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The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia Hardcover – December 3, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Jam-packed with critical insights and historical context, this discussion of C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia from Miller's double perspectives--as the wide-eyed child who first read the books and an agnostic adult who revisits them--is intellectually inspiring but not always cohesive. Finding her distrust of Christianity undermined by her love of Lewis's indisputably Christian-themed world, Salon.com cofounder and staff writer Miller seeks to "recapture [Narnia's] old enchantment." She replaces lost innocence with understanding, visiting Lewis's home in England, reading his letters and books (which she quotes extensively) and interviewing readers and writers. Lengthy musings on Freudian analysis of sadomasochism, J.R.R. Tolkien's Anglo-Saxon nationalism and taxonomies of genre share space with incisive and unapologetic criticism of Lewis's treatment of race, gender and class. The heart of the book is in the first-person passages where Miller recalls longing to both be and befriend Lucy Pevensie and extols Narnia's "shining wonders." Her reluctant reconciliation with Lewis's and Narnia's imperfections never quite manages to be convincing, but anyone who has endured exile from Narnia will recognize and appreciate many aspects of her journey. (Dec. 3)
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From The New Yorker
In this powerful meditation on �the schism between childhood and adult reading,� Miller recounts her tumultuous relationship with the favorite books of her youth, C. S. Lewis�s �Chronicles of Narnia.� Filled from an early age with a distrust of the Catholic faith in which she was raised, Miller didn�t notice the Christian subtext, and when she learned of it, as a teen-ager, she felt �tricked, cheated.� Combining memoir, criticism, and biography, Miller takes Lewis to task for his �betrayals,� including the racial stereotyping and �litism that, she argues, inform the books. Yet her respect for Lewis�s talent remains; scrupulously placing him in his historical context, she crafts a nuanced portrait of the author as a sensitive curmudgeon and comes to the realization that �a perfect story is no more interesting or possible than a perfect human being.�
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Top Customer Reviews
Miller is at her best when distilling the various types of literary forms (allegory, metaphor, etc.), and in her exploration of Lewis's literary influences (Arthurian legends, Norse mythology, Celtic folktales, the "wildness" of faery lore, etc.). She explores many story archetypes, helps the reader identify them in other (non-Narnian) contexts, and does so in way that doesn't sacrifice any meaning or enjoyment in their reading.
She deconstructs the world views of Lewis's time and of the previous eras that shaped his ideas, but never in a way that cuts Lewis any slack. Ironically, in not turning that same criteria on herself, Miller fails to qualify how her contemporary sensitivities may likewise be responsible for most of her objections to Lewis's life and works. Fortunately, there are only a few chapters where Miller, indulging in a bit of unnecessary ivory tower political correctness, tediously grasps for something in which to find offense. In chapter 6 (and a bit at the end of Chp 12), she succumbs to minor feminist trappings as she wrestles with the fact that there are (indeed) gender differences, and that they play out in Lewis behaved and wrote. But she feels obliged to judge books written 60 years ago by modern progressive ideals, even when Lewis gave so very little to argue with on the gender front. And in Chapters 11 and 13, she bashes Lewis for the "dark-skinned Calormenes" and their "garlic", but falls far short of making her case that Lewis was racist (against Turkish people, of all things). Apparently she doesn't want Lewis speaking ill of imaginary people groups, since that's a small step away from judging real people. Again, the modern mindset (in this case, a reluctance to refer to another country as enemies) conducts a lengthy and tedious hearing on the matter, then gives itself a congratulatory pat on the back.
She obviously has high respect for Pullman and Gainman (quoting them frequently, and giving them a venue to throw moral stones), but is very selective with her representation of them and their works, especially on issues that would demonize Lewis had he done likewise. For example, she takes the time to describe Gainmen's short story, "The Problem of Susan", but fails to mention small details like Aslan eats Susan and Lucy, and has sex with the White Witch (the short story is very graphic). Such double standards makes me skeptical of the remaining balance of the book that I otherwise might consider objective.
Despite the above reservations, Miller has done her homework, and has many intriguing and probably original ideas I would not have come up with on my own. You get the feeling that Narnia is the root structure into which she's grafted much of her literary adult life (writing the book was probably therapy for her), so it's unsurprising that she'd have some fresh insights along the way. For not sharing Lewis's faith, she did a good job describing what Lewis meant by "joy". In fact, the very idea of anti-Christian pro-Narnia literary analysis should be enough to intrigue many a reader. Those that know only one side of a viewpoint know very little of that side, and Miller book stands ready to broaden the discussion for everyone.
Miller's intentions are not entirely benign; she takes the Christian themes of Narnia very personally, and is frankly put off by them. As a self-described "skeptic," she drifted away from the religion of her youth and settled on an idea of Christianity that leaves little to be desired. And yet, The Chronicles of Narnia remain the most important books of her lifetime. How can she settle the apparent discrepancy between her unbelief and her love of books so seemingly full of belief?
Miller constructs this book in three parts, which seem to mirror the progression of her own relationship with Narnia. In the first part, she articulates all the reasons to love Narnia. It's a magical place, full of talking animals, with the appeal of a secret, private garden. Children especially identify with the world of Narnia because there, children are tested and challenged, and what they do matters. There is a satisfying weight to their thoughts and actions, and in a real world typically condescending to kids, young people find Narnia liberating.
The second section of Miller's book details her discovery of the blatant Christian themes in Narnia. This was a betrayal to her, the idea of an agenda being injected into an otherwise pure reading experience. Now that C.S. Lewis the author is revealed in Narnia, she begins to realize there are other reasons not to blindly trust in the epic. Themes of racism, sexism, and elitism are apparent in the Chronicles, all stemming from Lewis' own flaws as a person. Miller is left feeling alienated and upset, until she gets some advice from author Philip Pullman, himself a detractor of Lewis and his creative worlds. Pullman tells Miller that if she is really interested in making peace with Narnia, she must find "another way in."
The third section of The Magician's Book is a scholarly examination of the influences on Lewis at the time he wrote Narnia. The English landscape surrounding his home and haunts, his interest in Norse mythology and medieval romance, and especially his close relationship with fellow author J.R.R. Tolkein - all of these experiences factored in to the creation of Narnia as much as Lewis' conversion to Christianity. In finding evidence of these other crucial contributions to Narnia's universe, Miller is in essence "reclaiming" (as she puts it) Narnia for the readers who gain little from a Christian examination of the books.
The Magician's Book is so well-written - I was consistently impressed with Miller's thorough research and amazing ability to transition from one idea to the next. Her interviews with other authors are seamlessly woven into the path of her journey here, and I felt the contemporary views really added to my understanding. Miller doesn't require her readers to be fellow experts in the Chronicles books - she does an excellent job summarizing parts of the books under examination. The only prerequisite to enjoying Miller's effort is a love of reading, and an appreciation for the many whys and worlds involved in the creation of any given text.
Finally, While it is clear that Miller is trying to come to a heightened idea of "full circle" (love-hate-love Narnia), I must confess that I got caught up in the centrifugal force of the final turn. The third section was very heavy in research, and I felt it lost some of the more intimate tone of the first two sections. Still, I came away feeling that this book is an important companion to anyone's understanding and appreciation of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. I will also be enthusiastically recommending this as a book club read, since there is much opportunity for discussion, and I'm eager to pick the brains of other book lovers and new fans of Laura Miller.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Despite the subtitle, this book is not just for readers of C.S. Lewis.Read more