Thursday 16 December 2010

Laura Miller - The Magician's Book

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on the site. Today, Laura Miller's The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia


Growing up, I got my biblical language (rounded, rhythmical, intonational) from Kipling and my moral compass from King Arthur and Robin Hood, by way of TH White and Roger Lancelyn Green. By the time I was introduced to Christian mythology, the space in my imagination where God might have fit was already filled with Greek and Roman and Norse figures, before whom the Christian story paled into dull insignificance.

So it's not surprising that I was one of the legion of young readers - including Laura Miller - left disappointed, angered, even bereft when they discovered that the Chronicles of Narnia were in some ways a retelling of the Christian story. (In my case, the news was broken by a born-again uncle when I spotted a copy of the Screwtape Letters on his shelf).

In the Chronicles I had recognised and rejoiced in seeing Bacchus and dryads and fauns (dear old Mr Tumescent). I had been devastated and confused when Aslan gave himself up to the White Witch and overjoyed when he woke up, but I had no inkling that what I was reading was a version of the Passion Story. When I did unravel it all I was deeply offended that Lewis had tried to pull a fast one on me - to slip me something I did believe in by disguising it in things that I desperately wanted to.

Literary critic and one of the founders of Laura Miller had a similar experience (as did Neil Gaiman, and hearing him talk about this earlier this year was wonderful). She writes:

Lewis, Carter explained, was famously Christian, a fact I'd somehow managed to miss. I was shocked, almost nauseated. I'd been tricked, cheated, betrayed. I went over the rest of the Chronicles, and in almost every one found some element that lined up with this unwelcome and, to me, ulterior meaning. I felt like a character in one of those surreal, existential 1960s TV dramas, like The Prisoner or The Twilight Zone, a captive who pulled off a daring escape from his cell only to find himself inside another, another cell identical to the first.

'The Magician's Book' is an extension of an earlier essay Miller wrote about TLTWATW, a reader and writer's meditation on her own experience, and the life and writing of Lewis, a great reader and writer. In it she places the Chronicles in the context of Lewis's life, religious conversion, profession and friends, while binding in her own experience of reading the books, and that of other writers including Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke.

It's a wonderful, rich, enjoyable read, ideal for anyone interested in Lewis, Tolkien, fantasy fiction, children's literature, how writers think, medieval cosmology, the history of allegorical writing, and/or Narnia.

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