Friday, March 9, 2012

Book Review: The Magician's Book

One of my earliest reading memories is this one: It was summertime and I was seven or eight. My best friend, Christi, and I spent hours constructing an elaborate fort, draping blankets and sheets over a structure of chairs and card tables. We decorated our haven with lamps and plump pillows, maybe a few stuffed animals for company. When my mom came down to check on us a few hours later, we were both reclining against pillows at opposite ends of our fort, sucking our thumbs, reading. She shook her head and left us alone. I'm pretty sure I was reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of the Chronicles of Narnia, and Christi was reading another. I devoured those novels as a kid, reading them on my own many times and listening in rapture as my third grade teacher read all of them to us, contorting his voice to give each character a unique personality.

When I saw this book at the bookstore, I knew I had to get it. Here's the back cover blurb: "Enchanted by the fantastic world of the Chronicles of Narnia as a child, Laura Miller returns to C.S. Lewis's classic fantasies to see what mysteries Narnia still holds for adult eyes--and she is captivated in an entirely new way. She travels to Lewis's home in Ireland, unfolds his intense friendship with J.R.R. Tolkein, and explores Lewis's influence on contemporary writers such as Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Franzen, and Philip Pullman. Finally reclaiming Narnia for the rest of us, Miller casts the Chronicles as a profoundly literary creation, and the portal to a lifelong adventure in books, art, and the imagination."

Well, of course that sounded exactly like something I needed to read, especially as I've long been contemplating a trip to England, and I'd heard that Tolkein and Lewis had met at Oxford and cemented their friendship in various pubs. Sounds like another great excuse to visit the Isles.

The book was, in all honesty, a bit disappointing in a few ways, despite several memorable and redemptive bits.

The one thing that irritated me more than others was Miller's frequent reminders that she had been shocked and appalled to learn, as a teen, that the Narnia she had loved as a child was actually filled with very intentional Christian symbolism. Miller, although she had been raised as a Catholic, found Enlightenment and Liberty in her teens, so this apparently-somewhat-subtle embedded message from Lewis was quite distasteful to her when she discovered it. She felt betrayed to learn that her favorite world from childhood was just a cover for a Christian sermon.

I got it the first time, her disgust. But she kept referring to it repeatedly, especially throughout the second of the three main sections of the book. While I understand that this revelation is integral to her own belief system and also that she needs (perhaps) to justify the Chronicles' efficacy to her fellow atheists, it still felt a little overdone.

Other than that, my only other major beef was her failure to deliver more of the connection between Lewis's Irish home and the setting of the novels. I thought, since the back jacket mentioned it, that there would be more about her travels through Ireland searching for Lewis's inspiration. There was some, sure, but not much.

Those few parts, though, that irritated me are not enough to make me write the book off entirely. Miller has much to say about the relationship between Lewis and Tolkein, a rather mismatched pair, I think, although they were certainly united in their interest in Nordic folklore and myth, in the mist-shrouded mysteries of ancient Britain, and in newly created worlds. Aside from those passions, though, they seemed to be opposites. Lewis was friendly and talkative; Tolkein was reserved and quiet. Lewis was quick to mix lots of the things he loved into his work (observations from his nature hikes, classical mythology, Nordic motifs, stuff from Arabian Nights, etc.); Tolkein spent years creating a fully-developed new world, a creation entirely of his own making with complex languages, politics and customs, even its own myths. Miller talks about how the men enjoyed meeting together with other literary friends to read from their work, and how much Lewis loved to read parts of his writing aloud for others to critique. Also, he loved to hear about Tolkein's Middle Earth, and it was probably because of his persistence that the books were ever finished and published. (And Tolkein, on the other hand, hated the Narnia books and refused to read most of them, believing them silly and too slipshod in their construction and dedication to sub-creation, the idea of creating an entirely new world in words.)

Miller also talks about the value of exposing children to good books at a young age so that they can find new worlds and explore them, learning at the same time about themselves and the world they live in. She talks of how much she loved books as a child in this way: "My material life often seemed to be nothing more than the drab and shadowy interludes between the hours when I could read and retreat to an interior realm furnished with the fabulous treasure I had scavenged from hundreds of books. I sometimes wonder if this kind of inward-turning, inward-dwelling, probably unhealthy temperament is acquired or inherited" (42). I think of the pleasure I get in losing myself (still!) in the world of any book, and I know exactly what she means. It is reassuring to be reminded that I am not alone or (entirely) odd because of this ability to get lost so easily within printed words on a page.

Miller also talked about stories and how they grow in change in time, acknowledging that in borrowing from the mythologies of many cultures, Lewis created his own mythology that children (and adults) have believed in for more than half a century. From there, she talked a bit about how we acquire language, and I found that bit particularly fascinating. Consider this: "Our brains, it is thought, have an innate response to languages that employ this structure [a universal grammar, a common structural basis for all human languages] and we are particularly attuned to it during childhood, when we learn languages quickly and easily. An infant's babbling sounds like adorable nonsense, but it's really the evidence of a powerful information processor assembling itself, rifling through sounds and sequences of sounds and figuring how all the pieces fit together to form meanings." How crazy is that? I know!

So, like I said, I found much to admire and some to roll my eyes at in this book. I appreciated the critical background Miller brought to the book, the wealth of information she consulted to recreate Lewis's life and mind, and the obvious love she still has for the Chronicles of Narnia. It is reassuring, I think, to learn that the books I loved so much as a child--so much that I'd rather read them than play with my best friend--are of value to the literary world and more than just a few hundred pages written to entertain (and proselytize) young readers.