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The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia Paperback – December 2, 2009
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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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Miller for years has been principal literary critic for Salon.com, the original and perhaps best of the internet-only publishing ventures. My reading (and listening - Miller knows audiobooks and I commute in LA traffic) have been almost exclusively shaped by her tastes. I don't regret that a bit.
Laura Miller fell in love, at the age of eight - with a book. "First loves are famously tenacious," she writes, one reason that she finds herself returning, decades later to the magical universe that was Narnia. Readers of this book are the beneficiaries of her quest to understand the compelling power of the written word and the imaginary worlds authors create for both childrean and adults.
Her goal is to answer one of the most difficult questions in the world of art as a whole: "how to acknowledge an author's darker side without losing the ability to enjoy and value the book." That's a conundrum that all of us have confronted at some point. Virginia Woolf was a snob, as Miller points out, while T.S. Eliot was anti-semitic. Wagner's music - and the myths the underlay his operas - were part of the foundation for Hitler's racist philosophies. Musicians and artists collaborated with loathsome regimes.
Miller's specific problem is how to reconcile her growing disaffection with organized religion ("Christianity as I knew it offered such a drab, grinding, joyless view of life") with the wondrous universe of Narnia as portrayed by Lewis - and specifically her realization, at the age of 13, that Lewis had written the books as a sort of Christian text/fairy tale. "I felt betrayed," she admits. Moreover, despite her obsession with the world of Narnia, Lewis's efforts to win this particular reader as a convert bore no fruit, although she admits that "if any books could have persuaded me, it would have been these," she admits. But what is intriguing is Miller's recognition today that while she may not have been impelled to become religious, she had definitely internalized the morality of Narnia - an underlying morality that lies at the heart of any organized religion. The character of Edmund, she writes, may not have immediately struck her as an example of original sin. But he offered a moral lesson, nonetheless, as a boy whose Judas-like betrayals "had been made up of many littler, unchecked moments of spite and ire that I could easily have indulged in myself." Meanwhile, reading about Lucy's goodness, she could see how that made the fictional character happier "and drew her closer to other people." Even while still unconscious of the overt religious message, the moral lesson was clear. "These books communicated really deep, why-are-we-here, life-and-death concepts to me," she writes.
But the religious element is simply the jumping off-point (and a recurring theme) for Miller in this graceful and eloquent book. Ultimately, it reads as half a literary memoir of Miller as a reader - her evolution from a passionate bookish child into a more critical adult able to draw new kinds of conclusions about the merit of a book. It is in that light that she returns to the Narnia chronicles and explores Lewis's other writings - his autobiographical volumes and letters as well as his apologetics. In the process, she does an admirable job of exploring and explaining just what it is about fictional worlds that enrapture us throughout our lives. On one level, this is a thoughtful rumination on numerous aspects of the Narnia chronicles - the impact of Lewis's fascination with Norse myths and medieval romances on the books, for instance, as well as the literary friendship between Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein (of Lord of the Rings fame). But just as the Narnia books operate on multiple levels, so does Miller's book. Ultimately, the latter tackles the most fundamental question of all, the nature of the relationship between a reader and the novels they consume (or, in the case of Miller, myself and countless other biblioholics, devour.)
Tackling the Narnia books is a perilous undertaking, on many levels. To those with strong Christian views, they are beyond criticism in some sense, because of their content and their author. They also are canonical children's books, and as such, prized by many who, like Miller, adored them but who, unlike her, are uncomfortable critically reassessing them as adults. (Indeed, she notes, the genre of children's literature, however crucial it is in shaping our imaginations, tastes and personalities "belong to a class of literature, that, in the opinion of many, doesn't merit serious critical consideration." The magnitude of the challenge notwithstanding, Miller forges ahead to tackle - often with visible discomfort - the flaws that she as an adult can now detect in this once-idolized author. Lewis was misogynistic and elitist - and she even points to elements of racism in the Narnia novels.
Some reviewers choose to focus on the fact that Miller is returning to these books as an agnostic. But I detected no hostility toward religion - more of a lack of comprehension that she wants to resolve. Why, since these books now so clearly appear to be religious and even polemical, did they play such a formative role in her life? (She does reach a conclusion, albeit one that feels somewhat forced; she has found her own need for a kind of apologetics.)
Ultimately, this is a deeply personal book, however much Miller's strong reportage - including interviews with fellow childhood fans of Narnia and other literary figures - and literary analysis may seem sometime to dominate the narrative. Any review, in my opinion, is therefore more likely to be highly subjective. To me, this was a wonderful, erudite and provocative look at not only a series of specific books, but at the nature of what it means to be a reader. As such, and because of the beauty of Miller's own writing, I have to award it 4.5 stars.
(For the record, I wasn't one of the children like Miller who became enraptured by Narnia. Instead, I wanted to join the troupe of children that Arthur Ransome wrote about in a series of novels that I still possess, decades later, beginning with Swallows and Amazons.)