Doubles and damage, Geoff Miles

The Magician of Hoad
Margaret Mahy
HarperCollins, $39.99,
ISBN 9781869506872

The Magician of Hoad takes Margaret Mahy into new territory – new for her at least. Her earlier YA novels were set in the real world. A highly-coloured version of reality, admittedly, with the mythic and uncanny shimmering at its edges even when they did not literally intrude in the shape of witches or ghosts or lemures – but always grounded in contemporary New Zealand. Maddigan’s Fantasia broke the pattern a little by being set in a post-apocalyptic world. The Magician of Hoad, however, is Mahy’s first venture into fantasy in the Tolkien tradition: the creation of an entirely separate “secondary world” (in Tolkien’s phrase), and an epic tale in which the fate of nations is at stake.

A brief prologue sets the tone:

One fine day, as the sun rose, tranquil but implacable … a Hero, a Magician, a farm boy, a noble girl and a Prince were working their way to a meeting on the edge of a city of tents …. A story has to begin somewhere. This story begins here.


The flat simplicity of the announcement that this is “a story”, the capitalised labels of the characters, suggest that we are in the world of fairytale, peopled by types rather than characters. Mahy is indeed working with archetypes, perilously close to clichés: the farmboy with a destiny, the king with three sons of whom the youngest is the hero, the princess in the tower. But, of course, the book is more subtle than that. Like much of Mahy’s work, though in a more deliberately mythic mode, it is about the making of identity: how people fit themselves to, or are devoured by, the roles they take on and the stories they become part of.

The Magician of Hoad is full of damaged, fractured, divided characters. Heriot, the protagonist, is introduced as a haunted child (like Barney in The Haunting), with one “puzzled eye” which sees visions. An almost ostentatiously liminal experience (involving a causeway, an archway and a door standing like Narnia’s lamp-post in the middle of a forest) makes him aware of an “occupant” in his head, a “wild” and magical fragment of his own self. Feeling torn apart – “I should be one single thing, but I’m not” – he is driven on a quest to reconcile the farmboy and the Magician and become his true self.

Paired with him (in the first of a series of mirrorings and reflections) is Dysart, the Mad Prince, with his mismatched eyes (one blue, one green) and his sense that someone has stolen part of his life. Dysart is also haunted by visions of a ghost which dissolves when he tries to grasp it (recalling Mahy’s image for the pursuit of truth in fiction). The ghost, of course, is Heriot, and their meeting in the city of tents is a first step in the repairing of both characters. But Dysart’s true completion rests on his love for the lady Linnet, who will rescue him from being “devoured” by kingship. And Heriot’s true completion rests on his relationship with Cayley, the mysterious street urchin (whose secret any reader familiar with romance conventions will pretty quickly guess), who becomes Heriot’s “ragged shadow”, and who will finally help him restore the wholeness of his self.

The novel’s almost obsessive emphasis on doubleness, on division and unification, its quasi-alchemical imagery of melting and dissolving and transformation, invites us to read it in Jungian terms as a parable of psychic integration, the completion of a damaged self by union with shadow and anima. There is even a hint that the five archetypal figures of the prologue, the “five remarkably different lives” who must “lock together”, are all fractured parts of a single self which must be reassembled for the land to prosper.

The pattern is echoed on the political level in “the duality of Hoad”, its rule divided between the King in his capital city of Diamond and the military Hero on his offshore island. The King’s role is hereditary, while the Hero, like a sacrificial king from The Golden Bough, wins his title by challenging and killing his predecessor. Both are seen as temporary human incarnations of “the two great spirits of Hoad” – an echo of the medieval notion of the King’s Two Bodies which emphasises the uneasy relationship between the human being and the ceremonial role. This precariously balanced system breaks down when the King pursues a permanent peace, and the Hero Carlyon, seeing his occupation gone, resolves on regime change – leading to a confrontation in which Hoad itself is broken and reshaped.

Not everything in this complex, ambitious fantasy quite comes off. The patterns of imagery at times seem over-insistent. The city of Diamond never quite comes to life as a real place as opposed to a symbolic structure. Dysart and Linnet, unlike Heriot and Cayley, don’t quite rise above their fairytale archetypes. And the Magician Izachel, crucial to the plot, remains an oddly absent presence, faceless and silent. His virtual nonentity fits the symbolic structure – he is “the shell of a man”, his self entirely absorbed in his role – but I kept expecting some action or revelation which never came.

At its best, though, The Magician of Hoad has a real mythic power. It is at its height in the chapters at the centre of the book: the magical contest in which Heriot first unleashes his power, turning Izachel’s visions of battle and death into a vision of wild nature reclaiming the land; and Heriot’s subsequent self-incarceration as a “monster” in the King’s zoo, where the novel’s key issues are debated with fierce rhetorical energy and wit. And Prince Betony is a memorable villain: initially seeming just a spoilt and nasty fop, he emerges as an almost tragic, almost sympathetic villain out of Jacobean drama, driven by a pursuit of “extremity” to a destructive revenge on the pointlessness of the world. If Mahy (improbably) ever returns to the world of Hoad, Betony is the character whose future I would most like to see.

As a footnote: pseudo-realist photographic covers seem to be the fashion for YA fantasies at present, but it is a shame that the publishers have saddled this very impressive novel by a major author with a cover which looks like a rehearsal snap from a rather bad high-school Shakespeare.


Geoff Miles is a lecturer in the English programme at Victoria University of Wellington.


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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature, Young adults
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