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.
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.(The reasons why I liked this bit is because it was very nice to find some common ground with Lewis for once.)
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 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.Reviewed at:
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.
The Indextrous Reader
(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.)