27 March 2007

Bartimaeus and the British Empire

In the past year I’ve written about nationalist themes in an Irish fantasy series and an American fantasy series. But what of the British, who so dominate the genre? Does any nationalist self-fashioning poke through in their fantasy novels?

Jonathan Stroud has acknowledged one quality he finds characteristically British in his Bartimaeus trilogy. This is a bit from the terrific discussion at the State Library of Victoria that I pointed to earlier:

Michael Pryor: Now the Bartimaeus trilogy is interestingly a very political novel with the magicians, the non-magicians disenfranchised. So there is a class struggle going on here between the aristocratic magicians and the commoners. It’s British socialism? Is this a reaction to Thatcher’s ’80s? What’s going on here?

Stroud: Well, it--yes, it probably is, actually. Yes, I think that somebody did note that all British books, certainly all British children’s books, you can look at in terms of the class system and it’s definitely true.
In that exchange the two authors refer to the books’ struggle between magicians and commoners which culminates in a democratic rebellion against the magical oligarchy, and specifically to the rivalry between protagonists Nathaniel and Kitty.

But in fact the deepest conflict in the Bartimaeus books isn’t between magician and commoner but between magician and djinni. And I’d say that’s not so much a class system as a colonial one. The wizards exploit the resources and bodies of the djinn they can control. Those djinn are a different race of being from an Other Place, ancient and yet bound to serve their British masters.

It’s notable that Bartimaeus and his magical peers include no leprechauns, elves, ogres, or the other enchanting creatures from European fairy tales. He doesn’t tell many stories about Arthur, Archimedes, Daedalus, Roland, Siegfried, Heracles, or other European heroes of the distant past. Instead, Bartimaeus talks at length about Gilgamesh of Mesopotamia, Solomon of Israel, Ptolemy of Egypt. He speaks of tasks in Uruk (Sumer), Karnak (Egypt), and--when forced to--Jericho (Palestine). The amulet that provides the title for the first book comes from Uzbekistan.

The main “made in Europe” exceptions to that pattern are the mercenary’s seven-league boots and the golems of The Golem’s Eye--but the latter are a Jewish legend, outside the European mainstream. Bartimaeus gets busy in Europe only during the Renaissance: Faust, Tycho Brahe, Tower of Pisa, Prague as capital of the Holy Roman Empire. He also refers to work in eastern North America at unspecified times, but really his heart and history lie in what we used to call the Near East and now call the Mideast.

Those roots are apparent in the terms Bartimaeus and his peers use to describe themselves. The words djinni, afrit, and marid all come from pre-Islamic Arabic. They appear in the Koran, and “genie” came into western culture through literary translations, not folktales. (“Imp” is Germanic, on the other hand, but its magical meaning is a late arrival, less than half a millennium old.)

Despite his books’ picture of British governors exploiting Asian power, Stroud seems to steer away from addressing parallels to real history. In resurrecting the British Empire as a magical superpower, he emphasizes its power over continental Europe and North America only. The Golem’s Eye depicts a Czech immigrant underclass in London, but we never see the Asian, African, and Caribbean minorities of today’s Britain. The Amulet of Samarkand makes a brief mention of weavers in Basra toiling to create a magnificent carpet, but the books aren’t clear about whether their British Empire is contiguous with “all the pink bits” that used to appear on British school maps. Perhaps that past is too recent and too awkward.

A conflicted attitude toward the British Empire may help to explain the series’ emphasis on William E. Gladstone. In the trilogy, he’s the greatest of British magicians and Prime Ministers, the conqueror of the Continent, the man who imprisoned marids in his staff. In real life, Gladstone was a domestic reformer who also came to back home rule in Ireland; he opposed most of his rival Benjamin Disraeli’s imperialism toward India and the Near East.

In the end, of course, the Bartimaeus trilogy is not imperialistic. Stroud’s political sympathies clearly lie with the djinn and commoners, not the magicians who built and run the empire. The series ends hopefully with the prospect of political reform for the humans in Britain, which might also lead to less exploitation of the beings from the Other Place. And, as I wrote before, the voice that dominates the series is that of Bartimaeus, one of the exploited. Therefore, I believe Stroud’s trilogy can fairly be grouped with other British post-colonial fiction.

TOMORROW: The British Empire revived another way in Larklight.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post! I posted my (incomplete) thoughts about this particular aspect of the series on various blogs, including Book Moot. I had an extremely bad taste in my mouth over the "Britain as Empire" themes in the first two books, but was repetedly told to read the final installment. After reading your post, I have FINALLY ordered the book off amazon.com.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comment, Pooja. I'll be interested in hearing more of your thoughts about the series when you finish it.

I've been surprised about how many analyses of the Bartimaeus trilogy discuss its portrait of politicians and their two-tier human society without noting their imperial/colonial policy toward the djinn.

You may reach different conclusions about how those themes play out in the series. I'm just glad to find someone else who's sensed they're there.

Pooja said...

I'll be reading the book this weekend, and will post my thoughts here.

I too have been very surprised that most analyses of this series have not noted British imperialism and colonialism. I thought my reading of the first two books was just me being too sensitive (my grandparents and parents were affected directly by colonialism and post-colonialism) so I was thrilled to read this well thought-out post.

More to come...

lili said...

Very interesting.

I loved the Bartimaeus trilogy - being an underdog-loving-Aussie, it was great to see not only an alternate world where the US isn't the All, but also one where the British Empire gets its comeuppance in one foul swoop.

(and as a shameless plug - I ran that conversation event with Jonathan at the Library... and if you want more YA authors saying Interesting Things, Markus Zusak is the April writer in residence on our website, insideadog.com.au)