“How Could I Have Missed That”

November 20, 2009

I picked this book up for the cover art and when I flipped it open and read the flap I dropped it straight in my library bag.  My reaction was the same when I discovered that Aslan was supposed to be a metaphor for Jesus Christ – a totally traumatic blow to my little stolidly atheist heart.  Laura Miller had her childhood love of Narnia shattered when she discovered the Christian subtext but returned to the books as an adult and found there were still many ways to love them.  In The Magician’s Book, she explores the books though a number of lenses and find ways in which they are both more and less perfect than she originally thought.  Reminding me strongly of another favorite, The Child that Books Built, she delves into the background of the stories, picking apart the mythology, the facets of Lewis’s personal life, and the social mores of the time which make up the books.  Reading this I like I was having coffee with a friend who was telling me all about her favorite series.

Miller describes an experience of Narnia so similar to my own its eerie.  Like her I read and loved them as a child.  I watched the (in retrospect) pretty bad BBC adaptations over and over on a home-made VHS.  I imagined myself aboard the Dawn Treadder aimed at the horizon or slogging through marshes with Puddleglum.  Then at some point – I don’t actually remember – I discovered the subtext.  I don’t remember a moment of shock but the aftereffect was powerful.  I took the boxed paperback set out of my room and stuck it in a back corner of the family room book shelf.  I wrote Lewis off entirely – and stopped even wanting to re-read the Chronicles.  When I later found Tolkien’s famous quote on the subject “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence,” I gave a deliberate hmph in Lewis’ direction and told myself I’d found a more grown up Inkling to love.  But much later*, I picked up A Horse and His Boy and found that the sting had gone out of the hoax.  It had returned to its former status as a good yarn, with its fair share of heavy handed morality but more than enough starry eyed wonder and rollicking adventure to satisfy me.  I’ve always been partial to the stiff upper lip, public school sense of fair play and honor.  Lewis simply recasts it in an even more magical fairy land (more magical than between the wars Britain seems to my stolid suburban upbringing) where trees can tell you what they feel and the animals demand respect on an equal footing with people.  In many ways I think there’s a lot more pure pagan morality in the books than Lewis would have wanted to believe.

One of the key points Miller makes early on in the book is that, as magical as it is to loose ourselves wholly to a good book in childhood, we need to learn detachment.  We sacrifice something of the mystical wonder books can produce but at the same time we have to arm ourselves to seek out the meanings and motivations of the author and make sure we agree with them before making them a part of ourselves.  I had a similar experience with The Hunt for Red October (an odd comparison I know but it was the same for me personally).  I’d loved it as a child, seeing the movie with my parents and then reading the novel in fourth or fifth grade, I’d been carried away by the drama and adventure.  It was high on my list of personal favorite books for many years.  Then in college on day I was on a hike and listening to an audio recording of it when I stopped short in the middle of Jack Ryan’s argument for American being a place where worthy people could bootstrap themselves up out of any circumstances.  What was he saying?  Did he mean if you didn’t succeed here it was because you were stupid or lazy?  And what was all this cold war ethos anyway?  Could Russia really be as bad as all that?  I suddenly realized that Ryan, with his military background, his insider trading financial success and his vigilante my-family-first sense of justice, was a raging conservative.  And that he was because Tom Clancy was.  What a shock.  If I’d read the book first as an adult I would have seen it immediately but it slipped right under my radar as a child.  I still like the book.  Its still a good adventure full of well drawn characters and dramatic action.  But I’ll never feel quite the same way about it again.

In the end I decided, with Tolkien, that I don’t really care what point the author was trying to make with their book as long as I’m free to draw my own conclusions.  The test of a really good piece of fiction is that the characters are strong and rich enough that I can extrapolate their thoughts opinions and reactions beyond the written word.  I can make reference to Hermione, or Keladry of Mindelan or Lucy Pevensie in my head and know what they’d do outside the solid boundaries of their plots.  The Magician’s Book seems to come to the same conclusion – that all the details and interpretations aside, Lewis created a world worthy of being enshrined in everyone’s personal mythology.

* I can actually trace it to early October 2002 because I was traveling abroad with IHP. I’d just come to Cambridge and was missing my bookshelves and desperate for reading material.  In some ways the biggest trial of that year was not having ready access to rec reading materials.  Living out of a backpack with a 40 lb weight limit, school books included, didn’t leave much space for a personal library.  So I searched out used bookstores for things I could pick up and then let go of easily and I raided every bookshelf I passed for things to borrow.  Especially after we left England for India and then the Philippines I read just about anything I found that was in English.


One Response to ““How Could I Have Missed That””

  1. Nymeth Says:

    First of all: I’m adding your blog to my google reader asap 😀 I love the way you write!

    Secondly, I need to get this book. I read Narnia for the first time when I was 19, and sadly couldn’t see much beyond the subtext. Or I was too annoyed to even try to see. But it makes me sad, and I feel like I’m missing something truly special. I very much agree with this:

    In the end I decided, with Tolkien, that I don’t really care what point the author was trying to make with their book as long as I’m free to draw my own conclusions.

    PS: I loved The Child that Books Built!

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