Book Report: The Magician’s Book, A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia

I was interested in Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, as the Question of Narnia is a big one, and one that has occupied some interesting thoughts in on-line discussion. The experience she relates (loving Narnia as a child to the point of obsession, and then feeling betrayed upon discovering its Christian symbolism) seems to be quite common. I loved Narnia as a child, myself, although I must say I didn’t feel so much betrayed by the eventual discovery of Christian symbolism as bemused. I kept reading them.

But when I say I kept reading them, that’s what I think I did, but really I kept reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and probably Prince Caspian and The Silver Chair now and then, as well, although I remember almost nothing of them. I remember disliking The Magician’s Nephew and deliberately declining to reread it, and I don’t remember A Horse and his Boy at all. And I remember bits of The Last Battle, but not with any fondness, although I don’t remember disliking it, particularly. No, I tell a lie, I did like “further up and further in” quite a bit, although I don’t associate it with anything in the plot of that book, just with Narnia generally.

Anyway, although I know a lot of people felt a sense of betrayal, a sense that C.S. Lewis was tricking them into reading their metaphorical spinach, I never really did, although I suppose I felt somewhat awkward about the fact that it had so utterly failed. And I found Ms. Miller’s book most interesting when she interviews people about their own experiences of growing out of their childhood favorites, whether those were Narnia or not. Well, and she was very good about the xenophobic racism (or racist xenophobia—which one implies that it’s the xenophobia driving it?) in the books. My favorite part, actually, is her childhood bewilderment at the mention that the Calormenes smelled of garlic. This detail is clearly, in the book, intended to underscore how untrustworthy they are. The kitchen in Ms. Miller’s house smelled wonderfully of garlic. What’s wrong with garlic?

The answer, of course, is that garlic is un-English, and therefore untrustworthy. Or, if you prefer a synonym for untrustworthy, how about foreign. Aslan isn’t a tame lion, but he surely is an English lion.

Anyway, in conversation with my Best Reader, among others, I’ve settled on a couple of views about the Narnia series, at least for now. First is one that Ms. Miller doesn’t really address: why shouldn’t a writer of children’s fantasy tap into the most powerful myth in the culture? I mean, if somebody taps into Prometheus or Coyote or something for their book, the assumption is that the writer is using the myth to strengthen the book, not the other way around. Why, then, the Narnia thing a betrayal?

Second, which may seem to contradict the first, and which is out-on-a-limb even for me, is my belief that Mr. Lewis did not intend children to read the Narnia books with the Passion in the back of their minds. I think he intended those children, a bit later, to read the Passion with Narnia in the back of their minds. I think Mr. Lewis was concerned that when children start thinking at all seriously about the Passion, they too often lack any real way to connect with the terrifying and ancient mystery. So Narnia gives them that. In addition, Mr. Lewis spent most of his public life not just telling people to think about Christianity but telling them what to think about Christianity. I think Mr. Lewis was giving his moral lessons about bravery, loyalty and honesty in such a way that they would see those lessons in the Gospels, when they got old enough to read them. Again, I don’t think that’s a Bad Thing, and certainly not a Betrayal. I wish Ms. Miller had been qualified to go into it in detail, or to consult people who were, but then I suppose it wouldn’t have been a skeptic’s book, would it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

3 thoughts on “Book Report: The Magician’s Book, A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia

  1. ruthling

    I remember being angry at the end of the Chronicles of Narnia, not because I’d been fed some specifically Christian stuff, but because the whole thing didn’t make sense to me. I felt like I’d been preached at and misled, but didn’t know enough about Christian mythology to understand the references. I hadn’t seen it coming at all.

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  2. Vardibidian

    Yeah, I think (if I remember correctly) that Neil Gaiman (or perhaps it was Stephen Fry) told the author that his theological/social/political objections to The Last Battle came later, and that when he was a kid, he was mostly upset that the book stunk.

    Thanks,
    -V.

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  3. Matt

    It bothers me that the comments login info doesn’t get remembered, when I check Remember personal info. Just saying.

    I don’t have the weird romanticism about Narnia that a lot of people seem to have. I think by the time I read it, I already knew it was crypto-Christian propaganda, for some reason. I came to it late, for one thing – it was easily sixth grade before I read any of it, and I never had any of it read to me. I took the crypto-Taoist Pooh books at my pappy’s knee, you see. I read The Hobbit long before I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (at least by the calculus of the age – “long before” probably means I read The Hobbit in fifth grade…), so I was kind of meh’d about Lewis by the time I got around to him. Dawn Treader and Caspian captured my imagination, but little else did. The Horse and His Boy seems like a weird attempt to combine Rudyard Kipling with the Black Beauty books, and I never cottoned to it (although I couldn’t have articulated it that way lo, these twenty-five years ago).

    I tried to read some of the books as a precursor to reading them to the urchin, and I found I liked The Magician’s Nephew, or at least as much as I liked TLtWatW, and what an awkward thing to pronounce, anyway. I got bogged down with His Boy, never really paid much attention to The Horse, and haven’t actually returned.

    peace
    Matt

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