I should start by pointing out that I am nobody’s skeptic. As a matter of fact, I consider myself very, if hardly conventionally, religious. That said, I read Salon co-founder Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia with a constant grin on my face, as passage after passage made me cry out with delight: “friend!” Here is someone who seems to not only understand the love I felt for C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, a love that still endures very deeply in my heart, but also my love of stories and reading. Indeed, she helped me understand that love better, and by consequence the person I am and the writer I hope to be.
The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia is a hard book to define. It’s part literary criticism, part biography, and part memoir. It’s also a very poignant meditation on the difference between reading as a child and reading as an adult, about what we lose and what we gain. Ms. Miller first read the Narnia stories with the deep love of a child. As she grew older, and was able to recognize the Christian themes that permeate the books, she felt betrayed — even tricked — by an author trying to “sneak” religion past her childish, unformed defenses. And yet as an agnostic adult, she circled back to the love she knew as a child. That journey is an especially moving one, and it tells us as much about the powerful and, yes, even defining relationship between reader and cherished book as it does about C. S. Lewis and the Narnia stories themselves. Which is to say, quite a lot.
As much as I adored exploring Narnia in Ms. Miller’s company—and I truly did, and will do so again—we don’t see eye to eye on a whole wardrobe full of issues. I found her criticisms of Tolkien, for example, to be a little harsh. And she has developed a view of Christianity that, frankly, has little to recommend it—as is as far removed from my own experiences as the deserts in the south of Calormen are from the giant wastes in the far north (a little Narnia reference for you. If you haven’t read the books, well, it’s just way far. That’s all you need to know. But seriously, read the books). But ultimately, those points are minor, and I found Ms. Miller’s insights fascinating. She doesn’t gloss over the points that critics are wont to attack—the apparent sexism, for example—but she deals with them in a frank and honest way that only deepened my appreciation for Lewis’s works. Her love for Lewis’s work is undiminished by examination. If anything, it is strengthened. The love of a child assumes that the object of love is perfect and above reproach and criticism. The love of an adult sees past flaws—acknowledging, never ignoring them—and loves more deeply for that insight.
Her research is excellent, her interviews with other readers and writers are well selected and insightful, and she leaps from idea to idea with seamless grace. In fact, the sections on the differences between allegory and metaphor are worth the price alone. She understands what Lewis meant by joy and longing more than many scholars and Christians I know. After reading her book, I felt like I’d spent a weekend in deep conversation with a person I’d just met—one with whom I happened to discover a shared and wonderful past—and one I thought of as an instant friend.
Whether you are religious, agnostic, atheist, or somewhere in between, I highly recommend The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia to all who loved the Narnia books as a child, or who has come to love them as an adult, or even to those who simply love books, reading, stories, and storytelling. It’s a special book. It’s certainly made me want to reread the Narnia books. With the holidays approaching, now seems like the perfect time.
I’d love to know what you think.