Narnia, Middle Earth, and Literature: Reading Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book

I bought and read Salon book reviewer Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia because of an observation she made in an interview about it:

When you’re writing children’s books, or writing about children’s books, there is this feeling that the loss of innocence is just a loss. Lots of the great children’s books’ writers were obsessed with childhood and their desire to go back to childhood. But [Philip] Pullman’s idea is that there’s something adolescent about just being disillusioned. Many people, in any situation — it could be a love relationship, or how you feel about Barack Obama — get stuck at the stage of disillusionment. But Pullman is saying that you have to persevere, and then put effort into something, and if you do that, you can come to an enlarged understanding, and that is, in its own way, a kind of grace.

While I still enjoy reading children’s books – I own all the Harry Potters even though I don’t have any kids – I am not nostalgic for childhood. I can remember how much I wanted to be grown up when I was young, and I find myself much more interested in the wisdom that comes from experience and effort than I am in innocence.

If you train hard in martial arts, you eventually progress from white belt to black belt. And if you train long enough, wear and tear on that black belt will take it back to white. That’s a metaphor for the goal of beginner’s mind. But beginner’s mind is not simply regained innocence; it’s the openmindedness of innocence built on the base of experience.

In The Magician’s Book, Miller – who was enthralled by Narnia as a child, and then horrified as a teenager to discover that the books were also Christian allegory – is applying that same principle to the Chronicles of Narnia. She writes in the book:

But what if I decided to know even more, to learn more, about how the Chronicles came to be written and all the various ways and can be read? Then I might arrive “somewhere at the back” and find a door open. Not the original one, not the wardrobe itself, but another kind of door, perhaps, with a different version of paradise on the other side.

And that’s exactly what she does in The Magician’s Book. She looks at the life and contradictions of C.S. Lewis, talks to a lot of people who loved the books, and devotes a good bit of space to the relationship between Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (who apparently didn’t think much of the Narnia books because – unlike his own painstakingly created Middle Earth – Narnia was a hash of culture and traditions).

Die-hard Tolkien fans may be disturbed by Miller’s take on The Lord of the Rings. She writes:

I approached [the trilogy just before leaving for college] with a diligence that that now strikes me as bizarre; it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I was able to read it for pure, escapist pleasure. By that point, I recognized that, much as I liked it, Tolkien’s freakishly prodigious powers of invention could not supply the book with what four years of studying English literature had led me to expect from a great novel. I relished The Lord of the Rings and reread it several times since then. … But by the time I left college I had read Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Absalom, Absalom! and Crime and Punishment – to name just three books with related themes – and knew they sounded depths that Tolkien never touched.

The Magician's BookI must admit that I was taken aback at first. The Lord of the Rings got me through law school. I re-read it every semester during finals, usually starting somewhere in the middle with the idea of taking “a short study break,” but inevitably re-reading the complete trilogy by the end of the term, which probably explains my grade point average. I didn’t like law school much, so I suspect part of the attraction was a world in which morality, rather than legal pragmatism, ruled. But a recent re-read – when the movies came out – didn’t enchant me in the same way it had when I was young.

On reflection, I think Miller is right about Tolkien, though I interpret her criticism as criticism of Tolkien (and the far too many Tolkien imitators, which I can’t read either), not as criticism of fantasy per se. My own list of great books would certainly have science fiction and fantasy authors on it – Ursula K. Le Guin, Gwyneth Jones, Samuel Delany, Pullman, to name a few – but I don’t think I’d put Tolkien there any more.

(As an aside, I’d currently put Toni Morrison on the list, particularly for Beloved, which – by the way – is both horrifically realistic and fantasy. And Morrison’s use of fantasy to tell this story makes it even more real – one of the reasons why I ended up reading and writing speculative fiction in the first place. The truth is not a recitation of facts.)

I read the Narnia books as an adult and I treated the Christian allegory aspects in the same way that I dealt with the sexism – I noticed it, but ignored it for purposes of enjoying the story. (Without that skill, I’d never have been able to enjoy most adventure stories, and I love a good adventure story.) So I never experienced either the rapture Miller felt on discovering the books a child nor the disillusionment she later came to.

But even reading as an adult I wanted to visit Narnia, if only to get a few ideas about my own ideal world. Miller’s take on the books has given me some new ways to think about both C.S. Lewis and reading in general.

And that’s what I want from every book I read – fiction or non-fiction: something to think about after I put the book down.

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Nancy Jane’s story this week is “The Dog at the End of the World.” Her collection Conscientious Inconsistencies is available from PS Publishing and her novella Changeling can be ordered from Aqueduct Press.

Check out Nancy Jane Moore’s Bookshelf for more stories.

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