Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Magical Mystery Tour


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

The Magician's Book is literary criticism at its best - readable, fun, and intellectually stimulating. So much criticism strikes me as the writer showing the reader "Look how smart I am. I know more about (insert book's title) than the person who wrote it." The Magician's Book does not come across that way. It feels like talking about a book you love with someone who loves it as much as you do. For that reason, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Some of you may remember that I plowed through the entire Narnia series a couple of months ago when I had a back injury. Reading The Magician's Book forced me to slow down and appreciate some of C.S. Lewis's subtleties, rather than just tearing through the stories in a codeine induced fog to see what happens next.

Having said that, I am not without ambivalence about some of the places the book takes us. A major part of what led Miller to write the book was her own experience of the Narnia Chronicles. She began reading them as a young child (around age seven or eight, if I remember correctly), and adored them, couldn't get enough. But then when she was verging on adolescence, someone pointed out the Christian symbolism in the books. Miller goes on and on about how betrayed she felt by this revelation, and how for many years the books were "ruined" for her. Later in her life, she picked them up again and loved them all over again, but in spite of their Christian themes, not because of them. She calls The Last Battle, the most obviously Christian of the books (with the exception of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe) a "weak finish" to the series, and is really quite belittling about the final scene, which is clearly meant to depict the heaven of C. S. Lewis's imagination.

What is with the anti-Christian bias of the literary world? I don't want to sound all right-wing here (if you know me, you know I am anything but), but it is as if literary critics have decided that all Christians are the same, and Christian themes in a book automatically make it suspect and in some way inferior. Laura Miller's religious upbringing clearly was a less than happy one, and I get that. But to assume that all Christian books are exclusive and doctrinally rigid and narrow minded? That just does not make any sense to me - one critic wrote in a blurb on the back of The Magician's Book that Miller has "rescued Aslan from the Christian imagination, and restored him to his rightful place in the human imagination." As if something that captures the Christian imagination cannot ALSO enchant the human spirit. As if many "Christian" themes are not also basic parts of what it means to be human.

Granted, there are "Christian" themed books that make my teeth itch. But just because Tim LaHaye's stuff is out there (and yes, I have read Left Behind just to see what all the fuss is about) and Frank Peretti's (ditto for This Present Darkness) does not make all literature with overtly Christian themes bad. In fact, we need literature like the Narnia series to balance out the crazy millenialists. I found Miller's dismissal of anything and everything Christian annoying. I think I understand her perception of our faith, and regret that whoever gave her those perceptions are her only exposure to Christians. But to dismiss Christian themes in literature because you have had negative experiences with a relatively small number of Christians is just as narrow-minded as the most tunnel-visioned fundamentalist could ever be.

Having gotten that off my chest, there is much about the book to be enjoyed. Miller shares a lot of biographical information about C.S. Lewis (and his close friendship with JRR Tolkien), and has obviously explored the way his theology shaped his writing. Her exploration of Lewis's own literary favorites is lots of fun as is her close look at all the fantastical, mythical archetypes that Lewis puts together to produce the unique and delightful hodgepodge that is Narnia. Miller shares the discomfort I mentioned in my post on the Narnia series with the racial stereotypes of the Narnians and Calormenes. These are only a few of the tangents that she journeys, but you can see that she has exhaustively researched her book. It makes for worthwhile reading for any Narnia fan. Get past her distaste for Christianity, and you will find much to enjoy in The Magician's Book.

Reverent Reader

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