A literary critic recalls her childhood love affair with CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and her subsequent disappointment at learning that he was a Christian apologist.
I confess that I was hesitant to read The Magician’s Book for reasons that Laura Miller herself would understand. Narnia is mine, I tell you, mine! I had a Voyage of the Dawn Treader cake for my sixth birthday–and I still have my coverless copy. I have read and re-read this series more times than I can count. Of course it’s really only jealousy that someone else gets to write about something I love. I’m petty that way.
Unlike Miller, I share CS Lewis’s faith. In fact, I could argue that my faith itself is inextricably linked to Lewis’s writings, particularly The Great Divorce and The Problem of Pain. I’ve attended CS Lewis-themed conferences in Oxford and Cambridge twice in my life, and have read every book of his at least once, and in most cases multiple times. His Space Trilogy is another that I love, and my favorite book of his is Til We Have Faces, his retelling of Cupid and Psyche. So my trepidation was not so much about Narnia, but rather about Lewis himself. I am as loyal as I am stubborn, and can’t bear to see my loved ones criticized by anyone but myself.
Thankfully, Miller is well-suited for the task of discussing Lewis. She goes deep into biography and textual analysis, drawing upon Lewis’s scholarly work and personal passions. I found her discussions of the “romance,” a genre that fascinated both Lewis and JRR Tolkein to be scholarly yet readable. Lewis would’ve been proud, I think. I was intrigued by her ideas on how his personal life influenced the way he thought about reading and writing.
Where Miller truly excels is in quantifying the pleasures of reading. Like Lewis (and like me), Miller is a reader to the bone, and whenever she talks about the joys of reading the Chronicles the book really sings. I love when other readers are able to put into words what happens to bookworms like us when our noses get stuck and our minds get lost. Lewis wrote because he loved to read, and in my opinion, those are the kinds of writers I enjoy most.
I was disappointed that Miller failed to engage with any of Lewis’s apologetics, considering that he is as famous for those as he is for Narnia. She tends to lump all Christians in with some stereotype she has of a close-minded, literal Bible-thumper, confusing at one point Evangelicals with fundamentalists. There is some overlap between the two, but they are not one and the same. The kinds of Christians who embrace Lewis tend to be the kinds who also embrace the ambiguity that Miller thinks is so alien to Christianity. What she fails to grasp is that Christianity, at its core, is a faith built on paradox, one with as much to offer the mind as the heart.
If Miller had bothered to explore the Christianity she rejects, she would have discovered that the wildness she loves in Narnia is central, not antithetical, to Christianity. Instead she chose to look through the lenses of her own preconceptions, and the book is weaker for it. Despite this, I think that The Magician’s Book belongs on the bookshelf of any Lewis aficionado. It’s staying on mine.