- Games and Godgames in The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman
In his classic anthropological work, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, Johan Huizinga remarks that anthropology and its sister sciences have stressed too little the importance of play and game in human culture. According to Huizinga, Homo ludens, the playing man, deserves at least equal place beside Homo sapiens in the anthropological nomenclature (1). From the profusion of games, contests, and play activities in his works of fiction, John Fowles underscores Huizinga's assertion that "in the absence of the play-spirit civilization is impossible" (101). Fowles's interest in the evolutionary struggles and competitions of men and women has led him to investigate in both his essays and his fiction many of the competitive activities in which men and women participate, from childlike play to adult contests for high stakes. His claim in The Aristos is that "Games are far more important to us, in far deeper ways, than we like to admit" (158).
Fowles inherits his interest in the game from one of his historical mentors, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. In The Aristos Fowles describes Heraclitus as a man who preferred to unravel riddles and to play with children rather than to associate with his intellectual peers. Heraclitus' writings are perplexing riddles themselves. However, Fowles has studied and derived from them many of his own ideas in The Aristos [End Page 31] about the "tensional nature of human reality" (83). Heraclitus was a philosopher of dialectical relationships. He asserts that opposition and harmony share a unity in their separateness because each makes the other possible and necessary. Therefore, human occupations that admit both conflict and concordance follow the natural order of things. Heraclitus found in the human occupation of game-playing a particularly apt metaphor for the structural fundamentals of a dialectical universe. "Lifetime," for example, Heraclitus tells us, "is as a child at play, moving pieces in a game" (Kahn 71).
A student of Heraclitean dialectic and a great lover of sports, especially cricket, Fowles not surprisingly employs game imagery in his fiction to structure plot and characterizations ("Cricket" 100). However, the fact that his characters' activities are often described as play and game should not suggest to the reader that these activities are superficial or nonserious. Charles Smithson's aimless travel and fossil-hunting "hobbies" in The French Lieutenant's Woman could be called "mere play" (120), but Conchis' godgame in The Magus is an important arrangement thoughtfully constructed for Nicholas Urfe's benefit. Supporting Fowles's broad application of game-playing are three game analysts—Johan Huizinga, Roger Caillois, and linguist Emile Benveniste—who all attribute to games serious and nonserious functions and whose diverse theories are compared in Jacques Ehrmann's article "Homo Ludens Revisited." These three theorists place game-playing on a continuum that stretches from the frivolous and instinctual to the metaphysical and sacred. In Ehrmann's analysis, "the zone of play is caught, like limbo, between the hell of 'reality' subject to instincts and the paradise of the sacred, of the divine." Ehrmann goes on to say that the "low" and "high" realms of frivolous and sacred game-playing bear unmistakable "moral implications" (36).
Ehrmann's analysis proves helpful in delimiting the boundaries and characteristics of the "zone of play" in The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman. Fowles uses the same game metaphor to describe both the shallow, exploitive activities of Nicholas and Charles and the beneficial "godgames" of Conchis and Sarah. However, he shows clearly that the games of the frivolous young men differ significantly in their objectives from the games of his more enlightened characters, who as "magi" use their games for moral instruction. Why the game is played—not that it is played or how it is played—distinguishes the two "societies" of Fowlesian characters from each other. His "Games" chapter in The Aristos explains this distinction:
There are means-oriented societies, for whom the game is the game; and ends-oriented societies for whom the game is winning. In the first, if one is happy, then one is successful; in the second, one cannot be happy...