The Magician’s Book
The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures In Narnia. Laura Miller. New York: Little, Brown, 2008. Hardcover. viii+312pp. $25.99. ISBN 978-0-316-01763-3.
Reviewed by Joe R. Christopher
[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 28.1/2 (#107/108) (2009) : 172–75.]
Laura Miller’s book is a well-written, extended “familiar essay” in its discussion of Lewis’s Narnia books, with many related materials. More exactly, it is a series of familiar essays — the chapters are partially independent discussions. And the word skeptic in the subtitle is important. Miller was raised Roman Catholic, but it didn’t take. She strongly rejected her religious background — and also rejected the Narnia books (which she had loved) when their religious subtext was pointed out to her. However, her book explores her later return to the Narnia books as a more sophisticated reader, one who can discriminate between the books’ successes and failures (the latter, for her, still including the religious aspects).
The basic Narnian material is this. Miller was loaned a copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe [LWW] by her second-grade teacher, which led to Miller’s devotion to Narnia (ch.1). This is the way the Introduction begins:
In one of the most vivid memories from my childhood, nothing happens. On a clear, sunny day, I’m standing near a curb in a 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. (3)
Her disillusionment came when she read Lin Carter’s Imaginary Worlds when she was thirteen, with Carter’s denunciation of Aslan’s “blatantly symbolic Crucifixion-and-Resurrection scene” (ch.9, 98). Then she, as an adult professional writer, was assigned to discuss the book that most influenced her life. She decided to write about LWW — and the response to that essay led to this book (Introduction).
The book is divided into three large sections: Part One, Songs of Innocence (chs.1-7), Part Two: Trouble in Paradise (chs.8-15), and Part Three: Songs of Experience (chs.16-27). Basically, Part One deals with what she originally found in and learned from the Narnia books, with lots of comments about other children’s books; Part Two, with the flaws in Lewis that are reflected in the books (details later); and Part Three, with a defense of Lewis’s books from an adult perspective.
A number of very good discussions appear in the first part. An example. The fifth chapter is basically a reading of Edmund in LWW, not as an example of Sin (the Original Sin, with desserts instead of apples) and Redemption, but as an example of plausible corruption:
The White Witch entices Edmund [...] primarily by flattering his laziness, his conceit, and his rivalrous sentiments toward his older brother, Peter — all very human weaknesses I recognized in myself. (62)
She ends the chapter with probable evidence that Lewis created Edmund out of his own feelings.
The above discussion shows what Miller found and finds again in the Narnia books. She names her volume for the Magician’s Book containing the spell for refreshment of spirit that Lucy read in The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” and couldn’t (mostly) retain: “a cup and a sword and a tree and a green hill” (ch.10). (Some Christian critics have seen an allusion to the Crucifixion in the latter two terms, but, if so, the green is a disguise; no doubt others have seen an allusion to the Grail Castle in the first two terms.) But Miller’s point is that, for her, the story in the Magician’s Book is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It was the magical story that refreshed her spirit. And every good story reminds her of that book — or another one of the Narnian volumes:
I never forgot the “horrid stain” [the apple's] juice leaves around [Jadis's] mouth [in The Magician Nephew], and sometimes I wonder if that’s why my most vivid recollection of Madame Bovary is of her mouth stained by the poison she swallows at the end of the novel. (ch.3, 43)
Toward the end of the volume, she considers George MacDonald’s Phantastes. “Phantastes [...] would remain a touchstone book for Lewis, perhaps the single most powerful literary experience of his life — his Magician’s Book, you could say” (ch.26, 289). Miller summarizes Phantastes and speaks of Lewis’s reaction to it — and says she doesn’t feel its power. “Phantastes seemed little more to me than an interesting, even trippy curiosity; the tremors that shot through Lewis when he first read it did not electrify me” (291). This is her chapter on myth, as Lewis presents it in An Experiment in Criticism — and she is saying that, as Phantastes was mythic for Lewis, not necessarily for others, the mythic book for her, the Magician’s spell for refreshment, was LWW.
The ninth chapter, “An Awful Truth,” discusses how various persons reacted as children to discovering the Christian imagery of the books. One of them, Tiffany Brown of Oregon, recognized the parallel between Aslan’s death and resurrection and Christ’s: “and it was fine with me. I just thought, Well, this is what gods do” (104). These comparative accounts provide other, not-so-negative reactions to the Christian themes that do not necessarily lead to conversions. (Neil Gaiman’s account, elsewhere in the book, is closer to Miller’s.)
As said, the second section of the book discusses the flaws in Lewis’s books — a part of knowledgeable reading as an adult. Chapter 11 deals with Lewis’s racism in The Horse and His Boy; chapter 12, with Lewis’s misogyny — about Susan in The Last Battle and the fiancée in “The Shoddy Lands” (a particularly good discussion, whichever side one is on). Chapter 13 is mainly about Lewis’s cultural assumptions — for example, about Corin in The Horse and His Boy, “an unadulterated upper-class alpha boy: cocky, insensitive to others, easily riled, and always up for a fight” (147); “an idealized version of the British public school blood” (150). Chapter 14 is mainly about Lewis’s sadomasochism, with only passing mention of Narnia — although in chapter 15 the White Witch is called a dominatrix.
The third section grows out of Miller following Philip Pullman’s Blakean emphasis on having to grow up and to experience with an adult sensibility. Hence the contrast of the first part and the third: Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. (Blake’s Ulro and Eden do not complicate the discussion of these two levels into four.) The chapters are usually fun: the seventeenth is on the Narnian landscape, and how it came to Miller and to Suzanna Clarke through Pauline Baynes’s drawings, not the more heavily forested prose of Lewis. Chapter 18 begins a sequence on Lewis and Tolkien (and Northerness), which runs through most of the remaining chapters — but it is not a consistent argument. Chapter 20, for example, is a clever and enjoyable comparison of Wordsworth and Coleridge to Tolkien and Lewis — sometimes Lewis is compared to Wordsworth, sometimes to Coleridge — but the basic point is the parallel of literary friendship. The whole discussion begins from Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia” written to Lewis — and the poetic epistles Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote to each other. But Wordsworth and Coleridge vanish from the next chapter, which starts with William Morris. The great revelation here is that Tolkien and Lewis wrote prose romances, like Morris’s late works, not novels (supporting this with Northrope Frye’s distinctions in Anatomy of Criticism). Obviously, this discussion is aimed at a general audience, not the readers of Mythlore who hardly will be surprised. (This reviewer did not know that Northrop Frye attended Lewis’s lectures “Prolegomena to Medieval Literature” in the 1930s, which Miller mentions.)
After exclaiming that Lewis wrote romances (and didn’t have to write them in Tolkien’s style); that he, for many children, in the Narnia books wrote myths; and that he created a “country of literature, of books, and of reading, a territory so vast that it might as well be infinite” (ch.27, 301-302) — that is, Lewis put much of what he knew from reading into the Narnia books for others to experience — Miller has made her case as a non-Christian reader of the Narnian heptalogy.
A paragraph about flaws in Miller’s book will be the typical scholarly conclusion of this review. This is not a scholarly book; it is a well-informed popular book. It has an index but no bibliography. Miller makes about half a dozen factual mistakes, as one might expect of someone writing on a background that he or she has worked up for the volume; but they do not invalidate her personal approach. Two examples: she says that Walter Hooper is a Roman Catholic priest (ch.14, 163) — he was an Anglican priest who became an R.C. layman; that Tolkien and E.V. Gordon produced a translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (ch.23, 256) — they produced an edition, and Tolkien by himself did a translation. She also trusts A.N. Wilson’s biography of Lewis too much — it seems to be behind her description of “Lewis’s annual ‘English binges,’ at which his male students were invited [...] to get drunk on beer and bellow out ‘bawdy’” (ch.6, 69). George Sayer denied this description from Wilson, based on his own experience as a student (see p. 416 of the 2nd ed. of Jack ). And, of course, Miller produces comments that some will want to argue with — for example:
Tolkien, it must be said, was a terrible prude. There is more eroticism — however peculiar and sublimated — in the Chronicles than in The Lord of the Rings, even though Lewis was purposely trying to avoid sex in deference to the youth of his readers. (ch.22, 242)
But this sort of comment is within Miller’s right as an interpreter and as a writer of familiar essays.