Archive for November 2011

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

4 November 2011
Categories: From the armchair

My experience with The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis is much like that of Laura Miller, which she describes in The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia: love, then betrayal, followed years later by warm reconciliation.

I was brought up in a secular household. We almost never went to church, except on rare occasions such as Christmas Eve services with Grandma (who, I suspect, liked church more for its social aspects than its religious ones), and the first communions of my cousins, who were raised Catholic. As a kid with limited exposure to it, religion was always something alien and perplexing to me.

Nevertheless, the Chronicles were some of my favourite books in my youth. At age eight I was given a box set of paperbacks (the 1970 Collier/Macmilllan printing) and devoured them repeatedly. Even in my earliest readings I was able to spot many of the more obvious allusions, like the Crucifixion and Resurrection in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the Creation in The Magician’s Nephew, and the Day of Judgment in The Last Battle. I saw these similarities and shrugged them off; if Lewis had borrowed some themes from the Bible and Christianity, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the books (although the conclusion of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, with the lamb that turns out to be Aslan, always seemed anti-climactic after the rollicking adventure that preceded it).

I outgrew the books and moved on to other reading, keeping Narnia as a fondly remembered piece of my childhood. Meanwhile, by the time I reached my teenage years, I was an avowed atheist. Partly this was a typical teenager’s know-it-all attitude: “you can’t prove nothin’ to me.” Partly it was a form of quiet rebellion against what I saw as grating and superfluous aspects of Scouting, with its Oath (“…to do my duty to God and my country…”) and Law (“a scout is… reverent”). Who needs God when you’re learning to tie a clove hitch, or finding your way to the next campsite using only a map and a compass? Intellect alone will get the job done.

Then, in my early twenties, when I was still profoundly atheistic and a stubborn know-it-all, I ran across a slim paperback in a used bookstore: Narnia Revealed by Paul A. Karkainen. It’s not a particularly good book—yet another exegesis among many, detailing every little bit of Christian symbolism and metaphor in a dry litany—but its hype-y jacket copy caught my eye: the real meaning behind the Narnia books! I skimmed it and the dawning awareness was a dope-slap to my forebrain: Clive Staples Lewis wasn’t just borrowing themes here and there, the whole thing is Christianity’s tenets, retold! He was trying to convert me! That sneaky bastard!

The feeling I had was, simply, betrayal. I turned my back on Narnia and closed off a little bit of my magical youth.

It was many years later, having found some semblance of spirituality within myself (not through organized religion, mind you) and having become a (hopefully) far more open-minded agnostic, that I returned to the Narnia books and was pleased to find that, despite their trappings, they remain quite excellent children’s stories. That magic, regardless of its putative intent, had not been lost.

Which is why Miller’s book is such a breath of fresh air: it’s a departure from most critical analyses of the Chronicles, and shares a new appreciation for the books from a secular perspective. Instead of mere exegesis, she discusses the Chronicles for their literary qualities, only delving into their Christian aspects where needed to illustrate some of Lewis’s intentions—as a writer, rather than an evangelist. As a result, The Magician’s Book is an intriguing and thoughtful look at Narnia, its place in the pantheon of children’s literature, and most of all: an insightful look at not merely how we learn to read, but how we become readers.


Meanwhile, as a lengthy aside… Like Miller, I too have a strong preference for reading the books in their publication order. This is a deeply dividing argument, and much has been written on both sides (including this excellent run-down). The present executors of Lewis’s estate have come down on the side of strict story chronology, but there are definite artistic reasons for preferring publication order—the moments of initial discovery in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are ruined if the reader has already seen Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew. And I tend to suspect, as Miller does, that Lewis was “just being kind to his young correspondent” when he wrote, “I think I agree with your [chronological] order for reading the books.”

I remember, as I read The Magician’s Nephew for the first time, being perplexed by its disconnect from the Narnia of the previous books (just as I had been with its predecessor The Horse and His Boy, which except for a pair of talking horses doesn’t seem very “Narnian” for most of its length). When the creation of Narnia is revealed, and it becomes apparent that The Magician’s Nephew is taking place long before the events of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, little eight-year-old me had a moment of smug satisfaction: Aha! those idiot bookmakers numbered the books out of order!

I was savvy enough, even at that young age, to look at the publication dates, to see that the books were indeed numbered in order of their publication. I begrudgingly acceded to the numbering—although I might have placed them in their box in chronological order for a while.

Yet one of the reasons the Chronicles are important to me, and my development as a reader, is that they were the very first to expose me to a simple but effective narrative device: the flashback. Being able to place that entire story outside of its “normal” order was an important step in my increasing understanding of How Stories Work. Sadly, the reprints have stolen that learning moment from subsequent generations of readers, and those readers will have to find it elsewhere.

Another thing that bugs me, beyond the more important ways in which the reordering ruins certain artistic aspects of the books, is how the reordering is handled in the preface to the reprints:

“Although The Magician’s Nephew was written several years after C. S. Lewis first began The Chronicles of Narnia, he wanted it to be read as the first book in the series. Harper Collins is happy to present these books in the order which Professor Lewis preferred.”

This flat statement of fact, without qualification or context, carries the same air of smug, we-know-better, self-satisfaction that I had at age eight—and, in my opinion, is just as juvenile.