06 August 2010

Review of The Magician's Book

I received a copy of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller in conjunction with my work as Book Review Editor for Sehnsucht: The C. S. Lewis Journal. Although this book has already been formally reviewed by D. G. Kehl in Vol. 3 of the Journal, I would like to share my thoughts here, briefly.

I loved this book! It’s a really great, fresh, unusual perspective on the Narnia Chronicles by an intelligent, witty, articulate agnostic. And that last word is what makes this book not just another boring summary of what Lewis said better in the first place (which I’m afraid most “studies” of Narnia are): the author vehemently rejects Christianity, and wrote this book to justify how she can hate Christ/the Church and still love Narnia. Indeed, her response to Narnia is complex and has changed throughout her life.

Narnia was the defining imaginative influence on her childhood, as it has been for many children, myself included. But her passionate love of Narnia was a physical yearning that, she claims, once nearly killed her: she longed to go there with an intensity many people never feel for anything in their entire existence! Interestingly, however, she never associated any of the imagery in the Chronicles with Bible stories or Church teaching; she was just overwhelmingly ravished by the beauty of the secondary world.

Then, in her teen years, Ms. Miller stumbled upon a work of literary criticism that announced, quite blatantly, the Christian imagery and symbolism in Lewis’s tales. Her revulsion was complete; she felt betrayed, jilted as by a lover or deceived as by a trusted mentor. It took her years before she could return to the Chronicles with anything but bitterness.

And yet, she did return, and embraced them again with the tempering of time, but without embracing Lewis’s God. So she wrote this book to talk about how the Narnia Chronicles described and inspired sehnsucht, provided narrative shape and purpose beyond that of real life, allowed a sense of communion with other living things, promoted friendship, helped build up a morality (in her case) apart from religion, encouraged healthy introspection, gave children (especially girls) independence in their adventures, and offers many other beauties mental and aesthetic to readers of all ilks.

In addition to many chapters of intelligent, balanced praise, Ms. Miller also spends much time writing her way through the most common objections to Lewis and his fantasy world: racism, classism, misogynism, dogmatism, prudery, and repressed sadism. She discusses these with a measure of fairness and objectivity, while perhaps not coming to the thoroughly supportive conclusions that most rabid Lewis fans would desire. She examines how religion made her miserable, driving her to the comfort of a loving, understanding figure such as Aslan. She points out that Narnia-as-evangelization obviously doesn’t work, since it didn’t serve to convert her to Christianity (overlooking, quite understandably, the role of the Holy Spirit). Her most disturbing suggestion is that perhaps Christianity itself is sado-masochistic, since it requires subservience and self-sacrifice of its devotees.

But these objections are sandwiched in a middle section of The Magician’s Book, between two lovely sections discussing the Chronicles’ beauties. This is a fascinating work, written in a lively, personal, AND scholarly manner. I highly recommend it.


sesoztai said...

The parts of the book that we read together, I certainly enjoyed as well! In reading this summary, I wondered if, despite Ms. Miller's conclusion to the opposite, Lewis actually did fulfill his evangelistic purpose by, “driving her to the comfort of a loving, understanding figure such as Aslan.” It was not religion to which Lewis may have wanted his readers to convert, but to the love of that person represented in Aslan. Might her longing for him (Him?) be very like the Calormine's rewarded faith of Lewis' Last Battle?

Iambic Admonit said...

Dear Sesoztai: What a great thought! Or perhaps very much like the little boy who wrote to Lewis, all worried because he loved Aslan more than Christ. Lewis wrote back and explained that this was really just a way for him to experience his love of Christ. So, perhaps Ms. Miller is loving Christ without knowing it.

But -- and this is a big question for Lewis -- is such love salvific? Especially in the case of someone who knows all the facts, has heard the Gospel, etc. It doesn't fall into the "innocent savage" question. Emeth and Ms. Miller have both heard the facts. Aren't they responsible for their intellectual response as well as their emotional feeling of love towards somebody with a different name than Jesus?

In other words, could someone go to heaven because she loved Aslan, but hated Christ?