Some More Thoughts on Bartimaeus
To follow up on my piece on Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy, which you can find here.
The thing about writing an essay on a trilogy of books is that you're trying to condense and clarify ideas that were teased out across hundreds of thousands of words. It's about recontextualizing another work by looking at it through a specific lens; in this case, that lens is my own experience with masculinity in fantasy. Bartimaeus hits hard for me because of how relevant it is to that experience. But trying to cover everything those books have to say in a short essay is an impossible task. Stuff has to get cut.
The most unfortunate case of this is Kitty, the third protagonist of the series. She acts as a foil to Nathaniel, a commoner with a personal grudge against the magicians' rule and a natural resilience to their magic. She earns the respect of Bartimaeus in a way Nathaniel never can, and has a complex and uneasy relationship with Nathaniel himself, whose main job once he joins the government is to track down her and her fellow underground Resistance fighters.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge that in writing my piece about toxic masculinity in fantasy, I excised the female main character. This wasn't fair to Kitty at all. But if I was going to get at the core of what made me uncomfortable as a young reader, the unflattering depiction of the male protagonist was the thing that made the strongest impression on me.
Kitty, however, had her own role to play in complicating my understanding of fantasy protagonists. Kitty is the one who is right; she fights for freedom from an oppressive regime and equality among commoners, magicians, and spirits. Kitty's arc is a moral one. The fact that she stands in direct opposition to Nathaniel, the character who looks like me, is not an accident. That unflattering depiction was so unflattering in part because Nathaniel consistently failed to live up to the moral standard set by Kitty, which Bartimaeus misses no opportunity to point out.
Revisiting the books today, I have nothing but empathy and affection for Kitty's point of view. As a young male reader, though, she could be a tough pill to swallow. She was the good person I wanted Nathaniel to be, but she lacked the glamour and access to levers of power that were, to me, hallmarks of a fantasy protagonist. Stroud has essentially split the characteristics of a classic fantasy lead between these two characters and set them against each other, with Bartimaeus as the hapless and exasperated bridge between them.
In a way, Kitty offered a glimpse into a different kind of fiction, not just in the genre sphere but rather stories in general. Her only magic power is a passive one, and she exists outside the dominant power structures in her world. I won't pretend that she was a revelation at the time, because my essay and this post are about how much these books confused me. But she did plant the seed for me growing to understand what kind of stories I could tell. It was one of my earliest encounters with a story and character that weren't necessarily for me, but that I could still find value in if I approached them with the right mindset.
It's been fifteen years, and that mindset is still a work in progress. It always will be. There will always be stories that are new and strange to me, and a major marker of my progress as a person is that I don't need a deliberate challenge to my self-image to be present in order to appreciate them. I owe Bartimaeus so much for putting the first cracks in my shell and starting me on the road to an open mind and heart.