“The Magus” is a 1965 novel by the British author John Fowles. It was the first novel written by Fowles, although it was not the first that he had published. The novel was ranked as number 93 on the Modern Library 100 Best Novels in 1999 and number 67 on a BBC reading survey called The Big Read in 2003.
The novel revolves around a young teacher named Nicholas Urfe, who leaves his cozy job in England to go to a remote Greek island named Phraxos to teach at an English school. Nicholas finds the island depressing until he meets an eccentric, wealthy man named Mr. Conchis. When Nicholas starts seeing-and getting pulled into-strange performances around the island he begins to suspect that Mr. Conchis is trying to psychologically manipulate him and possibly even drive him mad.
In the end, Nicholas discovers that Mr. Conchis was a doctor, conducting an experiment on Nicholas. Nicholas returns to England after Mr. Conchis flees the island, alone. The novel was adapted into a movie in 1968 starring Michael Caine and Anthony Quinn.
The story begins with Nicholas Urfe. Nicholas was born in England in 1927 and, as his father was a brigadier general, Nicholas joined the army at a young age. Only staying in the service briefly, he left in 1948 and began attending Oxford College. A year after he started school, his parents died in a horrible plane crash. After his parents’ untimely deaths, Nicholas was alone in the world. The insurance payout from his parents’ death allowed him to buy a used car, which he attributes as helping him in his success with the girls on campus. Not many other students have cars on campus, and this makes Nicholas unique.
Nicholas loves poetry, specifically the work of the French existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre. However, he has a tendency to apply the metaphorical actions of his favorite anti-hero characters to reality, not realizing that this can be considered awkward at best and dangerous at worst. In Oxford, he created a club called Les Hommers Revokes (literally meaning “Rebellious People”) which was intended to rebel against the drab routine of normal life. In the beginning of the novel, Nicholas realizes that he is “fully prepared to fail” at whatever life has to offer him. Nicholas graduates from Oxford and is offered the role of a teacher in a small school in the eastern part of England.
But after reaching the small town, Nicholas is immediately uncomfortable with being so far from the city. After barely a year in the town, he appeals to the British Council to ask if he can be sent abroad. The Council sends him to Greece, just outside of Athens to work in the Lord Byron school on and island called Phraxos. About the island, Nicholas says: “Phraxos was beautiful. There was no other adjective; it was not just pretty, picturesque, charming – it was simply and effortlessly beautiful… It’s beauty was rare even in the Aegean, because it’s hills were covered with pine trees… Nine tenths of the island was uninhabited and uncultivated: nothing but pines, coves, silence, sea.”
Before moving away, Nicholas meets a woman named Alison who is renting a room in his apartment building. She is from Australia and is twenty-three years old. Two years younger than Nicholas. The two fell in love but were both too afraid of rejection to say anything about their feelings to the other person and so the love went unrequited. It is with this frame of mind – having given up his love, that Nicholas moves to Greece to work in the Lord Byron school.
Alison also moves away, taking a job as a flight attendant. When Nicholas gets to Phraxos, he is immediately struck by the islands beauty and desolate nature. He wonders alone around the island for hours, learning about the Greek landscape and noting the landmarks. While doing this, he tries to write poetry. But for some reason, it is in this lonely but beautiful place that the true nature of his inner self Is laid bare to him. Nicholas realizes that he is not a poet and that his poems are rigid, overly-formal and pretentious. Nicholas falls into a deep depression after this revelation. He visits a brothel and then gets sick.
Later, he attempts to commit suicide because of his depression. May arrives, and with it comes change. One of the formerly deserted villas on the southern part of the island suddenly appears to have an inhabitant. One day, while walking, Nicholas comes across blue swimming fins on the beach as well as a towel and a book of English poetry. He leafs through the book and finds that the person has highlighted the poems of T.S. Eliot. For the following week, Nicholas is curious about the new inhabitant of the villa Bourani. He questions people in the village about the owner. He is told that a new owner is a man named Mr. Conchis. The people of the island are reluctant to talk about Mr. Conchis as he has a shady history involving possible collaboration with the German’s during World War II.
Apparently, he used to be a village chief and was involved in an infamous incident where the German’s shot half of the people on the island. Since this time, Mr. Conchis lives alone and does not communicate with anyone. This is in direct conflict with what Nicholas heard from the man who held the job at the Lord Byron school before him. He told him that he knew the owner of the Bourani villa and fell out with him at some point. But Nicholas acknowledges that he was told very little about this incident and may have his story wrong.
The mystery surrounding Mr. Conchis intrigues Nicholas. He finds that he wants to visit the man to see what he makes of him. Nicholas goes to the Bourani villa, and when he arrives, it is as if Mr. Conchis has been waiting for him. He has already set out tea for two people—himself and a guest. Conchis shows Nicholas his house, including his large library. Inside the library are original works from the French artists Amedeo Modigliani and Pierre Bonnard as well as other sculptures and paintings, many of an erotic nature.
Mr. Conchis also has a stringed instrument called a clavichord, which is somewhat like a piano. After tea, Mr. Conchis plays a piece by the German composer Georg Philipp Telemann, and Nicholas is impressed by his talent. Mr. Conchis insists that he is not a musician but only a “very rich man.” Mr. Conchis tells Nicholas that he is “chosen” and Nicholas wonders if he is crazy. He has never encountered anyone like Mr. Conchis before in his strict, English life among his wealthy family. But Nicholas is intrigued by Mr. Conchis’s strangeness and considers him somewhat of a puzzle to be solved. About Conchis, Nicholas says: “We talked about school, about Oxford, my family, about teaching English to foreigners, about why I had come to Greece.
Though he kept asking questions, I still felt that he had no real interest in what I was saying. What interested him was something else, some syndrome I exhibited, some category I filled. I was not interested in myself, but only as an example. I tried once or twice to reverse the roles, but he again made it clear that he did not want to talk about himself.” Before he leaves, Mr. Conchis bids him goodbye by throwing his hands in the air in a surprising and almost priestly way. He invites Nicholas to return the next weekend but to not tell anyone in the village about his visits to Mr. Conchis and to not ask him any questions what so ever.
Nicholas begins spending every weekend at Bourani villa and becomes further intrigued by this odd man and his strange house filled with antique oddities. Nicholas enjoys this time spent at Bourani and begins to live for the weekends that he gets to visit the house and Mr. Conchis. He begins to feel that he has entered into a maze where the prize may be something unknowable and heavenly. Mr. Conchis tells him stories about his life and Nicholas feels as if the stories come to life and move around him.
Mr. Conchis tells him about a man named de Ducane from which he inherited the clavichord and also his wealth. Shortly after, Nicholas meets an old man in the village who introduces himself as de Ducane and he imagines that this is the man, come back from the dead. Mr. Conchis had a wife named Lily who died young in 1916. Nicholas thinks that he meets this woman in town. Nicholas soon discovers that there are groups of actors depicting “living pictures” on the island. Things like a satyr chasing a nymph and the ghost of Robert Foulkes, an author that Mr. Conchis had recently given him a book from.
Nicholas begins to feel as though he is losing his mind. He wonders if the performances around for him or for Mr. Conchis. He feels as though his time in Bourani villa has been so filled with metaphors and allusions that he isn’t sure if what is currently happening to him is just another situation where there is truly a deeper meaning at work. He feels as though he can no longer reliably distinguish reality from fiction. One day, he sees Lily again and grabs her, pinning her to a wall. He gets her to admit that her real name is Julie Holmes and that she and her twin sister, June have come to the island from England to film a movie. But when they arrived, they discovered that the movie was actually a series of performances put on by Mr. Conchis.
Nicholas quickly falls in love with Julie, who is an alluring, beautiful woman around his age. However, one day he gets a telegram from his old girlfriend, Alison who is planning to visit Athens and wonders if he would like to meet her there. Nicholas decides to give Julie up and meet with Alison. He meets with Alison in Athens and they pair climb up Mount Parnassus together.
At the summit of the mountain, Nicholas confesses to Alison all of the strange goings-on on the island. He tells her about the actors and about Julie. Rather than being concerned, however, Alison is offended by him falling in love with someone else. She decides that he no longer loves her and it is best if she leaves his life for good. She begins crying and tells him that he no longer wants to see him, leaving her hotel. Nicholas goes back to the island that night where he immediately stumbles into another performance. The actors are imitating the attack on the island by the Germans.
The German soldiers beat and abuse him. During the performance, he imagines that he gets a letter from Julie telling him that Alison has committed suicide. Nicholas escapes the performance and runs to the villa where he finds Mr. Conchis alone. Mr. Conchis, his voice unemotional, tells him that he has ruined the performance and therefore, must leave the island the next day.
As a final farewell, Mr. Conchis offers to tell Nicholas about the “last chapter” of Nicholas’s life. He tells him that he is only now ready to accept this knowledge. Mr. Conchis begins explaining what has been happening on the island in his own, unique way. He suggests the idea of a type of global ‘metatheatre’, which is a type of theater that draws attention to its nature by being inherently self-referential. But he still does not explain why the performances are happening. Mr. Conchis tells Nicholas a story about what happened on the island in the year 1943 when half of the villagers were killed by the Germans.
At the time, Conchis was the village chief and he was given a choice. There was a man that was supposed to be executed by the Germans for switching sides. Mr. Conchis was given the option of either shooting the man himself or enduring the deaths of almost the entire male population of the village. Try as he might, Mr. Conchis could not bring himself to kill the man, as he found that he was incapable of ending a human life even under such dire circumstances.
Nicholas realizes that, even though he did not realize it at the time, all of the stories that Mr. Conchis told him contained one common thread that bound them all together. They were all about distinguishing lies from the truth and of being true to oneself and one’s duty on this earth. Mr. Conchis tells Nicholas that he is not worthy of freedom. However, it is Conchis himself that leaves the island the next day. Nicholas stays and waits for Julie to appear. Nicholas wonders if the performances are over now that Conchis has left the island.
But he soon finds himself trapped in an underground bunker underneath the villa. When he manages to escape, Julie’s twin sister, June arrives and gives him another explanation for the metatheatre. She tells him that Conchis was a retired psychiatry professor and that the performances were a psychological experiment. Conchis was conducting an experiment on Nicholas. Julie is really a doctor called Vanessa Maxwell and she was meant to be the embodiment of all the evil that had ever been done to Nicholas in his life.
June gives him a whip and tells him that, given this explanation and the revelation that she was, in fact, tricking him the entire time, he can choose whether or not to hit her with it. Nicholas chooses not to hit her and begins to understand the experiment a little better. In the next chapter, Nicholas wakes up in Monemvasia, the mainland of Greece from which he took a boat to get to Phraxos. He wakes in a hotel room, where he finds letters from Alison’s mother talking about her daughter’s death. He discovers that he was fired from the Lord Byron school and that villa Bourani has been abandoned and boarded up. At the beginning of summer, Nicholas moves to Athens and attempts to investigate his time on the island and what actually went on there. In Athens, he finds out that the real Mr. Conchis died four years earlier.
Nicholas goes to the man’s grave where he finds fresh flowers. The flowers are lilies with roses and a small flower with a honey smell. That same day, he sees Alison outside his window at the hotel. He discovers that she was in on the experiment and did not actually commit suicide. Nicholas is relieved but also furious that she would trick him this way. He still feels, oddly as though he were being observed and experimented on. Nicholas decides to leave Greece altogether and return to England. He goes back to London, but finds that he cannot stop thinking about Alison. He feels that he needs to see her but does not know how. He begins to wait for her to find him and the occupation consumes him, becoming his only daily task.
Nicholas feels that he cannot live without Alison and that he only investigated the experiment because he was tired of longing for her and didn’t know what else to do. During this time, he unexpectedly meets the mother of the twins from the island, Julie, and June and discovers that they are actually called Lydia and Rose. At the end of the novel, Nicholas realizes that he is no longer surrounded by Dr. Conchis’s experiment any longer. He realizes that the experiment revolved around man’s cruelty to his fellow man and that this circumstance caused him to see this thesis in a way that he never had before. It caused him to see it from his own eyes, in a mirror of himself reflecting back at him.
At the end, he finds Alison again and the end is ambiguous as to whether they will stay together or not.
Nicholas Urfe – the main character of the story. Nicholas is a 25 year old man who lives in England and loses his parents at a young age. Living off the insurance payout from his parents deaths, Nicholas is able to take a teaching job on a remote Greek island where he meets Mr. Conchis and falls prey to his psychological experiment. The nature of the novel, and therefore the nature of Nicholas, is not always clear. At time, Nicholas is decisive and intelligent, at others he seems to be dim witted and lackadaisical. He falls in love very quickly and deeply, at first with Alison and then, later with Julie. He seems to truly feel for the former, however, as the climax of the book (his confrontation with Conchis) comes after he has been told that Alison committed suicide. Nicholas’s relationship with Conchis is also an interesting one. In the beginning, he visits the old man not out of pity, but out of a strange fascination. He wants to hear Conchis’s stories and tales as he finds the man very odd and wishes to solve the puzzle of his existence.In this way, Nicholas was experimenting and studying Conchis before Conchis was ever doing the same to him. In the end he confronts the man and demands to know the truth of the performances. At this point, Nicholas has been driven half out of his mind with the loss of his grip on reality and the idea that his girlfriend killed herself. Nicholas returns to England after learning about the experiment, but can’t seem to put the experience behind him for a while. Almost as though he’d been traumatized, he still wonders if he is in Conchis’s game.
Mr. Conchis – the antagonist of the novel. Conchis is the wealthy, odd, intellectual man who lives in a large villa on the island and hires actors to create performances in order to run a psychological experiment on Nicholas. Conchis’s reason for being fascinated with Nicholas in particular is never made clear. Perhaps it is because Nicholas is merely the first person to visit him in a long time. Whatever the reason, he seems to be a little insane himself as he puts quite a lot of effort into running the experiment without Nicholas’s consent. Conchis has a dark past. He was the former chief of the island, who was exiled after he let almost the entire male population die when he would not kill one man during the war. One thing that is genuine about Conchis’s character was his guilt over this incident. He also appears to have had a wife who died shortly after their wedding, although the details of this are never made clear either. Conchis ends the book by fleeing the island in shame after his experiment is found out.
Julie Holmes/ Vanessa Maxwell – Julie is a young woman that tells Nicholas that she was hired as an actress with her twin sister, June to perform in Conchis’s masquerades. She originally takes on the role of his late wife. At the end of the novel, June tells Nicholas that Julie is a doctor named Vanessa Maxwell.
John Fowles Biography
John Fowles was born on March 31st, 1926 in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, England. The son of a tobacco importer, Fowles’ family lived a middle-class lifestyle when he was a child. As a child, Fowles’ cousin Peggy became his nursemaid and close companion, although she was eighteen years older than him.
Fowles attended Bedford School during the Second World War when he was in his early teenage years. He was an excellent student and, after graduating, was preparing to join the Royal Marines when the war ended and he was sent to Okehampton Camp in Devon instead.
Fowles completed his military service in 1947 and returned to school, attending New College, Oxford, later admitting that this time in the military only made him want to become and “anarchist”. At Oxford, Fowles’ began reading the French existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus and developed an interest in writing. When he graduated, however, he began working as a teacher, taking a job on the Greek island of Spetses.
During this time, Fowles’ wrote poetry that he later had published and met his future wife, Elizabeth Christy whom he married in 1954. He left the island in 1953 and returned to England. For the next ten years after his marriage, Fowles taught English as a foreign language at St. Godric’s College in Hampstead, London.
Through this time, Fowles continued to write novels and his first, “The Collector” was published in 1963. British and American crowds loved the novel and Fowles was able to quit his teaching job and become a professional writer. “The Collector” was adapted into a film in 1965.
Fowles published several more books throughout the 1960’s, including his most well-known work, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” at the end of the decade in 1969 and “The Magus” in 1968. With “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”, Fowles became an international success and the novel was adapted into a film in 1981 that did very well in theaters.
Fowles went on to serve as the curator of the Lyme Regis Museum from 1977 to 1988 when he retired after suffering a mild stroke. In 1990, his wife, Elizabeth died of cancer and Fowles was sent into a deep depression. Eight years later, he married again to a woman named Sarah Smith.
On November 5th, 2005, Fowles died of heart failure at the age of 79 in Axminster Hospital in Dorset, England.