Laura Miller, The Magician’s Book (2008)
I’d be willing to wager that most readers who prowl these pages fell under the spell of words at an early age, finding both enchantment and release in their power to transport us to a different world. Laura Miller can trace her own bespellment to a particular book, and even a particular moment: the day that her second-grade teacher handed her a copy of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. From that day on, visiting Narnia was something she felt she had to do or die. It’s an experience that many of us who encountered Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia in childhood share–I certainly did.
Many may also relate to Miller’s painful awakening some years later, when she found out that Lewis had planted Christian themes and motifs in his seven children’s books. Raised Catholic but thoroughly disillusioned with the Church, Miller felt betrayed by this intrusion of strangulating doctrine into a world she had considered completely free. She turned away from the Chronicles for many years, until, having become a journalist and critic herself (she is a cofounder of Salon.com), she felt the need to revisit and reconsider a book that, however flawed, indelibly affected her identity as a reader.
The Magician’s Book is the result, ranging through the realms of memoir, biography, literary criticism, and a bit of social and political history to explore the mystery of Narnia’s compelling hold on the imagination, even for those who do not share Lewis’s religious agenda. Miller purposely gives little space to the Christian elements in the Chronicles, which have been exhaustively covered elsewhere. Instead, along with the narrative of her own journey through, away from, and back to Narnia, she explores the roots of Lewis’s imagination in landscape, relationships (most importantly his friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien), and especially his own life as a reader. She considers those aspects of Narnia which have been labelled sexist and racist, as well as those that make it so enduringly compelling.
As is appropriate in a book devoted to Lewis, a master craftsman of English prose, Miller’s own writing is lucid, graceful, and a pleasure to read. She covers a vast amount of territory with ease, skillfully transitioning from one aspect of the Chronicles to the next, and from her personal experiences to a more objective critical view. By drawing on her correspondence and interviews with other readers, including Neil Gaiman, Susannah Clarke, and Jonathan Franzen, she widens the field even further. Anti-Narnians Philip Pullman and John Goldthwaite are also given a hearing.
The particular pleasures of reading in childhood are brief, but indelible for those who have experienced them. Laura Miller’s book is a rare opportunity to revisit them with the eyes of an adult, gaining the insights of maturity, while fully respecting the reality and validity of the child’s perspective. Her portrait of C.S. Lewis is equally balanced and insightful, giving welcome critical consideration to a remarkable man who has all too often been either white-washed by his partisans or demonized by his detractors.
If you have ever opened the door of a wardrobe with a secret hope of finding something there besides coats and mothballs, do open The Magician’s Book. You may find that that elusive magical country is closer than you think.