In this essay, Elizabeth Simons examines some of the traditional, comfortable structures of power in children's literature--including Harry Potter and The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe--and argues that Lev Grossman's The Magicians challenges many of these structures. She also notes, however, that gender stereotypes seem particularly difficult to rewrite, even in a novel like Grossman's.
Ever since the Grimm brothers revised their tales for children, removing sexual content and adding heavy-handed moralizing, children’s literature has carried with it the promise of safety and comfort, and many of the popular works for children today still play off these ideas. The first book in C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, for instance, exudes comfort from its very dedication: Lewis, in addressing his goddaughter Lucy Barfield, refers to The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe as a “fairy tale,” to be taken “down from some upper shelf,” an image that puts the story in the context of a warm tale, as from a parent to a child (vii). Indeed, he tells her that he has written the story for her, and he reassures her that regardless of her interest in the book or her enjoyment of it, and regardless of his own as he ages and as his mind and body deteriorate, he “shall still be [her] affectionate Godfather” (vii). The rest of the story maintains this same comfortable feel by drawing on familiar aspects of storytelling and by reinforcing comfortable structures. Another popular children’s series, Harry Potter, offers similar comfort through similar structural techniques. Jack Zipes compares the series to a fairy tale, citing the books’ “absolute conformance to popular audience expectations” as the biggest reason for their “phenomenality” (176). Even more important is the comfort given in Harry Potter’s underlying message: “In a world in which we are uncertain of our roles and uncertain about our capacity to defeat evil, the Harry Potter novels arrive and inform us . . . that if we all pull together and trust one another and follow the lead of the chosen one, evil will be overcome” (Zipes 182). Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, which is, in many ways, an homage to Rowling’s and Lewis’ works, moves away from the child audience, placing their fantasy stories in an adult context instead. Grossman’s novel causes his readers to address unsettling issues by casting off several comfortable structures; specifically, The Magicians challenges traditional power hierarchies and directly addresses sexual desire. Still, despite the way in which the novel undercuts the safety and comfort of the Narnia and Harry Potter stories, it nevertheless adheres to the same familiar gender stereotypes that shape those worlds. The existence of these gender stereotypes in a novel as progressive as The Magicians demonstrates how such stereotypes are particularly persistent within the fantasy literature genre.