My first encounter with Scott Meyer’s Off to be the Wizard was a rushed engagement; it was a book which I only bought and read since I needed to review it as part of an Undergraduate class on Critical Theory. During this initial reading, I did take note of the Arthurian features of the texts but did not give those features any real acknowledgment. Why, after all, would I? The Arthurian legend was something well-entrenched in modern culture and so it being in yet another fantasy text did not mean anything to me.
Now that I have done some research on the Arthurian legend, however, now that I have read an Arthurian Romance or two and completed Dorsey Armstrong’s ‘Great Courses’ series of lectures about the Arthurian legend, I have some more appreciation for the nuance of the legend. Accordingly, I feel that I should go back and comment a bit more about Off to be the Wizard, not only because it was the first book that I reviewed but also to better explicate some of how the Arthurian legend has been appropriated and used in Meyer’s context in order to wrestle with contemporary issues.
The story of Off to Be the Wizard is that of a young hacker-geek—Martin Banks—discovering that reality is, in fact, a computer program. He freaks out, of course, but quickly recovers and starts on finding ways to exploit his discovery in order to better his own life (as any of us would have likewise done). After tinkering long enough with his discovery, that of a text file which holds all of his information and that can be changed to great personal effect, Martin decides/is forced to travel back in time to live in the middle Ages.
Once there, he meets a clique of fellow hackers who all at some point or another, located their own file and altered it, eventually deciding to, likewise, travel back in time to the medieval days of yore. Martin integrates well to this surprise group and quickly learns the tools of the trade of his makeshift group of friends; that is to say, he learns how to pretend to be busy—i.e., he learns how to use his digital file in order to appear magical to the ignorant townspeople of the early eleventh century. Why? Well, if you are going to mooch off of the local townsfolk, then you at least need to pretend to be a productive member of the community!
This routine goes on for a while as Martin is trained on the specifics of the file and taught how to appear magical. As the plot moves on, however, he discovers that not all is as it seems. One of the members, a long time groupie named Jimmy, has been secretly bending the rules of the group in order to alter history; his effort is a twisted affair, though. What Jimmy seeks is to distort history, supposedly ameliorate its ills, while bringing to life his particular vision of Tolkien-geek fandom (something which includes a healthy amount of eugenics and Orc-Elf creation). Jimmy is of course opposed to his megalomaniacal plan by his now former friends and they take up arms to stop his abhorrent dreams of a totalitarian peace.
Off to be a Wizard is a kind of book which throws reference after pop culture reference at the reader and is meant to be enjoyed by the quintessential geek. More to the point, however, it uses the Arthurian legend as a pretext to muse on issues concerning sociality and governance (as what may be expected from a literary genre heavily invested in aristocratic mythology). Something which may not be hugely unique in regards to the Arthurian canon but is intriguing in relation to a self-published book hosted by a modern mega-giant of a publisher.
One can see many elements from previous Arthurian texts nestled within Off to be the Wizard: aspects of Martin’s training in the opening sections are reminiscent of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, the very premise of a modern day man traveling back in time to the medieval period in order to ‘right the wrongs’ and usher in a new age of peace and prosperity thanks to their advance knowledge and technology, is all a callback to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. All of this, while aspects of the plot itself is adapted from classical Arthurian Romance; in Meyer’s text, though love interests play little role in the narrative itself, we do see the reprisal of Lancelot’s betrayal of King Arthur in the form of Jimmy’s betrayal of his former friends by his shattering of the code of conduct which had previously bound him.
What makes all of this noteworthy, however, is its subversion of the typical Arthurian trope. Whereas in the normal Arthurian tale it is lust and desire which precipitates the downfall of King Arthur, all in order to pontificate upon moral virtues of conservative living, in Off to be the Wizard we see more heady topics explored.
King Arthur in Meyer’s text is a minor figure. In fact, he is not the historical Arthur; he is merely a king named Arthur because that is what Jimmy demanded in order to bring his literal fantasy to life. The King Arthur here is but a mere puppet of Jimmy’s obscene power phantasies. Such a reformulation of King Arthur brings to light issues of social rule—when a figure as legendary and Messianic as King Arthur is reduced to a shadow of his former self and enslaved to a wimpy time-traveling geek, what are we to make of the author’s exploration of how power dynamics flow in a highly stratified Technocratic society? Specifically, the sort of society which features self-made ‘Wizards’ mooching off of the poor working class as they pretend to be busy?
Such a question probably pales in comparison to how eugenics is treated, however: Jimmy attempts to use Eugenics—i.e., the alteration of the commoners program subroutines—as a means to bring about the entry of phantasy, the literal impossible, into reality, thus rendering obsolete the psychological complexes of Freud and Lacan, in favor instead of pushing an elimination of a need to withdraw from society; essentially, Jimmy feels that the eradication of social alienation, of the working class’s estrangement from the means of what they produce and from their own “Species Being,” (to quote a young Marx) is best achieved by collapsing the distinction between what we know as reality—technology, medicine, science—with what a fictional universe understands as reality—magic, non-human intelligent life, and fantastical anti-physics and anti-realism. Jimmy feels that if the surface illusion, that which constitutes a normal bourgeois democracy, is disturbed, if life is made more like the fantasy realms of J.R.R Tolkien and C.S Lewis, then the mechanical process of labor exploitation which subtend all of the misery and anguish of late capitalism, will cease to be detrimental to societally at large.
Jimmy is a figure seldom seen in Arthurian literature and adaptations. Meyer essentially fuses Twain’s adaptation with the modern Lit-RPG sub-genre in order to warp the idea of Lancelot’s gallantry; Jimmy-Lancelot becomes the updated Lancelot—he is a figure who turns his back on his friends not for the love of a woman, something which is irrelevant in our postmodern age of gender-sexuality plurality, but for the love of historical fantasy; Jimmy’s undertaking is an attempt to make real Geoffrey of Monmouth’s historical revision but for the whole of human history instead of merely England. Jimmy’s effort to woe history by his own hand thus constitutes a negative enlightenment, marking knightly gallantry, therefore, as a curse—the very antithesis of the original Arthurian ideal.
In the end, Off to be the Wizard is a curious start to a trilogy of what I anticipate will be differently flavored medieval Romances set against modern issues. Perhaps I will be wrong, however, and the following installments will be let downs… but maybe not. I will simply have to read them for myself and if they have content worth probing I will post my review here. In the interim, however, I will sign off by remarking how much I enjoyed Meyer’s piece, despite some of its iffy ideological connotations concerning social organization. It is a piece of YA literature which, I feel, many young men and women will enjoy if they have had at least a passing flirtation with the Arthurian legend.
Off to be a Wizard
373 pages. Published by 47 North. $14.95 (Paperback). 2014.