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.