The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia
by Laura Miller
Laura Miller has all kinds of passion in this book. There is the fondly recalled beginning of her relationship with the Narnia chronicles as a child, but the book is much more than a nostalgic look back at a childhood favourite. For one thing, Miller’s relationship to the Narnia books includes betrayal as well, and she is piercing in her recollection of her emotion at encountering the parallels to the story of Christ in the first work of literary criticism she had ever read.
I [read] Imaginary Worlds … because I wanted to see Lewis and the Chronicles celebrated by someone, a real author, more important than myself.
What I discovered instead was that Aslan’s death in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was really a “blatantly symbolic Crucifixion-and-Resurrection scene,” which Carter deemed “beautifully and simply written” but “very out of place on these pages.” His criticism troubled me less than the revelation itself. Lewis, Carter explained, was famously Christian, a fact I’d somehow managed to miss. I was shocked, almost nauseated. I’d been tricked, cheated, betrayed. (98-99)
This book had its first incarnation as an article for Salon.com, which Miller co-founded and where she is now a staff writer. It appears that it was her readers’ voluminous and impassioned responses to her assignment (write about the book that most influenced you, that most changed your life) that prompted a deeper examination of the work and life of C. S. Lewis and of Miller’s own relationship to his Narnia books.
This book is brimful of information and insight. There is extensive biographical information about Lewis. There are interviews with other writers about their own relationships to the Narnia chronicles. An enormous amount of research went into this book, but it wears its research lightly. She is never didactic, never gratuitous with what must have been an overwhelming amount of material to wrestle into the book. Each detail is used judiciously and placed carefully alongside other threads and themes.
One of my urges as I read the book was to create a map of each of the chapters because I kept catching myself in awe of how deftly Miller had navigated from autobiography to biography to travelogue to social history to psychology to literary history and criticism.
Simply put, this book is a wonderful combination of intellect and memory, and I recommend it highly.
I liked the book so much that I began re-reading it as soon as I finished it. But rereading was also a delaying tactic. I did not want the book to end, but I also did not want to begin writing about it.
I’ve been telling myself that it’s my admiration for the book that is getting in the way of writing about it, but it’s not.
The fact of the matter is that I’m jealous.
I want Laura Miller’s memory. I want her power of memory, and I want the particular memories themselves. I want her falling in love with and being betrayed by a beloved book. I want the yearning nostalgia and the bitter memories. Hell, I just want memories. I want more of my own damn memories.
In the third section of the book, Miller examines Lewis’s relationship with J. R. R. Tolkien. She describes Tolkien’s work as a philologist and his purist love for all things Anglo-Saxon. As Miller points out, so few Anglo-Saxon texts remain because its poetic tradition was primarily oral, and any texts that did exist were likely to have been destroyed by Christianizing Crusaders.
Miller argues that Tolkien, disappointed at failing to find a full body of Anglo-Saxon mythology comparable to the Scandinavian Eddas and the Finnish Kalevala, “supplied the missing stories himself” in The Lord of the Rings. He addresses a gap by filling it. I have great, yawning gaps in my memory, but unlike Tolkien, I can’t create things to stand in for real memory. I can research, and ask others for their memories of my past, but a second-hand self is so much less than what I want.
The title of Lewis’s autobiography is Surprised by Joy. Re-reading Miller, I found myself surprised by jealousy. It has given my second reading of the book a darker edge, and I am hoping to have dispelled that by naming it.