The Magician's Book: a skeptic's adventures in Narnia / Laura Miller
New York: Little, Brown, c2008.
Even though I haven't posted in more than a week, I have been reading -- in between all the other necessary duties of the season. This is a book I recently received from Hachette, and I absolutely loved it. It's a gorgeous physical object; the cover is so very beautiful, and even the paper it is printed on is pleasing. I am so glad I got to read it; Miller is someone who makes her living from books and her love of the bookish life comes through loud and clear. I found many passages to copy out and ruminate over.
This book is the story of her lifelong adoration of Narnia, and the dismay she felt when she learned that many people saw the Narnia series only as Christian propaganda by the Christian apologist and writer C.S. Lewis. I recall this moment in my own life; because of growing up Christian I saw the parallels between Aslan and Jesus when I first read the books, but I never saw the whole series as a "Christian" tale. Most of the books written specifically for a "Christian" children's audience that I read were dull and didactic and really not very well written at all. Narnia was real literature. Even at 12 I could figure this out. Narnia was something different; something magical. As the Christian themes became heavier I lost interest in the series, eventually stopping before I finished all seven books. But I read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe numerous times, and I can't even count how many times I reread The Magician's Nephew, my favourite.
This was a fascinating book; part memoir, part biography, part lit crit. I enjoyed the memoir bits most; Miller is a wonderful writer and her love of childhood reading is clear. She points out that the books we love shape our self-perception in ways we don't always recognize immediately, and that books in childhood have a stronger influence because of the unguarded manner we read them, without worldly concerns or reservations about the author coming between us and the story. That all comes later, as it did for her.
The literary criticism was interesting for me, and I realized how little of it I've been reading in the past few years. Digging into the books the way she did really made me want to read them again; her enthusiasm for this series is contagious. I'm actually rooting around trying to find my old copy of The Magician's Nephew. I know it's here somewhere...
If you are comfortable with the idea that a great work of literature can be more than one thing at once, perhaps even two opposing things at once, you will probably enjoy reading this. It's thought-provoking and beautifully written and I completely understood what she was talking about when she stressed that these books are so much more than apologetics. C.S. Lewis was a complicated man, and so is his creation. I'll finish up with a quote or two from my favourite bits of the book:
The relationship between book and reader is intimate, at best a kind of love affair, and first loves are famously tenacious... The meeting of author and reader has a similar soul-shaping potential. The author who can make a world for a reader -- make him believe that the people, places, and events he describes are, if anything, truer than his real, immediate surroundings -- that author is someone with a mighty power indeed. Who can forget the first time they experienced this sensation? ... If we weigh the significance of a book by the effect it has on its readers, then the great children's books suddenly turn up very high on the list.
Insofar as they are stories at all, all stories are escapes from life; all stories are unrealistic, or at least all of the good ones are. Life, unlike stories, has no theme, no formal unity, and (to unbelievers, at least) no readily apparent meaning. That's why we want stories. No art form can hope to exactly reproduce the sensations that make up being alive, but that's OK: life, after all, is what we already have. From art, we want something different, something with a shape and a purpose.
Read an excerpt over at Salon.com
Listen to an interview at blogtalk radio (featuring our very own Bermudaonion!)
Send in your photos of Narnia-like places to Miller's contest on Flickr. Or just take a look, it's great.