IFOA 2011: Magic, Myth, and Forces Beyond Reason
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IFOA 2011: Magic, Myth, and Forces Beyond Reason

If you suffer from severe disappointment due to a magic-free existence, get thee to a bookstore and procure one of these authors' books.

Magical, mythical authors (L-R) Simon Toyne, Erin Morgenstern, and Lev Grossman at an IFOA round table event with moderator Lesley Livingston. Photo by Laura Godfrey/Torontoist.

When you get a group of authors who grew up reading some combination of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Stephen King, it’s not surprising to see them together in a panel discussion called “Magic, Myth, and Forces Beyond Reason.” Last night, in a round table hosted by author Lesley Livingston at the International Festival of Authors, three up-and-coming, buzzy authors—Lev Grossman (The Magicians, The Magician King), Erin Morgenstern (The Night Circus), and Simon Toyne (Sanctus)—discussed their magic- and myth-based novels.

Grossman’s best-selling Magicians books describe a group of friends who attend an exclusive college for magic only to discover the places they read about as children are real. He told the IFOA audience that his books are a way of expressing his own disappointingly unmagical childhood. “As a kid, I always believed that someone was going to come and take me somewhere better,” he said. “I always believed that inside some piece of cabinetry, somewhere, there was going to be a portal to somewhere better, because Jesus Christ, this cannot be it.”

“I could not get over the sense of how inadequate my life was compared with a book,” Grossman continued. “Books prepared me for something much greater; they led me to expect something much more exciting and fulfilling, and with a lot less homework.”

First-time author Toyne had similar thoughts about the role of fantasy and myth in books, though he didn’t seem to harbour the same lingering disappointment over a magic-free childhood. “The everyday, humdrum world is dull,” Toyne said. “We know the parameters of our own life. Writing books and reading books is escapism.”

Is life really that dull? It can certainly seem that way, when compared to a boy wizard with a magical scar who discovers a new world inside a wardobe and carries a powerful ring all the way to Mordor, or what have you. But we’re grateful that at least we have novels from the likes of Grossman, Toyne, and Morgenstern to give us new places to fantasize about.

In The Night Circus, Morgenstern’s book about a competition between two magicians in a Victorian-era circus, the level of description certainly places the circus itself as a stunning, imaginative main character in its own right. “I had the idea of this place with all these striped tents, and a bonfire in the centre, and I just explored it,” she said. “It was like fictional excavating, trying to figure out who the people were who inhabited it, and who created it, and where did it come from—that’s how much of a place-based book this is for me. Everything started from the circus itself.”

As much as we love to imagine the crackle of a magic spell or the intricacies of a living Ice Garden, Toyne made a reassuring point once the conversation turned to modern technology. If those Victorian-era circus folk were to suddenly find themselves living in our time, with our fast-moving automobiles and our social media, they would consider us to be the magicians. “When you’re on Twitter,” said Toyne, “you’re all magicians.”