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.