Recommended reading: The Magician's Book
Tuesday, July 06, 2021
Last week I met a friend in our village churchyard (an outdoor, Covid-safe setting) to talk about Narnia, prompted by our reading of From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia With My Nine Year-Old Self by Katherine Langrish, among other C.S. Lewis-related works. During our long, rich conversation, I was reminded of an earlier volume: The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller, published back in 2008 -- so I went home and pulled the book off the shelf to give it a second read.
In The Magician's Book (as in the new Langrish volume), Miller examines her personal relationship with the Chronicles; explores C.S. Lewis's life and literary influences; and casts a shrewd eye over the underlying themes of the Narnia sequence. The two authors cover similar ground and yet these are two markedly different books -- largely because Miller (raised in California) and Langrish (raised in the north of England) had very different lives as children and are very different writers today: one a literary critic, and one a folklorist and author of children's fiction. Each of the books has its clear strengths and to chose between them comes down to personal taste. For me, the Narnia evoked by Langrish is closer to the one I wandered in my own youth -- and yet, reading Miller's text brings strong flashes of recognition too. She is particularly insightful on the differences between Lewis's and Tolkien's work, on the syncretism of Lewis's imagination, and on the influence of William Morris on the early fantasy genre as a whole. The chief difference between these two paeans to Narnia is that Miller views the Chronicles through a distinctly American lens, Langrish through an English one; thus reading their books in tandem makes for a rather interesting conversation between them.
Having already given you a taste of From Spare Oom to War Drobe, here's a snippet from The Magician's Book. In an early chapter, Miller writes of her young passion for Narnia:
"Do the children who prefer books set in the real, ordinary, workaday world ever read as obsessively as those who would much rather be transported into other worlds entirely? Once I began to confer with other people who had loved the Chronicles as children, I kept hearing stories, like my own, of countless, intoxicated re-readings. 'I would read other books of course,' wrote the novelist Neil Gaiman, 'but in my heart I knew that I read them only because there wasn't an infinite number of Narnia books.' Later, when I had the chance to talk with him about the Chronicles in person, he told me, 'The weird thing about the Narnia books for me was that mostly they seemed true. There was a level on which I was absolutely willing at age six, age seven, to accept them as a profound and real truth. Unquestioned, there was definitely a Narnia. This stuff had happened. These were reports from a real place.'
"Most of us persuaded our parents to buy us boxed sets of all seven Chronicles, but I also saved up my allowance and occasional small cash gifts from relatives to buy a hardcover copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, one of the few times in my life I've ever succumbed to the collector's impulse....This was not about obtaining a possession, but about securing a portal. I was not yet capable of thinking about it in this way, but I'd been enthralled by the most elementary of readerly metaphors: A little girl opens the hinged door of some commonplace piece of household furniture and steps through it into another world. I opened the hinged cover of a book and did the same.
"Why did I fall so hard and so completely, and why was a land of fauns and centaurs and talking animals so exactly what I wanted to read about? Not long ago, a friend told me about her nine-year-old daughter's infatuation with Narnia. My friend had grown up loving historical novels about 'prairie girls,' and while she didn't disapprove of her daughter's appetite for fantasy, it baffled her. 'I just don't get it,' she complained.
"If you had asked me at the same age why I liked The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe better than, say, Little Women or any other story that was about lives more like my own, I wouldn't have been able to answer; it seemed crazy to prefer anything else. The best analogy I can make is a corny one, to the film version of The Wizard of Oz and that famous moment when Dorothy ventures out of the drab, black-and-white farmhouse that's carried her all the way from drab, black-and-white Kansas and into the Technicolor of Oz. Who in her right mind would poke her head out for just a sec, then slam the door shut, and shout, 'Take me back to Kansas'?
"Once upon a time, people used to label the kind of book I would come to crave -- the kind 'with magic,' as I usually thought of it -- as escapist. Consequently, readers with this taste often have a chip on their shoulders. Lewis, who enjoyed the occasional H. Rider Haggard adventure or H.G. Wells novel in addition to Anglo-Saxon epics and medieval allegories, wrote several essays defending science fiction and 'fairy tales' from the scornful advocates of stringent realism. I, on the other hand, came up in the age of metafiction, postmodernism, and magic realism; realism no longer commands all the prestige. Lewis's arguments on behalf of fantastic literature feel a bit superfluous to me. Still, I can hazily remember, long ago, having adults -- librarians, friends' parents -- suggest to me that I liked books 'with magic' because I wanted to escape from a reality that, by implication, I lacked the gumption to face. Perhaps this still happens, say, to kids who obsess about Harry Potter. Or perhaps adults are now so thankful to see children reading that they don't quibble with the books they choose.
"Did I use storybooks to get away from my life? Of course I did, but probably no more so than the kids who chose Harriet the Spy instead of books about dragons and witches. (For the record, I read and liked Harrriet the Spy, too.) Insofar as they are stories at all, all stories are escapes from life; all stories are unrealistic, or at least all of the good ones are. Life, unlike stories, has no theme, no formal unity; and (to unbelievers, at least) no readily apparent meaning. That's why we want stories. No art form can hope to exactly reproduce the sensations that make up being alive, but that's OK: life, after all, is what we already have. From art, we want something different, something with a shape and a purpose. Any departure a story might make from real-world laws against talking animals and flying carpets seems relatively inconsequential compared to this first, great leap away from reality. Perhaps that's why humanity's oldest stories are full of outlandish events and supernatural beings; the idea that a story must somehow mimic actual everyday experience would probably have seemed daft to the first tellers. Why even bother to tell a story about something so commonplace?
"There were particular fantastic elements that drew me to Narnia at that age, and they were not always what people associate with fairy tales. I disliked princesses and any other female whose chief occupation was waiting around to be rescued, but I also had no great interest in knights, swords, and combat. The Chronicles, which are relatively free of such elements, spoke to me across a spectrum of yearning. The youngest part of myself loved Narnia's talking animals. The girl I was fast growing into fiercely seized upon the idea of possessing an entire, secret world of my own. And the seeds of the adult I would become revelled in the autonomy of Lewis's child heroes and the adventures that awaited them once they escaped the wearying bonds of grown-up supervision."
"The Chronicles...spoke to me across a spectrum of yearning." That's such a wonderfully concise description of the power of the very best fantasy, pulling us into the worlds we long for without even knowing we do, recognizing them, somehow, from the very moment we step inside. Worlds "with magic": yes, that's what I longed for as a child too.
It's what I long for still. And find, in the realm of story.
Pictures: The paintings are from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, illustrated by Michael Hague (Atheneum, 1983). All rights reserved by the artist. The photographs are of the "living churchyard" surrounding our village church, a community bio-diversity project. The church building is 13th century, with substantial portions rebuilt in the 15th.
Words: The passage quoted above is from The Magician's Book by Laura Miller (Little, Brown & Co., 2008). All rights reserved by the author.