One of the most notable elements in Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy is Christopher Plover, the author of the Fillory books which turn out to be a real magical place. But who was Christopher Plover? At long last, Andrew Liptak (with Grossman's assistance) uncovers the biography of this mysterious figure.
The Magical World of Christopher Plover's Fillory
This August, a new entry from the Fillory and Further series, The Magicians, will be published for the first time. Described as a "definitive and concluding entry" by the book's publisher, Brakebills College Press, it was recently uncovered by one of the college's archivists. It comes three quarters of a century after the publication of the last entry in the series, and as such, it's a good time to examine the life of a largely unknown author in the fantasy canon: Christopher Plover. While obscure during his lifetime, Plover's works were influential to the development of the modern fantasy genre, predating (and even influencing) major authors such as Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling and others.
Christopher Plover was born in Chicago on February 14th, 1885, to William and Mary Plover. William managed a prominent Chicago fabric wholesale business. The young Plover grew up in a home in which he was well provided for. In letters, he noted that his father had come from a meager upbringing, and that he had exited the school system at a young age to work in the store he eventually owned. Plover in turn ensured that his son never wanted for reading material, recognizing its importance, introducing his son to a range of classics, including imported stories from England, such as William Morris' Well at the End of the World, and The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald. At the age of 15, Plover was introduced to L. Frank Baum's Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and was immediately hooked on the fantastic world of Oz. While the elder Plover's intentions were noble, his means were less accommodating. Christopher noted in letters that his father was a harsh disciplinarian and difficult to please. While his relationship was never wholly abusive, it left the younger Plover craving attention from others, and had a lasting impact on his life.
In 1902, he entered Harvard University, where he studied business, but was dismissed late in 1904 due to "moral turpitude". It was the first of a number of questionable, but quietly unacknowledged incidents throughout Plover's twenties. He returned home to Chicago after he was expelled from Harvard, where he joined his father's dry good business. There, he steadily worked his way up the ranks. As the United States entered the First World War in 1918, Plover was instrumental in positioning the company to receive government contracts for military field uniforms. While in Chicago, Plover struck up a curious friendship with editor and fellow Chicagoan Farnsworth Wright, who would later go on to edit Weird Tales Magazine several years later.
By the early 1920s, William Plover had fallen into ill health, and declined rapidly, leaving the business in his son's hands. Already in a prominent position in the company, Plover oversaw the next phase of the business, recognizing the spending power in the American public. He opened a chain of stores throughout the Midwest, which boosted the company's profitability, and sold the family business just before the stock market crash of 1929. While the business crumbled, Plover retired at the age of 46 to Darras House in Cornwall, England shortly thereafter.
The move to England and the release from pressures of the business world, and marks a major change in Plover's life. He ingrained himself in the country's fantastic literary scene, trading letters and visits with notable authors such as T.H. White and C.S. Lewis, and is oft-considered a sort of shadow member of the Oxford Inklings. His loose associations with others in the fantastic writing community seem to have encouraged Plover to begin writing his own fantastic stories.
The key influence in Plover's life arrived in the form of the Chatwin family in 1931, who lived in the nearby Darras House. The five children, Martin, Fiona, Rupert, Helen, and Jane, appeared one day at Plover's home. He invited them in for tea, unsure of what to do with the children, but soon warmed to them. They each had vivid imaginations, and often recounted their fantastic stories of adventures to a fantastic world. After one such visit, Plover began to take down notes of their adventures, in a magical land named Fillory. The children soon became regular visitors, recounting their stories to their new friend.
He collected his notes over the next couple of years, often encouraging the children with their stories, and over that time, he had completed a manuscript. However, tragedy struck.
In early 1935, the eldest child, Martin, vanished. The case briefly became an overnight sensation across England, overshadowing even news of the war. Plover briefly became a person of interest in the disappearance, with his past called into question, but was eventually cleared of any wrong-doing due to a lack of any evidence of foul play. Martin was simply declared simply, and the case remained open for years. Plover became a recluse, largely withdrawing from his formerly public life.
Later that year, with some encouragement from Lewis (and a publisher contact from fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien), he submitted the story to George Allen and Unwin of London, who accepted the book after Plover pledged to cover the printing costs of the initial run himself. The novel, titled The World in the Walls was released in January of 1935, featuring a cover illustrated by Plover himself. In it, the eldest Chatwin, Martin, hides in a grandfather clock and finds himself in the world of Fillory. There, he and his sister, Fiona, learn how to ride horses and scout out the woods before investigating a mysterious forest of clock-bearing trees. The book was only modestly successful: it appeared in bookstores following the Christmas season, but sold well throughout the year.
Encouraged, and with an agreement to share the profits with the Chatwin family, he began writing his second novel, The Girl Who Told Time, which appeared in the late fall of 1936. In this adventure, Plover retraces much of the story of The World in the Walls, following Helen and Rupert as they're transported back in Fillory's past. Rupert follows his siblings through the forest as they track down the Watcherwoman, while Helen tracks the Questing Beast. It's a clever book, and one that has often been noted as doing well to support the original story by filling in plot holes. The book, now in bookstores for the Holidays, took off and was Plover's first major seller.
October 1937 brought the third Fillory novel, The Flying Forest. Considered a lesser installment in the series, it follows Rupert and Fiona search for a mysterious ticking sound that keeps their friend, Sir Hotspots, a noble leopard, from sleeping. They discover a tribe of dwarves are responsible. The book is also has the final appearance of the eldest Chatwin, Martin, who shows up briefly before vanishing entirely from rest of the series. The book was overshadowed by another book released that year: The Hobbit, written by Tolkien, which became the year's biggest seller. The Fillory novels never recovered their prominence, overshadowed by the Oxford Professor's adventure story.
Nevertheless, a new Fillory novel appeared in 1938: The Secret Sea was published. This novel followed Rupert and Jane as they sought the remnants of the Great Shark Army to help them take back Fillory from the Watcherwoman. The book sold poorly, due in part to the continued public preference for Tolkien's Hobbit (and the lesser quality of this novel). It would be the last book published in Plover's lifetime. On August 5th, 1939, he was found dead in his home at the age of 54. A brief investigation ruled his death a suicide, although this was disputed at the time. Following his death, Plover left a significant trust to the Chatwin children, in thanks, according to his will, for the inspiration that created the fortune in the first place. Friends from far and wide noted Plover's friendship and imagination in letters to newspapers, including C.S. Lewis, who noted that Plover's imagination was particularly inspiring.
Following his death, another manuscript was discovered among his papers: The Wandering Dune. The novel followed Helen and the youngest Chatwin, Jane as they investigate a mysterious sand dune blowing through Fillory. The book was considerably longer and darker than the previous entries in the series, with an emphasis on the nature of magic and right and wrong, a departure from the lighter, adventure driven novels which preceded it. The girls are given a set of magical buttons that would allow them to return to Fillory at will.
Overshadowed by Tolkien's Hobbit, C.S. Lewis's Narnia series (started in 1950), and largely overlooked during the growth of the Fantasy genre in the 1960s and 1970s with the Ballantine Adult Fantasy novels, Plover's books endured an underground existence, published only once in the United States by Ace Books in the late 1960s. Largely read by middle and high school-aged children in the US and UK, they have been frequently cited as a sort of gateway into fantasy for a number of readers and authors. Authors such as J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman and Ursula K. Le Guin note the series' influence on their later works, having read the books as children. By the mid-1980s, the books fell out of print as their rights came into question as the Plover Estate weathered several legal challenges.
Following the short success of the novels, the real Chatwins moved on quietly. Martin Chatwin had vanished while the books were published, and shortly thereafter, his sister Jane likewise vanished at the age of 13, although her disappearance received nowhere near the same attention as her older brother. Rupert Chatwin married and purchased a large house in Penzance, before he was drafted into the Army in 1939. He was deployed to North Africa as part of the 7th Armored Division, where he was killed during the Battle of El Alamein in August, 1942. His great granddaughter, Plum, would eventually becoming a distinguished student at Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic. Helen Chatwin immigrated to the United States, where she became an evangelical Christian. Fiona likewise married and raised a family in Cornwall. Predominantly, they evaded fame and recognition throughout the rest of the 20th century.
However, interest in Plover's works has resurged after languishing in years of obscurity, due to the growth of online fan sites and communities and interest from Hollywood. Conventions dedicated to the books appear almost yearly, growing in popularity since the rerelease of the entire series in 2009. The reissued editions from Brakebills College Press featured new covers alongside extensive commentary from Plover scholar Lev Grossman. Recently, it was announced that the series was picked up by the SciFi channel for adaptation.
A pair of new manuscripts were recentlyunveiled during the 2014 FilloryCon in Brooklyn. The first, titled The Magicians, is a handwritten manuscript, which had been recently uncovered by an archivist at the Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic Archives, answers a long-standing question for series fans: what was the fate of Martin Chatwin, picking up immediately following the end of The Wandering Dune. The story, with an introduction from a recently resurfaced Jane Chatwin, and polished and expanded by Grossman, is set to be released later this summer. In addition to the announcement of a new Fillory novel, an additional two books have been announced to continue the storyline: The Magician King, and The Magician's Land, both penned by Grossman. The second, a short autobiography written by Rupert Chatwin before his death, is titled The Door in the Page: My Life in Two Worlds, and promises to be a frank look at the inspiration and impact of Plover's series on the lives of the Chatwin children.
With this new attention on the Fillory novels, it's worth recognizing the quiet influence which the series has had within the modern fantasy genre. It's generally acknowledged that Christopher Plover maintained a troubled personal life, and rumors surrounding his relationship with the Chatwins and his death have never vanished entirely. Allegations of his conduct have never been substantiated, but if true, he's an author to be condemned, even as his works are enjoying newfound popularity. Regardless of the implications, the Fillory series is poised to enjoy a new generation of fans through a resurgence of books, television shows and new stories.