It’s been a long time since I sat down and read straight through most of a book in one sitting, but I did that with ‘The Magician’s Book.’ It combines two things I’ve always loved — Narnia and literary criticism — and if parts of it weren’t new to me, that was just a reminder that I loved these things enough to have read many of the same sources used in this book.
The book’s three-part structure works well; the first section, ‘Songs of Innocence,’ about how Narnia appears to the initial reader; the second, ‘Trouble in Paradise,’ which details the problems with Narnia, and the third ‘Songs of Experience,’ which tries to get back to the initial enjoyment by analyzing what it is that makes Narnia so much more than the simple religious allegory so many of its enthusiasts apparently wish it was.
In the first section, Ms. Miller gives a vivid recounting of her own initial response to Narnia, supplemented by insights from many prominent fantasy authors. These are tantalizing enough to make me wish for a companion volume of the full interviews. I think almost any reader who buys this book will recognize the feelings and dreams that even a short quote from one of the books can call up. Where does the astounding power of the Narnia books come from?
Section 2 of the book reminds us where that power doesn’t come from. It doesn’t come from the christian allegory, or the reactionary tastes, reflexive sexism and racism, etc. of its author. This was the section of the book that interested me least, because I had either read or picked up on all of this before; but I can see how it might be a breath of fresh air for someone whose main experience of Narnia criticism has been apologetics and hagiography. I can remember how excited I was when I found in Lewis’ letters an explanation for his fondness for a dominating god, and this book is certainly a far clearer, easier, and more direct path to that explanation. And without clearly laying out the series’ flaws, the third section which tries to come to grips with its magic could have seemed naive.
In the third section, however, I found myself impatient. Too many of the leads seemed to be leading away from Narnia; particularly the digressions into Tolkieniana. I would have liked more about what Lewis believed and less about why Tolkien didn’t believe it, and I’m not convinced that what Tolkien thought had much to do with the creation of Narnia, beyond his role in re-converting Lewis to Christianity. Perhaps I should accept that Tolkien is the black hole of fantasy scholarship, and will suck in anything that comes too close. But the only thing I wanted to know about Tolkien was what makes parts of his books work so well. Basically, I wanted to learn about the psychology of the readers, not of the writers.
The book escapes Tolkien’s gravitational pull in the last chapters, where the ‘Third path’ of faerie is identified as the way Lewis escapes the moral straitjacket of his own allegory, breaking into a land untouched by its constraints. It’s clear, once it’s pointed out to me, that Lewis’s pack-rat like accumulation of fantasy concepts and images gives his work much of the punch it has for anyone who already knows those images.
All the time I was reading the last few chapters, whenever the agglomeration of disparate mythologies in Narnia was invoked, I was thinking about fan fiction. Most authors I’ve discussed fan fiction with have agreed that it’s easier than regular fiction because the emotional associations have already been created for you. The reader knows just what you are trying to do when you introduce Snape or Spock into a story – you call up levels of meaning that you could never have created on your own. And if you’re bold enough to introduce both of them, having them meet Tohru Honda and Toad of Toad Hall — then you’re playing with a lot of free power, and you can potentially accomplish a lot.
And now that I’ve been shown some of the secrets of Lewis’ power, I want more — more detail, more line-by-line identification of the symbols and myths Lewis uses and why they have the effect they do. I want more of the reasons for their impact on children, specifically, and how they arise from and call to the embodied experience of the child. In short, I want another book — one that picks up where this one leaves off, going into Narnia by the back door.
When will the next one be issued?