Review: The Magician’s Book, Laura Miller

I’ve had this book since December 2010. Not in that generic bought-a-book-and-forgot-about-it-until-a-TBR-challenge-happened kind of way, but in the sense that I constantly saw it on the shelf and struggled with fierce opposing forces within my soul. Arrayed on one side of the battle were the numerous things about this book that appealed to me: Laura Miller, founder of Salon.com, a website I regularly read and enjoy; the Chronicles of Narnia, the books that taught me what stories are supposed to be like; writing about books; critical analysis by intelligent people of literature I love; etc. On the other side was the fact that Laura Miller was going to have negative things to say about CS Lewis and I cannot handle anyone talking shit about CS Lewis. Not Philip Pullman (now sort of my enemy). Not Neil Gaiman. Nobody.*

Nobody. And that side of the battle was always going to win. Because I love CS Lewis that much. And I like to think that although there are things about me and about CS Lewis that would annoy the other one no end, we could focus our correspondence (it would have to be by correspondence because CS Lewis lived in England and I live in New York**) on our commonalities and end up having a deep and abiding friendship. I’d let him talk me into Norse mythology, and he’d let me talk him into the reasonableness of vegetarianism and the value of collective joy. I wouldn’t try to send him any Tony’s because I don’t think any amount of persuading could convince him about that.

So I was worried that I’d read The Magician’s Book and start disliking Laura Miller for talking trash about CS Lewis, and I didn’t want that. That’s what came between me and Philip Pullman; I mean it was that and also the complete unrereadability of his books, which is a shame because I enjoyed them a lot on the first go-round and keep optimistically hoping that if I give it enough time I’ll be in the mood for them again. It’s been close to ten years now, and I haven’t been able to get through those books a second time, but Philip Pullman has been able to keep saying irritating things about CS Lewis pretty regularly, so I think we’re probably never going to get that positive interaction/negative interaction ratio up to where it would need to be for me to be Philip Pullman’s friend again.***

The good news is, I do not hate Laura Miller. That was a silly fear. She doesn’t write CS Lewis off entirely, and her unhappiness with the discovery of Christian themes was not as over the top as Mumsy made it sound. She’s obviously writing from a place of wanting to get back to her love of and belief in Narnia, and that’s something I can get behind. I enjoyed reading nearly all of the first two parts of the book, first where Miller describes what the Chronicles meant to her as a child, and then as she writes about growing older and discovering their flaws. Her writing is easy and entertaining, and she says a lot of things that absolutely nail what made Narnia magic for me. Especially this, which reminded me so much of Legal Sister:

[R]eading the wrong books would leave [the Pevensies] unprepared, making them the kind of children who wouldn’t know that you should kick your shoes off if you happen to fall into deep water with your clothes on…The Chronicles, then, become the same kind of adventurers’ handbooks that stand their own characters in good stead. I can remember thinking that I’d gotten plenty of invaluable information  from them, although strictly speaking most of it was only helpful if you also happened to be a character in an adventure story.

I mean, yeah. Every time I see a movie where someone falls in the water I’m like, Kick off your shoes. Kick off your shoes! You always kick off your shoes! I feel this more strongly than I feel Don’t go down there! when I’m watching a scary movie. By, like, a lot. I used to think (and I know Legal Sister felt and feels this much more strongly than I did because it is much more nearly true of her) that I would be extremely well-prepared to have a Narnia-style adventure because I’d know all the things CS Lewis teaches you like that you kick off your shoes if you fall in the water and you always clean your sword and robins are kindly birds. So that was great.

I enjoyed the second third also, where Laura Miller grapples with some of the reasons a grown-up person has to be bothered by the Chronicles of Narnia. There are reasons a grown-up person would be bothered. I do not like the sexism and I do not like the racism and I wish CS Lewis didn’t have to be so absurdly curmudgeonly about ideas he wasn’t accustomed to thinking of. I was looking forward to seeing what Laura Miller had to say to these points, but I thought she oversimplified them sometimes, especially the stuff about gender. There are a lot of things to say about gender in the Chronicles of Narnia, but you can’t say all the dudes are cooler/braver/more upstanding than all the ladies. Laura Miller handwaved the flaws the male characters were shown to have, and played up the flaws of the female ones, and I thought it de-nuanced what could have been a fascinating, thoughtful chapter. Still it was interesting to read, for I love with all my heart the literary/personal essay genre that these first two sections belonged to.

Where Miller lost me was the final third, when she tries to find a way back to the Chronicles. I guess this is maybe because I didn’t need a way back myself? Because I did not freak the hell out upon discovering that CS Lewis was Christian? Or that I just don’t like reading about landscapes? I don’t know. I was bored to the point that I kept reading one chapter, giving up and going to do something else, and then coming back because I’m really trying to get rid of the books I’m not going to read again, and if I didn’t finish The Magician’s Book I’d never be able to send it away on PaperbackSwap. In this section, Miller writes about the mythical influences on the Narnia books, and Lewis’s friendship with Tolkien, and y’all I don’t know. I can’t pinpoint anything that was wrong with the last third of the book. I didn’t enjoy it, is all I can say.

The good news is, I have no gripes with Laura Miller as a person after reading her book and have not come to like her any less. (I know Laura Miller does not care about this, but it was a relief to me because I think she’s a cool lady.) The bad news is, I did not love The Magician’s Book as much as its many appealing qualities led me to hope I might. I still think, and shall always think, that it would be very cool to go to Narnia even though I am a nonsmoker and a wearer of stockings.

A final note since we’re talking about women: Captain Hammer asked us recently what fictional character we would pick to rule the world, if we had to choose a fictional character to rule the world. And everyone else said Dumbledore but I said Lucy Pevensie, and I think my pick was better. Dumbledore would hate it for one thing. For another thing he is a puppetmaster and doesn’t confide in anyone because he’s smarter than everyone. Lucy Pevensie is the way to go. She is smart and brave and kind and humble and would choose excellent advisers. SUPPORT MY CHOICE PLEASE.

Other reviews: Their name is Legion.

*Ana, I am not talking about you. You never talk trash about CS Lewis; your objections to him are completely reasonable. I am just sad that you did not read the Chronicles of Narnia as a little girl because they are magic and you would have loved them.

**We’d also have to have a postman who could travel through time.

***Plus, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ bored me to tears and was patronizing. I don’t mind people disagreeing with me but I dislike being patronized.

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44 thoughts on “Review: The Magician’s Book, Laura Miller

  1. Aw, thank you for that footnote. I do try to be reasonable when I talk about him. I really, really wish I could have read Narnia as a child too. One of the reasons why I loved Miller’s book is exactly that it made me appreciate what I’d missed in a way nothing I’d read before had. Of course, if you read and loved Narnia as a child you don’t need that, but to me the book was a revelation in that sense.

    • You are! You are the most reasonable, and I hate it that CS Lewis makes you feel excluded from his world. In our correspondence (when it happens), I will let him know that you feel that way, and I bet he will write you a really lovely response.

      Aaaargh! I hate that he is unfriendly to you! You and he are both such generous readers I feel like you should be fundamentally compatible.

  2. I think it might be good to have a time traveler as ruler of the world, like Mendoza from Kage Baker’s In the Garden of Iden. Lots of life experience. Less fear of assassination.

  3. I read the series every few years, although not as often as I used to. As an adult I can see what I liked about the books – they’re extraordinarily vivid for one thing and Lewis was a first-rate story-teller. Nor am I too too bothered by the Christian aspect – despite the fact that Lewis was devoutly Christian, I get the impression he just drew on a variety mythologies to create his world (Nordic and Classical as well as Christian).

    That said, I do think they fail on a fundamental level, and maybe this failure is a religious thing. Alice has to negotiate her way alone through Wonderland. Bilbo has to fall back on his ingenuity and quick-thinking to overcome Gollum etc. This is one of the fundamental laws of this sort of fiction – for me. The character moves outside his or her comfort zone and learns self-reliance. A lot of swashbuckling and camping aside, what do the Pevensies – and most of the children in the series really learn? That you’re better off doing what Aslan tells you.

    • Oh, I disagree. You could argue with that logic that the Harry Potter characters learn that you’re better off doing what Dumbledore tells you. The universe has a morality (most fictional universes do), but the kids do learn. Like in The Silver Chair — Jill and Eustace don’t win by doing everything Aslan says (they fail at the great majority of the things Aslan says do), they win by being good and brave in the end.

      • Ah, but they only decide to release Rilian after he invokes Aslan – one of the four signs given to them by Aslan. They are still following Aslan’s instructions rather than acting on their own initiative.

      • Yeah, but that’s not what saves the day. The day is saved by all of them being brave and good — they don’t have any instructions from Aslan apart from helping out Rillian in the first place, and there’s still a third of the book left to go at that point.

        Or what about Edmund? It’s nonsense to argue that he doesn’t change, and he’s not doing what Aslan says because Aslan doesn’t tell him to do anything. He realizes he’s been an idiot ages before he ever meets Aslan, and Aslan doesn’t tell him to be the super bravest of all the brave people in the final battle. He does it on his own because he knows he’s been awful and he wants to be better.

  4. OK, I’ve never heard of The Magician’s Book, but otherwise–pretty much everything you said is exactly true for me as well. I love Lewis, and Narnia. I used to like Pullman but The Amber Spyglass utterly ruined everything (it was terrible!) and I never read the books again–they sat there like a toothache on my shelves until I just got rid of them–and he’s just headed downhill with the constant Lewis trashtalk and all that. I can’t even get myself to read The Tin Princess, which I once loved.

    I think it would be really interesting to have that conversation about gender in Narnia, but it always seems to devolve into “He’s an utter sexist! Lipstick??” and “No, look, lipstick is just (rather unfortunate) Lewis shorthand for being shallow and pretentious. Susan is HIM at a younger age, she’s not doomed forever.” I would love it if that conversation was even possible, but I haven’t found it yet.

    • That would be a lovely conversation to have. But I think there would also be a lot of fair stuff to say about Lewis’s sexism. I think he learned and grew in the later part of his life, but he also said some pretty appalling things about women in his fiction and nonfiction.

      • Oh, he absolutely did! There IS fair stuff to say about his sexism, which is why it annoys me that it always seems to go too far before we even get started. Clear as mud, right? 🙂

  5. I am one of those readers who never got into Narnia as a child, and I DO feel like I’ve missed out on something grand. I have the collection here, but I don’t think it would hold the same weight now that I am older. And I am glad that you didn’t end up Hating Laura Miller. It sounds like she made her points respectfully and without rancor. I loved this review, by the way!

    • Have you read the set, or not yet? I’m so curious! I haven’t met many people who came to love the books as an adult but maybe if you went into it with low expectations it would be different. They’re so lovely! (to me)

  6. How fascinating that you don’t need a way back to Narnia! I think a lot of that does stem from a childhood love of Narnia; reading The Chronicles of Narnia as an adult in preparation for reading this book, I was always acutely aware of Lewis’ casual but judging eye and how I was very clearly NOT IN in Lewis’ conception of the world. So Miller, having realized that she is NOT IN, is trying to reconnect with the material after a traumatic break, something that you didn’t experience.

    And then, of course, The Last Battle just gave me such an impression of sadness on Lewis’ part that I’m kind of haunted by it.

    • Well, I’m definitely NOT IN, insofar as I have a lot of features Lewis would have hated, but reading them young meant it just didn’t matter at all. The books are so much in me I can’t feel, and have never felt, separate to them. The value of reading them young!

  7. I’m actually on board with all your insights, except I still think Laura Miller must have been awfully blank not to notice the Christian allegory before she did. (And I do think her much-ballyhooed trauma was kind of overwrought.) The thing is, I thought then and still think now that if Lewis had been writing 50 years later, his views would have been more enlightened. The human life span should ideally be about 200 years so that we can learn THOROUGHLY that we don’t know what we don’t know.

    • If he’d written Narnia after he married, his views would have been different. On the other hand, if he’d waited until he was all-wise, then we never would have gotten Lucy or the beavers, or Aslan, or “always winter, and never Christmas.”

      (In other words, I think I pretty much agree with you).

    • I don’t know exactly when she noticed it, but I can sympathize. I grew up on Narnia, in a devoutly Christian home. My mom is a Lewis *fanatic*–and I did not figure it out until college, when my Jewish boyfriend pointed it out. …I’m really just not all that bright, I guess, and note that I was a literature major! I suspect that some of us who grew up on it did not gain a more mature, clueful perspective until surprisingly late, much like how it’s possible to listen to the awful teenybopper music you loved at 12 even when you are 35.

    • “I still think Laura Miller must have been awfully blank not to notice the Christian allegory before she did.” –my thought exactly!

      And what you say about life span, MumsyNancy, so very accute. You get right to the heart of things. Like mother like daughter!

  8. I cannot handle anyone talking shit about CS Lewis. Not Philip Pullman (now sort of my enemy). Not Neil Gaiman. Nobody

    I know what you mean. There are books–The Narnia books and The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings among them–that I just cannot stand other people hating.

    I don’t agree with Lewis 100% about everything but Narnia was (and is) completely magical, and not even Gaiman (Whom I discovered as an adult and probably would not have liked as a child) gets to be very critical about him.

    I used to try to read literary criticism of Tolkien’s stuff and I just cannot. One is supposed to maintain a sort of distance when doing lit-crit, and I have no such distance.

    • Oh I would not have liked Gaiman as a kid. Much too scary for me! I couldn’t handle even mildly scary stories as a kid, and Coraline would have given me nightmares for years.

  9. When we had those days when we had to wear clothing to swimming lessons, did you spend the whole time thinking about kicking off your shoes?

    No one had ever been mean about C.S. Lewis near me until law school, and I was super surprised to find exactly how ruthlessly I wanted to respond. I have serious premise denial with this book. Even though I know it’s TRUE that some people find the Christianity gets in the way of the Narnia books, I can’t wrap my head around that as making sense, so I can’t read anything expounding on that issue without wasting my time.

  10. Great distress, as a quiet reader of your blog I have been under the illusion for a long time that you were English. Maybe because your sense of humour and writing style seem to me to have a kind of British flavour, reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones<3. Also book bloggers seem to be a Brish stereotype somehow?? Now I have to get over my prejudices against Americans which shouldn't really exist because many amazing writers and other people are also American! But i will still enjoy your blog (but not CS Lewis, sorry.)

    • Hahahaha, maybe it was reminiscent of DWJ because I constantly scream about how great she is. Yes! I am American! I’m from Louisiana and not the least bit British. Also, hi! Thanks for delurking. 🙂

  11. Interesting to read your review as I’ve made up my mind about reading the book from very positive reviews (I’m still going to read it but it’s good to hear another opinion). I have the same issues and non-issues with Narnia as you, the sexism and racism is bad, but otherwise it’s still fantastic, even if the end isn’t too nice. That said I’d be wary of Miller downplaying the flaws of the males. I don’t have a problem with the Christianity in general, I guess because my parents told me about it early on, but I did have a problem with the way it formed the ending.

    • She doesn’t downplay the male flaws very often, she just doesn’t pay as much attention to them as to the female flaws, because the female flaws are part of the point she’s making, and the male flaws aren’t. That’s all.

      How did your parents tell you about the Christianity? I mean, how did it come up?

  12. Just yesterday our cat was mysteriously and obsessively planting himself with his rear sticking out of a paper bag lying sideways on the floor and gently scritch-scratcing at the bottom, and after a while I said tragically, “He’s trying to get back to Narnia,” and we both laughed, and yet we both (at least I know I did) also got an instant surge of emotion, just thinking about wanting to get back to Narnia.

    I feel the whole Narnia Question is all very much bound up with a person’s journey through childhood. Through life really. Who their first fictional guides happen to be. Where they pick up their maps. You might enjoy The Child That Books Built (have I already said this?), if you like thinking about such things. Spufford’s experience could be a little easier to get behind that Miller’s, since miller seems to be talking from the perspective of someone who thought of books as something that built the child then tore her down

    The start of your review articulates all the reasons that I have somehow managed to accidentally-on-purpose forget to put this book on my library queue for the two years I’ve meant to!

    C.S. Lewis’ sexism first struck me when I tried to read That Hideous Strength when I was about 15. It really was like an astonishing slap in the face. Until that lady-scientist-hat-buying scene, I’d managed to interpret everything “odd” in his portrayal girls vs boys in fiction as a combination of aberration, because I couldn’t imagine he’d actually be silly in that way when he was wise in so many. But it didn’t taint Narnia for me.

    I get impatient with the drama of things being tainted, authorial betrayal. Stories stop working, you leave them behind. There doesn’t have to be blame. Delight can’t be retroactively invalidated unless you let it. And why let it?

    • Oh I have not read That Hideous Strength. That whole series is on my shelves awaiting my attention, but I don’t know, I feel like I’m going to hate them. What happens in the lady scientist buying a hat scene?

      Well, what I compare it to is something like Orson Scott Card. I used to absolutely idolize him, I loved his books, he always wrote back really nice answers to the fan letters I would send him. I was crushed when I found out what a jerk he is about issues I feel strongly about, and I haven’t been able to enjoy a lot of his other books (where his jerkiness makes itself apparent). But Ender’s Game keeps on amazing no matter how much of a jerk I know Orson Scott Card is; and the books where Card’s annoying preachiness shows through were never the books I liked in the first place.

      • Jenny, DO NOT WASTE ONE SECOND OF YOUR TIME on the Perelandra series. They are terrible! He writes about women like he never encountered an actual woman in his life, which may well have been the case when he was writing them. I feel sure his marriage to Joy made him feel deeply ashamed of those books.

        I think Trapunto’s first paragraph says it all about why we love these books – there is something in human nature (and cat nature for all we know) that longs for the place where we feel whole. Which is why the Narnia books strike a universal chord, and the [divisive and prejudiced] Perelandra book just inspire weariness.

  13. I read the Narnia series in 5th and/or 6th grades, was raised in a Christian home and attended a parochial school. I never – at that time, and likely never ever quite realized that books even had such ‘themes’ other than good vs evil – until much later in life find out that they were supposed to be ‘Christian’. I can’t even think when I would have had the chance to talk about the books except everyone I knew either loved them or never read them.
    I never did try to read anything else by CS Lewis because for me, the Chronicles were everything and nothing else would compare. I am not an author-chaser, I guess. I loved and cherished my experience with Narnia but re-reading them in my 40s tarnished their luster and I wish I had never attempted.
    I’m not really adding to this thread other than being a bit/almost insulted that I must have been dense not to realize the Christianity? I just didn’t ever have discussions about books (sad, huh? which is why book blogging is so exciting). My mom would never have told me if she even knew. They were stories. Simple as that.
    And sure, throw my vote to Team Lucy Pevenser. (I still have to read Harry Potter.)

    • Oh no! Rereading made them worse? I’ve heard people say that’s why they don’t reread very often (anything, not just these books), because they’re nervous they won’t feel the same about books they love. I almost never have that experience, and definitely not with the Chronicles of Narnia. (Except The Last Battle but that one was lame in the first place.)

      The Harry Potter books are good. But I would not want the wise wizard man in them to rule the world.

      • Gotta wonder if rereading is something you had to try as a youngster to enjoy it or realize its charms. I always hated the feeling of thinking I have already read something when I thought it was a first time read and then discovering I had forgotten I already read it.

  14. Today at lunch I opened up a book by Jack Kerouac and started reading it. He seemed pretty sexist too, but who hates Jack Kerouac on that account? Nobody. I dunno, I guess I don’t feel like Lewis had to be a perfect man with modern views in order for me to enjoy his writing.

    • Really? Cause I…ack, I’m sorry about this! But I do hate Jack Kerouac and that’s why, and I have been known not to go out with people on account of that they like Jack Kerouac a very lot. I don’t like him and that’s why! I don’t know what’s to be done about it!

      • Ha! Now I’m laughing a lot, because you’re the first person I’ve heard say that. I don’t like Jack Kerouac much, because I don’t like beat poets much, but I am going to read Dharma Bums anyway because I read On the Road nearly 20 years ago and it’s probably time to see what I think now. 🙂 (Don’t get me wrong, I don’t approve of sexism or any other ism. I just try not to worry too much about it in books if it was over 50 years ago….I can get pretty annoyed about this Carlos Ruiz Zafon guy and his women characters!)

  15. I’m ashamed to say I avoid criticism of C.S. Lewis like the plague. I can’t deal with the fact that not everybody loved him as I did as a child.

    I’ve read (vaguely) about sexism in The Chronicles of Narnia but never really noticed myself. I mean, I thought Aravis and Lucy were more awesome than any other character (except Edmund, maybe), and that was the extent of my insight :$ And I know i’m being irrationally dense about the whole thing and that I should reach out of my bubble and try to form an opinion of my own that doesn’t include any “NANANA, I CAN’T HEAR YOU, PHILIP PULLMAN” in it. So I might as well start with Laura Miller. Maybe next month.

    Dude, when I was little I thought the books were filled with invaluable information. I mean, I learnt it would come a time in which I wouldn’t enjoy fairy tales. It was very important to me to know that, I remember. Ditto with the sides of a boat.

    (My English still leaves something to be desired, sorry :()

  16. Wow. Your extreme love for CS Lewis makes me wonder if I ever did more than vaguely know about Narnia growing up as a series that existed, rather than a series I have read. I may have read the first book. Possibly the second. But I have really no idea after that. I do not remember anything about kicking off shoes, which makes me think I missed something SERIOUSLY MAJOR. I suppose it’s too late to rectify this as an adult as I am unlikely to have that sense of wonder that is necessary to fall completely and utterly in love with children’s books about magic…

  17. I am shallow as a teaspoon and own this book because of the gorgeous cover. I don’t have strong feelings about C S Lewis, but if I discover in time that I DO, then I promise you you will be the first to know. And we can blow up some balloons or something. 🙂

    • Hahahaha, you aren’t shallow! Did you read the Chronicles of Narnia as a little kid, or as an adult? I’m curious whether my feelings about him are anomalous.

      • We read the book in religious studies class when I was 12. But what was odd (to me, anyway) was that we read it entirely without commentary. I had NO IDEA this was a subtly religious story and just thought that the teacher must have been fresh out of lesson plans. It was also right on the edge of my move into more adult novels, mostly Agatha Christie! So I never went back and read the rest. So the books arrived at an inauspicious time. Maybe one day, though, I’ll read the series properly, and if I get taken with it, you will be the first to know. xoxox

  18. I have become increasingly worried about re-reading His Dark Materials. I read them when I was in college and loved them and later bought them but I haven’t re-read them yet. And I keep hearing people whose taste I respect say that they aren’t really that good.

    I think I knew about the allegorical element to Chronicles of Narnia when I was reading them as a child. I was a pastor’s daughter, so the whole plot arc with Aslan in the first book was not hard to miss for me, and also we had the movie (not the new movie, but the aired-on-PBS version) and that also helped.

    My favorite Narnia book was The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. What an awesome adventure story.

    I’ve heard so much about Laura Miller’s books and read so many reviews of it, that I feel it is unnecessary to read it for myself, so thanks for your review as I am interested in the subject and what people say in response to Miller’s arguments.

    Also I think Lucy Pevensie could be a sage ruler of the world. Good call on Dumbledore as puppetmaster.

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