The Magician's Book by Laura Miller, 320 pages.
Subtitled "A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia", preparing to read and review this book was a bit daunting. I've had it in my to-read pile for months - afraid I would in no way relate to the author's feeling of betrayal at learning her childhood love was really a Christian allegory (although not in the true definition - she submits that it is symbolic not allegorical and I tend to agree). And I normally don't enjoy entire books devoted to literary criticism.
In second grade, Laura Miller's teacher handed her The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and she was entranced. Hooked. Captivated. Only to realize at 13 that Aslan symbolized Jesus and his death on the stone tablet, the crucificion. Hurt, angry and confused, Miller spends years and much energy returning to her childhood love and attempting to carve out meaning she can keep.
Well, as prepared as I was to gut it out, I didn't have to. From the Introduction, Laura Miller firmly establishes herself as a lover of books. Describing that feeling known only to avid readers seeking that next "one". That feeling that begins in childhood when a book transforms you into "one of those children who haunt libraries, checking out the maximum number of titles every week, scouring the shelves for signs that this one or that one would spirit me away to a place almost as marvelous as (Narnia)." (pg.4)
There are plenty of parts in The Magician's Book when Miller becomes heavy handed in denouncing the Christian themes and Lewis' character (racist, sexist, elitist). It's one thing to feel duped but I can't imagine seeing Aslan as an annoying device or Susan's vanity (The Last Battle) as denouncing girlishness. But of course, since Miller is a skeptic, and I am a believer we could go back and forth about it all day. And I am accustomed to doubt, seeing it in most contemporary writing.
I appreciate her thorough examination of all the elements of The Chronicles and Lewis, but she makes the mistake that most "intellectuals" make, implying Christians are simpletons. Of course Narnia is totally unlike her experience with Christianity, it's unlike mine too. It's fantasy, it's an ideal - love and obedience to Aslan flows naturally - he is kind and wise, but his authority is never in doubt. It is a picture of what Christianity should look like, and the depth that Miller still appreciates - the universal lessons of good and evil are exactly why Christians (and non-Christians) respond so strongly. The fact that it is magical for children readers and instructive for adults is exactly what makes it wonderful. It is rare to capture the hearts and minds of readers of all ages - with depth and a lovely turn of phrase. Have you heard it said better - "always winter, never Christmas" - to describe the environment of Narnia?
At times the Magician's Book seems to be Miller's therapy - justifying how she can still love a book that has wronged her while at other times proving exactly the point that she is trying to dispute. (I.e. Edmund and original sin) Any book (including the Narnia series) that inspires this kind of examination and dialogue must be worthwhile.
The idea that Mr. Lewis had some kind of sinister Christian agenda tends to overlook the fact that all authors have an agenda. And if you are an atheist, a Muslim, or fill in the blank - something of what an author believes naturally comes out in their writing. I continue to be amused by those who single out Christian authors merely because they feel tricked into reading what goes against their beliefs. As I have said before at least 80 percent of the books I read have elements that run counter to what I believe. But I find it to be stimulating and reaffirming. I certainly don't get angry, maybe sad, but rarely offended. For in their words, authors reveal where they stand and I feel as though I learn about them through their writing. Perhaps I would think differently if I found out one of my favorite series from childhood, Little House on the Prairie was really about hatred of the Indians .... In this vein, I tried to remember how I felt when I discovered Carolyn Keene was not the Mary Tyler Moore of writing the Nancy Drew series. In fact, she was created by a corporation who hired a series of ghostwriters to continue Nancy's adventures in a money-making series. The words betrayed and horrified are too strong, I was definitely bummed to lose a role model, but still glad to have the books regardless of how they came to be.
I too read The Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe in grammar school but did not continue through the entire Chronicles of Narnia until adulthood (and I'm still a couple books short of completion). I don't enjoy fantasy, and as a child being totally unfamiliar with religious symbolism it was completely over my head. Now that I am an adult (and a Christian) I appreciate Lewis' obvious storytelling talent more than the symbolism (a point with which Miller happens to agree). I happened to read the first two Narnia books right before picking up the first Harry Potter and it was akin to going from fine dining to fast food - the differences were that painful. I am convinced that Lewis effectively ruined any enjoyment I may get out of the Potter books, which is fine. KWB is starting the Potter series now and I look forward to seeing them through his eyes.
This book is one part criticism, one part memoir, one part Lewis biography, and one part hammering skepticism. I think it would be a valuable tool for use in a curriculum setting where Narnia is being studied.
3.5+ stars (somewhere between 3.5 & 4)
author website: www.lauramiller.typepad.com
Beth Kephart (author I love) not so much a review, but an interesting mention
"A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest. " - C.S. Lewis