The Magician's Book by Laura Miller

Laura Miller had a problem.  When she was young she was absolutely captivated and enthralled with the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis.  Given a copy of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe by a school teacher she dove in an entered a new world.  Things would never be the same.

But eventually she grew older and began to find out things about Lewis and Narnia that changed her relationship with the series: the Christian underpinnings of the story, Lewis’s world view and political opinions, etc.  But as she pursued a career as a literary critic she decided to return to these books and she found there was still much about them that she loved.

The road that had once seemed to lead to free and open country had in reality doubled back to church.  Now I was trying to explain why my damning adolescent assessment of Chronicles wasn’t entirely sufficient, either.  As an adult, I’d discovered that I could follow Lewis pretty far without feeling obliged to return to Christianity, and that the old sensations of freedom, of wilderness in Narnia, remained.

She sets out to make sense of this journey.  The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia is her answer in book form.

I guess you would have to put Magician’s Book into the category of creative non-fiction.  Good thing too, because otherwise it would be hard to categorize.  Part memoir, literary criticism, biography, and current events reporting it frequently slides between childhood memories, academic criticism, Freudian analysis, personal opinion, and interviews with other authors.

Sometimes this manages to flow and hold together in a coherent way and at others the transitions are a little rough.  I found the sections dealing with Lewis’s faith and politics were the least convincing – but perhaps that is my bias – but the book as a whole remains an insightful and engaging look at Lewis and Narnia.

The sections dealing with the politically incorrect nature of Lewis’s views, and their inclusion in his fiction, struck me as the weakest part of the book.  Miller left the Catholicism of her childhood and never looked back.  And as a result, she evidences little sympathy for Lewis’s faith or political worldview. This is the weakness of such a personal take, since Miller is left cold by the religious nature of the books she can’t see why others might feel differently.

If you share Miller’s secular liberalism then you will probably find her discussion of Lewis’s chauvinism and her relating how she found the religious elements of the Chronicles unpersuasive, or her mockery of the way certain Christians seem to worship Lewis, dead on.  Those who don’t share her perspective, however, will likely not learn much from these chapters.

There are two aspects that make the book in spite of these distractions: Miller’s attempt to understand, and describe, why she loved the books as a child (and what continues to make them so appealing to children); and her insights into what Lewis was attempting to accomplish in his literary efforts.

The first aspect benefits from the book’s eclectic style (the lack of a rigid format, etc.).  Miller’s exploration of her childhood love of Narnia, and larger topic of one’s first literary loves, reads like a conversation with an intelligent and knowledgeable friend.  Miller shares her own experiences, adds in biographical details about Lewis, shares quotes and experiences from other authors, discusses children’s literature, and even describes her interaction with her friends’ young children.  Put it all together and it is an interesting exploration of books, they way young people interact with them, and how this both impacts us and changes as we grow older.

With this as background, in the final chapters Miller provides a very useful conceptualization of Lewis’s work.  She uses her understand of Lewis’s academic work on Medieval Literature, and its underpinning world view, to help the readers understand the style and structure of The Chronicles.

She points out that their style and structure frequently turns people off:

The made-up-ness of Narnia has seemed particularly glaring to certain well-read adults who never encountered them as children.  Lewis’s mythic syncretism – fauns and dragons and dwarves and Arabian Nights exoticism all jumbled together – undermine the Chronicle’s religious integrity for readers like John Goldthwaite, and the Christian subtext spoils the imaginative freedom for readers like my own teenage self.  For Tolkien, these undigested borrowings and the lack of coherent, unified world-building make Narnia a flimsy, derivative concoction that spits in the eye of true sub-creation.  The idea that the Chronicles are allegories – a supposedly crude, reductive, pedantic for of literature – as well as a collection of insufficiently original tidbits, offends against the premium contemporary critics place on naturalism and novelty.

But Miller argues, rightfully to my mind, that these critics are frequently missing the point.  What readers, young and old, enjoy about the Chronicles is the joy Lewis put into them:

The Chronicles are unified, not by anything resembling the exhaustive cultural stuff that Tolkien invented for Middle-earth, not by a single aesthetic or style, and not even, really, by a cogent religious vision, but by readerly desire.  Lewis poured into his imaginary world everything that he had adored in the books he read as a child and in the handful of children’s books he had enjoyed as an adult.  And there is more, too: treasures collected from Dante, from Spenser, from Malory, from Austen, from old romances and ballads and fairy tales and pagan epics.  Everything that Lewis had ever read and loved went into Narnia, and because he was a great reader, these things were as deeply felt by him as actual experiences.  In his own way, Lewis, too, believed that everything in the Chronicles was true, and this conviction is what he communicates to his young readers.

And this is how she comes to understand her relationship with Lewis and the Chronicles.  That Lewis shared her love of books and reading and that by pouring his love into Narnia he has opened up those worlds to untold numbers of people.  What is wonderful about Narnia is what is wonderful about books and literature.

As Miller works this out the reader is brought a long on a wonderful journey exploring not just Lewis, his life and work, but books and literature.  And like Lewis, Miller’s love of both comes through.

I came away knowing more about Lewis and Narnia but also about literature and how it “works.” But I was also reminded of the magic of reading and failing in love with this experience as a child.

So no matter what your politics, faith, or even opinion of The Chronicles of Narnia, if you love reading I think you will enjoy this book.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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