Review: The Magician’s Book

The Magician’s Book by Laura Miller

The Magician’s Book came to me through Ana’s brilliant review over at things mean a lot; accessible literary criticism concerning a fantasy series? Be still, my heart! I was all ready to snap it up until I hit the obvious stumbling block—I’d never read The Chronicles of Narnia. (Yes, this is why we had Narnia Week back in November.) As soon as I came back to school after the holidays, I picked it up—even before I moved in. That’s quite some hype! Wonderfully, The Magician’s Book lived up to my expectations.

The Magician’s Book started with an assignment for Salon.com writer Laura Miller—describe the one book that has changed your life. Miller began to write about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and ended with this book, an exploration into the subtext of Narnia and C. S. Lewis’s life, as well as an exploration into her complicated relationship with Narnia. As child, Miller adored The Chronicles of Narnia, but felt betrayed when she discovered the Christian subtext as teenager. Miller turned away from the series, but, upon returning to it as an adult, discovered a new appreciation for the series. Throughout the book, Miller includes discussion by authors such as Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke; authors struggling with Lewis’s legacy.

I devoured The Magician’s Book in two days; I could not get enough. Miller’s writing and literary criticism is joyfully accessible; her writing is clear and straight-forward (though not plain by any stretch), and she moves nimbly from topic to topic, braiding, say, her childhood thoughts on the series with Pullman’s thoughts on the series and Lewis’s life with ease. It’s refreshingly smooth. As much as having The Chronicles of Narnia under your belt is important (if only to avoid whiplash when you discover what happens in The Last Battle), Miller’s book, in examining her relationship with Lewis’s series, examines the relationship a reader has with books throughout their lives, as a child “with a simple, even religious, relationship to the written word” (118) to an adult whose study of a work yields greater riches, despite the fallibility of the author. I was particularly taken by Miller’s explanation of the childish fascination with talking animals—it speaks to the human desire to communicate with nature (including the beasts) as well as their recent arrival into the world of spoken language from the world of physical language like animals.

Miller covers the usual problems with Lewis’s work—her chapter on racism in Narnia is especially well-done, focusing on the implications of the food associated with the Calormene. She thoughtfully ponders why Lucy became the main character of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe instead of Peter (drawing on horror films for her conclusion), as well as why sexually desirable and powerful women were just so threatening to Lewis, such as the adult Susan and Jadis. But she draws on other sources. Like Ana, I particularly enjoyed seeing the work of John Goldthwaite, who furiously points out Lewis’s casually cruel way of defining who is in and who is out; fat-legged girls, nonfiction fans, and vegetarians aren’t wanted in Narnia. But I think the most wonderful discourse comes from Philip Pullman, who explains the worldview he presents in His Dark Materials in contrast to The Chronicles of Narnia; when Lyra, his heroine, loses her innocence as well as her prodigious skill in reading the aleithometer, she is told that while she can never recover her innocence, she can recover her skill after a lifetime of study—and that skill will be worth all the more because you’ve earned it. It’s a remarkably touching and gentle alternative to Lewis’s Narnian humans, who grab hold of their innocence for dear life, Susan being the only one who can’t (or won’t!); indeed, Lewis’s language in a letter explaining her ultimate fate sounds eerily similar to Pullman.

Miller stays thoroughly on the side of Narnia, perhaps a bit more than she realizes—for instance, she always characterizes her adult enjoyment of the books as different from her childhood enjoyment and never as superior, allying herself more with Lewis and less with Pullman. This comes out when she discusses Tolkien and Lewis’s friendship, a touching and complex relationship (Tolkien, for instance, hated Narnia, for very much the same reasons I don’t like its worldbuilding). While she talks about her enjoyment of The Lord of the Rings, Narnia clearly interests her more—she refers to The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy (an enormous pet peeve of mine), finds the characters simple, and, when discussing Tolkien’s relationship with women, treats Éowyn’s complex relationship with Aragorn as a simple love affair. I don’t say this to be an obnoxious Ringer (okay, maybe a little bit…), but to point out that, yes, Narnia has touched Miller indelibly. Late in the book, Miller characterizes Narnia as a product of “fancy”, something like rearranging the furniture in your mind” (258), as opposed to Tolkien’s legendarium being created out of imagination, which distills its inputs. I vastly prefer the latter; Miller obviously enjoys the former, and conceptualizing Narnia as a fancy has certainly changed the way I think of the books—but perhaps that’s another topic for another time. (And I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface!)

Bottom line: Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book, in examining Miller’s (and others’) relationship with The Chronicles of Narnia, also explores the relationship we have with books throughout our lives, from believing children to experienced adult. Miller’s writing is joyfully accessible and nimble with her topic; while revisiting The Chronicles of Narnia is a must, this a book anyone who loves books (especially fantasy!) ought to read.

I rented this book from the public library.

  • Miller, Laura. The Magician’s Book. New York, Little, Brown and Company. 2008. Print.

27 thoughts on “Review: The Magician’s Book

  1. I’ve been dying to read this book ever since the first review I saw of it. Now that I’ve read your review I want to get my hands on it that much more (especially as a childhood Narnia fan and fantasy book lover) … I’m off to see if one of my libraries has a copy. 🙂

  2. I’m so glad you loved it too! I really enjoyed reading your thoughts – they made me relive the wonderful experience that was reading this book. I don’t know what Miller will be publishing next, but I know I’ll be getting my hands on it.

  3. I’ve heard some wonderful things about this one and I’m glad to hear it’s living up to expectations. I’m planning to read it this year either before or after I get around to re-reading The Chronicles of Narnia.

  4. The characters in LOTR are a little simple. A little bit! But I don’t think the Narnia ones are any complexer. If the world were divided into camps, though, I’d definitely be in the Lewis Camp. #teamnarnia rather than #teammiddleearth.

  5. I don’t normally read literary criticism but this sounds really interesting. I haven’t read the Narnia chronicles so much as an adult, and I have very rarely re-read TLTWATW, because the Christian allegory annoys me so much in it. The difficulties that Tolkien saw in Lewis’ world-building don’t bother me so much (talking animals with kettles, mixtures of Greek and Norse mythology, and so on).

    I am definitely #teammiddleearth. For me there’s no comparison!

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