When Laura Miller was in second grade, her teacher handed her a copy of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" by C.S. Lewis. She was never the same again. "It was this book that made a reader out of me," she writes, in "The Magician's Book," a memoir of her lifelong fascination with the seven children's books that make up the "The Chronicles of Narnia."
Miller grew up to become one of this country's most popular literary critics. She co-founded Salon.com, has been a columnist for the New York Times Book Review and is a contributor to the New Yorker. Few writers of her ilk would have the guts to claim "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" as anything more than a guilty pleasure. Like the other Chronicles, it carries a heavy load of Christian symbolism that for many adult readers overshadows everything else about the story. (Strikingly, children almost never notice this aspect of the books, even though Aslan, the lion who rules Narnia, is a Christ figure.)
Most critics who write about Narnia are evangelical Christians, and they claim Lewis as one of their own. The point of their analysis is usually to proselytize, and Lewis' reputation has suffered as a result. Most secular intellectuals view him and people who are interested in him with suspicion or contempt. Yet Miller, who does not identify as a Christian, is an uncommonly independent-minded critic. (Full disclosure: She edited a few reviews I wrote for Salon years ago; we've since maintained an occasional correspondence.) For this, her first book, she chose to explore a patch of literary territory that few of her peers would brave.
Her choice is our boon. "The Magician's Book" is an engrossing story of a reader's education. Empathetic, rigorous, erudite, funny, generous and surprising, it is easily the best book ever written about Lewis. Miller draws sound and dazzling connections among the details of his life and literary inspirations, which ranged from medieval epics to the Victorian forerunners of modern fantasy. (She can tell you which Led Zeppelin album cover folds out to show a picture of Dunluce, the Irish castle that may have inspired Narnia's Cair Paravel.)
At the outset, however, she offers a warning: "There is one major thematic province that I will do no more than fly over: Lewis's Christianity." That field, she explains, has already been plowed. Her goal is to "illuminate [Narnia's] other, unsung dimensions, especially the deep roots of the Chronicles in the universal experiences of childhood and in English literature."
The book's first section holds to this plan. "Songs of Innocence" describes Miller's early romance with Narnia, in chapters full of quiet thrills -- such as her exacting investigation of why children love animals. On first reading the Chronicles, Miller noticed that they "gave their child characters (and, by extension, myself) the chance to be taken seriously. . . . In contrast to how most children experience their role in an adult world, what the child characters in these stories do, for better or worse, really matters." She also loved the emphasis on friendship and honor, as opposed to family relationships. "Children hear a powerful call from the outside world, where their destiny ultimately lies. Relationships with friends and the ethics of those relationships are one of childhood's great preoccupations," she writes.
The second section of "The Magician's Book," "Trouble in Paradise," describes Miller's traumatic discovery, at 13, of the Chronicles' Christian meaning. Raised Catholic, she found the church to be a joyless place. It was, she writes, wholly at odds with her experience of the world beyond the wardrobe: "Narnia and Aslan made me happy. Jesus wanted me to be miserable."
Miller goes on to describe the many other shortcomings she eventually found in the books (and in their author), including racism, misogyny and elitism. But it was Narnia's religious meanings that painfully exiled her for many years. "For me," she writes, "Christianity worked like a black hole, sucking all the beauty and wonder out of Narnia the moment the two came into imaginative contact. I was furious, but I was also bereft; I'd lost something infinitely precious to me."
The book's final section, "Songs of Experience," describes the adventure of her journey to a more knowledgeable peace. Philip Pullman, author of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, told Miller, "You can't regain the grace you've lost. The only thing to do is go on through that and eventually acquire the other sort of grace, the conscious grace." She decides "to apply the same principle to reading," wondering, "what if I decided to know even more, to learn more, about how the Chronicles came to be written and all the various ways they have been and can be read?"
She goes to England to see the landscapes that may have inspired Narnia, because "for me, the Chronicles were first and foremost about a place. More than I wanted to meet Lucy or to romp with Aslan, I wanted to go to Narnia." She provides, as no other critic has, a full sense of the Chronicles' place in the history of English literature. She describes Narnia's genesis in Lewis' friendships, especially with J.R.R. Tolkien.
The climax of this section is Miller's persuasive, original argument about the crux of the Chronicles' power. The books continue an imaginative tradition that transcends dualities of goodness and wickedness. This "third way" is the folkloric realm of the Faerie, or Otherworld, the home of fauns, satyrs, nymphs and other figures that "intrude a welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty into a universe that is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory," as Lewis once wrote. The essay from which this passage comes is not about Narnia, but Miller astutely applies it to that world: The supposedly Christian Narnia, she notes, is largely populated by such characters.
The heart of every believer is fed, and even sustained, by veins of unbelief. Faith is not only a gift but also a choice and always exists in tension with its opposite. Miller deftly excavates this dynamic in Lewis. Yet in her explication of Otherworld, and elsewhere in the book, Miller concludes from such observations that Lewis was less Christian than he thought he was, rather than allowing his Christianity to expand her notion of what Christian faith might be.
My only disappointment with "The Magician's Book" is that Miller chose not to delve more deeply into this aspect of Lewis and the Chronicles. It's impossible for Miller to "fly over" Lewis' Christianity, as she intended to, because Christianity is the hinge on which her whole story of disillusionment and re-enchantment turns. Christianity is the negative space against which her subtitle ("A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia") defines the subject of her book. If Miller had more energetically applied her critical skills to interpreting Lewis' theology, the triumph of this book would have been complete.
But there are no perfect memoirs, just as there are no perfect stories. "The Magician's Book," despite its passionate, human flaw, abounds with a rare quality that most literary criticism lacks, the quality of hopeful longing that helped lead Lewis to imagine Narnia, the quality that he prized above almost all others: joy.