Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Magician's Book

by Jessica

Over the holidays, I gave myself the gift of a bit of pleasure reading; one of the books on the NYT’s year end best list, Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia. It is essentially a work of literary criticism devoted to C.S. Lewis’s beloved series. Miller, who adored the Narnia series, nevertheless felt bitterly tricked when she discovered they were a Christian allegory. Kids, she argues, are literalists, and as heavy handed as the religious symbolism may be, they lack the general knowledge to see the similarities between a story about a magical lion and the Christian messiah. Years later, Miller returned to the books to examine them as an adult. Hers is a smart and fairly serious undertaking, one that I’ve enjoyed in part because her childhood experience so closely mirrors my own. One idea in particular has really stuck with me. She posits that most avid readers, folks who love books (most of you, I imagine), are forever in search of the purity and pleasure of that first book (or books) that so enchanted us. That as adults, we can never quite recapture that absolute delight when our critical faculties were not yet developed, and our immersion in fiction was complete. That we read, now, in some sense, in an effort to get back to the garden.

For me, the books were, in fact the Chronicles (hence my interest in Miller’s book). But I’ve not reread the series as a grown-up precisely because I fear finding them wanting, hollow, devoid of the pleasure they once afforded me. I’m curious to know what your touchstone book was, and if you’ve ventured to read it now that you can, perhaps, see its shortcomings, peek behind the curtain.


  1. This is interesting because I remember loving the movie The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (the cartoon version I saw on PBS) as a kid but I never read the books. As an adult I was surprised to learn they were Christian allegories and so I picked them up to see if it would be obvious to me now. I did find it pretty obvious and heavy handed in The Lion... but not so much in the rest and I actually enjoyed them much more than I anticipated.

    I think two books for me I'm afraid to re-read are Tuck Everlasting and Bridge to Teribithia, they were magical to me and the first books taht got me thinking deeply about life and death. I'm curious to see how they'd affect me now, but also afraid I'll be disappointed or will seem message heavy. Great post!

  2. My touchstone book, first discovered and read at age 10 (and of course not understood, but still loved) was JANE EYRE. I was lucky, huh? JANE EYRE deepens on every reading, and by now there have been dozens. I can go back to that garden anytime I please.

    But at the same time, Laura Miller is right: very few books today provide that kind of absorbing, magical reading experience. And yet... I was lucky enough to find one last year. LIPS TOUCH by Laini Taylor.

    Valerie, you can go back to BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA. It holds up.

  3. The idea of seeking a childhood sense of enchantment is one that I like, but not one unique to Miller: Ortega y Gasset makes a similar point about the difference between first and second readings in Meditations on Quixote, as does J. Hillis Miller in On Literature. I suspect it's one of these perennial ideas that are so good that many writers independently discover it.

    As for touchstone book, I'd have to choose The Lord of the Rings. It snagged me early and hasn't loosened, and Tolkien saw it as not incompatible with Christianity, rather than explicitly Christian, which I think makes it hold up much better to adults who aren't looking for allegory or heavy-handed religion.

  4. I loved that book! I had the same experience: in 2nd grade, a teacher suggested the similarities between Narnia and Christianity, and I was apalled. I quickly discounted it. I read the series over and over: in 4th grade, I remember sitting on my bed and bawling my eyes out because I would never get to go to Narnia. My mother was perplexed.

    If you can ignore the female thing and the prejudism, I'd say a re-read is about 80% as pleasurable. (Just did it this year.) I also tackled the Oz series, and that was NOTHING like my childhood experience. The politics in the Oz series are just way too blatant.

    The only series that still captures that feeling for me, which I didn't read as a child, is the Harry Potter series.

  5. My touchstone book is Madeline L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time." I have read this book with each of my kids and it totally holds up in my eyes.

    I have not ever gone back to the Narnia books for precisely the same reason you site. And I also had *no* clue the books were symbolic.

  6. I didn't read the Narnia books as a child, but if I had, I'll bet the Christian message would have sailed right over my head. I remember enjoying a Newbery prize winning book called 'It's Like this, Cat'. I reread it as an adult and hated it.

    I loved 'A Wrinkle in Time' too, but as an adult, I found it a little less wonderful. Frances Hodgson Burnett's 'The Secret Garden', on the other hand, has stood the test of time.

  7. I'm somewhat reposting what I said in the most recent post to the blog, but I was/am Christian, and most of the allegory in the Narnia books went right over even my head as a child. The only connection that really stood out to me was Aslan = Jesus at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Coming back and rereading the series as an adult, especially one who loves the study of religion so much she majored in it, was a strange experience. There were countless themes and nuances that I hadn't picked up on when I was younger, but at the same suddenly became much more obvious that Lewis was writing for children (especially if you can compare his writing in that series to his other works). It wasn't the content that felt lacking for me, but more the style. Although it was excellent for children's books, I found them too short, and the pacing too quick. I still love them, but a lot of that is nostalgia.

    I've had discussions with non-religious friends about these books since they seem to have been on everyone's reading list as a child, and the movies renewed our interest. One still says the symbolism, except for Aslan's death, flies right over her head. Another, I suspect, feels similar to Miller. It's rather interesting to see who picks up on what. (On a somewhat related note, I've noticed quite a lot lately that I seem to find heaps of meaning and religious subtext in books which the author has expressed were meant to show that life is meaningless or random or whatnot. Interesting the range of interpretations that can be made about a single work.)

  8. Don't be afraid! The Chronicles of Narnia were my favourite books as a child ... and are still my favourite children's books after reading all of them to my children twice (once to the now 14-year-old, once to the now 10-year-olds). What struck me when I re-entered Narnia was how beautifully concise the prose was. There is not a wasted word, not a single bit of padding: every sentence is necessary and compelling. Kristin complains they are too short -- I say they are precisely the right length, and can only wish today's children's books were as short. I'm thinking of the last four Harry Potter books here, all of which could have used some considered paring: not in terms of plot, but in use of the language (there's a paragraph in one of the later books where the word "had" occurs somewhere in the ballpark of 26 times).

    I still read to my fourteen year old (not because she doesn't read voraciously on her own, but because we enjoy the shared experience) and we recently finished "Tuck Everlasting". She commented, "Wow that book was really short!" "But it was good wasn't, it?" I replied, "No padding, no repetition." "Yeah," she said, "there's a lot of books that are waay too long, like the Twilight ones."

    We're currently reading the "The Sorceress" by Michael Scott. This third book of a series is a 500 page tome that covers two days in time. We both want to know what happens, but we are both pulling our hair out as the author keeps telling us the same information from the mouths of different characters over, and over, and over... (Not that all long books are bad: Nancy Farmer's "Sea of Trolls" is weighty but worth every word).

    Finally, I am not and never have been a Christian, and I don't find the allegory in "Narnia" intrusive. I was aware at the age of seven that Aslan=Jesus (probably because my mum told me) but I didn't catch any of the other symbolism till I was older, and I really don't find it lessens my admiration of CS Lewis as superlative storyteller and craftsman of the English language.

  9. I experience that sense of uncritical wonder every time I come across a new author I LOVE. After I've read them for awhile, or when re-reading them, then I begin to see the magician behind the curtain. But that's ok since, as a writer, that's what I need to see.

    So I don't really feel like I'm always trying to get back to the garden. :-)

  10. I think the absorbing magic can get traded reasonably against insight. I loved Anne of Green Gables, but reading some of those Jane Austen classics give you a lot of insights and excitment that are different but worthwhile too.

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