The island setting of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest has been identified by generic criticism of the play as the liminal space of sojourn occupied by the characters over a liminal/transformational period during which the characters undergo a significant sea change and are allowed to return to their own world to which harmonious equilibrium has been restored. This liminal island is presided over by Prospero - a figure once central to the political-economic life of Milan, ousted from power and relegated to a marginal existence in this place where, however, he has managed to master the central position of authority too. The island, a place at once evocative of the golden pastoral world of myth and of the utopian places of the New World offers a laboratory space where the magician /alchemist can concoct his golden world.
The three novels I have chosen for discussion in this presentation - John Fowles’s The Magus, Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea and John Banville’s Ghosts - offer examples of the transformation of Shakespeare’s magician into figures that have deliberately chosen to adopt a socially marginal identity and to occupy a liminal space within the boundaries of which they can devote themselves to the practice of a kind of magic that is emphatically not aimed at producing large-scale world changes. The space of alchemical practice has shrunk to the intimate space of a pair - magician and beneficiary - in which a magic is being developed and exercised whose aim is the humanizing of the self. The magical transformation is one which helps the beneficiary perceive the promise of achieving the latter through learning to relate to the Other in a way unmediated by predetermined aestheticised models, one in which the subtle and unreachable depths of the other are acknowledged and respected.