The Magician’s Book by Laura Miller

I was intrigued into reading Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia because my own experience was similar to hers: I loved the Narnia books as a kid, but felt rather betrayed when I learned they were generally seen as blatant Christian propaganda. At which point, though it hadn’t been obvious at all to me when I read them (or, rather, had them read to me), it suddenly was, and obtrusively so. I was hoping, in reading Miller’s book, to resolve the question of whether the Narnia books can be redeemed, and re-read, despite their didactic intent, or whether, once the childhood bubble of their purely imaginative world has been burst (by the pin of propaganda!), the magic can ever be recovered.

Miller’s book is divided into three sections: one covering her childhood love of the books, another covering the difficulties with them she became aware of as she grew up, and a third about revisiting them as an adult. Her method is basically discursive. She explores, chapter by chapter, various aspects of the Narnia books, and of C S Lewis as a writer, academic and person. This book is not a single, focused, critical argument, but more a literary stroll through Narnia and associated topics. I like books about books, and prefer most of all books aimed at a non-academic audience — books that focus on the joys of reading, and its links to everyday life, rather than on some particular aspect of literary theory. Miller’s book is, thankfully, not academic, and though the lack of footnotes or even a bibliography was sometimes annoying, it at least meant the book was written on my level. And, while she doesn’t treat the book as an argument in Narnia’s defence so much as an exploration of its various aspects, good and bad, she does provide some worthwhile insights on the way.

To Miller as a child, the Narnia books were a revelation. In a rather magically-tinged incident in her young life, a teacher lent her The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, having decided she was a “child who needed to read C S Lewis”. This teacher later said that, on handing the book back after reading it, “You told me, and this I have always remembered, that you didn’t know that there were other people who had the kind of imagination that you did.”

It’s the middle section that really confronts the issues an adult (or even adolescent) reader has with the Narnia books. First, that they’re sometimes blatantly propagandist; second, that they contain all of Lewis’s faults as a person — his dated attitudes towards women and race for instance, which nowadays go as much to spoil the paradisal nature of Narnia as, in Lewis’s mind at least, they once went towards building it. Miller doesn’t attempt to justify the Narnia books in the face of these faults, but makes the point that “A perfect story is no more interesting or possible than a perfect human being”. The Narnia books have flaws just as Lewis, the person, had flaws, and as an adult you have to accept that is how they — and, really, all books — are. In literature (and fantasy, particularly), we may seek ideal worlds to make up for the real one’s flaws, but all we’ll find in the end is more flaws, even though very human ones.

In the book’s final section, Miller spent so much time talking about Tolkien, rather than Lewis, I wondered if she was tacitly proving Lewis’s faults by saying you couldn’t justify the Narnia books on their own terms. Compared to The Lord of the Rings, it’s easy, as an adult reader, to think the Narnia books a lesser effort, because less consistently imagined, less unified in vision. (Tolkien certainly thought so.) But, Miller says:

“The Chronicles are unified, not by anything resembling the exhaustive cultural stuff that Tolkien invented for Middle-earth, not by a single aesthetic or style, and not even, really, by a cogent religious vision, but by readerly desire. Lewis poured into his imaginary world everything that he had adored in the books he read as a child and in the handful of children’s books he’d enjoyed as an adult.”

That wonderful phrase “readerly desire” is they key to appreciating the Narnia books. “Narnia,” Miller says, “is the country of literature, of books, and of reading, a territory so vast that it might as well be infinite.” Like certain other fantasy worlds — Oz and Xanth for instance — Narnia isn’t designed to live up to Tolkien’s ideal of something that demands “credible, commanding Secondary Belief” from the reader, as set out in his essay, “On Fairy Tales”. Narnia, Oz and Xanth are more like grab-bags of all the imagination can contain, and so come to represent imagination itself. Access to Narnia is access to the imagination; the cupboard that, like the TARDIS, proves to be larger on the inside than out, and contains a whole, living, magical world, is just the human mind. Which may be why, once a relationship with such books is forged as a child, it can be so difficult to break, and feel so much like a betrayal if it is broken. But also why it is well worth recovering as an adult.

The Roar of Love

As a follow-up to my top five fantasy concept albums, covered in Mewsings a while back, over the next few entries I’m going to look at a few more fantasy albums I’ve come across recently (one of which I’ve been trying to get hold of for some time). These are slightly different in that they’re adaptations of (or inspired by) existing fantasy books, not original fantasies in themselves.

First up is The Roar of Love by a band called 2nd Chapter of Acts. Now, did you pick up on the subtle cultural signals tucked away in the band’s name to guess they’re a Christian group? I admit that, at first, this put me off buying the album. Then I told myself to stop being silly. After all, I don’t let the fact that I don’t ride a motorbike stop me from listening to Blue Öyster Cult, do I? (Nor does the fact that I don’t use drugs stop me from listening to Hawkwind; nor does the fact that I don’t use the word motherf—! stop me listening to Jane’s Addiction, either.) I was just a little wary of the music being a bit too happy, not to mention clappy.

The Roar of Love (1980) is inspired by C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. My mum read the entire Narnia series to my brother and me, a chapter at a time (with the occasional, magical, “Let’s read two chapters this time, shall we?” — she clearly enjoyed them as much as we did), and I loved them. Along with Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, they were the first proper fantasy books I read (or had read to me), and I was totally lost in their world. It was only when I was about eight or nine, when I bought a book about the Narnia series (it may have been Paul F Ford’s Companion to Narnia) that I came across the idea that the Narnia books were Christian allegories. This was a total shock to me, as I associated Christianity with school assemblies, the enforced singing of hymns (all of which but “The Lord of the Dance” I found dull), and, worst of all, school-visiting vicars with their “God is your best friend!” cheery-cheery vapidity. (I was only interested in the chap who danced with the Devil on his back.) In fact, I felt a little betrayed. I re-read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a few years ago, and was rather disgusted by how heavy-handed (not to say cack-handed) Lewis’s attempts to force the reader to feel religious awe for Aslan were. I fully intend to re-read the whole series — the through-the-wardrobe idea is, after all, one of the most magical symbols of entering the world of the imagination I know, perhaps not even second to entering the TARDIS — but I can’t help feeling Lewis’s tempering of the imaginative experience with such pointless (to me) didacticism is a little too much like the author placing an inappropriate hand on the (child) reader’s knee…

But, that aside —

The Roar of Love is fun. The music is, at times, sort of Yes-lite: full of energy, vocals in close harmony, lots of contrasting proggish sections going from classically-inspired to bombastic (light) rock to easy listening and funky pop. There was only one real trip-up moment for me (in the opener, “Are You Goin’ To Narnia”, which contains the lines “To meet the lamb that is a lion/I want to learn to love him too”), but that was more than made up for by the songs themselves being so very listenable. “Tell the Truth” became an immediate favourite with its “Turkish Delight” chorus. (It is followed by the funky guitars and soul-style vocals of a song, confusingly called “Turkish Delight”, about Edmund’s love for the White Queen. Soul, I can’t help feeling, is diametrically opposed to the fantastic. Nevertheless it will pop up again in another of the albums I’m going to cover.)

I’m always interested in how music can be used to capture the feeling of the fantastic, but I don’t think The Roar of Love is as concerned with conjuring another world as it is with just telling a story. The second track, “Lucy’s Long Gone”, covers the whole disappearance into another world with the line “I slipped right out of this world”, which doesn’t give it the awe, excitement and mystery I’d have liked. But the track does have a bouncy playfulness that reflects Lucy’s status as the youngest of the four children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — complete with circus-style calliope, at one point — which may be far more appropriate, anyway. Elsewhere, there’s enough lushness in the vocals to give the album a touch of the truly immersive feel of fantasy.

2nd Act of Chapters don’t do darkness, really. Even the track “Aslan is Killed”, though it has some lovely interweaving, almost fugal, vocal lines, doesn’t quite capture the devastating moment when Aslan is humiliated and sacrificed so much as provide a moment of sober reflection. But that’s more than made up for the truly uplifting mood of the album generally. Particularly “Witch’s Demise” with its chorus I at first misheard as: “And then He unmasked her/Then He cast her/to disaster/What a bastard!” (It’s actually “What a Master!” Oh, if only…)

Overall, great fun. It certainly captures the child-friendly fun elements of the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe without overdoing the allegory.