Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia is part literary history and critique, part biography, and part memoir. She combines all of these genres wonderfully in the pursuit of one goal: to convince readers that there is more to C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia than a reduction to Christian allegory.
Miller’s intentions are not entirely benign; she takes the Christian themes of Narnia very personally, and is frankly put off by them. As a self-described “skeptic,” she drifted away from the religion of her youth and settled on an idea of Christianity that leaves little to be desired. And yet, The Chronicles of Narnia remain the most important books of her lifetime. How can she settle the apparent discrepancy between her unbelief and her love of books so seemingly full of belief?
Miller constructs this book in three parts, which seem to mirror the progression of her own relationship with Narnia. In the first part, she articulates all the reasons to love Narnia. It’s a magical place, full of talking animals, with the appeal of a secret, private garden. Children especially identify with the world of Narnia because there, children are tested and challenged, and what they do matters. There is a satisfying weight to their thoughts and actions, and in a real world typically condescending to kids, young people find Narnia liberating.
The second section of Miller’s book details her discovery of the blatant Christian themes in Narnia. This was a betrayal to her, the idea of an agenda being injected into an otherwise pure reading experience. Now that C.S. Lewis the author is revealed in Narnia, she begins to realize there are other reasons not to blindly trust in the epic. Themes of racism, sexism, and elitism are apparent in the Chronicles, all stemming from Lewis’ own flaws as a person. Miller is left feeling alienated and upset, until she gets some advice from author Philip Pullman, himself a detractor of Lewis and his creative worlds. Pullman tells Miller that if she is really interested in making peace with Narnia, she must find “another way in.”
The third section of The Magician’s Book is a scholarly examination of the influences on Lewis at the time he wrote Narnia. The English landscape surrounding his home and haunts, his interest in Norse mythology and medieval romance, and especially his close relationship with fellow author J.R.R. Tolkein – all of these experiences factored in to the creation of Narnia as much as Lewis’ conversion to Christianity. In finding evidence of these other crucial contributions to Narnia’s universe, Miller is in essence “reclaiming” (as she puts it) Narnia for the readers who gain little from a Christian examination of the books.
The Magician’s Book is so well-written – I was consistently impressed with Miller’s thorough research and amazing ability to transition from one idea to the next. Her interviews with other authors are seamlessly woven into the path of her journey here, and I felt the contemporary views really added to my understanding. Miller doesn’t require her readers to be fellow experts in the Chronicles books – she does an excellent job summarizing parts of the books under examination. The only prerequisite to enjoying Miller’s effort is a love of reading, and an appreciation for the many whys and worlds involved in the creation of any given text.
Finally, While it is clear that Miller is trying to come to a heightened idea of “full circle” (love-hate-love Narnia), I must confess that I got caught up in the centrifugal force of the final turn. The third section was very heavy in research, and I felt it lost some of the more intimate tone of the first two sections. Still, I came away feeling that this book is an important companion to anyone’s understanding and appreciation of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. I will also be enthusiastically recommending this as a book club read, since there is much opportunity for discussion, and I’m eager to pick the brains of other book lovers and new fans of Laura Miller.
Thank you to Miriam Parker at Hachette Book Group for providing a review copy of this book.
*Disclosure: Affiliate links included.