Book review: The Magician's Book
The Magician's Book By Laura Miller Little, Brown 320pp, £20 Review by Gregory Maguire
WHAT is it about the CS Lewis Narnia books that gives them such a hold over a child's imagination? That is the question Laura Miller addresses in this book, in which she examines her unfolding responses to the books as a child enthusiast, a maturing apostate and an adult critic.
I know exactly what she means. I, too, cherish the memory of my discovery of Narnia. When I was 11, I had found few books that bridged the gap between the skeletal honesty of the fairytale and the weighty adventures that beckoned from adult novels.
One sunny Saturday, a childhood friend and I came across The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the public library and our lives changed.
Miller remembers the same moment, of wishing 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 felt the same, and thought Lewis might really have discovered some actual magic land and, protectively, disguised it as fiction.
Miller relates much that is familiar about Lewis's life and a little that is less well known, concentrating on his childhood traumas and his adult friendship with JRR Tolkien, who considered Narnia "a disgracefully slapdash creation", Miller writes, rather than the kind of painstaking self-enclosed world he created in Lord of the Rings.
She discusses the virtues as well as the uglier sides of Narnia – its classism, racism, sexism, and its depiction of a godhead whose mercy extends only to those pure enough to deserve it. Miller's most daring conceit, likening the mutually influential friendship between Tolkien and Lewis to that between Coleridge and Wordsworth, is persuasive. Miller has learned much from Lewis, not least a bracingly colloquial, honest, intimate tone.
The book is divided into three parts: paradise, the fall from grace and salvation. Paradise is the discovery of the novels. The fall (and Miller is not alone here) is precipitated by the realisation that the Narnia stories are organised around Christian legends and ideals, with the lion Aslan representing Christ. That bit of the story – so central to its creator – didn't work for Miller no matter how much she adored the rest of the book.
I perceived the Christian aspects of Narnia through childhood rereadings and was delighted by them. I felt smart and chosen. As my own faith grew both tested and testy, though, I began to detect the same bullying in Lewis's tales, the same smug, insidious racism and sexism, that so offends Philip Pullman. (Not for nothing does Lyra, the contrarian heroine of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, begin her own seditious adventures in a wardrobe in Oxford.) I moved on – not beyond hoping for faith, for numinous meaning, but beyond Narnia. And, coldly, didn't weep.
Yet Miller concludes with a strong argument in favour of returning to Narnia. "First love … shapes us forever," Miller writes. "The meeting of author and reader has a similar soul-shaping potential. The author who can make a world for a reader – make him believe that the people, places and events he describes are, if anything, truer than his real immediate surroundings – that author is someone with a mighty power indeed."
Who can forget the first time they experienced this sensation? Who can doubt that every literary encounter they have afterward must somehow be coloured by it? If we weigh the significance of a book by the effect it has on its readers, the great children's books turn right at the top of the list. Not drugs. Not sex. Not even chocolate. "Weeding," he wrote.
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