Jews and Politics in the Bartimaeus Series

King Solomon’s genies periodically escape their bottles in fantasy literature, but never more irrepressibly than in Jonathan Stroud’s bestselling Bartimaeus series for young readers. These books, a trilogy published from 2003 to 2005, followed by a 2010 prequel, provide rollicking fun, driven by the irreverent narration of their demon protagonist–who frequently punctuates the text with self-promoting footnotes.

The Bartimaeus books are also, in their own way, as ideologically coded as the adventure stories of Howard and H. Rider Haggard I discussed in the previous post. In particular, they align with the anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist sentiments of the protest left between the 2003 Iraq invasion and Occupy Wall Street protests, their demons and magicians part of a magical class war.

The setting of the Bartimaeus books is an alternate England ruled by magicians who preside callously over a British empire grown unstable from foreign wars and domestic oppression of the non-magical majority of despised “commoners.” We learn that the magicians derive all of their power from their exploitation of enslaved demons, including the series’ protagonist, the cheeky, millennia-old Bartimaeus. The reader quickly divines that the commoners and demons must one day join forces to overthrow the magician oligarchy.

The series followed Rowling’s Harry Potter in its use of the occult in children’s fantasy. The main human character, Nathaniel, is initiated into arcane study that focuses on languages from Middle English to Czech. Hebrew is of course central to his studies—and in the talismanic rather than literate form typical of the modern occult: “[T]oday we shall finish with your reciting the Hebrew alphabet and its first dozen numbers,” says Nathaniel’s first teacher.

In a memorable early scene in the books, the six-year-old Nathaniel puts on a pair of magic spectacles that allow him to see demons for the first time. The sight—“they fill every inch of the space in front of him […] stacked one on top of the other all over the room”—shocks him into a coma and he doesn’t recover for days. Stroud may be nodding here to a passage in the Talmud (though the notion was common in antiquity) informing us that we are surrounded by thousands of demons and would not be able to endure the sight of them were they visible.

The representation of Jews in Stroud’s series is intertwined with the books’ politics. On the one hand, Jews are mentioned directly in The Golem’s Eye, the second book of the original trilogy. There we learn that, in its Victorian period, Stroud’s fantasy Britain, ruled by a dictatorial and magical Gladstone, defeated a rival magical empire based in Prague. In Stroud’s handling, this former East-West conflict alludes loosely to our Cold War.

Naturally, the Czech magicians (with a chief minister named Meyrink) used golems. The immense power and off-putting ugliness of these constructs are described wonderfully by Stroud. We learn that these golems were originally created by the Jews of Prague and “the great magician Loew.” In Loew’s time, “the Jewish community” of Prague “supplied the Emperor with most of his money and much of his magic. Forcibly restricted to the crowded alleys of the ghetto, and at once distrusted and relied upon by the rest of Prague society, the Jewish magicians grew powerful for a time.”

But this is all background history in the series, which is more immediately concerned with the post 9/11 politics of the years in which the books were published. Stroud implicitly criticizes a Britain and United States that he sees as imperialistic and war-mongering, using fear of Islamic terrorism to stifle dissent and distract attention from social inequities and economic injustice.

The magicians of Britain use propaganda and war to maintain their uncertain grip on power. Britain is currently bogged down in the equivalent of a Middle Eastern quagmire—though with pointed irony Stroud sets this warzone in the backwards territories of America. Calls to bring the troops home are ignored. Protest is squelched, and the ruling class whips up fears of internal menace to create a paranoid surveillance state, with Czech immigrants perhaps standing in for Muslim ones in Stroud’s schema.

“The waning of an empire always brings unstable times,” notes one demon. “Such occasions give us greater opportunities to act.” The series moves inexorably toward revolution, which only requires the non-magical and exploited commoners to join with the magical but equally exploited demons. That is, the commoners—the citizens of Western societies oppressed by their ruling class—must attain class consciousness and comprehend that they are the natural allies of the demons, i.e., the perennial underclass throughout human history, changing shape and color (Stroud’s demons can change form) but always oppressed by the masters.

And this is where other, less explicit but more insidious representations of Jews enter, as they so often do when a politics posits the root of all evil being a sinister and powerful minority pulling the strings of the world.

Although young readers are unlikely to notice, a number of Stroud’s depictions of the magician class owe a great deal to antisemitic representations of Jews. “Throughout history,” we are told, “magicians have been resolutely urban creatures: they flourish in cities, multiplying like plague rats, running along thickly spun threads of gossip and intrigue like fat-bellied spiders.” Magicians are “ruthless, secretive, and self-serving.” They are “essentially parasitic. In societies where they are dominant they live well off the strivings of others.” Stroud borrows these classically antisemitic tropes—cunning and vampiric urbanites, like rats and spiders—in order to characterize a different cabal.[1]

Some years after Stroud completed his trilogy he added a fourth book, The Ring of Solomon, a prequel that features the biblical king himself. As one would expect, the attitudes towards the biblical and Judaic source materials are ambivalent, as is the portrayal of the famous sovereign.

For much of the book, Solomon is depicted as a cruel and imperious oriental despot, “dark of eye and skin, narrow-faced, with straight black hair hanging loose about his shoulders. His nose was long, his lips full, his eyes lined with green-black kohl after the Egyptian style.” He of course rules over his demons and efrits with an iron hand, and his despotism extends to human rivals as he impoverishes the populations of surrounding lands with crushing demands for tribute, and sends demon messengers to tell the Queen of Sheba that if she refuses to marry him he will destroy her kingdom.

Solomon derives his power from his legendary ring, an artifact of unparalleled power in the Bartimaeus universe and one feared and coveted by Solomon’s rivals. But the ring’s power has no connection to God, who is only coyly alluded to in the book. “I’m no expert,” says Stroud’s Hiram, in response to a question about sun-god worship in Jerusalem, “but I believe the Israelites worship some other deity.”

Bartimaeus and other demons are coralled into a chain-gang tasked with building the Temple, a plot device found, along with Solomon’s ring, in the extra-canonical Testament of Solomon. In the novel, this dismal project is overseen by a sadistic taskmaster named Khaba. As in the original trilogy, both church and state are only excuses for the aggrandizement of the powerful and exploitation of the weak. “Gods and nations,” says Bartimaeus, “what are they but words?”

In the last third of the book, however, the portrayal of Solomon is dramatically revised when we learn that the (now rather Tolkienesque) ring causes immense physical suffering to anyone who wears it, and that Solomon wields it at great pesonal cost only so that it does not fall into the hands of worse tyrants.

Many of the cruelties attributed to Solomon turn out to be the work of unscrupulous subordinates. The archvillain of the book is revealed to be Khaba, while Solomon is ennobled by virtue of his wilfull self-sacrifice to the pain of the ring. He is even described more sympathetically in terms of physical appearance, appearing at the end “with a strong chin and finely fluted nose, and quick, dark eyes.” Khaba’s plot against the kingdom is foiled, and Solomon promises reforms and a “more enlightened government.”

The anti-establishment fervor of the original trilogy is muted here. The intelligent spirit that inhabits the ring alludes to a future dispensation of liberation. But for now the enlightened despotism of Solomon and like rulers is acceptable. Perhaps this is because the great events of the trilogy are yet to come. Or Stroud may have felt in 2010 (with Tony Blair no longer at 10 Downing Street and with Barack Obama in the White House) that the ruling class was not so oppressive after all, and that he could afford to be more patient regarding the revolution.

[1] Such tropes cut across left and right. The 99%-versus-1% politics of Occupy Wall Street and much left-wing activism during the years in which the Bartimaeus books were published often incorporated anti-Jewish slander, a trend which persists.

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