I wouldn’t normally do this, but this post is spoileriffic for The Magician King in a way that reveals the essential conflict of the book if you haven’t read it. So ABANDON ALL HOPE OF STAYING SPOILER-FREE YE WHO ENTER HERE.
I want to come back to our conversations about class in The Magicians and The Magician King. But I wanted to discuss something else first. Namely, the way the violent sexual assault Julia experiences at the hands of a god she and her friends summoned by accident, and the sexual degradation she suffers in the course of her magical self-education acts as the engine of Quentin’s moral awakening.
I actually think that one scene in the novel before the ritual to summon the god does a nice job of separating out genuine sexual desire from sexual performance that’s expected of you. We know that in the course of her desperate quest for magical knowledge, Julia’s resorted to sex repeatedly if asking nicely won’t do, and that her main relationship with one of the first hedge witches she meets is cemented more by need than by genuine desire. So it’s genuinely moving when Julia finally sleeps with one of her friends from the chatroom for depressed geniuses that he’s helped her hold it together and finds out that sex can be physically and emotionally rewarding, that it opens her up to confidences from her partner, a greater understanding of him and herself: “She didn’t think she’d ever done it just because she wanted to before. It felt good. No, it felt fantastic. This was the way it was supposed to work…she felt pleasantly fleshly. She was mind and body both, for once.” It’s a forceful assertion of the idea that even if you lose your sexual way, that you can find it again, that pleasure is not rendered forever inaccessible by trauma.
Which makes it frustrating when the book takes back that premise. Granted, getting raped by a deity does seem like it would be of a different magnitude, and the scene of Julia’s rape (which for my money, is more detailed and disturbing than anything that happens in A Song of Ice and Fire) is sensitively, if disturbingly, observed — apologies for the very long blockquote:
Julia was ready to die—she closed her eyes and let her head fall back, baring her throat for Him to rip it out. But He didn’t. His hairy hands were on her. He dragged her across the room and forced her upper body down so she was bent over the yew table. Julia didn’t understand, and then she did and she wished she hadn’t.
She fought Him. He pinned her torso on the wood with one hard, heavy hand, and she tore at his fingers but they were like stone. She had agreed, but she hadn’t agreed to this. Let Him kill her if He wanted. It hurt when He tore her robe off—the fabric burned against her skin. She tried to look behind her at what was happening, and she saw—no, no, she didn’t see that, she saw nothing—the god’s big hand working casually between His legs as He positioned Himself behind her. He kicked her bare feet apart with a practiced kick. This wasn’t His first time at the rodeo.
Then He pushed Himself inside her. She had wondered if He would be too big, if He would tear her open and leave her gutted and flopping like a fish. She strained against Him. Exhausted, she rested her hot forehead on her arm in what she supposed was the manner of rape victims since the beginning of time. Her own hoarse panting was the only sound.
It took a long time It was not a timeless period; she didn’t pass out or lose track of time. She would have said it took between seven and ten minutes for the god to finish raping her, and she was there for every second of it. From her vantage point she could see Failstaff’s thick legs on the floor, not moving anymore, overlapping Gummidgy’s long brown ones, and she could see where the two who had died by the door lay, a huge continent of blood having flowed out from under the stone block and joined into one shape.
Better me than Asmo. She couldn’t see Asmodeus, because she couldn’t look at her, but she could hear her. She was crying loudly. She sounded like the little girl she still essentially was, a little girl who had lost her way. Where was home for her? Who were here parents? Julia didn’t even know. Hot tears flowed down Julia’s cheeks too, and slicked her arm, and wet the brown wood.
The only other noises were those made by Reynard the Fox, the trickster-god, grunting softly and hoarsely behind her. At one point a couple of rebel nerve endings attempted to send pleasure signals to her brain, whereupon her brain burned them out with a pulse of neuro-chemical electricity, never to feel again…The fox-god barked loudly when He came. She felt it. The terrible, unspeakable thing, which she would never tell anybody, not even herself, was that it felt wonderful. Not in a sexual way—God, no. But it filled her up with power. It flowed into every part of her, up through her trunk, down her legs, and out through her arms. She clenched her teeth and shut her eyes to try and stop it, but it even reached her brain, lighting her up from within with divine energy. She opened her eyes and watched it fill her hands. When it reached the tips of her fingers her fingernails glowed.
And then He took something from her. As He withdrew His penis from her, something came out with it. It was like it caught on something—a transparent film, it felt like, something inside her, the same shape as her. It was something invisible that had been with her always, and Reynard ripped it away. She didn’t know what it was, but she felt it go, and she shuddered when she felt it. Without it she was something different, something other than what she had been before. Reynard had given her power, and taken something in payment that she would have died rather than give up. But she didn’t get to choose.
What bothers me about this is less that it’s graphic than that it’s final. Julia loses her soul when Reynard rapes her, and she never gets a chance to get it back. The only way she’s able to heal is to acknowledge that her humanity is unrecoverable. And for some people, I’m sure that’s true.
But I think what bothers me is a sense that this is less Julia’s story, and more the story of how a morally and emotionally somnolent person’s finer sensibilities were awakened by the hideous trauma suffered by a friend and his complicity in the events that lead up to it. We know that after Quentin’s sexual and emotional betrayal of Alice, and her self-sacrifice to save him, that Quentin’s becoming oriented to the needs of other people for the first time in the beginning of The Magician King when he worries that Julia’s gone profoundly strange. And his moral growth is, if not complete, at least kicked into high gear after he and Julia encounter Our Lady Underground: “Quentin wasn’t transformed, but something else was going on with him: he was down on his hands and knees for some reason, just staring at the wooden planks of the deck…That was death, this is live. I will never confuse them again.” When Julia tells him the truth about what happened to her, it’s a sign that he is awakened. When Eileen threatens to not let Julia go through the portal, Quentin steps up and takes some responsibility for her, insisting that “Julia wouldn’t have done what she did if I’d helped her learn magic…Julia did what she did because of me. So if you want to blame somebody, blame me. Put that wrong on me where it belongs and let her go through to the Far Side. Where she belongs.” Her wholeness becomes his wholeness. His sacrifice of the opportunity to go to the Far Side, of his crown, of the dream of his life, may be the first generous act Quentin commits.
The idea that men are affected by rape, too, that we bare shared responsibility for the state of our sexual culture — that’s not a bad thing to communicate to readers. In fact, it’s a set of critically important ideas. But it makes me really sad to think that it takes a woman he essentially abandoned, even though he knew she was vulnerable and that his actions contributed to her mental breakdown, getting raped and experiencing the theft of her soul, to wake Quentin up. That’s a horrible price to have to offer up to move our conversations forward. And I wonder if it would have been a more searching act to leave us with Julia rather than with Quentin in a true act of sympathy and deference, a handing over of his story to her.