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Re-reading the Magus: English, classics and orientalism
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CitationHaliloğlu, N. (2019). Re-reading the Magus: English, classics and orientalism. National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece, Athens, 19 December 2019.
‘I needed a new land, a new race, a new language; and although I couldn’t have put it into words then, I needed a new mystery’, ends the first chapter of John Fowles’s 1965 novel The Magus. This paper argues that in the narrator/hero of the novel Nicholas Urfe, Fowles has marries the Classicist/Orientalist personas still prevalent in the British world of letters, through Urfe’s (self)associations with myth. In Orientalism Said speaks consistently of a ‘private’ or ‘personal’ mythology – of how ‘literary pilgrims’ find in the Orient ‘a locale sympathetic to their private myths, obsessions, and requirements’. This is exactly how Greece, the Aegean, functions for Urfe, the literary pilgrim. Bored of his life in London, Urfe sets off on an ‘eastern adventure’ and accepts a job at an English school in the (fictional) Greek island of Phraxos. There, he meets the magus of the title, Conchis, who proves to be the master of revels as he puts on several masques and plays for the benefit/ordeal of Urfe. The Aegean, the birth place of significant European myths, becomes the stage on which Urfe’s knowledge of myth is humoured and tested. It is a show tailored for an English and/or Classics graduate, and we see Urfe identifying with various mythical figures throughout the novel. Conchis, as the Prospero of the novel, applies his team of ‘spirits’ to work out ‘mythical’ scenes for Urfe, including satyrs and rape of maidens. This Aegean island then becomes the now mythologized island of Prospero, where not only ancient Greek, but also Ottoman (read Oriental) myths are intimated through the harem and the mute black eunuch. Combining all these different registers of myth in one novel, Fowles creates an Aegean chronotope that thickens with every other narrative staged by Conchis.