A Magical Library: The Bodleian’s Magical Tales

Larrington and Purkiss, eds., Magical Tales (2013)

My one visit to Oxford was long ago as an 18-year-old on a choir tour of England. Our chaperones normally kept a pretty tight rein on us, but for some reason this time they actually let us roam around by ourselves for a while. I was in literary heaven. I visited Blackwell’s bookstore, found “Alice’s Shop” (the model for the sheep’s shop in Through the Looking Glass), and ended up at the Bodleian Library which had a wonderful exhibition of children’s books from the Opie collection. It was truly a magical day for a bookaholic teenager, and I still remember it fondly.

Last year I found out that the Bodleian was having another exhibition that sorely tempted me to fly across the Atlantic once more. Magical Books: From the Middle Ages to Middle Earth featured artifacts related to the work of some of my favorite authors, including C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Philip Pullman, and Alan Garner, known as the “Oxford School” for their ties to the university. Along with ancient scrolls and manuscripts from the Bodleian collection that are known or presumed to have inspired their work, there were artifacts from the authors themselves, such as Lewis’s hand-drawn map of Narnia, Tolkien’s dust jacket design for The Two Towers, and a set of replicas of the Six Signs of Power made for Susan Cooper.

Alas, I wasn’t able to make it in person, but the Bodleian did put up images of many of the exhibited item on their website, which you can still view here. They also produced a companion book called Magical Tales: Myth, Legend and Enchantment in Children’s Books, which I promptly purchased. It is a lovely high-quality paperback, about 7 inches square, with a nice, heavy wraparound cover (I love these because I can use them instead of a bookmrak), excellent layout and typography, and beautifully reproduced full-color images. So just as a physical object, the book is certainly a success.

Content-wise, the book contains five academic essays. The first is a general consideration of “magical books,” which can refer both to ancient books of spells and alchemy and to modern fantasy literature about magical happenings. The next three essays take on three areas of influence and inspiration for children’s writers, particularly those of the “Oxford School”: Northern mythology, the Middle Ages, and Arthurian legend. The final essay looks at the book itself as a magical, transforming object, in the form of early movable books for children. With a generally readable, engaging style, each essay gives a decent overview of its respective topic. Sometimes I wished for a bit more depth, as the essays tend to briefly survey a lot of books without going much into any one of them, but there isn’t really space for that in this small, heavily illustrated book. (Note that those illustrations include some drawn from the Bodleian exhibition, but not all; it’s not a “catalogue” of the exhibition. The map, dust jacket, and replica signs mentioned above, for example, are not included.)

So, for some armchair traveling into the sources of my favorite magical books, Magical Tales was a great investment, and a lot cheaper than a plane ticket. If you share my love of these fantasy classics, you might want to take a look at it too.


A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia


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.