Jun 17, 2010

The Magician’s Book by Laura Miller

The Magician’s Book by Laura Miller

In one of the most vivid memories of my childhood, nothing happens. On a clear, sunny day, I’m standing near a curb in the quiet suburban California neighborhood where my family lives and I’m wishing, with every bit of my self, for two things. First, I want a place I’ve read about in a book to really exist, and second, I want to be able to go there. I want this so much I’m pretty sure the misery of not getting it will kill me. For the rest of my life, I will never want anything quite so much again.
The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia is a combination of reading memoir, biography and literary criticism in which Laura Miller recounts her childhood passion for C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, her disappointment and sense of betrayal when she became aware of the Christian symbolism behind the series, and finally the new appreciation of the books she developed as an adult. Miller blends her memories of her childhood reading and her literary observations with details about C.S. Lewis’ life that help contextualise his work, and with comments from authors like Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke and Jonathan Franzen, who were interviewed for the book and shared the stories of their own relationships with Narnia.

One of the greatest strengths of The Magician’s Book is the ease with which Laura Miller combines the personal and the scholarly. This book was everything I had hoped Francis Spufford’s The Child That Books Built would be – not that I didn’t very much appreciate Spufford’s book, but it’s a more formal and theoretical sort of work. And as I have discussed recently, the personal bookish essay is the form of literary discourse that appeals to me the most. It’s no surprise, then, that The Magician’s Book immediately conquered a place among my favourite books about books.

I think I’ve told you the story of my own relationship with Narnia before: I read my first Narnia book at nineteen, and over the next few years I went on to read the rest of the series, save for The Last Battle (which I didn’t think I could stomach). While there were things about the books I appreciated, I couldn’t help but feel extremely alienated by them, especially by the narrator’s tone. And in the end, all the elements that put me off – which weren’t so much the Christian undertones but rather the sexism, classism, racism, and profoundly traditionalist tone of the stories – were enough to break the enchantment before it even began. This citation from The Magician’s Book (which is itself a citation) perfectly explains why I could never feel at home in Narnia:
Eustace Scrubb, at the beginning of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is derided not just for reading the wrong kinds of books, but also for having parents who were “vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotallers, and wore a special kind of underwear.” Such remarks, writes Goldthwaite, work like “keep-out signs on the clubhouse door.”
I’ve tried to put this into words before, but I didn’t quite manage. Goldthwaite does it perfectly, though: to me, the keep-out signs were really neon-bright, and they seemed to be specifically aimed at people like me. The problem isn’t really the fact that the books don’t agree with my liberal and secular sensibilities – it’s that they seem actively hostile to them, and determined to exclude people of “my sort”. That jolly, grandfatherly narrator that so many readers love? He didn’t like me and he wanted me gone. I could tell.

However, none of this made me feel triumphant, and it didn’t give me the urge to lord it over people I deemed credulous enough to miss all these troubling elements (you know I love you, Mr. Pullman, but you do sometimes sound like that when talking about Narnia). On the contrary, it made me feel quite sad and disappointed, like I’d arrived at a wonderful party much too late to be able to enjoy it.

Nothing will ever be able to replace the experience of reading these book as a child, but I’m happy to report that The Magician’s Book did make me appreciate the series’ complexity more – and it allowed me to at least vicariously experience Miller’s childhood enchantment with it. The book is divided into three main sections: Miller titled the part about her first encounter with Narnia “Songs of Innocence”, the one about her disappointment “Trouble in Paradise”, and, finally, the one about her newfound love of the series “Songs of Experience”. The Blake allusions are obvious, but in addition to this, Miller explains that she based this structure on His Dark Materials and on Heinrich von Kleist’s “On the Marionette Theatre”, which was one of Pullman’s inspirations for his series. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’d been discussing von Kleist with a friend recently, but I thought this was very interesting.

What von Kleist, Pullman and Miller mean by “experience” is not the opposite of innocence, but the ability to find a different sort of paradise – one that isn’t based on ignorance of troubling things, but rather on their acceptance. If Miller is able to appreciate Narnia as an adult, it’s not because she found a way to explain away the series’ troubling gender, class, or race issues. On the contrary; she fully acknowledges them, as well as the fact that the discomfort they cause so many readers to feel is perfectly valid and legitimate. But at the same time, she recognises that there’s more to the books than just these things.

The Magician’s Book deals with several questions that my own reading has caused me to consider many times before: historical and cultural context, authorial control, reader’s response, plurality of meanings, and the fact that one’s appreciation of a work of literature is the result of the intersection of all these things, and of a delicate balancing act. Miller’s dealing with the series so-called “politically incorrect” elements (she does such a great job of explaining why this is such a dismissive term) was particularly striking. She neither ignores nor overemphasis the books’ historical context, and while she doesn’t throw away the baby with the bathwater, she also doesn’t give Lewis a free pass. This happens to be my preferred way of reading, and what I always strive to do when dealing with prejudice of any kind in older books. I think it’s immensely silly to act as though anyone who brings this kind of thing up is part of a conspiracy to ruin classics for other readers, and that the next logical step is surely to burn all these books in a bonfire. But it’s just as silly to make people feel that if they enjoy books with objectionable elements, then they must tacitly approve of misogyny or racism. The balance is tricky, but it can be found as long as we’re willing to openly talk about these things.

One last point that I found interesting: Laura Miller says that one of the many ways in which people try to dismiss or minimise the series’ misogyny is by pointing out that Lucy, the most beloved of its protagonists, is a girl. She goes on to suggest that it might have been Lewis’ investment in traditional masculinity that caused him to choose a female protagonist for so many of the series’ central moments – Lucy is able to display fear, doubt, and vulnerability, and Lewis wouldn’t have been comfortable with a boy who admitted to these feelings. This reminded me of something Scott Westerfeld once said, about how there’s a larger number of female YA narrators because people aren’t used to thinking of teenage boys as articulate, introspective, and in touch with their feelings – and, because of the way they’re socialised, many of them actually aren’t. One of the reasons why I love John Green so much is exactly because is books break this pattern. But I’m going on a bit of a tangent here.

I’ll probably never become a Narnia fan, but I’m glad that The Magician’s Book made me gain a new respect for the series. And for Lewis himself too – he was a complicated man, and though, like Laura Miller, I suspect he wouldn’t have liked me much, I can see we had a thing or two in common after all. I’m now quite curious to read his book An Experiment in Criticism.

Favourite bits:
The characters in books can never really be our friends because as much as we might learn about them, they can never know anything about us. Still, they exercise our capacity for empathy, extending it beyond the boundaries of race, gender, species, even virtue. Readers will sometimes blame a morally objectionable main character for a novel’s failure to engage them; really, the fault lies with the author’s inability to make us stop quibbling about such things. If characters had to be admirable or even likeable to captivate us, then Humbert Humbert and Scarlett O’Hara would not be people you recognize without my having to explain which novels they come from.

He [Lewis] had a passing interest in anthropological and psychological theories about where the recurring motifs in the world’s religions and legends might have come from, and was intrigued enough by Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes to look into it. Ultimately, though, Lewis concluded that what Jung had to say was not so much a theory of myth as yet another myth. Jung’s description of the collective unconscious was magnificent, written in the quasi-mystical language of “good poetry”, but it wasn’t supported with sufficient material evidence to merit the status of science. “Surely the analysis of water should not itself be wet?” Lewis quipped.
(The reasons why I liked this bit is because it was very nice to find some common ground with Lewis for once.)
The honest, educated reader, when tackling the towering literary works of the past, now faces a different, though no less precarious task: how to acknowledge an author’s darker side without losing the ability to enjoy and value the books. Prejudice is repellent, but if we were to purge our shelves of all the great books tainted by one vile idea or another, we’d have nothing left to read—or at least nothing but the new and blandly virtuous. For the stone-cold truth is that Virginia Woolf was an awful snob, and Milton was a male chauvinist. The work of both authors can be difficult to read, but also immensely rewarding. Once upon a time, when people believed encounters with great art were morally uplifting, it was easier to summon the extra bit of initiative requited to give the classics a try, and literature professors were expected to encourage them. Today, scholars are more likely to tell readers about the pernicious influence of the great books they used to revere.

Myths and stories are repositories of human desires and dears, which means that they contain our sexual anxieties, our preoccupation with status, and our xenophobia as well as our heroism, our generosity, and our curiosity. A perfect story is no more interesting or possible than a perfect human being.
Reviewed at:
The Indextrous Reader
Nonsuch Book
Kristina’s Favorites
Bermudaonion’s Weblog

(Hmm…I think I remember there being more reviews of this book out there, but for some reason I can’t find them. Let me know if you have one and I’ll be glad to add it.)


  1. Interesting. I read the Narnia books when I was a kid and loved them. I recently received a collection of them and need to read them, but the Christian thing has been putting me off. Perhaps I need to stop being so closed-minded! :-)

  2. I wish I could travel back in time and give the Narnia books to little Ana, so you could have grown up with them too! When you say you feel like the books are excluding you, I remember how when I was a kid, it felt like the books were written to exactly me. C.S. Lewis may not have been respectful of (a lot of) groups of grown-ups, but from what I've read by and about him, he was very respectful to children, and that meant a lot to me.

    Also: Didn't he have Lucy as a protagonist because he had a niece or a godchild or something called Lucy? Did I imagine that?

  3. I'm one of those who read the Narnia books as a child and loved them. They're so laced with nostalgia for me I'd probably still love them as an adult, but I think (being as I'm not christian anymore) that if I read them first as an adult I might find them off-putting.

    "it made me feel quite sad and disappointed, like I’d arrived at a wonderful party much too late to be able to enjoy it"

    I've felt exactly that way about other books I read, that were childhood loves to some. So I think I know what you mean. Lloyd Alexander does nothing for me, for example.

    Anyhow, this sounds like a very good, thoughtful and in-depth book. I really do want to read it!

  4. Great review, and that sounds like a great book. I read the Narnia collection as a small child and loved, it, but on later readings noticed some of the things that you mention. I suppose I have gone through kind of the same process a the author of this one :)

  5. I hate to leave comments that sound too facile, but today I am inspired to say, this sounds fabulous! I aim to look for it in my library! But as you must know, I'm not just saying that, since I tend to build my library list straight off your reading list!

  6. I read a few of the Narnia books as a child - The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was my favorite book for a while, I think. I never caught on to any of the Christian symbolism at the time. I figured it out eventually and it did lead to that feeling of betrayal and loss, but I can't say it didn't also hurt to have an entire college class disdain the book by calling it purely an allegory for Christianity with no merits whatsoever. I'm afraid to read the rest of the series again - I know I won't like them now for the same reasons you cite. A friend of mine never read it until she'd hit the same age as you and she had a similar experience and was appalled by The Last Battle in particular.

    Anyway, this does sound like quite the book for me - I think Miller and I have had similar experiences regarding nostalgia and disillusionment, and I'd love to read about what she felt in the end.

  7. I love how balanced you are when writing about the Narnia series. Yes, some of the underlying idea are repellent, but they do contain some wonderful, magical storytelling and we can make up our own minds. I dislike intrusive aetheism just as much as I dislike being doorstepped by Jehovah's witnesses.

    I was aware of the allegorical nature of the books when I first read them as a child (thanks mum!) but it didn't spoil things for me. The Bible can be appreciated as a piece of storytelling as can the Greek myths or Grimm's fairy tales.

  8. I didn't exactly grow up with Narnia, but I did read them in high school, when I was still Christian, so the allegory didn't really bother me. Last year I re-read The Last Battle, and yeah it did bother me how Susan was treated.

    I do enjoy reading about people's personal experiences with the books they read, HELLO that's why I read blogs. So this one sounds like a definite add to the TBR.

  9. I am so sorry to hear that the Narnia books made you feel so unwelcome and alienated. You are not the first person that I have heard say things like that. I think that it's really neat that you could sort of reconcile yourself with the series through this book and that the author dealt with some of the issues that you had head on. I admit to never having read any of the Narnia books because I think I may be a bit too old to appreciate them. I could be wrong, but that, coupled with the fact that they can be preachy keeps me away.

  10. I think for all the reasons you've listed, the Narnia books are best read when you are young, before you can easily read between the lines and interpret. I did NOT read them when I was young (even though everyone else was, so I don't know what my deal was) but instead started the series later on, and gave up. The tone didn't sit right with me, and I am very much a Christian.

  11. Ditto to what you've said. Specifically, I've been thinking about the use of female characters to be the emotional, reflective, center. I'm wondering if there are any YA books out there with a female lead who is neither emotional nor introspective? I'm looking...

  12. *kicks self very hard* I was offered a review copy of this a while back but just assumed I would not like this :( Why??? It sounds perfect!!

    I loved Narnia as a child and started rereading them a couple of years ago. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe brought me right back to my childhood and I sort of read it at it's surface level, but as I continued with the series, I began to feel a lot of disappointment too.

    It's sad when you awaken into a world that is full of bigotry, sexism and racism :( And see it in things you loved as a child. And I was irritated at the obvious and huge religious undertones to the whole series that of course I didn't see as a child. I haven't continued past book 2 in the series with my reread and I don't think I will. But I so want to read this now!

  13. I have read another review of this one recently and had already added it to my list as it sounded fantastic.

    I recently attempted to reread the Narnia books and didn't get past The Magicians Nephew. The religious side of it was so in my face, I couldn't stand it. I couldn't believe that as a child I never noticed it all. I never went any further into the series the second time.

  14. Ana, what a great job on this review. Like other commenters, I'm sorry you felt alienated by Lewis' Narnia series. I read them as a child, too, and I probably would be put off by the sexism now as well. As a child it was "over my head." To Jenny, I think you're right. Lucy was based on someone Lewis knew. And, from what I remember, while Lewis may have loved children, he wasn't very comfortable around women. He was a a bachelor until pretty late in life and he was not very 'warm' in the beginning to the woman (Joy) who eventually became his wife.

    This sounds like something I'd love; thank you for your thoughtful and honest review.

  15. I think I only read the first and maybe the second in this series when I was growing up, and then never continued. And now that I am an adult and know it's allegorical, I don't think I ever will. I think it would be hard for me to separate the story from the politics.

    But I'm glad this story helped you come to terms with the series, and I'm quite impressed you went so far in the series without feeling welcomed into it.

  16. I've just picked Laura Miller's book up recently myself, so I have a bookish Friday in mind for it: I'm quite excited, and all the more so thanks to responses like yours.

    I read and loved Narnia as a girl (except for The Last Battle because I couldn't bear to read the last of them so I re-read my favourites rather than finish); but my feelings changed dramatically when I revisited them as an adult and finished the series.

  17. Thought provoking post! I loved the Narnia books as a child, but I don't know how I would have felt about them if I'd read them for the first time as an adult. I think C.S. Lewis was a complex man. In many ways, he was probably traditional and somewhat snobbish in his outlook -- he was shaped by the time in which he lived and the elite academic niche in which he worked. In other ways, he breaks with expectation. For example, he married an outspoken American Jewish divorcee.

  18. I liked parts of Miller's book very much, but I have to say, I found her extreme sense of betrayal (over the Christian symbolism) sort of overwrought. (Also, it kind of amazed me that she reached age 13 without noticing it.) I do not love Lewis's sexism, racism, and other prejudices at all, but, without giving him a pass, I do recognize how much these things are the product of his times and environment. And I did find it a bit ironic that Miller slams Lewis for his prejudices with one breath, and with the next breath slings her own prejudices all over the page ("Graham Greene was a Catholic, but never a lapsed one, so he was perpetually morose." Ugly!)

    I was very interested in what you said about thinking Lewis would not have liked you, Ana; I have often thought that myself (that is, that he would not have liked me.) His life was a rather sad one, and his wife Joy was probably the only woman he was able to develop an authentic relationship with - but once he did, how madly he loved her! It always seems so sad to me when people's circumstances are such as to deprive them of the experiences they need to overcome their prejudices. I will give Lewis this: when he did recognize the injustice of his thinking, he tried hard to combat it in himself.

    Sorry for such a long comment - I didn't mean to hold a brief for CS Lewis! And I did (mostly) enjoy this book.

  19. Sounds like an interesting book. It's been ages and ages since I've read the Narnia books so I can't really comment on the allegorical aspect, but I did really love them when I read them in my preteens.

    I loved this bit:
    She goes on to suggest that it might have been Lewis’ investment in traditional masculinity that caused him to choose a female protagonist for so many of the series’ central moments – Lucy is able to display fear, doubt, and vulnerability, and Lewis wouldn’t have been comfortable with a boy who admitted to these feelings.
    It makes so much sense to me that I'm amazed I haven't thought it before, or seen it mentioned alsewhere!

  20. I loved the Narnia books as a kid, they were the only books my mom read to us (so we would be sure to get the christian message better, I'm sure!), so I was made aware of the allegory of it from the beginning. I don't know that I could reread them now though, but I think they helped my imagination grow (I loved imagining I could almost be in Narnia in particularly beautiful places and loved the world he created in those books more than realistic stories for girls, like Anne of Green Gables or Little House on the Prairie. I've always had a bit of bloodlust I think and loved the adventures and battles in Narnia, even though girls weren't supposed to fight in them, I got to read about them!!) and they were the first british books I read and loved, so the seeds of anglophilia were planted early! ;) I loved how Narnia was such a hodge-podge of very British customs mixed with characters from Greek mythology, it's charming in its eccentricity. And I did have a childish delight in the recent movie of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and liked the WW2 background to it. (but I'm glad no one likes The Last Battle, even as a kid I never did!)

  21. Great review! I love the first passage you quoted, I remember feeling like that about books. I've never read The Narnia books, as I child I was never particularly interested in them - too busy reading The Baby Sitters Club, Nancy Drew and Goosebumps probably. As an adult I'm still a bit disinterested, something about the series just doesn't grab me. Though I did enjoy the movie. It's weird though because now I'd kind of like to read this book and not Narnia.

  22. Good, I'm glad you enjoyed this book. I've had it on a bookshelf forever, but just keep not reading it. I love personal bookish essays, as well.

  23. I've only read two of the Narnia books but I plan on reading this once I finish them. The third movie comes out at the end of the year and it looks really good.

  24. Sounds like a very interesting read, thank you for the great review.
    I’ve read the Narnia books when I was eight or nine and ofcourse I never caught on to any of the Christian symbolism at the time... All I knew then was that there was this macigal place and I couldn’t go there! So I can easly relate to Miller’s frustration as a child... :)

  25. Hello — I popped over to tell you that I’ve added you to my first ever Blog Hop/ Bodacious Bloggers post. I find all your reviews to be really well thought out articles that make me want to investigate almost all the books you discuss. Thanks.

  26. Sounds interesting Nymeth, I havent read the Narnia books myself. Sorry to hear some of the themes were offputting for you.
    Glad to hear The Magician’s Book kind of gave you newfound respect for the series.

    I read the LOTR books and didnt really mind the Christian theme to those. They were pretty obvious throughout.

  27. Your review makes me want to read the Narnia series. I've only read 2 of them and as an adult. And then I need to read this book.

  28. So pleased to see this review - I loved this book myself, and was a huge fan of the Narnia stories as a child. Haven't reread them lately, but I almost don't need to: they run in the blood. Not sure lewis was as sexist as some people claim. We hear a lot about Susan; but what about Jill? The first Narnia book I ever read was The Silver Chair, and Jill is a pretty feisty heroine.

  29. I didn't read the Narnia books when I was a child. I tried to make up for that by reading Prin ce Caspian about a year ago, I can't say it did much for me. I think I might enjoy this book a lot more. It sounds very interesting.

  30. This book sounds amazing and you caught that amazing-ness very well!

    "...if we were to purge our shelves of all the great books tainted by one vile idea or another, we’d have nothing left to read—or at least nothing but the new and blandly virtuous." This bit caught my attention and made me realize why I, even as a Christian, find quite a bit of Christian fiction unsatisfying. Don't get me wrong, there are some titles in that genre that I do appreciate, but as a whole I avoid it. I guess I want to see a more complete picture of the world and the humans who occupy it when I read. When I read I'm usually trying to see outside of myself. I am terribly curious and interested in ways and thinking that are different from my own.

  31. This sounds amazing. I believe true love (of anything) requires recognizing its flaws, and the same is very true of stories. This is going right onto my reading list, but do you recommend finishing The Chronicles of Narnia first?

  32. This sounds like an interesting book. I didn´t read the Narnia books as a child (I read Astrid Lindgren :) ), I tried a couple of years ago but by then I was too much aware of the Christian themes and couldn´t enjoy it. I also hate that in a lot of books like Narnia, children discover a new world and to save it have to become child soldiers.

  33. I really enjoyed this book not just for content but for that marvelous ability Miller has to ground her erudite analysis in the accessible. Love what she writes for Salon and follow her closely.

    This reading memoir is so perfect to me because, as you suggest, it acknowledges al - the love affair, the estrangement, the love redefined. And with very sharp literary analysis along the way. I also enjoyed the parts about misogyny and Lucy as well as the treatment Susan eventually receives. Lewis was not an entirely balanced individual. Bit damaged. Brilliant, but damaged.

  34. Why haven't I read this? Why isn't it even on my wishlist?

    The Narnia books were the first proper novels I ever read (or had read to me, to be exact). They were a HUGE part of my childhood. I can't say for sure, but I believe I've read them at least twenty-five times. I loved them to death at first, but I did eventually go through a period where I hated them. This was due, at least in part, to the BBC's terrible adaptations. (I know every other Narnian fan loves them, but they're the reason I don't watch movies based on books that mean a lot to me. I will never, ever forgive the BBC for what they did to Reepicheep. NEVER). It was also partially because I started to recognize some of the social problems, though, and because I became annoyed with the narrator's tone. It took me many, many years to reconnect with the books.

    I was eighteen by that time, studying THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE in a children's fiction class, and I was amazed at the religious allegory. I grew up in a secular household, so I knew few Bible stories. I didn't recognize Aslan as Jesus until that adult reading, and it was actually the thing that helped me love the series again. It was no longer just a set of well-known stories (and they're so well-known that I've got passages memorized to this day); it was something deep and complex that I could poke through and recognize and study. That made it fun again. I read up on Lewis's life for a paper, discussed the racism and classism with my class, and just generally had a ball reexamining the books in a critical light.

  35. I really enjoyed this review, especially the part where you said:
    "I think it’s immensely silly to act as though anyone who brings this kind of thing up is part of a conspiracy to ruin classics for other readers, and that the next logical step is surely to burn all these books in a bonfire. But it’s just as silly to make people feel that if they enjoy books with objectionable elements, then they must tacitly approve of misogyny or racism."

    Amen to that. ;) I often feel like the discussion culture today encourages people to be polarized in their stances, and to demonize the opposition. It doesn't need to be that way.

  36. I think it is a really weird thing that in YA lit central male characters are always portrayed as oblivious buffoons, especially when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex.

  37. I want to read this book now. Thanks for your review.

    I'm *so* with you on the BBC adaptations, Memory! The Silver Chair was the vilest.

    One thing I'd like to bring up about the Narnia books: for some children they are the only available fantastic fiction, period. When an author manages to slip a story set in another world through the bars of your family's ideological jail cell, you don't quibble with much. Quite often Narnia is the only exception "all magic is black magic, all fantasy literature is an arm of the occult" rule. In some circles even Greek myths are suspect! Which is all to say, the most remarkable and compelling thing about the Narnia book for an American Christian kid isn't how Christian they are--all that is old hat--but how Christian they aren't. The bacchanal in Prince Caspian, etc. They are actually subversive. It all depends on where you're standing when you read them.

    For me the only really disturbing part is that if you tried to explain to a modern mainstream conservative evangelical Christians how Lewis was a bit of a Victorian in the gender roles department--giving specific examples--they still wouldn't see it. His ideas on male/female relations are cherished by many. Even as a child I could see that Peter was the one to be, not Lucy. A little later I was so irritated by a condescending passage about a lady scientist going hat-shopping at the beginning of That Hideous Strength it was years before I finally read it. Better I hadn't!

    Wish I could tear down those neon signs. Narnia is no good if it doesn't welcome you. The welcome is the whole point. Like Jenny I think age makes a big difference.

    If you ever want to give Lewis another try you might read The Disgarded Image, his book about the middle ages. Hardly anybody reads it. It is absolutely excellent.

  38. Trapunto - Really, you thought Peter was the one to be? I couldn't stand Peter! He was crap to Edmund in LW&W, and he was crap to Lucy for refusing to believe her. Lucy was easily my favorite of the characters, and as an adult it seems to me that her relationship with Aslan is Lewis's stand-in for his own relationship to God - she sometimes fails to be her best self, but she always adores Aslan, and she knows he always loves her.

    I love Lucy. I completely identified with Lucy as a kid, and I kind of still do.

  39. Hm. Should I get into this here? Can't resist. Sorry Nymeth...

    Lucy is St John the beloved if you go the allusion route. So she is the best in that sense; she's Aslan's favorite. I also think she is the one Lewis probably most identified with when he thought back on his own childhood, so you are seeing the most of the author's heart in her. But I knew enough history when I first read the books to see where being a girl in WWII era Britain and the baby of the family put her on the Pevensie totem pole. If you are looking at Narnia as a straight fantasy world, Peter is the one who gets to operate as an adult there--and if you are a child going to a fantasy world, isn't that what you want? The fact Lucy doesn't get believed is exactly my point. Aslan loves her most, but puts the most practical trust in Peter. Peter's the one who fights in the tournament on the links in PC, which was pure awesome. His focus on logistics makes him dense about people, but he always admits and sincerely regrets his mistakes when he sees them. He's the High King.

    (Though I do have a soft spot for Edmund. And he and Lucy probably turned out to be the most interesting people when they grew up.)

    But Aslan gives Peter a sword and expects him to use it. He gives Lucy a bottle of healing cordial so precious it can barely be used BECAUSE IT WILL RUN OUT. Aslan is, like, magic. Why'd he have to do that? So, not only is she having to be the least adventurey one, she is automatically placed in the traditionally female role of healer, and at the same time given insufficient tools to do her work.

    Maybe it is not a matter of who was the best Pevensie to be, but who one most identified with. I identified most with Lucy in the small way of her observations of things, and a lot of her feelings--as intended, since she's the most sympathetic character--but Peter was the one who got to play the best role with the best costume. And he is the most handsome in Pauline Bayne's illustrations. And I was an oldest child who was often forced to take charge.

  40. I've been interested in this book since reading Frances's post on it over at Nonsuch Book; as a deeply secular child, I was very alienated by the increasingly preachy religiosity of the series as they went on. Which is interesting, because so many books I read were explicitly Christian...the Anne of Green Gables books, for example. But I perceived the Narnia books to be underhanded about their message: the first few books can be read as great adventure yarns, & then the Christianity becomes more and more central, until at the end you're just listening to a sermon.

    I'd be very interested in Miller's thoughts on re-appreciating these books. It sounds like she's very thoughtful and eloquent.

  41. Nothing at all to be sorry about, Trapunto and Jenny! There are so many excellent comments here that I feel even more awful than usual that I haven't replied to them. I'll try to do so very soon - meanwhile, thank you all for your thoughtfulness.

  42. Ack, Ana, we're hijacking your comments thread! But, um, I'm going to carry on anyway. :p

    So Peter is the one who's the traditional "hero", but he's never the character who's of interest. To me Peter was very much a sideline character, useful with the wolves and everything, but more of an archetype than a person. He does the hero thing, but not in any new way; he's just cardboardy, this placeholder because Lewis read hero stories and felt like he needed to have one. (To be fair, I'm a middle child, and I never thought of myself as the go-forth-and-do-battle one. The warrior archetype doesn't really appeal to me, I'm way more interested in the impact of words.)

    I feel like the most sincere of Lewis's writing is in Lucy and the way she relates to Aslan - to me, there's something rather touching about that. In spite of all the hero stories and all the masculine posturing in Lewis's writing, the character that he most identifies with isn't the warrior dude who saves the day with his swordy manliness; it's the little girl who walks with Aslan the night he dies.

    In fact, though, I think we're talking slightly at cross purposes. You're bothered by the traditional gender roles, and how Peter (the dude) (that is the oldest) gets to be this High King Hero Boss of Everyone. I am bothered by this too - it's one of my least favorite moments in the whole series when Father Christmas tells Lucy she won't be in the battle because, something like, "Battles are ugly when women fight" - as if they are so awesome when it's just men fighting them.

    The thing I'm talking about, which doesn't negate the sexism of all the traditional gender roles, but which makes me feel less angry with Lewis about this than I might otherwise do, is that although he seems to feel this compulsion to abide by heroic conventions in Peter, he's put more of himself in the characters that are less typically heroic. Lucy's the vehicle for the way he experiences God, and Edmund and Eustace, particularly Eustace I think - that scene with Aslan peeling off his skins - are the way he experiences himself and the ways he was humbled and changed by his experiences of God. What allows me to keep enjoying the books, in spite of the aspects of them that offend me, is the emotional truth behind them. Eustace holds all these views that Lewis finds objectionable, but Eustace's real problem is his dogmatic and intolerant nature - and that's what gets stripped away from him when he encounters Aslan. Having read Surprised by Joy, it just rings so true to Lewis's own experience.

    Basically I think that in spite of his blinkered view of women, he's made Lucy a far better and truer character than boring rubbish Peter.

  43. Seriously, hijack away! I think you both made such excellent points. I only regret that I felt too distant from the books to have either experience. I did notice the traditional gender roles, but I wasn't involved enough to either admire Peter or feel emotionally close to Lucy.

  44. I have to read this book! I loved these books when I was a kid - there was even a period where I was read the whole series through about once a year.

    I do agree that 19 was probably too old for a first read to properly enjoy them. I have trouble with the issues that critics like Miller have brought up, but I'm still able to enjoy these books for what they used to mean to me.

  45. Interesting review, Ana! 'The Magician's Book' looks really interesting!

    I read 'The Chronicles of Narnia' a few years back, and I have to confess that I liked the stories very much. Of course, I didn't read them critically, but read them like any story which would entertain me.

    I found this comment of yours quite interesting - "all the elements that put me off – which weren’t so much the Christian undertones but rather the sexism, classism, racism, and profoundly traditionalist tone of the stories". It made me remember an an essay that I read recently by Anne Fadiman - it was an introduction to a book that she had edited called 'Rereading'. Fadiman had written about her experiences of re-reading 'The Chronicles of Narnia', when she was trying to read it to her son. Fadiman says that she had read and enjoyed the book when she was a child, but when she read it again for her son, she discovered that in her favourite story 'The Horse and His Boy', "Aravis, its heroine, is acceptable to Lewis because she acts like a boy" while "the book's only girly girl, a devotee of "clothes and parties and gossip," is an object of contempt." Fadiman also says "Even more appalling was Lewis's treatment of the Calormenes, a brown-skinned people who wear turbans and carry scimitars." Also she says "The book's hero, Shasta, is the ward of a venial Calormene fisherman, but, as a visitor observes, "this boy is manifestly no son of yours, for your cheek is as dark as mine but the boy is fair and white." That's how we know he belongs to a noble northern race instead of an uncouth southern one." Towards the end of the essay, Fadiman says this : "For a while, the knowledge of his (=Lewis's) small-mindedness wrestled uneasily with the pleasure I took in his book. By the time I closed the last page, however, I found that the pleasure, without conscious instruction from me though doubtless with some abetment by Henry had clearly gotten the upper hand. The book's flaws were serious, but the connection was too strong to sever. And why shouldn't it be? The same thing happens with our parents. They start out as gods, and then we learn that they committed adultery, or drank too much, or cheated on their taxes, or maybe they just looked awkward on the dance floor or went on too long when they told a story. But do we stop loving them?"

    When I read your comment, I remembered Fadiman's comment, because both of you seem to agree on C.S.Lewis, and I thought I will share it here. I hope I have not bored you with this long quote.

    I liked this line from the passages you have quoted - "For the stone-cold truth is that Virginia Woolf was an awful snob, and Milton was a male chauvinist." What about our friend Homer - isn't he in the same boat? :)

  46. Have you read Surprised by Joy? I think you would understand C.S. Lewis a whole lot better if you read that. That book (Surprised by Joy) completely blew my mind and I will never be the same. After I read that, I totally get his derision of those qualities in Eustace. You have to see what C.S. Lewis values to see the reasons why he characterizes a boy whose only interests lie in dry scientific fact as sort of a bad thing. He means that Eustace's family doesn't see the magic behind everyday things - he is not saying vegetarianism and those things are bad - but those labels do create an overall picture of people who don't get into the "meat" of life. And Eustace reading only non-fiction books is the worst thing ever in C.S. Lewis's mind - because myth and fantasy really do tell us who we are and where we are going. It's hard to explain. You have to understand the reasons behind his love for myth and fantasy and why he thinks myth exists. After I read Surprised by Joy, I understood my own love for myth and fantasy and everything he said resonated with me so much. They are things I have always thought but could never put into words.


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