REVIEW – The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

“You’re not destined or chosen, I wish I could tell you that you were if that would make it easier, but it’s not true. You’re in the right place at the right time, and you care enough to do what needs to be done. Sometimes that’s enough.”

An odd statement to select from a book that’s about predicting the future, about superior forces controlling the lives and destinies of unsuspecting mortals, about lovers trapped in a contest from which death is the only escape, and happiness together not an option which is offered.  Yet this statement, made to one of several fascinating and sympathetic protagonists at the climax of the tale, is representative of the overall theme of The Night Circus, a fantastic tale of magic, romance and individual determination.

The story opens in 1873, as Hector Bowen, known to the world as the stage magician Prospero the Enchanter, has a “package” delivered to his place of employment.  The package is his five-year-old daughter, Celia.  Her mother, wasting away with unrequited love, has committed suicide and left the child to her estranged father.  His reaction is an understated “Well, f___.”  (This is the only instance of profanity in the story, which otherwise has no content to discourage young adult readers.)  Hector quickly uses the child to his advantage, realizing she has supernatural abilities, training her to be both a true sorcerer and an accomplished illusionist.  He takes her to an old friend known only as Mr. A. H___ and offers her up as a contestant in a game they have apparently played before.  A. H___ quickly finds an orphan boy to train up as her opponent.  His name is Marco, a name he chooses himself, as A. H___ tells him he can’t be bothered with naming him.

The boy and girl grow and are instructed in the ways of magic, Celia having the advantage of real magical power while Marco is trained to do what he’s led to believe any human could do, if only that human would take the time to look beyond the end of his nose.  Celia becomes a performing illusionist, Marco is farmed out as an assistant to an impresario named Chandresh Cristophe LeFevre.

We shift suddenly in time and place, from London and the 1880s to Concord, Massachusetts in 1897.  Here we meet Bailey, who is dared by his sister and friends to break into the Night Circus, a mysterious, traveling show which has been appearing, suddenly and irregularly, in a field near their home for as long as Bailey can remember.  Bailey takes the dare, and our first real glimpse of the Night Circus is in daylight, as an eleven-year-old boy trespasses, looking for something to steal to prove that he carried out his dare.  He is quickly discovered by a red-headed girl his own age.  Rather than reporting him, she helps him escape and gives him one of her own white gloves as a souvenir.

The transition is jarring, but the narrative quickly returns to the 1880s and the story of Celia and Marco.  From there, the book jumps back and forth, from past to future, the two time lines converging as the chapters unfold.  The method works extremely well, showing us the origin of the Night Circus as a playing field for the two young opponents, while also showing us its existence as an established phenomenon which has a profound effect on those whose lives it touches.

In keeping with my subject last week of immortality, The Night Circus gives us characters who stand outside time.  While the book spans 24 years, Celia and Marco and their companions barely age.  Children grow up around them – Bailey becomes a young man, and the twins Poppet and Widget, born at the instant a bonfire is lit to open the Circus, likewise come of age.  Death touches the community here and there as well.  The young opponents stay young, however.

Erin Morgenstern’s narrative rivals that of Ray Bradbury, another lover of Circuses and the landscape of Hallowe’en..  She brings to life the sights, sounds and smells of  the world of the Circus.  It is a world of contrasts, cast almost exclusively in black and white, where the smell of caramel apples and wood smoke drift through the air, where one imagines it is nearly always a crisp, Autumn evening.  It is a world rife with emotion and sensation, where each tent contains an act or exhibit which not only thrills, but causes the circus-goer to touch his own feelings and reach into his own soul.

Through it all, Celia and Marco must discover the rules of their contest.  As they play, they add to the circus, a new tent appearing each time one of them makes a move in the game.  Watching over them are the games-master, Hector and A. H___.  Hector quickly becomes a phantom in an accident of magic, and Celia must tell the world he’s dead.  A. H___, we learn, casts no shadow.  The two become unreal, insubstantial, to their proteges and to the reader.  Mr. A. H___ is alternately known as the man in gray throughout the book.  This is significant, as all the elements of the Circus are either black or white.  A. H___ stands outside the Circus, beyond reality, beyond morality.  His shade of grey suggests that perhaps he is neither good nor evil, but his demeanor suggests he does not care about the fates of his game pieces.  An uncaring god, perhaps.

The Night Circus wrestles and wrestles hard with questions of self-determination.  What do you do when you’re told that the struggle only ends when you destroy the competition?  More, when there is no escape from the struggle?  There is no surrender, no compromise except for death.  There is no goal to be attained, except to act on the plans made by others before you were born.  Celia and Marco are pulled into this contest, the twins Poppet and Widget are born into the thick of it.  The other members of the Circus family are innocents, along for the ride, with no control at all over their destinies.  All four, and the young outsider, Bailey, must find the answers to these questions, not only to protect their own lives and achieve their own happiness, but to prevent collapse and destruction for the others around them.

Ultimately, the key to the story and its resolution is that some of us are alive and embracing life.  Celia and Marco, Poppet and Widget and Bailey, are all young and hopeful and alive.  They revel in what’s around them.  They take active part in it.  In contrast, Mr. A. H___ casts no shadow, and Prospero has no substance.  These two are beyond life, and their only interest is in how they can manipulate the lives of others.  Bailey and the twins are true youths, just coming to understand the world around them.  Celia and Marco are old youths, well into middle age for the time they’re living in, but still looking, feeling and acting young.  Perhaps this suggests that staying in the game, focusing on your own pursuit of happiness with concern for others, as opposed to being incapable of happiness and only wanting to manipulate others, is the path to extended youth and true vitality.

The Night Circus is fantasy.  I don’t usually care for fantasy, and yet I wholeheartedly love this story.  I think what’s different about it is the moral and ethical questions it presents.  I find most of the Tolkein-inspired fantasy (I refer to it, along with the proliferation of alternate history we’ve been deluged with of late, as “dragon porn”) dismisses all concern with what good and evil actually are.  Such works assume we know which is which, that we need never question what thoughts or actions constitute moral behavior, and that, really a good person is good because he’s good, and an evil one evil because he’s evil.  Choice is not an issue.  The extent of free will is the option to answer the call to do good against evil or not, and an old wizard or crone will tell you which is which.  You won’t figure it out for yourself.  And the old wizard/crone has no self-interest, wants nothing for him or herself.  The elder’s sole motivation is to advance the cause of evil or good.

Essentially, going back to the terms defined in A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong, most fantasy is, for me, mythology without mythos.  It tells a story which may be exciting and may have the trappings of the mythical – dragons, wizards, elves, orcs… what the hell is an orc, anyway? – but it offers us no insight at all on who we are or where we fit in the universe.  It offers us little example on how we should behave or treat others, other than that we should be courageous and take a sword to evil when we see it.

The Night Circus offers, in addition to enchanting environs and delightful characters, mythos with its myth.  It does address these questions, though not in any heavy-handed way.  In some cases, it only asks them, with answers being left as an exercise for the student.  Yet it asks the questions all the same.  That is mythos, and that is what good fantasy should be.  It is not scientific.  It transcends reason.  It deals in things that have never happened, to our knowledge, and probably never will.  If they did happen, have happened, or will happen, we would not be able to supply evidence that they had, or posit a theory to explain their occurrence.  And yet the story can appeal to, even excite, the rational mind.  It complements reality and the concept of logos, it does not defy either.
Best of all, for those who must cram their reading time into their daily commute, The Night Circus is available on audio, read by the wonderful Jim Dale, narrator of the Harry Potter series.  I have not listened to it yet, but I intend to soon.  The Night Circus is a circus worth visiting and revisiting often.

Leave a Reply