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.