Young woman who is involved in the masques and with whom Nicholas falls in love.


  • Joe - Involved in the masques.
  • Maria - Conchis's maid.
  • Demetriades - Fellow English teacher at the school.
  • Lily de Seitas (older) - Lily's mother.
  • Benji de Seitas - Lily de Seitas's (older) young son.
  • Kemp - Old, unmarried woman who rents Nicholas a room in London.
  • Jojo - Young girl who Nicholas pays to accompany him.

Story characters

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


The book ends indeterminately. John Fowles received many letters from readers wanting to know which of the two apparently possible outcomes occur, but Fowles maintained that it's up to the reader to decide. The novel ends with two lines of Latin poetry which may be interpreted to suggest one possible outcome, but are ultimately inconclusive.

Literary precedents

John Fowles has written an article about his experiences in the island of Spetses and their influence on the book [1], and he has also specifically acknowledged some literary works in his foreword to the revised version of The Magus. These include Le Grand Meaulnes (1913), by Alain-Fournier, for showing a secret hidden world to be explored, and Jefferies' Bevis (1882), for projecting a very different world. Fowles also refers in the revised edition of the novel to a Miss Havisham, a likely reference to Charles Dickens's Great Expectations (1861).


  • '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 happenings, 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, Franz Kafka' (Financial Times)

It has been recently featured on the Modern Library List of Best 20th-Century Novels, #71 and #93 on the Reader's and Critics' lists, respectively.

Film adaptation

A film version was released in 1968, directed by Guy Green, and written by Fowles. 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, and was filmed in the island of Majorca. The adaptation, however, was greeted as a failure. Michael Caine himself has 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. Peter Sellers said "If I had to live my life again, I'd do everything the same, except that I wouldn't see The Magus." Despite the failure, the film was nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Cinematography. In recent years, it has gained a cult following which resulted in The Magus being commercially released on DVD in the US on October 17, 2006.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Magus (novel)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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