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The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures…

The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia

by Laura Miller

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3 1/2 stars: Good

From the back cover: The Magician's book is the story of one reader's long, tumultuous relationship with C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. As a child, Laura Miller read and reread the Chronicles countless times, and wanted nothing more than to find her own way to Narnia. In her skeptical teens, another book's casual reference to the Chronicles' Christian themes left her feeling betrayed and alienated from the stories she had come to know and trust. Years later, convinced that the first book we fall in love with shapes us every bit as the first person we fall in love with, Miller returns to Lewis' classic fantasies to see what mysteries Narnia holds for adult eyes--and she is captured in an entirely new way.

In her search to uncover the source of these small books' mysterious power, Miller looks to their creator, C. S. Lewis. What she discovers is not the familiar, idealized image of the author, but a man who stands in stark contrast to his whimsical creation--scarred by a tragic and troubled childhood, Oxford educated, a staunch Christian, and a social conservative armed with deep prejudices.

The Magician's book is an intellectual adventure story in which Miller travels to Lewis's childhood home in Ireland, the possible inspiration for Narnia's landscape, unfolds his intense freindship with J.R.R. Tolkein --a bond that led the two to create the greatest myth worlds of modern times; and explores Lewis' influence on writers like Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Franzen and Phillip PUllman. Finally reclaiming Narnia for the rest of us, Miller casts the Chronicles as a profoundly literary creation, and the portal to a lifelong adventure in books, art, and the imagination.


A good, solid book. I very much enjoyed the first third of the book, as that roughly tells my story --- loved the adventure and Lucy's character as well as Peter, completely oblivious to the deeper meaning. Then when I found out, I was both fascinated and somewhat turned off. It seemed as if Christians possessed Narnia in a way that there wasn't room for me in it. Later, like the author, I found that it is a great literary adventure, one I repeatedly turn back to. Unfortunately, I lost interest somewhat in the second half of the book as Miller delves much more deeply into Lewis' background than I had interest in.

Some passages I liked:

"What I am not, however, is a Christian; for all the countless times I have reread Lewis's books, they have never succeeded in converting me. This, to many casual observers, no doubt makes my continuing enjoyment of the Chronicles perplexing. Most of the critics .... are Christians themselves and their faith is the motivation for the attention. To everyone else, Lewis is an apologist for the Christian faith, and that is the only kind of meaning that could ever be found in anything he wrote.

The Pevensies ...can keep their head in a crisis, they belong to a long tradition in British fiction of what the novelist and critic Colin Greenland calls "competent children". I admired both their wherewithal and the delicacy of their scruples in a scene from LWW in which all four of the siblings have finally made it through the wardrobe and debate what to do next. They decide to put on the fur coats from the wardrobe before venturing on into the snowy woods, reasoning that because they're not actually taking the coats *out* of the wardrobe, they won't be stealing them.

[a dialogue, comparing Narnia to Oz]
"I didn't spend much time in Oz. It was kind of wacky and had a lot of things going on, but there was a certain weightiness to Narnia which really appealed to me." "What do you mean by weightiness?" "The fact that people were really being tested. It wasn't just 'Are we coming to the end of the adventure? Will we get back to Kansas?" but 'Will we get back to Kansas with our souls intact?'"

The White Witch is bad through and through, almost as uncomplicated as a fairy tale villain. But she's not the ground on which the story's moral battle is fought. Edmund is. For Jonathan Franzen, the plausability of Edmund's corruption is an example of the ethical gravity that gives the Chronicles much of their power. 'What I so admire about them .... was how well Lewis understands how real evil is to children. How real a sense of guilt at having done something very bad is. And how vital to having a story with real meaning that possibility is. All of the books I liked best had main characters who were not all good, who were not victims of bad things but were actually agents in creating bad things."

Skepticism, like faith, is more a matter of temperament than indoctrination. Any of of a half dozen serious flaws in any theological worldview can undermine the beliefs of someone who doesn't much want to believe in the first place. One many I know says his moment of disillusionment came when he looked at a map depicting the distribution of all the world's religions and realized that which one you belonged to depends more on where you were born than on the irresistibility of divine revelation.

The part of Lewis that produced the Chronicles of Narnia was not especially welcome among [the male Oxford authors]. While this strikes me as sad, it's also not surprising. They smoked, drank beer, argued philosophy and subjected one another's work to ungentle criticism ("not another fucking elf" one famously said to Tolkein). There was no place for Lucy in the masculine social world Lewis had created for himself. She was, however, more than welcome in Mr.Tumnus' sitting room, and perhaps that's why pictures of them whiling away an afternoon over sardines and sugared cakes feels so extraordinarily gratifying, less like a first meeting, than a longed for reunion. In Narnia, if nowhere else, the little girl and the learned bachelor can sit down together at last.

"This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia" Aslan said, "that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there." But the inversion of Aslan's statement works, too; knowing him there also enables us to see where he *isn't* in this world. Tiffany wasn't seeing the spirit of Aslan in her church. "That was how I started understanding the idea of other cultures and other religions, because Narnia was so real to me. ... And if my religion was going to say that all of those other guys are doomed, then I didn't want to have anything to do with it."

I didn't for a moment feel lectured to or patronized by the Chronicles as a child. An adult reader, observing a dose of theology being dispensed, might well experience the irritation that most nonbelievers feel toward someone trying to convert them; its almost impossible to proselytize without condescension. However, what I saw in Edmund was not a representation of original sin but a boy whose one great, terrible mistake had been made up of many littler, unchecked moments of spite and ire that I could easily have indulged in myself.

When it comes to a favorite author, the impulse to try to dmeonstrate that he wasn't really a racist, or at least wasn't so bad, can be nearly irresistible. ... Nevertheless, he did hold those opinions, and they can't be rationalized away.... the racism, sexism, and snobbery of various types lie pretty close to the surface in some parts of the Chronicles, and so do some of the less easily labeled faults like Lewis' knee jerk objections to any kind of change or reform.

The child readers of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe who do not recognize it's parallel story b of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection are not necessarily mistaken. Our particular, immediate experience of something is as true as the conclusions we reach after we have sorted all the details, figured out which ones match a pattern we've observed before, and discarded the rest. To me, the fact that Aslan was a real, material, warm and furry lion was as important as the fact that he died and was brought to life. It was even more important, really, since death wasn't especially interesting to me and animals were.

To be stories at all” Lewis wrote, “they must be series of events; but it must be understood that this series—the plot as we call it--.is only really a net whereby to catch something else. The real theme may be, and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state or quality.”
Everyone is available, is susceptible, to the spell of a story. That is one reason critics have generally found it unworthy of study; Lewis observed that the more story predominates a book, the less intellectuals think of it. The appetite for and appreciation of story requires no training or cultivation…. But it is potent. The word “spell” as Tolkein mentions, once meant “Both a story told and a formula of power over living men.” Where does this power come from and what is it made of? Tolkein thought that to ask this question was to speculate about the very origins of language and the mind.

"Most romance*, however, belongs to the youth and speaks to the desire to get out in the world and prove oneself, which may be why the form proliferates most luxuriantly and in some of its purest strains in children's fiction. I knew as a little girl that there were really two kinds of readers: those who liked 'Little Women' and those who preferred 'The Phantom Tollbooth', but it wasn't until I learned to think like a critic that I understood exactly where the difference lies; 'Little Women' is a novel, 'The Phantom Tollbooth' is a romance. 'Little House on the Prarie' is a novel, 'The Wizard of Oz' is a romance.... 'Island of the Blue Dolphins' main character's journey from helpless child to self sufficient adult, a destination reached via a series of often desperate but also exhilirating adventures, makes it a kind of romance, the romance of survival."
* romance in the 19th century novel genre, not how used today. ( )
  PokPok | Sep 3, 2017 |
I made the mistake of checking this book out of the library, renewing it twice, and not delving into until just before it is due. I rather like what I read and want to add it to our Inklings library in more permnet manner. The Narnia series is for all time, and I only discovered it as an adult. But Narnia's appeal is to many religious people of very dfferent stripes, and also to the non-religious as this author shows. ( )
  vpfluke | Dec 24, 2015 |
I'd be willing to wager that most readers who prowl these pages fell under the spell of words at an early age, finding both enchantment and release in their power to transport us to a different world. Laura Miller can trace her own bespellment to a particular book, and even a particular moment: the day that her second-grade teacher handed her a copy of C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. From that day on, visiting Narnia was something she felt she had to do or die. It's an experience that many of us who encountered Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia in childhood share--I certainly did.

Many may also relate to Miller's painful awakening some years later, when she found out that Lewis had planted Christian themes and motifs in his seven children's books. Raised Catholic but thoroughly disillusioned with the Church, Miller felt betrayed by this intrusion of strangulating doctrine into a world she had considered completely free. She turned away from the Chronicles for many years, until, having become a journalist and critic herself (she is a cofounder of Salon.com), she felt the need to revisit and reconsider a book that, however flawed, indelibly affected her identity as a reader.

The Magician's Book is the result, ranging through the realms of memoir, biography, literary criticism, and a bit of social and political history to explore the mystery of Narnia's compelling hold on the imagination, even for those who do not share Lewis's religious agenda. Miller purposely gives little space to the Christian elements in the Chronicles, which have been exhaustively covered elsewhere. Instead, along with the narrative of her own journey through, away from, and back to Narnia, she explores the roots of Lewis's imagination in landscape, relationships (most importantly his friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien), and especially his own life as a reader. She considers those aspects of Narnia which have been labelled sexist and racist, as well as those that make it so enduringly compelling.

As is appropriate in a book devoted to Lewis, a master craftsman of English prose, Miller's own writing is lucid, graceful, and a pleasure to read. She covers a vast amount of territory with ease, skillfully transitioning from one aspect of the Chronicles to the next, and from her personal experiences to a more objective critical view. By drawing on her correspondence and interviews with other readers, including Neil Gaiman, Susannah Clarke, and Jonathan Franzen, she widens the field even further. Anti-Narnians Philip Pullman and John Goldthwaite are also given a hearing.

The particular pleasures of reading in childhood are brief, but indelible for those who have experienced them. Laura Miller's book is a rare opportunity to revisit them with the eyes of an adult, gaining the insights of maturity, while fully respecting the reality and validity of the child's perspective. Her portrait of C.S. Lewis is equally balanced and insightful, giving welcome critical consideration to a remarkable man who has all too often been either white-washed by his partisans or demonized by his detractors.

If you have ever opened the door of a wardrobe with a secret hope of finding something there besides coats and mothballs, do open The Magician's Book. You may find that that elusive magical country is closer than you think.

Originally posted on The Emerald City Book Review
emeraldcitybookreview.blogspot.com ( )
  withawhy99 | Jun 22, 2014 |
This is the smartest book about narrative and meaning that I've read in a long time. And I'm not even a Narnia fan! I will probably buy it so I can read it again and dog-ear all the pages with quotes I like. :) ( )
  MelissaZD | Jan 1, 2014 |
I haven���t had a best book of the year since Little, Big, I think, and this is just about a perfect book for me. Literary nonfiction, nonacademic analysis, a lover���s criticism and memoir, a bit of biography without much prying, about children���s books but for adults, and the knowledge that she can love Narnia as an adult without Christian apologetics.

Laura Miller draws an analogy, C.S. Lewis : J.R.R. Tolkien :: Samuel Coleridge : William Wordsworth. She talks about that for a while and then St. Brendan (for Voyage of the Dawn Treader). And The Phantom Tollbooth and Raskolnikov and Philip Pullman and Spenser, accepting the merit of each without discounting the children���s literature.

She says Voyage is the most medieval of the Chronicles and Silver Chair the most like a fairy tale. The former makes sense (because I agree with it, and it pleases me to have that reason for its being my favorite) but the latter doesn���t, because I like fairy tales but Chair is, except for Last Battle which doesn���t count, my least favorite. She is wrong about one thing: she doesn���t like Horse and His Boy much (for reasons in addition to its xenophobia).

My favorite element is her treatment of Lewis���s friendship with Tolkien. Since Lord of the Rings is for adults and Narnia for children, the latter often gets shunted. She looks at each man���s background and what led each to write how he did. She points out that though Christianity permeates all the books, they include elements Lewis liked from several other ��� Norse, Celtic, Greek ��� mythologies. That���s one of the things Tolkien disliked about them, their being a pastiche rather than internally consistent. Tolkien was such a stickler that he removed a reference to tomatoes since they did not belong to his Old World Middle-Earth, but Lewis gave Mrs. Beaver a sewing machine and orange marmalade.

The bit that made me happiest was Chatsworth. Miller (and others) have looked throughout the British Isles for Lewis���s Platonic ideal of Narnia. She visited the hinterlands of Belfast, where he grew up, and around Oxford, where he lived as an adult and wrote the Chronicles, and elsewhere. Then she visited Chatsworth with Susannah Clarke (who lives near it), and here she found English countryside that looked like Narnia ��� wildness, not wilderness ��� to her. This pleases me particularly because it���s possible Jane Austen had Chatsworth in mind for Pemberley.

So there you are. Narnia is ten miles in circumference, Mr. Darcy is a Talking Beaver, and Mrs. Reynolds is probably a faun. Next I shall compare Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner���s circumscribing Pemberley in a two-pony cart to the White Witch and her dwarf (Darcy���s gardener?) with two reindeer.

Miller mentions many books I want to read (maybe one of them explains where human Telmarines and Calormenes come from), she goofs at least once by saying the British Isles have been peopled for ���hundreds of thousands of years��� (p. 205, and a neat trick for a species only 200,000 years old from another continent), and gave me a lot of pleasure from cover to cover.
  ljhliesl | May 21, 2013 |
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On the next page she came to a spell "for the refreshment of the spirit." The pictures were fewer here but very beautiful. And what Lucy found herself reading was more like a story than a spell. It went on for three pages and before she had read to the bottom of the page she had forgotten that she was reading at all. She was living in the story as if it were real, and all the pictures were real too. When she had got to the third page and come to the end, she said, "That is the lovelies story I've ever read or ever shall read in my whole life. Oh, I wish I could have gone on reading it for ten years. At least I'll read it over again."

But here part of the magic of the book came into play. You couldn't turn back. The right-hand pages, the ones ahead, could be turned; the left-hand pages could not.

"Oh, what a shame!" said Lucy. "I do so want to read it again. Well, at least I must remember it. Let's see...it was about...about...oh dear, it's all fading away again. And even this last page is going blank. This is a very queer book. How can I have forgotten? It was about a cup and a sword and a tree and a green hill. I know that much. But I can't remember and what shall I do?"

And she never could remember; and ever since that day what Lucy means by a good story is a story which reminds her of the forgotten story in the Magician's Book.

- C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
For Wilanne Belden
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0316017639, Hardcover)

THE MAGICIAN'S BOOK is the story of one reader's long, tumultuous relationship with C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. Enchanted by its fantastic world as a child, prominent critic Laura Miller returns to the series as an adult to uncover the source of these small books' mysterious power by looking at their creator, Clive Staples Lewis. What she discovers is not the familiar, idealized image of the author, but a more interesting and ambiguous truth: Lewis's tragic and troubled childhood, his unconventional love life, and his intense but ultimately doomed friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien.

Finally reclaiming Narnia "for the rest of us," Miller casts the Chronicles as a profoundly literary creation, and the portal to a life-long adventure in books, art, and the imagination.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:04 -0400)

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A co-founder and staff writer for Salon.com explores the meaning and influence of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia series while revealing how Lewis's troubled childhood, unconventional love life, and friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien affected his writing.… (more)

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