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The Magus

The Magus (1965) is a complex postmodern novel by British author John Fowles (1926-2005). A bored young man accepts a teaching position on a remote Greek island, where he meets a mysterious old hermit who shares a series of increasingly bizarre stories. When elements of the old man's tales manifest on the island, the young man begins to lose his grip on reality. Fowles' mind-bending novel analyzes themes of reality and truth.

The Magus: Summary

In summary, Nicholas Urfe is a 26-year-old Englishman who has been aimlessly drifting through life since he graduated from Oxford. Yearning for adventure, Nicholas jumps at the opportunity to teach English on a small remote Greek island. Just before he leaves England, he meets a beautiful Australian air hostess named Alison Kelly. Nicholas and Alison enjoy a few thrilling days together before he sets off on his adventure.

The name "Nicholas Urfe" references John Fowles's childhood. As a child, he could not pronounce the "th" sound in the word "earth."

On the island of Phraxos, Nicholas is immediately drawn to the beautiful scenery but soon feels frustrated by his teaching job and the island's lack of single women. During a hike, Nicholas discovers a remote villa and suspects someone might be secretly living in it.

The Magus Island StudySmarterFig. 1 - Nicholas spends his weekends exploring the island's beautiful landscape.

While talking to a former colleague, Nicholas is warned that the island contains danger. The colleague cryptically tells Nicholas to stay away from the "waiting-room."

As the weeks grind on, Nicholas feels increasingly bored by his limited life on the island. He uses his spare time to practice writing poetry. Although becoming a poet has always been his ambition, he soon realizes he is not talented enough. When Alison attempts to connect with him, he ignores her, growing lonely and isolated. In the depth of a deep depression, he considers suicide.

A glimmer of hope arrives when Nicholas receives a book of love poems from an unidentified female admirer. The book contains a note which sends Nicholas on a series of clues leading back to the remote villa. This time he is greeted by the inhabitant, an enigmatic old man named Maurice Conchis. Conchis invites Nicholas in for dinner while he waits for the woman to arrive.

Is Nicholas suspicious of Conchis when the pair first meet? Why or why not?

Over dinner, Conchis attempts to impress Nicholas with his tales of romantic conquests and shows him around the grounds of his estate, known as Salle d'Attente. He explains he inherited the villa and the estate from a mysterious foreigner named de Ducane. Skeptical of the old man's tall tales, Nicholas agrees to revisit him, hoping the mystery woman will appear. When he asks the islanders about Conchis, many are reluctant to speak about him. Some say he was a Nazi collaborator during WWII, involved in a massacre that killed many islanders.

Nicholas continues to visit the old man. The pair discuss poetry, art, and philosophy as Conchis considers the nature of reality. Nicholas grows increasingly fascinated by the mystery surrounding his new friend. He meets a foreigner on the island who seems to confirm Conchis's story about the inheritance but remembers that Conchis mentioned the man had died years ago.

The mysterious woman finally arrives and introduces herself as Lily. Conchis says they are former lovers who have grown apart. Nicholas is disheartened to notice that Lily seems utterly uninterested in him. Determined to win her over, Nicholas continues to visit and play along with the old man's half-truths and mind games.

Meanwhile, he begins to witness strange people on the island. Some are dressed as mythical characters reenacting ancient tales, while others proclaim to be real-life historical figures from long ago. Conchis tells him these are hired actors; even Lily is a performer acting as his dead wife. He refuses to explain who is orchestrating these strange situations.

Fowles based the fictional island of Phraxos on the Greek island of Spetses, where he worked as an English teacher for two years.

Nicholas falls deeper in love with Lily but loses his grip on reality as Conchis fills his head with ghost stories and complex ideas. An unstable Nicholas confronts Lily, who admits she is a British actress named Julia Holmes, who'd been brought to the island under the pretense of making a film. This revelation sends Nicholas into a spiral.

The Magus Masks StudySmarterFig. 2 - Nicholas questions reality as mysterious masked figures randomly appear on the island.

He leaves the island for a weekend to meet Allison in Athens. He breaks down and shares his bizarre experience when she professes her love for him. Alison reasons that he is actually in love with Lily and leaves.

Nicholas arrives back on the island, desperate to find Lily. On the way to the villa, he is confronted by a group of actors dressed as Nazis, reenacting the island's occupation. He is savagely beaten by the men and imagines that Allison has committed suicide.

Exhausted and distraught, Nicholas confronts Conchis at the villa. Conchis reveals the truth about his actions during the Nazi occupation. Conchis had been a community leader on the island in the war. When the Nazis discovered a resistance fighter hiding on the island, they demanded that Conchis execute the man, or they would shoot 80 of the island's men in his place. At that moment, Conchis reasoned that he could not take a human life for any reason, so he refused to kill the resistance fighter.

Nicholas attempts to find Lily but is kidnapped and taken to an underground bunker known as the "waiting-room." For five days, he is drugged and subjected to interrogation. Masked men dissect his actions and personality in an ordeal known as "the trial." Finally, he is brought before a panel of individuals, each wearing strange animal masks.

How does Nicholas react to Conchis's revelations?

The head of the panel is revealed to be Conchis. He admits that he is a renowned psychiatrist conducting an elaborate experiment with Nicholas as the unknowing participant. As Conchis shows each element of what he calls his "godgame," Nicholas grows increasingly enraged.

The panel explains that the research aims to determine whether someone who has been lied to on a collective scale could ever forgive his tormentors. Since such a lie would fill the subject with justified rage, they reason that offering the subject a scapegoat to punish is proper.

Nicholas is handed a whip and given the opportunity to flog Lily as an act of revenge. Desperate to unleash his anger, Nicholas drops the whip, reasoning the only true punishment he could inflict would leave Lily crying out of guilt rather than pain.

The Magus Whip StudySmarterFig. 3 - The panel offers Nicholas the chance at revenge by offering to flog Julia.

The novel ends with Nicholas returning to England. He attempts to reenter everyday life but is unsure if he is still living in Conchis's "godgame." He traces down Allison, who admits she was in on the game and falsified her feelings for him. The novel ends with the two trying to reconcile but facing an uncertain future.

Fowles originally intended to call the book "The Godgame."

The Magus: Characters

In The Magus, Nicholas encounters a cast of characters who are not what they appear to be at first sight.

Character Description
Nicholas UrfeThe novel's protagonist is a bored and privileged young man seeking adventure. Nicholas is often driven by his desires and avoids responsibility, opting for excitement and discovery. This drive leads Nicholas into the bizarre world of Conchis' "godgame," where he is forced to reconsider reality.
Maurice ConchisThe secretive old man who occupies the isolated villa is a hermit with a head full of tall tales and philosophical ideas. His past remains shrouded in mystery, with whispered rumors that he may have collaborated with Nazi forces during WWII.
Lily/JulieNicholas is drawn to the beautiful but distant Lily, believing she has lured him to the villa. She remains demure about her true origins until confronted by Nicholas. She reveals herself as a British actress, paid to act as the ghost of Conchis's young wife.

The Magus: Themes

The Magus is a complex story that ultimately deals with many themes, the most important of which is the fluid nature of reality and truth.

Reality and Truth

Nicholas sets off on his adventure, attempting to escape the humdrum reality of middle-class life in England. He sees himself as a creative person who seeks to discover the truth of life and experience. Through his conversations with Conchis, Nicholas questions the nature of reality as the older man keeps returning to the idea that there is no fixed truth in the world.

The Magus Insane StudySmarterFig. 4 - Through conversations with Conchis, Nicholas begins to doubt his sanity.

At first, Nicholas views these conversations as philosophical exercises, but when he witnesses odd situations, he sees the lines between art and reality blur. When he reports sightings of masked figures reenacting scenes from classic fiction or historical events to Conchis, the old man seems unsurprised. He suggests that Nicholas may be witnessing

a glimpse at an alternative universe that is half art, half science, which causes the young man to lose his grip on reality.

As a character, Nicholas set out on the classic quest for self-knowledge. He sought to understand himself and the world, refusing to accept the narrow confines of the comfortable life he left behind in England. Conchis acts as his guide, or sage, in the quest, leading him through a strange land.

The Magus: Analysis

John Fowles's sprawling novel is about many things, tackling issues of reality, time, truth, and meaning. This mixture of ideas and techniques makes the novel a work of postmodernist fiction worthy of analysis.

Postmodern literature is a genre defined by its experimental style and rejection of classic techniques. Postmodern works are often highly self-reflective and employ techniques like an unreliable narrator, metafiction, and nonlinear timelines. Famous postmodern writers include Thomas Pynchon (1937-Present), Martin Amis (1949-Present), and Samuel Beckett (1906-1989).

Like many postmodern works, John Fowles uses The Magus to comment on the act of writing and the novel. The book is crammed with connections to classic literature and authors, as Nicholas, an English major, uses literary references to describe the events he encounters. As an aspiring poet, he jumped at the chance to teach at a school named after the English Romantic poet Lord Byron (1788-1824).

On his travels around the strange island, he encounters bizarre reenactments from the works of French writer Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) and scenes from Greek mythology. During his imprisonment in the "waiting-room", he compares his ordeal to something from a Franz Kafka novel.

The Magus Byron StudySmarterFig. 5 - Like Nicholas, Lord Byron sought adventure in Greece. He died while fighting for Greek independence.

When writing The Magus, Fowles drew from other academic disciplines, including history and psychology. He was heavily influenced by the theories of Carl Jung and cites Alain-Fournier's (1886-1914) Le Grand Meaulnes (1913), Richard Jefferies' (1848-1887) Bevis (1882) and Great Expectations (1861) by Charles Dickens (1812-1870) as the novel's biggest literary influences.

As well as countless literary references to books, Fowles also comments on the act of writing. Conchis refers to the entire experiment as his "godgame." As the creator of Nicholas' world, he controls reality in the same way an author controls their characters and creations. At several points throughout the novel, Conchis considers himself a movie director, a musician, and a playwright.

This understanding of the novel presents the work as a statement on the ability of art to present and even combine with reality. Fowles remained famously tight-lipped about the novel's true meaning and preferred to let readers make their own interruptions of the complex work.


The novel is full of symbolism, particularly in names. The title comes from the Magus in the deck of Tarot cards. This card represents the magical or trickster, which suggests that Conchis may be the Magus tormenting Nicholas. Conchis name sounds similar to the words "conscience" or "conscious," which connect to the idea that he is trying to show Nicholas the true nature of reality and teach him a moral lesson about his behavior.

The Magus Tarot Card StudySmarterFig. 6 - The Magus or Magician links the physical and spiritual world.

The book is told from a first-person narrative point of view, which helps create tension and mystery. Since readers are only given Nicholas's perspective, they experience the novel's plot twists and surprises as he does. They share the character's confusion and disorientation. Like Nicholas, the reader is constantly forced to reconsider situations in this uncertain setting.

The Magus: Quotes

Here are some meaningful quotes from The Magus.

"Poetry had always seemed something I could turn to in need - an emergency exit, a lifebuoy, as well as a justification." (Ch. 8)

Nicholas is an avid reader who dreams of one day becoming a poet. This sense of escapism helps him to cope with the mundanity of everyday life and his sense of frustration with other people. Fowles ultimately shows that Nicholas' love of literature is used against him.

Every one of us is an island. If it were not so we should go mad at once. Between these islands are ships, airplanes, telephones, wireless—what you will. But they remain islands. Islands that can sink or disappear forever. You are an island that has not sunk." (Ch. 23)

Nicholas finds himself physically and metaphorically stranded on an island. Throughout the novel, Nicholas is haunted by loneliness and isolation, which drives him deeper into Conchis's "godgame."

The Magus - Key takeaways

  • The Magus is a novel by British author John Fowles.
  • Nicholas accepts a job as a teacher on a remote Greek island, where he meets a mysterious old hermit who shares a series of increasingly bizarre stories. When elements of the old man's tales manifest on the island, the young man begins to lose his grip on reality.
  • The Magus deals with themes of reality and truth and contains many references to classic literature.
  • The novel is an example of the postmodern genre.
  • The novel's title comes from the tarot deck's magical, or magus, card.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Magus

The Magus is a complex novel about a young man who accepts a job as a teacher on a remote Greek island. He meets a mysterious old man who begins to share his tall tales and bizarre theories on the nature of reality. As time passes, Nicholas notices odd occurrences supporting the old man's theories and begins questioning his sanity. 

The waiting room is the name of Conchis' estate (Salle d'Attente) and where Nicholas faces his trial. 

The Magus was written by John Fowles.

The fictional island of Phraxos is based on the real island of Spetses. 

The Magus is an example of postmodern fiction.

Final The Magus Quiz


Which Greek island is The Magus set on?

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Which university did Nicholas graduate from? 

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A former colleague warns Nicholas about the _________room. 

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What is the name of Conchis's estate? 

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Salle d'Attente

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Nicholas becomes concerned for his sanity when he begins to see mysterious figures wearing ________. 

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Conchis refers to himself as a director, a musician, and an artist. What is his real occupation? 

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Which genre best describes The Magus

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The panel offer Nicholas the opportunity to punish Lily using a ___________. 

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Conchis refers to the experiment as his _______.

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In the end, Nicholas tries to repair his relationship with _________. 

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