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‘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.

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Poem: ‘The Blessed Damozel’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The blessed damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.

Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem,
No wrought flowers did adorn,
But a white rose of Mary’s gift,
For service meetly worn;
Her hair that lay along her back
Was yellow like ripe corn.

Herseemed she scarce had been a day
One of God’s choristers;
The wonder was not yet quite gone
From that still look of hers;
Albeit, to them she left, her day
Had counted as ten years.

(To one, it is ten years of years.
…Yet now, and in this place,
Surely she leaned o’er me -her hair
Fell all about my face…
Nothing: the autumn-fall of leaves.
The whole year sets apace.)

It was the rampart of God’s house
That she was standing on;
By God built over the sheer depth
The which is Space begun;
So high, that looking downward thence
She scarce could see the sun.

It lies in Heaven, across the flood
Of ether, as a bridge.
Beneath, the tides of day and night
With flame and darkness ridge
The void, as low as where this earth
Spins like a fretful midge.

Around her, lovers, newly met
Mid deathless love’s acclaims,
Spoke evermore among themselves
Their heart-remembered names;
And the souls mounting up to God
Went by her like thin flames.

And still she bowed herself and stooped
Out of the circling charm;
Until her bosom must have made
The bar she leaned on warm,
And the lilies lay as if asleep
Along her bended arm.

From the fixed place of Heaven she saw
Time like a pulse shake fierce
Through all the worlds. Her gaze still strove
Within the gulf to pierce
Its path; and now she spoke as when
The stars sang in their spheres.

The sun was gone now; the curled moon
Was like a little feather
Fluttering far down the gulf; and now
She spoke through the still weather.
Her voice was like the voice the stars
Had when they sang together.

(Ah sweet! Even now, in that bird’s song,
Strove not her accents there,
Fain to be hearkened? When those bells
Possessed the midday air,
Strove not her steps to reach my side
Down all the echoing stair?)

“I wish that he were come to me,
For he will come,” she said.
“Have I not prayed in Heaven? -on earth,
Lord, Lord, has he not prayed?
Are not two prayers a perfect strength?
And shall I feel afraid?

“When round his head the aureole clings,
And he is clothed in white,
I’ll take his hand and go with him
To the deep wells of light;
As unto a stream we will step down,
And bathe there in God’s sight.

“We two will stand beside that shrine,
Occult, withheld, untrod,
Whose lamps are stirred continually
With prayer sent up to God;
And see our old prayers, granted, melt
Each like a little cloud.

source: victorianweb.org

“We two will lie i’ the shadow of
That living mystic tree
Within whose secret growth the Dove
Is sometimes felt to be,
While every leaf that His plumes touch
Saith His Name audibly.

“And I myself will teach to him,
I myself, lying so,
The songs I sing here; with his voice
Shall pause in, hushed and slow,
And find some knowledge at each pause,
Or some new thing to know.”

(Alas! we two, we two, thou sayst!
Yea, one wast thou with me
That once of old. But shall God lift
To endless unity
The soul whose likeness with thy soul
Was but its love for thee?)

“We two,” she said, “will seek the groves
Where the lady Mary is,
With her five handmaidens, whose names
Are five sweet symphonies,
Cecily, Gertrude, Magdalen,
Margaret and Rosalys.

“Circlewise sit they, with bound locks
And foreheads garlanded;
Into the fine cloth white like flame
Weaving the golden thread,
To fashion the birth-robes for them
Who are just born, being dead.

“He shall fear, haply, and be dumb:
Then will I lay my cheek
To his, and tell about our love,
Not once abashed or weak:
And the dear Mother will approve
My pride, and let me speak.

“Herself shall bring us, hand in hand,
To Him round Whom all souls
Kneel, the clear-ranged unnumbered heads
Bowed with their aureoles:
And angels meeting us shall sing
To their citherns and citoles.

“There will I ask of Christ the Lord
Thus much for him and me: –
Only to live as once on earth
With Love, -only to be,
As then awhile, for ever now
Together, I and he.”

She gazed and listened and then said,
Less sad of speech than mild, –
“All this is when he comes.” She ceased.
The light thrilled towards her, filled
With angels in strong level flight.
Her eyes prayed, and she smiled.

(I saw her smile.) But soon their path
Was vague in distant spheres:
And then she cast her arms along
The golden barriers,
And laid her face between her hands,
And wept. (I heard her tears.)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti