Back Through that Wardrobe

orbmiller Back Through that WardrobeThe Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia
By Laura Miller
Little, Brown, 311 pages, $25.99

We live in an age of relentless fascination, even obsession, with what we might as well call Middle-youth, that achy, anxious period of early adolescence marked by overpuffed independence, sexual confusion and passion for sweet soda pop and brightly colored bags of chips. At its worst, it yields armfuls of novels and films by 30-somethings longing for a last razz of the substitute teacher, a last sniff of the new girl’s locker. At its best, though, our collective fascination with Middle-youth ignores the public drama of sex and social dynamics and focuses instead on the private self. Middle-youth is when we begin to find our feet, discover a calling, become ourselves. How does this happen? How do we know our ship has come in, that this gangway leads to our own deck, that the shore is best left behind and we may safely turn to sea?

The critic Laura Miller’s new book, an account of her long on-again, off-again affair with C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, has these good questions at its core. Like Ms. Miller, I was changed by reading the Chronicles, made to feel more myself in those hazy, lazy years before car keys and contraceptives. But that was nearly 30 years ago, and unlike Ms. Miller, I have never reread the books and remember almost nothing about them besides their iconic covers and the presence of a very kindly lion. The Magician’s Book is both too detailed and too sketchy to make much sense of the individual novels to a reader at this remove, but for me it brought back something better: the memory not of the magnificent, strange and sylvan Narnia saga but of the experience of reading it—and of the person those books made me.

 

MS. MILLER DECIDED TO write her book when she realized, upon rereading the Chronicles as an adult, that she was enchanted once again despite the many flaws she could now see in them. “I’d always assumed,” Ms. Miller writes, “that I could never recapture the old enchantment I once found in books, especially the complete and total belief that I’d felt while reading theChronicles. I know too much now: about Lewis’ personality and intentions, about literary sources he raided, about his careless reflections of the world’s injustices. But what if I decided to know even more, to learn more, about how the Chronicles came to be written and all the various ways they have been and can be read?”

Much of the book recounts Ms. Miller’s dogged search for leads and clues in search of this knowledge. She travels to Lewis’ childhood home in Ireland; visits his rooms at Oxford; scours his letters and autobiographical writings; talks with Narnia fans and critics such as Jonathan Franzen, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke; and meets the second-grade teacher who turned her on to the Chronicles in the first place. These rambles of mind and foot are often interesting—especially what she gleans from Mr. Franzen (a Narnia enthusiast) and Mr. Pullman (a Narnia scoffer), who are their usual thorny, perceptive selves. But her travels feel a bit dutiful, and her accounts lack depth and so feel a bit unsatisfying.

More convincing and in greater detail, Ms. Miller explores her adult disappointment with Lewis himself as reflected in the Chronicles. She traces the roots of his racism, his misogyny and his elitism, and she explores how and why the Chronicles are so deeply imbued with Christian symbolism and may be read as an allegory for the Passion of Christ. Despite having grown up in what she calls a “mild form of Catholicism,” Ms. Miller was upset to discover the books’ “dose of theology” several years after she first read them; she felt she’d been tricked into swallowing it. But she “never believed in Christianity as fully as [she] believed in Narnia,” and perhaps the same could be said of Lewis himself, whose proselytizing Ms. Miller excuses largely on the grounds that the nature of Narnia proves he was no fundamentalist. “The fact that Lewis thought he could retell the story of Jesus with a lion god, talking animals, and semihuman creatures from classical myths set in an imaginary country where the Bible doesn’t exist—all this militates against strict interpretation.”

 

THE MAGICIAN’S BOOK only really takes off when Ms. Miller turns to the origins of the Chronicles, and especially to Lewis’ intense, turvy friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien. Does everyone know that they were best pals at Oxford starting in the late 1920s? I certainly didn’t. According to Ms. Miller, they were as much a Romantic duo as Coleridge and Wordsworth: They read passages from their work in progress to each other; joined with other Oxford writers in a club called the Inklings to egg each other on; and together led the effort to keep books written after 1830 off the university’s syllabus. Fascinating stuff—I wouldn’t have minded if Ms. Miller had devoted her entire book to their friendship.

She reveals how strongly the writing of the late Victorian polymath William Morris influenced both of them. We still know Morris as socialist, publisher, founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, textile and wallpaper designer and much else. But mostly forgotten are the “prose romances” he wrote late in his life, in which armored knights and pre-Roman Goths set forth in search of adventure, blood and treasure. Tolkien and Lewis devoured Morris’ romances, which ratified their childhood love of medieval tales and inspired them to write The Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles. “In a way,” Ms. Miller writes, “the socialist Morris was the grandfather of a vast and highly lucrative genre of popular fiction, even though what he’d set out to do was revive a beloved, forsaken form.”

Still, for two Christian academics obsessed by the Middle Ages and Norse myths, who wrote epic fictions set in imaginary worlds, Lewis and Tolkien had remarkably different convictions about fantasy and fiction. As Ms. Miller teases it out, The Lord of the Rings is thickly described, rule-bound, unfunny; Middle-earth feels wholly imagined in every detail, as Tolkien was a very fussy fantasist. By contrast, there’s something de Chirico about the Chronicles—they’re thinly described, loose-jointed and out of tune, witty. Narnia feels like a half-remembered, hodgepodge dream rather than a world, and all the more disturbing because of it. Lewis was a magpie fantasist, taking from a wide range of sources.

Despite Tolkien’s friendship with Lewis, the Chronicles’ mixture of Christian mysticism, classical cosmology, Celtic legend (“fauns and dragons and dwarves and Arabian Nights exoticism all jumbled together”) so offended Tolkien’s sense of mythic order that he judged them, according to Ms. Miller, a “disgracefully slapdash creation.” Lewis, on the other hand, had nothing but praise for Tolkien’s masterpiece. Indeed, Laura Miller points out that given Tolkien’s procrastination and self-doubt, “it’s only due to Lewis’ nagging” that The Lord of the Rings was written at all.

Matt Weiland is co-editor, with Sean Wilsey, of State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. He can be reached at books@observer.com.