Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Magician's Book

I've been giving my grumpy side free rein lately, so I figured I should write about a book I really like: Laura Miller's The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia (Little, Brown, 2008). Though, as the title makes clear, Miller's focus is on C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, the subject of the book is reading -- what it means to be a reader, how one learns to read, and the complex relationship between the writer, the writing, and the reader.

Miller was handed a copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by a teacher when she was in second grade. For a few years she read and reread the series, though she also read and loved other books too. But as she grew older, things changed.
Although I miss the childhood experience of being engulfed by a story, I would not willingly surrender my adult ability to recognize when a writer is taking me someplace I don't want to go. In my early teens, I discovered what is instantly obvious to any adult reader: that the Chronicles of Narnia are filled with Christian symbolism and that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe offers a parallel account of the Passion of Christ. I'd been raised as a Catholic, but what faith I'd had was never based on anything more than the fact that children tend to believe whatever adults tell them. As soon as I acquired any independence of thought, I drifted away from the Church and what I saw as its endless proscriptions and requirements, its guilt-mongering and tedious rituals. So I was horrified to discover that the Chronicles of Narnia, the joy of my childhood and the cornerstone of my imaginative life, were really just the doctrines of the church in disguise. I looked back at my favorite book and found it appallingly transfigured. Of course, the self-sacrifice of Aslan to compensate for the treachery of Edmund was exactly like the crucifixion of Christ to pay off the sins of mankind! How could I have missed that? I felt angry and humiliated because I have been fooled [6].
About ten years ago, Miller was assigned to write about the book that had meant the most to her, so she reread the Chronicles of Narnia to see how she responded to them as an adult.
When I finally came back to Narnia, I found that, for me, it had not lost its power or its beauty, or at least not entirely. Although I am a little bit abashed about this ... the radiant books of my youth still seem radiant to me. Yet there are aspects of Narnia I can no longer embrace with the childish credulousness that [Graham] Greene describes. ... Nevertheless, what I dislike about Narnia no longer eclipses what I love about it, and the contents of my own mind still have the capacity to surprise me when I study them carefully enough [8].
It's not easy to review a book. There's so much going in any text of any length that it's hard to keep track of it all. I was always nervous when I did book reviewing that I'd make some awful embarrassing mistake. Reviewers do this, as any fan of a book will know. The book editor of the Seattle Times, for example, smooshed together Miller's original encounter with Narnia with her disillusionment:
Literary critic Laura Miller first passed through the Narnia portal in the second grade. She was raised Catholic but had fallen away from what she calls the church's "guilt-mongering and tedious rituals." She writes, "I was horrified to discover that the Chronicles of Narnia, the joy of my childhood and the cornerstone of my imaginative life, were really just the doctrine of the Church in disguise."
If Miller could have read the Chronicles that way in the second grade, she probably would never have come to love them: her disillusionment was deepened by her earlier acceptance of the tale. She would also have been remarkably precocious, since few if any second-graders can spot multiple meanings in stories this way; many adults never manage to do it. The reviewer continues:
But Miller could never escape Narnia's spell, and in "The Magician's Book," she returns to the landscape of Narnia to search for its deeper meaning.
To her credit, the reviewer acknowledges, "It's a journey of great pleasure -- Miller is a wise, down-to-earth and often funny narrator. The result is one of the best books about stories and their power that I have ever read." Here I agree on every point; I'd only add that it is also a book about readers and their power, how we learn to understand stories in all their richness.

The Magician's Book contains a wealth of ideas and stories, partly the result of following up her original assignment. Miller interviewed many fans and critics of Narnia, starting with the teacher who first gave her the book.
Long before I learned of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, before it was even written, a twelve-year-old girl named Wilanne Belden walked two miles once a week to the library in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, to check out the maximum quantity of five books. It was the Depression, and buying any book was a luxury. The deal Wilanne's parents struck with her was that if she checked out the same title from the library three times, and read it from cover to cover, she could have a copy of her own. This arrangement worked well enough until Wilanne discovered what would become her favorite book, J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit (then in its first edition, before even Tolkien himself knew the significance of Bilbo Baggins's magic ring). The Hobbit is long for a children's book, and by the time she had read it three times, it had gone out of stock in bookstores. Buying a copy was no longer an option. So Wilanne decided to make her own, checking the book out of the library over and over again, typing up a couple dozen pages at a time using two fingers on the family's manual typewriter. She got as far as page 107 before the book returned to the stores [21].
This story won me over completely. I made my own handwritten copies of poems I liked in high school, copied from Louis Untermeyer's anthologies, not so much because I couldn't afford the books themselves (though I couldn't), but because copying them out by hand helped me to concentrate on the poems. And I recognize that craving to own a copy of a book one loves.

I'm lucky, because I still get immersed, lost, in books I'm reading. Not always, of course, but often enough. Sometimes it even happens with non-fiction, as it did with parts of The Magician's Book.

The Seattle Times reviewer concluded, "It will come as no surprise that the rift between Miller, a bright young girl grown older and wiser, and Lewis, a magician of stories and their power, ends in reconciliation." I don't think "reconciliation" is the right word, though of course it's the kind of thing many people like to believe. Miller remains a "skeptic," as her subtitle labels her, and she remains critical of Lewis as man and, more important, as writer. Though the books are still "radiant" for her, she probably dislikes more about Narnia than she did as a teenager, because she's older and more knowledgeable now. That, I think, is part of what it means to be an adult: to be able to love without blinding oneself to the shortcomings of the beloved, and perhaps also to separate the artist from the art.

One Amazon user complained that Miller didn't cut Lewis much slack, but I think that only an idolatrous fan could think so; Miller cuts him a great deal of slack, more than most of his Christian fans seem to be able to do. Because they can't admire him or his work while admitting any failings at all, they have to deny, excuse, explain them away. "C. S. Lewis’s most devoted Christian readers regard his writings as, if not quite sacred, then at least sacralized," Miller says. "For them, the temptation to deny that he held a lot of objectionable opinions is very strong" (171). Anyone who can see Lewis more or less whole must be wholly on the other side; there is no middle ground. It's odd, but not at all unusual, I think, that it's Christians -- who like to suppose that only they really grasp human imperfection (or "sinfulness") -- who refuse to see any imperfection in someone like Lewis, and a non-Christian like Miller who, because she doesn't see Lewis as a saint, doesn't need to deny that he had feet of clay.

There's more I'd like to write about The Magician's Book, but it'll keep until later. Happy Labor Day!