8

‘The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia’ by Laura Miller *****

I have never been a huge fan of the fantasy genre, but I could not get enough of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia when I was a child. I remember, on a couple of occasions, finishing the last paperback in the series – a gorgeous boxed edition which my mother was given when she was a child, and passed on to me – and going right back to the beginning. I have read the series in adulthood, and found it almost as magical.

I was therefore very keen to read Laura Miller’s memoir, The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, which charts her own experiences of reading the Chronicles, both in childhood and adulthood. She writes: ‘My relationship to Narnia would turn out to be as heady as any love affair, a story of enchantment, betrayal, estrangement, and reunion.’ Jonathan Lethem deems Miller’s book a ‘superb long essay’, ‘conversational, embracing and casually erudite’, and Karen Joy Fowler calls it ‘smart, meticulous, and altogether delightful’.

The Magician’s Book chronicles – pardon the pun – Miller’s ‘long, tumultuous relationship’ with C.S. Lewis’ books. Just as I did as a young teenager, Miller discovered the wealth of Christian material which suffused the books; these seem obvious to me as an older reader, but as a child, they went right over my head. Miller’s experience from this point veered in a different direction to mine; I was still keen to submerge myself within the books, but the ‘Christian themes left [Miller] feeling betrayed and alienated from the stories she had come to know and trust.’

As an adult, Miller – who was working as a literary critic at the time – came to the stories from a different perspective. She decided to investigate the Chronicles, alongside Lewis’ life, ‘to see what mysteries Narnia holds for adult eyes’. She was thankfully enraptured by the stories once more, and was able to recapture some of the childhood love which she felt for them. She muses at length upon the Christian symbolism in the novels, explaining why she initially felt let down by this element, and how cleverly Lewis drew parallels between the two. She examines, too, the role of women and race within the novels, and the lack of distinct politics in Narnia, amongst so many other elements.

I loved the mixing of Miller’s own memoir alongside a quite detailed biography of C.S. Lewis himself. She visits the places in which he lived, in both England and Ireland, and travels to the specific Irish landscapes which inspired portions of the books. Miller found Lewis to be a man ‘who stands in stark contrast to his whimsical creation’. In her research, she was particularly interested in his all-engulfing friendship with Lord of the Rings creator J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as the influence which he has had upon a slew of modern writers, including Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Franzen. Miller gives a fantastic commentary regarding mythology and Medieval romance, and its influences on both Lewis and Tolkien.

The Magician’s Book opens with a reflection of Miller’s childhood, when the greatest love which she felt was for the Narnia stories. She writes in especially touching prose here, telling us: ‘I’m wishing, with every bit of myself, for two things. First, I want a place I’ve read about in a book to really exist, and second, I want to be able to go there. I want this so much I’m pretty sure the misery of not getting it will kill me. For the rest of my life, I will never want anything quite so much again.’ Narnia showed the young Laura how she ‘could tumble through a hole in the world I knew and into another, better one, a world fresher, more brightly colored, more exhilarating, more fully felt than my own.’

Miller writes beautifully throughout about Narnia and its magic. She also details how formative reading the Chronicles were, and how they provided a sort of moral and educational primer for its child readers. She says, for instance: ‘To me, the best children’s books gave their child characters (and by extension, myself) the chance to be taken seriously. In Narnia, the boundary between childhood and adulthood – a vast tundra of tedious years – could be elided. The Pevensies not only get to topple the White Witch, fight in battles, participate in an earthshaking mystical event, and be crowned kings and queens; they do it all without having to grow up. Yet they become more than children, too. Above all, their decisions have moral gravity. In contrast to how most children experience their role in an adult world, what the child characters in these stories do, for better or worse, really matters…’.

I found The Magician’s Book fascinating. Miller offers a thorough, even intricate, work of literary criticism. I left with a renewed love for the Narnia books myself, as well as a list of a few other lists and authors to explore – something which I greatly appreciate. The Magician’s Book is, overall, a fantastic melding of a variety of genres and interests, and of themes and elements found within a children’s series which contains an awful lot of depth.

As Miller puts it so wonderfully herself, Narnia ‘mixed up classical and Northern mythologies, canonical fairy tales and slangy modern schoolchildren, myth and satire, all with such cheerful indiscrimination.’ This is a wonderful piece of literary criticism, and I can only hope that every fan of Narnia will have the chance to pick it up.

4

Books to Read Aloud

I have been thinking about reading aloud of late, particularly as last year, I shared the odd poem from Allie Esiri’s A Poem for Every Night of the Year with my boyfriend.  Prior to this, I had done very little reading aloud since leaving my taught University classes, and realised that it is something I really miss.  With that in mind, I thought it would be a nice idea to curate a list of some of the books which I have most enjoyed reading aloud in the past.  Given the nature of this list, they are almost all children’s books, as I did most of my reading aloud in groups whilst in junior school.  Regardless, picking one up and reading it aloud is sure to charm any child, or to make you feel very nostalgic indeed.

 

10333461. Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo
‘When Michael is washed up on an island in the Pacific after falling from his parent’s yacht, the Peggy Sue, he struggles to survive on his own. But he soon realises there is someone close by, someone who is watching over him and helping him to stay alive. Following a close-run battle between life and death after being stung by a poisonous jelly fish, the mysterious someone–Kensuke–allows Michael into his world and they become friends, teaching and learning from each other, until the day of separation becomes inevitable.  Morpurgo here spins a yarn which gently captures the adventurous elements one would expect from a desert-island tale, but the real strength lies in the poignant and subtle observations of friendship, trust and, ultimately, humanity.’

 

2. Matilda by Roald Dahl 109019
‘Matilda is a little girl who is far too good to be true. At age five-and-a-half she’s knocking off double-digit multiplication problems and blitz-reading Dickens. Even more remarkably, her classmates love her even though she’s a super-nerd and the teacher’s pet. But everything is not perfect in Matilda’s world. For starters she has two of the most idiotic, self-centered parents who ever lived. Then there’s the large, busty nightmare of a school principal, Miss (“The”) Trunchbull, a former hammer-throwing champion who flings children at will and is approximately as sympathetic as a bulldozer. Fortunately for Matilda, she has the inner resources to deal with such annoyances: astonishing intelligence, saintly patience, and an innate predilection for revenge.  She warms up with some practical jokes aimed at her hapless parents, but the true test comes when she rallies in defense of her teacher, the sweet Miss Honey, against the diabolical Trunchbull. There is never any doubt that Matilda will carry the day. Even so, this wonderful story is far from predictable. Roald Dahl, while keeping the plot moving imaginatively, also has an unerring ear for emotional truth. The reader cares about Matilda because in addition to all her other gifts, she has real feelings.’

 

161011153. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
‘One starry night, Peter Pan and Tinker Bell lead the three Darling children over the rooftops of London and away to Neverland – the island where lost boys play, mermaids splash and fairies make mischief. But a villainous-looking gang of pirates lurk in the docks, led by the terrifying Captain James Hook. Magic and excitement are in the air, but if Captain Hook has his way, before long, someone will be walking the plank and swimming with the crocodiles…’

 

4. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett 231815
‘When orphaned Mary Lennox comes to live at her uncle’s great house on the Yorkshire Moors, she finds it full of secrets. The mansion has nearly one hundred rooms, and her uncle keeps himself locked up. And at night, she hears the sound of crying down one of the long corridors.  The gardens surrounding the large property are Mary’s only escape. Then, Mary discovers a secret garden, surrounded by walls and locked with a missing key. One day, with the help of two unexpected companions, she discovers a way in. Is everything in the garden dead, or can Mary bring it back to life?’

 

10451495. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
‘Narnia… the land beyond the wardrobe, the secret country known only to Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy…the place where the adventure begins. Lucy is the first to find the secret of the wardrobe in the professor’s mysterious old house. At first, no one believes her when she tells of her adventures in the land of Narnia. But soon Edmund and then Peter and Susan discover the Magic and meet Aslan, the Great Lion, for themselves. In the blink of an eye, their lives are changed forever.’

 

6. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr Seuss 113946
‘Dr. Seuss’s small-hearted Grinch ranks right up there with Scrooge when it comes to the crankiest, scowling holiday grumps of all time. For 53 years, the Grinch has lived in a cave on the side of a mountain, looming above the Whos in Whoville. The noisy holiday preparations and infernal singing of the happy little citizens below annoy him to no end. The Grinch decides this frivolous merriment must stop. His “wonderful, awful” idea is to don a Santa outfit, strap heavy antlers on his poor, quivering dog Max, construct a makeshift sleigh, head down to Whoville, and strip the chafingly cheerful Whos of their Yuletide glee once and for all.  Looking quite out of place and very disturbing in his makeshift Santa get-up, the Grinch slithers down chimneys with empty bags and stealing the Whos’ presents, their food, even the logs from their humble Who-fires. He takes the ramshackle sleigh to Mt. Crumpit to dump it and waits to hear the sobs of the Whos when they wake up and discover the trappings of Christmas have disappeared. Imagine the Whos’ dismay when they discover the evil-doings of Grinch in his anti-Santa guise. But what is that sound? It’s not sobbing, but singing! Children simultaneously adore and fear this triumphant, twisted Seussian testimonial to the undaunted cheerfulness of the Whos, the transcendent nature of joy, and of course, the growth potential of a heart that’s two sizes too small.  This holiday classic is perfect for reading aloud to your favorite little Who’s.’

 

4753397. Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans
‘Madeline is one of the best-loved characters in children’s literature. Set in picturesque Paris, this tale of a brave little girl’s trip to the hospital was a Caldecott Honor Book in 1940 and has as much appeal today as it did then. The combination of a spirited heroine, timelessly appealing art, cheerful humor, and rhythmic text makes Madeline a perennial favorite with children of all ages.’

 

8. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter 19321
‘In this original edition, Peter and his sisters are told to go gather blackberries and not to go into MacGregor’s garden because Peter’s father was made into a pie by MacGregor after being found in the garden. Peter, who is wearing a new coat, promptly disobeys his mother, stuffs himself with vegetables, gets spotted by MacGregor, loses his coat and barely makes it out of the garden alive. When Peter gets home, he is given chamomile tea for dinner. Peter’s sisters, who listened to their mother and stayed out of the forbidden garden have a regular dinner.’

 

63199. The BFG by Roald Dahl
‘Captured by a giant! The BFG is no ordinary bone-crunching giant. He is far too nice and jumbly. It’s lucky for Sophie that he is. Had she been carried off in the middle of the night by the Bloodbottler, the Fleshlumpeater, the Bonecruncher, or any of the other giants-rather than the BFG-she would have soon become breakfast.  When Sophie hears that they are flush-bunking off in England to swollomp a few nice little chiddlers, she decides she must stop them once and for all. And the BFG is going to help her!’

 

10. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf 14942
Mrs. Dalloway chronicles a June day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway –a day that is taken up with running minor errands in preparation for a party and that is punctuated, toward the end, by the suicide of a young man she has never met. In giving an apparently ordinary day such immense resonance and significance–infusing it with the elemental conflict between death and life–Virginia Woolf triumphantly discovers her distinctive style as a novelist. Originally published in 1925, Mrs. Dalloway is Woolf’s first complete rendering of what she described as the “luminous envelope” of consciousness: a dazzling display of the mind’s inside as it plays over the brilliant surface and darker depths of reality.’

 

Which is your favourite book or poem to read aloud?

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4

Favourite Illustrations

I thought I would produce a post for today which was a little less taxing than having to read through an entire review, and focus instead on that which has been largely neglected on The Literary Sisters to date – that of the humble illustration.  I must admit that I still love books with pictures in them, even as an adult and a PhD researcher.  When I flip open the pages of a Persephone book and see lovely illustrations alongside the text, I delight a little.  There is just something so charming about them.

Without further ado, I am going to post ten of my favourite book illustrations.  I hope you enjoy this veering away from the literary!

 

1. John Teniell‘s iconic interpretation of Lewis Carroll‘s Alice in Wonderland

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2. E.H. Shepard‘s delightful images in A.A. Milne‘s Winnie the Pooh (and friends)

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3. Carson Ellis‘ wonderful drawings in husband Colin Meloy‘s Wildwood Chronicles series

wildwoon-by-colin-meloy-and-carson-ellis

 

4. Ludwig Bemelmans‘ adorable redhead, Madeline

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5. The Moomins by my beloved Tove Jansson

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6. The lovely Babar by Jean de Brunhoff

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7. Beatrix Potter‘s whimsical animals

The Mice Sewing the Mayor's Coat circa 1902 by Helen Beatrix Potter 1866-1943

 

8. Quentin Blake‘s wonderful depiction of Roald Dahl‘s Matilda

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9. Mary Cicely Barker‘s Flower Fairies, which enchanted me throughout childhood

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10. Pauline Baynes‘ stunning drawings in C.S. LewisChronicles of Narnia series

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There are no great surprises here, I’m sure!  Which are your favourite illustrations?  Have I featured any of them here?

2

‘A Grief Observed’ by C.S. Lewis ****

I purchased this for my Mad Woman’s Book Club’s themed read of March 2017 – death and dying.  Again, I wanted to get a little bit of a headstart so that I could ensure my thoughts were up in time, and ended up devouring it in one go in the middle of January.  C.S. Lewis was one of my favourite childhood authors, and I have lost count of the number of times I have read The Chronicles of Narnia whilst snuggled beneath a quilt as a young’un.  I have read very little of his work for adults, however, and was thus rather looking forward to reading A Grief Observed.

A Grief Observed is a slim volume, first published in 1961, in which Lewis muses about the death of his wife, H.  It begins with rather a heartrending paragraph, which certainly sets the tone of what is to follow: ‘No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.  I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.  The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning.  I keep on swallowing.’ 9780571290680

The extended essay, as I suppose one could categorise it, has been beautifully wrought.  It is both endearingly honest, and a moving tribute, in which he remembers his wife, and their given places within the relationship.  ‘For H,’ he writes, ‘wasn’t like that at all.  Her mind was lithe and quick and muscular as a leopard.  Passion, tenderness and pain were all equally unable to disarm it.  It scented the first whiff of cant or slush; then sprang, and knocked you over before you knew what was happening.  How many bubbles of mine she pricked!  I soon learned not to talk rot to her unless I did it for the sheer pleasure – and there’s another red-hot jab – of being exposed and laughed at.  I was never less silly than as H’s lover.’

Lewis interestingly discusses a crisis of faith following his wife’s death: ‘But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find?  A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside.  After that, silence.  You may as well turn away.’  He is quite unable to pray for his late wife: ‘Bewilderment and amazement come over me.  I have a ghastly sense of unreality, of speaking into a vacuum about a nonentity’.

Throughout, Lewis is contemplative, and talks candidly about the ways in which his grief permeates everything else in life.  He continually questions his own place within the world, and what his life is worth alone.  He also asks, and ponders upon, what comes after the initial period of grief.  ‘This is one of the things I’m afraid of,’ he writes.  ‘The agonies, the mad midnight moments, must, in the course of nature, die away.  But what will follow?  Just this apathy, this dead flatness?…  Does grief finally subside into boredom tinged by faint nostalgia?’

A Grief Observed is a writing exercise to both voice and come to terms with his sorrow.  Some of the sentences addressed personally to H are incredibly touching: ‘Did you ever know, dear, how much you took away with you when you left?  You have stripped me even of my past, even of the things we never shared’.  I am personally an atheist, but Lewis’ ruminations on life and grieving were still of interest to me.  I found myself identifying with him on several levels, particularly with regard to the death of my grandmother some years past.  Whilst we have different viewpoints on a lot of things concerned with death and dying, A Grief Observed is an undoubtedly beautiful book.  It feels almost a privilege to be able to read this small tome with its incredibly powerful message.

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28

Transitional Authors

I begin this post with a question: what is the first adult novel which you remember reading?  As a child, I always had my nose within the pages of Enid Blyton and C.S. Lewis, and had a slight error at the age of seven, when I decided that Moby-Dick looked as though it would keep me busy for a while, and began it only to put it down soon afterwards. face

At the age of eight, however, I vividly remember reading both Jane Eyre and To Kill a Mockingbird – the first my own choice, and the second a gift from my father – and immediately feeling as though I had unlocked a whole new world of wonders.  I swiftly followed these wonderful novels, enduring favourites of mine, with the likes of Wuthering Heights and A Christmas Carol, and haven’t looked back since.

Are the first adult novels which you read classed amongst your current favourites?  If you remember, what made you select the adult books which you did as a child or teenager?

0

One From the Archive: ‘Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold’ by C.S. Lewis ***

First published in May 2014.

In Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis retells – or, rather, reinterprets – the myth of Cupid and Psyche.  Throughout, the story, which takes place in the Kingdom of Glome, is told from the first person perspective of Orual, Psyche’s ‘ugly’ older sister. 

Redival and Orual are the daughters of a king and queen.  When their mother dies, their father remarries rather quickly, and their stepmother passes away after giving birth to a baby girl named Istra.  Istra is rather quickly given the nickname of Psyche by Orual, who dotes upon her from the first.  As one might expect in a novel such as this, there is a thread of brutality which can be found from beginning to end.  Violence is a way of life in Glome, and the king in particular exemplifies this cruelty.

Orual is quite a strong heroine, but in some ways, she did not quite feel fully developed.  I did not like her, but on reflection, I do not think that I really needed to.  She is such a pivotal character in Lewis’ retelling of the myth, who serves to bring all of the story’s threads together coherently, and her behaviour – nasty though it was – was rendered understandable due to her past and the treatment of others under her father’s rule.  The same can also be said for Redival.

Lewis’ take on the myth has been well thought out, and the twists which he weaves into the plot are clever and often unexpected.  He clearly knows the original material well, and successfully puts his own spin onto the story’s events.  Despite this, I found that it took rather a long time – until Psyche’s birth, really, which does not occur for some time – to get into the story.  Lewis does not make the best use of his Ancient Greek setting throughout, and the beginning of the novel does not therefore feel grounded in any way. Some of the dialogue used sadly felt a little flat, and it was particularly unemotional during those scenes in which it really should have been.

Whilst I did not enjoy Till We Have Faces as much as I thought I would, it is a good choice for a book club read, as many points within its pages are worthy of discussion.  I am looking forward to reading more of Lewis’ adult books, particularly to see the ways in which they compare to this one.

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0

Book Club: ‘Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold’ by C.S. Lewis *** (May 2014)

‘Till We Have Faces’ by C.S. Lewis

In Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis retells – or, rather, reinterprets – the myth of Cupid and Psyche.  Throughout, the story, which takes place in the Kingdom of Glome, is told from the first person perspective of Orual, Psyche’s ‘ugly’ older sister.

Redival and Orual are the daughters of a king and queen.  When their mother dies, their father remarries rather quickly, and their stepmother passes away after giving birth to a baby girl named Istra.  Istra is rather quickly given the nickname of Psyche by Orual, who dotes upon her from the first.  As one might expect in a novel such as this, there is a thread of brutality which can be found from beginning to end.  Violence is a way of life in Glome, and the king in particular exemplifies this cruelty.

Orual is quite a strong heroine, but in some ways, she did not quite feel fully developed.  I did not like her, but on reflection, I do not think that I really needed to.  She is such a pivotal character in Lewis’ retelling of the myth, who serves to bring all of the story’s threads together coherently, and her behaviour – nasty though it was – was rendered understandable due to her past and the treatment of others under her father’s rule.  The same can also be said for Redival.

Lewis’ take on the myth has been well thought out, and the twists which he weaves into the plot are clever and often unexpected.  He clearly knows the original material well, and successfully puts his own spin onto the story’s events.  Despite this, I found that it took rather a long time – until Psyche’s birth, really, which does not occur for some time – to get into the story.  Lewis does not make the best use of his Ancient Greek setting throughout, and the beginning of the novel does not therefore feel grounded in any way. Some of the dialogue used sadly felt a little flat, and it was particularly unemotional during those scenes in which it really should have been.

Whilst I did not enjoy Till We Have Faces as much as I thought I would, it is a good choice for a book club read, as many points within its pages are worthy of discussion.  I am looking forward to reading more of Lewis’ adult books, particularly to see the ways in which they compare to this one.

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