(Image from C/W Mars catalog)
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is, at its heart, about a battle between chaos and control (pg.378). That is the driving force behind the challenge that two magicians, Hector and Alexander, establish and in which they force Celia and Marco, their protégés, to participate. It is an interesting basis for a story because it takes what would otherwise be a straightforward story about a magical circus to an almost cosmic level. It is disappointing then that Morgenstern does not give that aspect of the story the attention and importance it deserves.
Hector and Alexander remind me of fairy tale fathers, like in Rumpelstiltskin or Beauty and the Beast, who gamble with their daughters’ lives rather than their own. Each man has a different approach to the use and teaching of magic but rather than battling each other to the death to see which method is stronger, they force their students to unknowingly do it for them. There have been multiple battles over the years in different venues around the world, and the one that they start between Celia and Marco is just one more for them to add to their growing tally. The egotism displayed by Hector and Alexander is astounding because there is no reason given as to why they feel the need to prove one method better than the other or when they will no longer feel the need to senselessly sacrifice others for their own vanity. They are god-like in their abilities, near immortality, and lack of concern for the lives of others. It is reminiscent of Artemis and Aphrodite in the Greek tragedy Hippolytus where a whole family gets torn apart because they get caught between the goddesses in their fight for recognition.
That is where I think there is a particular lack of world-building in The Night Circus. I picked up this book on the recommendation of a colleague who suggested that it might fit into the genre of magic realism, which came up when we were discussing The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. However, I would argue that there is too much explicit magic in the story to really let it pass as magic realism. As a piece of fantasy fiction I think the story could have benefitted from a bit more context of exactly what magic means in the world, and why we should care about these battles that take place. The majority of people in the world of the story have no idea that magic is real and Morgenstern never even toys with the idea of what might happen if large numbers of people figured it out. There is no talk of needing to keep it secret, no discussion of what makes someone able to perform magic, and no mention of magic’s role in the universe beyond its potential entertainment value. There also is not much hinted at about why this story, this battle, is so different, other than outcome. But the outcome does not seem to have much of an effect on anything beyond keeping the circus alive.
Of course, I am fully aware that I am highly biased toward cosmologies and creation myths and have a tendency to find stories that do not have cosmic consequences a little pointless and dull. This story was not dull, I could hardly put the book down, but what was driving it for me was mostly the need to find out how Celia and Marco got around the fatal rules of the game they did not know they were playing for much of time. I had formulated a theory before even beginning the book, based on the summary on the inside cover flap, and I needed to see how my idea compared to what the author came up with. Still, I found that it was difficult to care about the characters because I did not understand what makes their story so special. There was so much potential for this story to be a deeply imaginative take on the world, but instead it just presented the story without much explanation of the important pieces.
The final chapter tries to give the story more gravitas, talking about how stories and tales are their own kind of magic (pg. 381), which I agree with of course, but it feels very out of place in this particular book because that is not really how the story has been presented this whole time. Usually in the books that I have read that talk about storytelling, it also talks about how storytelling is used to make something or someone significant (The Last Storyteller by Frank Delaney or The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd comes to mind). But if that is what Morgenstern was trying to do with this story, I do not think it worked particularly well. Celia and Marco’s love story was too disjointed and rushed to be of any significance and the circus itself lacks a substantial purpose beyond basic entertainment. On the whole, while The Night Circus was an enjoyable story with the potential to be a modern fairy tale, the disjointed manner in which it was told and the hints at deeper meaning that were never more fully explored did it a disservice.
Morgenstern, E. (2011). The Night Circus. New York: Doubleday.