The Magician’s Book, by Laura Miller

The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, by Laura Miller

Little, Brown and Company, 2008. 320 pages.

Narnia is shrouded in darkness. The harsh King Miraz, uncle to the throne’s heir, Prince Caspian, rules the land, and has made certain any memory of “the old days” (as Caspian calls them) is stamped out. But Caspian—having heard tales of Satyrs and Fauns, Nymphs and Dwarfs, Talking Beasts and all manner of magical creatures—longs for more than the drab castle in which he lives. Risking torture and death, Caspian’s new tutor, Doctor Cornelius, sneaks the young prince to the top of the highest tower overlooking the land, and revels to him two secrets. First, the stories of old Narnia are true. Second, Cornelius himself is the proof, a living relic: He is a half-Dwarf!

 As a being naturally uncomfortable in a land of Men, not to mention bigoted and cruel men, Cornelius has long searched for his kin: “Sometimes I have thought I heard a Dwarf-drum in the mountains. Sometimes at night, in the woods, I thought I had caught a glimpse of Fauns and Satyrs dancing a long way off; but when I came to the place, there was never anything there. I have often despaired; but something always happens to start me hoping again. I don’t know.” 

Caspian is shaken, simultaneously thrilled and terrified by his tutor’s nature; the boy’s fantasy has been revealed as true. He has discovered the Numinous. In another of Lewis’ work, The Problem of Pain, the author explains the concept:

Those who have not met this term may be introduced to it by the following device. Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would probably know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told ‘There is a ghost in the next room’, and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is ‘uncanny’ rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply ‘There is a mighty spirit in the room’, and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking—a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it—an emotion which might be expressed in Shakespeare’s words ‘Under it my genius is rebuked’. This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous.

 Laura Miller’s fine book is in large part an exploration of wonder. At nine she was lent a copy of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and was transported to a new land; the strength of her desire for this land would never be eclipsed, even into adulthood.

 I was a little apprehensive picking The Magician’s Book up for the reason I avoid books about Narnia by Christians. I rather imagine the latter as dull catalogs of the parallel images in the Gospels and the Chronicles. I thought this book would be some experiment to try to strip Christianity from the Chronicles, or perhaps an argument against them predicated on the faith’s nasty influence on children. I was happily proven wrong.

 Miller is a religious skeptic, true, and has hard things to say about the faith. But she does not set out to attack Lewis’ work as some pernicious attempt to brainwash the young and credulous. She loved the books as a girl, and while her heart was broken at thirteen years of age when she discovered the books’ Christian understanding, she remembers her experience fondly, even with yearning. Because she may not be able to look at the Chronicles now without coming face to face with Lewis’ faith, but she retains that first, unsullied experience. I sympathize with Miller. The way some people talk you’d think the Chronicles were a sort of Sunday School textbook. (A worksheet idea: Two columns, the first containing scenes and characters from Narnia, the second containing scenes and characters from the Bible. Match them up! Example: The ropes that bind Aslan are analogous to the tefillin of the Pharisees.) Narnia seemingly meant less to the young me than it did to other children, a fact I attribute to that world being explained to me much too soon. When it is established that a world like Narnia must be explained and understood by our own world, then Narnia ceases to be a world of its own. When the Chronicles became a sort of Children’s Edition of the New Testament, I lost interest. Not because I found the New Testament uninteresting, but because I had already got the New Testament and I preferred it not to be watered down by stories for children.

 A man once complained of a tendency of his aunt’s. It seems she was a terrific painter, and enjoyed nothing more than landscapes. But she felt guilty in painting for the sake of painting, so at the bottom of each finished painting she would write a verse from the Bible. Her paintings, the man observed, became mere illustrations of Bible verses. Now there is no problem with Biblical illustrations, but nor is there a problem with painting for its own good. Lewis didn’t write The Chronicles of Narnia to be pedagogical. He did not set out to write an extended allegory (a point which Miller thoroughly puts to rest, explaining at length the nature and purpose of an allegory, in Lewis’ own words), nor did he write an Everyman morality story. He wrote, rather, a series of fantastical novels for children.

 Miller grasps all this thoroughly. To understand the Chronicles, she argues, you must read them as a child. Children thrill at talking animals, at characters their own age doing heroic things (without anyone condescending to marvel at their feats despite their youth), at magic and adventure and all the rest. They do not thrill at parsing parallel meanings in texts, and allegory cheapens the adventure. Besides, children are under a restriction of language. To them, as Miller explains at length, Jesus was a bearded man in robes and sandals who lived in a desert country here on Earth. Aslan was a lion who lived in the woods in a different world altogether. Children’s understanding of language prevents them from a phenomenological understanding of Jesus Christ, and they cannot properly see the Jesusness in Aslan. This is why we teach children bible stories and graduate to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans later on when abstractions are a bit easier to get hold of.

 I’m less convinced Miller understands why the Chronicles are, then, so very Christian. Lewis was one (a Christian), but that only goes so far. He may have known few children as an adult but having been one once himself, he’d seemed to held on to the important bits of childhood. He remembered the wonder he felt at, for example, Wagner’s Ring Cycle and George MacDonald’s Phantastes; he didn’t remember the life lessons, the morals, the instruction he got from them. He was not being sneaky, trying to trick children into learning the gospel truths. Nor was he, of course, writing for adults, who would “get it”.

 To a certain extent Lewis was exhibiting the natural and acceptable desire for his readers to return to his books. He was thoroughly bookish by nature; he did not simply read, he dwelt on books, and they stayed with him. In that sense the Christianity of the Chronicles is an Easter egg, or series of eggs, to be found later. The eight-year-old may “only” enjoy an excellent fairy story. That same child may come back four or five years later and enjoy the story on a new, yet unseen level. Naturally some children will react as Laura Miller did; she was scandalized, betrayed, appalled upon her eventual discovery of the bald faith of the stories (she first read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe at nine, first discovered its Christianity at thirteen). The egg she found, in other words, seemed to smell funny.

 But on a deeper level Lewis wanted children to experience the Numinous at a young age. Miller revisits Narnia because she remembers her profound love for that imaginary place, and growing out of it. She cannot reclaim or rediscover the wonder, the joy of that place, and the series, while it has had a lasting effect on her life, is essentially relegated to childish nostalgia. She experiences wonder vicariously through her three-year-old friends, but does not feel it herself. Lewis’ tales acknowledge the adult’s difficulty finding joy again. He does not treat children’s imagination as gullibility or a lack of sophistication to be humored for a time; he treats imagination as spiritual vulnerability and openness. Incidentally this is another reason the Chronicles cannot be passed off as allegory or mere allusion. They are as profoundly theologically speculative as his space trilogy; he was clearly fascinated with the soteriological implications of other life. Narnia is not a mere fairy story; the land existed parallel to our own, and beings from each world travelled to and from the other. In the space trilogy, at least five different sentient species interact with the Creator in different ways. Close-mindedness to the possibility of other life may be seen as a form of covetousness. Lewis used the different worlds with their different beings as a way to explore the untold depths of the mystery of life with God (see also his speculations on gender at the end of Perelandra).

 Thus the joy found in fairy tales is a foretaste of the joy found in the spiritual life. Children do not recognize this, nor ought they have to. To explain it away is to sap the experience of the thrill of it, the healthful fear of the unknown, of things larger than oneself, but also the love of beauty. So when Miller says something like “Narnia and Aslan wanted me to be happy. Jesus wanted me to be miserable,” you know something is amiss. That sort of sentiment is heartbreaking. Miller explains a child’s inability to quite understand the Jesusness of Aslan, bound by childish understanding, but she, looking back as an adult, still does not see past her childish understanding of Aslan and Jesus.

 Some of Miller’s religious confusion, however, seems willful. A few examples:

 She recalls a crisis of faith she had as a child. She heard in catechism that unbaptized babies who died would be condemned to eternity in limbo. She was upset that there weren’t hard and fast answers as to why such and such was the case, or presumed to be the case—it was too hazy; but one gets the impression she would have found a point-by-point justification of the theory to be a little too neat.

 Elsewhere, she muses for some pages on Freudian interpretations of Lewis and his work, because he may or may not have been influenced by Freud, whose sway was great at that time. But because Freud was popular in Lewis’ time does not justify her Freudian evaluation of Lewis. Nor does her implication that all Christian believers may just be closet sadomasochists hold water just because Lewis struggled with that attraction.

 She objects to the fact no piece of Christian art has touched her as much as the sensuousness of Lucy and Susan touching Aslan in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, accusing the centuries of Christian iconography to be filled with little more than “mangled eroticism.”

 She says of pity, “we pity those we regard as less than ourselves: animals or simpletons.” This only intensifies the insult when only a few pages later she says of Graham Greene, “[he] was a Catholic who was unfortunate enough not to lapse and this made him morose.”

 Finally she cites Puddleglum’s (the Marsh-wiggle in The Silver Chair) defiance of the Green Lady as Lewis’ defense of theism. In that story the witch has almost convinced the four heroes their memory of life outside of bondage to her is a dream. Puddleglum breaks the spell, saying, “Four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow.” Miller construes this as Lewis saying, “Well, maybe there isn’t much good reason to defend Christianity, but it’s a nice, warming idea” (my words).

 I don’t feel compelled to answer these or other claims because, as I said, I suspect they aren’t sincere. Miller makes it clear she rejects the faith because she finds it uninteresting. And besides, Narnia is the wrong context to argue doctrine. If Miller had taken issue with Lewis’ faith in Mere Christianity or Screwtape, that would have been one thing. But the Chronicles are rather more about the mysterious depths of spiritual sensation. The same thrill children feel at a wonderful story, whether The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe or Squirrel Nutkin can be felt through communion with God. Indeed, a child’s reaction to a good fairy story is a foretaste of that deeper, more satisfying spiritual realization.

 * * *

 Miller’s book is much about the spirituality of Narnia and her difficulty with it. But I can only underemphasize the loveliness of the other bits. I had an epiphany while reading The Magician’s Book. I began this post in the scene from Prince Caspian wherein Caspian and Cornelius stand looking over the ramparts of the high tower, star-gazing, pursuing the thrill of a deeper reality. I was not as much affected as a child by Narnia as I was by, say, Brian Jacques’ Redwall books. But I realized, thinking of Caspian’s epiphany, that it is those same ramparts my mind’s eye sees when it watches the advance of Birnam Forest (Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5) (And for the record, I read Macbeth many years after the Chronicles). Such is the impact Lewis’ stories have had on my imagination. Miller’s search for the British inspirations for Narnia’s landscape is endearing, however elusive she realizes her goal to be.

 When not dabbling in Freudianism, Miller’s treatment of the psychology of Lewis in writing the Chronicles is rewarding. He was a man trapped in a society of a sort of gentlemanly machismo. We can guess how encouraged he’d feel sharing his children’s fairy stories to his friends the Inklings when, upon J. R. R. Tolkien sharing an installment of the Lord of the Rings, Hugo Dyson exclaimed, “Not another fucking elf!” Miller finds in the character of Lucy Pevensie a rough analog of Lewis, or perhaps a projection. The little girl heroine, under no obligation to perform feats of might in battle, signifies the soft, tender side of Lewis’ spirituality. She, more than any other human character in the Chronicles, makes herself spiritually vulnerable, open to the Numinous.

 “People,” Miller writes, “read criticism of works they already know well because they hope to expand their understanding, perhaps even to relive the experience through someone else. Great critics show us new dimensions of a book or a film, but they also articulate what it feels like to encounter the work, a sensation many of us can’t adequately capture on our own.” I enjoyed The Magician’s Book because it was nice to walk back through Narnia with someone else who knew the land. I suspect Miller may disagree with me on this point; she feels the books are much more personal to readers, and tells of how regardless of how enamored she was with the stories as a child, she never shared them with anyone. But this book never would have been written if she had not wanted to share her love with Narnia, no matter how conflicted that love has become. Nor would the Chronicles have ever been written. In the end, it is by Lewis speaking through Doctor Cornelius we can understand why he wrote his fair stories: “You [, Caspian] may well ask why I say [these things] at all. But I have two reasons. Firstly, because my old heart has carried these secret memories so long that it aches with them and would burst if I did not whisper them to you. But secondly, for this: that when you become King you may help us, for I know that you also, Telmarine though you are, love the Old Things.”

Related:

Book website.

Author’s Salon.com feed.

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This entry was posted in Animals, Bibliophilia, Book Review, Criticism, Non-Fiction, Spirituality and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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