The Magician’s Book

Laura Miller’s Magician’s Book, about C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, was a hugely enjoyable read, and I say that not being the biggest Chronicles of Narnia reader. I read at least some of the books when I was a kid, but I’m not quite sure how many. I reread some of them as a young adult, although again, I’m not sure how many. I liked them fine, but I didn’t fall in love. Miller talks about those who fall in love with Narnia and/or Tolkien’s Middle Earth and those who fall in love with realistic novels like Little House on the Prairie and Little Women, and I definitely fall in the latter camp. But that didn’t matter much in terms of how I felt about The Magician’s Book; it was a great meditation on childhood reading, as well as on the meaning and context of Lewis’s work.

I particularly admired how much Miller pulled together into one book and how she kept all her material orderly and coherent. She writes about her obsession with Narnia, how it happened and how it influenced the rest of her reading life. She writes about children’s literature in general and the ways people value it, or don’t. She writes about Lewis’s life, his literary friendships, his scholarship, and his religious beliefs. She also writes about the meaning of the Chronicles themselves. Oh, and there are discussions of things like allegory, myth, and romance, of medieval literature and the medieval mindset, of the different ways Lewis and Tolkien thought about Englishness.

It’s a lot of material, but Miller makes it work, partly by using short-ish chapters that each focus on one aspect of the series or its context, and also by using a loose overarching structure that keeps it all feeling coherent. The larger story of her book is one of first falling in love with the Chronicles, then becoming angry with Lewis and rejecting the books after discovering their Christian content, and finally rediscovering the series as an adult and accounting for the fact that she still loves the books even if she rejects their religious argument. Miller had no idea as a child that the Chronicles were meant as a retelling of sorts of the gospel story — that Aslan was supposed to be Christ, for example. When she found this out, basically by accident, she felt betrayed, a feeling made all the stronger because of how much she had loved the books in the first place. She had already decided she had no use for Christianity, so Lewis’s piousness and his attempts to proselytize through fiction did not go over well.

So, with this structure in place, a story that forms the book’s three main sections, Miller first discusses the value of children’s fiction and tells her own reading history, as well as what it was about the Chronicles she loved so much. The second section on rejecting Lewis includes chapters on his various failings, for example, his (arguable) misogyny and racism. The last section is partly about how it’s possible to value the Chronicles even if you reject the Christianity in them, and also how the Chronicles sprang out of Lewis’s love of allegory, myths, and fairy tales and about Lewis’s friendship with Tolkien and their different approaches to writing fantasy.

Miller is a companionable guide through all this. I like the balance she struck between her personal narrative and the more critical material; the personal element gives the book drive and interest as well as a sense of why the project matters, and the critical material provides a fabulous background to understanding the Chronicles and thinking about children’s literature, fantasy in particular. My one quibble is that I sometimes felt she portrayed Christianity in a way that’s a little too simple; she conflates evangelicalism and fundamentalism, for example, and doesn’t really acknowledge the many other, particularly more liberal, forms of Christianity that are out there. But otherwise, her command of the material is impressive. I didn’t find that my unfamiliarity with most of the Narnia books was a problem; her descriptions of the books provide enough detail that I could follow along. If I hadn’t ever read any of the Chronicles, I probably would have found the book less compelling, but you don’t have to be a Lewis fan to appreciate what Miller has done.

13 Comments

Filed under Books, Nonfiction

13 responses to “The Magician’s Book

  1. Jillian ♣

    Sounds like a good one. I might read this after I finish The Chronicles of Narnia. :-)

  2. I’ve gone back and forth about reading this; partly because I can’t relate to the overarching premise, since I appreciate the Christian elements of the Chronicles very much. (My church actually has a carving of Lewis on the pulpit–one of several heroes of the faith depicted there.) What you say about her simplistic depiction of Christianity gives me definite pause; that’s the kind of thing that drives me crazy as a politically liberal Christian. However, I am interested in other ways people appreciate the Chronicles, so this appeals to me on those grounds, as does the discussion about children’s literature.

    It’s an interesting point about the difference between falling in love with fantasy as opposed to realistic fiction as a child. I read more realistic fiction, but that’s mostly because it’s what I was given. I did love the fantasy I was exposed to. What’s funny, though, is that a lot of the realistic fiction felt like fantasy to me because it was historical and took place in a world that was wholly alien to me. What I think I really wanted was to encounter things that were different from my own life, whether in another time or another world.

  3. Sounds fascinating! I remember not getting the allegory AT ALL as a little kid, and feeling betrayed by it when someone told me. I wonder if that’s fairly common? (I’ve never gone back to read them since, though. I don’t think I loved them that much.)

  4. I never read any of the Narnia books, but my eldest son devoured them as a kid, reading them over and over until the bindings broke and the pages began to fall apart. As a young adult, he learned the books were meant to deliver a Christian message, but that never bothered him. They remain among his favorite books.

  5. This is on my mental to-be-read list, for sure. I’ve heard such good things about it from a wide variety of people.

    The Chronicles were never a series I fell head-over-heels for as a kid (those were more the L.M. Montgomery series for me), but I did read and like them until the final books when the evangelizing finally caught up with me and, as Miller relates, I felt pretty disappointed and even betrayed. Which is weird, because other books I read and loved (see Montgomery again) had a definite pro-Christian bias as well. I guess I just felt like Lewis was being sneaky about his Christian messaging, “disguising” it as allegory rather than putting it in the mouths of real-life people. I no longer think this is at all a valid criticism, as the tradition of religious allegory is a long & honorable one (and also because I no longer find Lewis’s at ALL subtle), but it’s how I felt at the time.

  6. This is definitely on my tbr now, as I struggle to write a book about people writing books! I’m in such awe of all the brilliant writers who can wrestle a ton of information into submission, and make it all come together beautifully. Lovely review, Dorothy and thank you for introducing me to a book I clearly need to read.

  7. It’s interesting that she fell in love with the books despite, and without absorbing, the religious message. It seems, then, that as a teaching or proselytizing device among children the series failed, at least with her.

  8. Sounds like a good book. I never read the Narnia books as a kid even though I loved reading fantasy. I found Tolkien first and then science fiction and I can’t even say that I knew about Narnia until I was an adult. I read Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe as an adult but by then it just seemed meh.

  9. zhiv

    Pretty interesting–sounds like you enjoyed it, and it seems like the book falls in that literary biography/personal memoir genre that can be so great if it has good elements and is done well. Seems like the religious element and the fact that it’s veiled by Lewis is striking a chord, as it did with Miller. I was never a Narniaite, although I think the books were read to me, and didn’t plug into fantasy until later, through Tolkein. And I do remember being a bit miffed when I found out about the Christianity, and having a defensive feeling about being glad I hadn’t fallen in love with the series. But I didn’t really care. It seems odd that Miller isn’t more sophisticated in her discussion of Christianity. Is she more specific about Lewis and his own religious faith? More about the fun of lit bio and books and readers, I would hope, without getting sidetracked.

  10. Jillian — that would be an excellent plan!

    Teresa — the parts I didn’t like because of their portrayal of Christianity were actually pretty short and not something that ran through the whole book, so if you are inspired to read it, I wouldn’t let that hold you back. I agree about realistic fiction; I think I read it as though it were fantasy too. What I wanted was to escape into a different world and get caught up in the details of that world, which LI Wilder certainly allowed me to do, for example.

    Bardiac — from what Miller wrote, it sounds like it’s quite common, although people react with varying degrees of anger. But a lot of people didn’t get the Christianity at first, and have to rethink things once they do get it.

    Grad — one of the interesting things about Miller’s book is the way she discusses how it’s possible to love the books even when you don’t care about Christianity at all — which Lewis probably wouldn’t have liked much!

    Emily — then you will probably relate well to Miller’s story. I also was more of a Montgomery person, and also a LI Wilder person, but her story of falling hard for Lewis is still great reading. Her discussion of what allegory means and how Lewis understood it is great; I think you would like the lit. crit. aspects of the book.

    Litlove — it does sound like this is the book for you! She describes Lewis’s writing process and all the elements that went into the Chronicles well, and yes, it’s a model for how to structure a book with tons of varied information, I think.

    Lilian — it did fail, exactly, and that’s really interesting. Authors just never know what will happen with their books and how they will be read!

    Stefanie — it does seem that you need to find the books at the right time or they won’t click with you. I can see that having found Tolkien first might make Lewis a lot less interesting (and with some people, vice versa). Miller discusses the differences between the two writers very well.

    Zhiv — she does describe Lewis’s religious beliefs and his conversion quite well, which is good. Yes, it’s a great example of the personal memoir/biography that is so enjoyable. I enjoyed it even though I don’t really care much about Lewis these days, and that’s saying something, I think! I’m with you on not being a Narianite; I don’t remember when I figured out they were Christian in nature, but I’m not sure I ever didn’t know, because I grew up in a Christian household where people just knew things like that. So it was never a surprise to me.

  11. I somehow missed these books and Tolkien as well–I was more in the Little House camp, too. I’ve meant to read some of the Narnia books now as an adult but have to admit that the proselytizing aspect has put me off–I should really give the first at least a try. I had the same issue when I reread Little Women as an adult–loved the story but the overt moralizing wore thin on me. This book, however, does sound really interesting!

  12. Interesting idea of classifying readers by whether they fall in love with the fantastical realms or realistic ones. I loved fantasy and science fiction as a youth, but I also loved the Little House world. Can I join both categories?

    As I think about this, it seems to me that I viewed the Little House world as being a fantasy world because it was so different from my reality. Things change a lot over a half a century.

    Funny that people get so worked up about allegory, but even funnier that Lewis insisted this was not allegory, just children’s books. Few critics accept that though.

    Sounds like an interesting read.

  13. Danielle — I’m not sure, but I’m wondering whether Little Women might feel much more didactic than the Chronicles, even though there is a ton of Christian content in the Lewis books. But the moralizing is more direct and harder to ignore in Alcott — it’s not “disguised” in the way it is in Lewis. I loved reading about Lewis, but somehow I’m not excited about reading his books again — I may have gotten my fill of him.

    Bikkuri — yes, you can join both categories! Perhaps people often do fall into one camp or another, but I’m sure tons of people read both happily, and I think lots of people read more realistic novels as though they were fantasy — they can be escapist too.

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