The Magician's Book

Childhood fans of C. S. Lewis's seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia -- and they are legion -- will find much to enjoy in this unusual book of literary commentary. It's the first book by the co-founder of Salon.com, Laura Miller, who continues to write extensively about books for Salon and other magazines. Rest assured, though, this is not a typical work of analytic criticism but an inspired account of her life as a reader, a personal history that begins more or less with Lewis's masterpiece of fantasy, which she first read as a self-contained nine-year-old and continues to read as a touchstone for her life among books. Her views of how and why we read find focus in her rereadings of this life-changing work. But there's a group of Narnians (as Lewis's fans are affectionately called) who will take umbrage at her admittedly skeptical view of Lewis's achievement -- the Christian believers who recognize within the seemingly lighthearted tale a profound introduction to the ideas and symbols concerning, among other things, the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Miller organizes her somewhat contentious account into three sections, each dealing with a significant stage in her encounters with Lewis's septet and together forming a storylike structure of their own, beginning with her enchantment as a child, her disillusion as a student, and her reconsideration as a mature reader. Miller brings a bit of drama to her initial reading of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first volume of the series, published in 1950 and handed to a bookish young girl in the late '60s by a sympathetic second-grade teacher. In fact, the grown-up Miller interviews (and dedicates this book to) that very teacher, whose own love of literature was hard won during the Depression years. What Miller's teacher recognized was a girl who who was ripe for this bold exercise of the imagination, a made-up world of talking animals and brave children who set off on dangerous adventures.

And so began Miller's romance with the book she would one day describe for a Salon assignment as "the single book that had most influenced me, that has changed my life." Following up on that claim in this chatty discussion, Miller here departs from conventional criticism in a number of ways. For one thing, she's concerned with how Lewis's narrative made her "feel," a type of response many critics -- though certainly not most readers -- dismiss as hopelessly subjective and unworthy of serious comment. But that's how Miller gets to the core of Narnia's lasting appeal, not just for her but for the countless children who continue to rank the books among their favorites (especially now with the success of the two live-action films based on the first two volumes). Moreover, Miller considers her early emotional responses in light of her later comprehensive knowledge of children's literature, from the moralistic Victorian novel Elsie Dinsmore to the fantastical Harry Potter books. Miller also relies on a commonsense view of child psychology, which she supports with two young test kids, her friends' children Corinne and Desmond, who reappear throughout this idiosyncratic book.

What the older Miller remembers of her young self is a girl intrigued by magical worlds, a girl who shared a typical love of animals, especially when they inhabit a place apart from parents. And in that world of Narnia, she identified, not surprisingly, with Lucy Pevensie, the youngest of Lewis's adventuring children, herself a kind and innocent "daughter of Eve" and a faithful believer in the power of Aslan, the lion and God figure, who behaves toward her like a cuddly house cat. Miller also admired the Pevensie children's readiness for their amazing adventures; they had read, in Lewis's view, "the right books" -- tales of knights errant and fire-breathing dragons, of swordplay and ships wrecked on deserted islands. As satisfying as their adventures were on a dramatic level, Miller also recognized back then the moral challenge of the novel: the struggle between good and evil embodied in Lucy's brother Edmund, a selfish and vain boy who is forced to confront his all-too-human weaknesses.

The turning point in Miller's life as a Narnian came with the realization that not only was Lewis a devout Christian himself but that his books brim with his strongly held beliefs -- ideas he articulated more straightforwardly in his many works of Christian apologetics. The challenge for Miller as an older reader is whether she, nominally raised as a Catholic but currently not religious, can still find the same pleasure in Lewis's magnanimous prose fiction. To do so she must deal with Lewis's apparently orthodox beliefs, as well as his other unfashionable views. After bemoaning the sort of literary criticism that finds racism, sexism, and classism everywhere in the great works -- the kind of criticism prominent in her college years -- she discovers these very failures in the Chronicles. She more or less agrees with the popular anti-Narnian Philip Pullman, author of the bestselling His Dark Materials series, who accuses Lewis of racism, misogyny, and elitism. To her credit, Miller lays out the case with care, even if she makes a few silly remarks about Lewis's genial old-fogeyism. While she finds offense in Lewis's depiction of the progressive school called "Experiment House" in The Silver Chair, others might recognize it as comic huffing and puffing worthy of Evelyn Waugh.

However, Miller's greatest limits as a Narnian derive not from her lack of religion but from a profound misunderstanding of Christianity. At one point, she seems to suggest that all evangelical Christians are fundamentalists and that these same fundamentalists have captured her beloved Narnia books for improper ends as religious propaganda. An admitted nonbeliever herself, she considers Christianity "too monolithic, comprehensive, and established." Furthermore, this religion of "boredom, subjugation, and reproach" functioned like "a black hole, sucking all the beauty and wonder out of Narnia." Not only do we learn much here about Miller's Christian malformation; she also reveals a passing knowledge of Lewis's other writings and begins to drift off into a number of interesting but irrelevant asides -- long descriptions of her visits to landscapes that may have inspired Lewis, biographical excurses on Lewis's guarded personal life, and an extended comparison of Lewis and his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, who was no fan of the Narnia books himself and wasn't very close to Lewis during their composition. Although Miller's discussion of The Lord of the Rings may widen the audience for her rambling book, it ultimately comes up short: the two fantasists agreed on little in their views of literary history -- Tolkien, to cite just one example, loathed Spenser, one of Lewis's favorite poets and also an inspiration for much of the Chronicles' texture.

Tolkien leveled the most serious charge at Lewis's children's books (his own novels, by the way, were not intended for the young): he considered the Chronicles a hodgepodge of images, symbols, and mythological creatures, with no internal consistency whatsoever, a far cry from the carefully worked out alternate world in his own books. The most obvious example of this is in Lewis's first volume, with the appearance of Father Christmas, a character not in traditional Christian iconography. But Miller wisely uses this, and other aspects of the Tolkien comparison, to enhance her present-day appreciation of Lewis's books. A sophisticated reader, she suggests, will recognize in Lewis's work, the brilliant myth-making, the play on the romance genre, and the textual openness to a wide variety of interpretations. The adult reader, too, perhaps familiar with Lewis's scholarly studies in medieval and Renaissance literature (which have not, despite her assertion, "drifted into obscurity") will discover in Narnia a version of the universe much in accord with medieval philosophy and cosmology, both of which Lewis discusses extensively in books such as The Discarded Image and his critical masterpiece, The Allegory of Love.

Miller scratches at the surface here an idea that's been put forth in a book that all adult Narnians will want to read, Planet Narnia by Michael Ward, which came out too late for Miller to assess. Deeply immersed in all of Lewis's varied works, Ward in effect solves the great Narnian puzzle and reveals depths to Lewis's fiction that no one has previously discerned. His stunning piece of literary detection demonstrates with near irrefutable conclusiveness the consistency to Lewis's imaginary world, contrary to Tolkien and the rest. The religious press and magazines such as Books and Culture and First Things have sung Ward's praises, but mainstream critics have been remiss. Perhaps they'll be more content with Miller's skeptical, secular approach. But Ward's heavily researched study achieves what Miller merely attempts in her final chapters -- an adult appreciation of Lewis's serious artistic accomplishment.

Whatever its faults, Miller's charming narrative better reflects the way most ordinary readers approach books -- emotionally, haphazardly, even narcissistically. It's an excellent general introduction to Narnia and its special appeal to children. And her personal tale, heartfelt and meandering, is also a superb argument for why we need to give kids "the right books."

July 24: On this day in 1725 John Newton, the slave trader-preacher who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was born.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

advertisement
Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Paradise and Elsewhere

Canadian short story marvel Kathy Page emerges as the Alice Munro of the supernatural from these heartfelt tales of shapeshifting swimmers, mild-mannered cannibals, and personality-shifting viruses transmitted through kisses.

Pastoral

When a persuasive pastor arrives in a sleepy farm town, his sage influence has otherworldly results (talking sheep, a mayor who walks on water). But can he pull off the miracle of finding kindly local Liz Denny the love of her life?  Small wonder looms large in this charmer from Andre Alexis.

The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).