My eleven-year-old serves on the altar two Sundays a month and can tell you who destroyed the first and second temples, but even he objects when reminded that C. S. Lewis intended the Chronicles of Narnia as a retelling of the Christian story. “It’s also just a book,” says my son, by which he means that the Pevensie children’s trip through the wardrobe is also about the experience of reading. “It showed me how I could tumble through a hole in the world I knew and into another better one,” writes Laura Miller in her memoir, The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia.
As a teenager falling away from her Catholic faith, Miller is horrified to discover that Lewis intended to lure her back to the “guilt-mongering and tedious rituals” of the church. Angry and humiliated that she’s missed the obvious metaphors, Miller exiles herself from Narnia. She becomes a book critic, a co-founder of the Web magazine Salon, a contributor to the New York Times Book Review; but she never forgets the “fresher, more brighty colored, more exhilarating” world that Lewis gave her as a child.
The Magician’s Book is the story of Miller’s return to Narnia, and, as the subtitle implies, she is returning on her own terms. “I am no longer young, and can’t read the Chronicles the way I once did, with the same absolute belief,” she writes. Miller wants to break the cardinal rule of Narnia, to enter again as a grownup who can see the White Witch for what she really is—a symbol of the treachery of feminine allure—and recognize Mr. Tumnus the book-loving faun as an autobiographical sketch of the author. Miller’s story of reconciliation with Lewis is also a memoir of her transformation from wide-eyed reader to literary critic.
You don’t have to be a skeptic to follow her journey with interest and a measure of approval. In recent years, Lewis has been championed by conservative Christians precisely for the reason Miller resents him: his charming stories allow credible Christian themes to slip unchallenged into popular culture. Purveyors of pop culture, including Disney, which collaborated with the evangelically motivated Walden Media on the Narnia film adaptations, have also taken to the Chronicles as palatable Christian fare that won’t scare the grownups.
Miller does Lewis a service by returning him to his context as a provincial Irishman who settled at Oxford University and published, in addition to his Christian writings, volumes along the lines of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama. She explores Lewis’s deep knowledge of medieval myth, highlighting significant literary influences on the Chronicles. Partly she does this to explain to herself the power the books had over her, a nonbeliever. “My goal,” she says, “has been to illuminate its other dimensions, especially the deep roots of the Chronicles in the universal experiences of childhood and in English literature.”
Miller’s image of the Chronicles is akin to an ancient British relic known as the Franks casket, a whalebone box fashioned about the same time as Beowulf. The box’s carvings pay homage to pagan, Roman, and Christian sacred beings, a syncretic insurance policy for its owner’s temporal and eternal well-being. Similarly, Lewis wove together Christian and non-Christian threads. In the third volume of the Chronicles, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Miller finds echoes of “The Voyage of St. Brendan the Navigator,” Homer, Dante, the Gospel story of Jesus and the moneylenders, the fable of Midas, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and the Acts of the Apostles. Miller argues that Lewis’s Christian understanding grew out of his conception of myth, not the other way around, and he only allowed himself to be converted when he was assured that faith was compatible with his beloved, atavistic stories.
Her other service, not to Lewis but to anyone who has perused the Chronicles lately, is to return Lewis to his context as a mid-twentieth-century British academic. Lewis’s relationship with womankind might be called odd were he not a type. Lewis relished his nights of boozing and smoking with his Inkling pals around the fire, Miller points out. Yet, she argues, he bans Susan Pevensie from Narnia because she grows up to be the type of woman who indulges in sheer stockings and other feminine frivolities.
Lewis’s xenophobia is less easily dismissed. Try not to flinch when reading The Last Battle, the apocalyptic face-off between the Narnians and the dark-faced, turbaned Calormen. One is merely embarrassed for Lewis when a Calormen’s breath “smelled of onions and garlic,” as if that were evidence of evil. But when the Calormen god, Tash, Lewis’s stand-in for rival religions, is exposed as a fraudulent, evil ape, you can’t but wonder whether The Last Battle is Lewis’s Little Black Sambo moment.
If recontextualizing Lewis were all Miller was up to, her valuable critical study would be a timely rein on the expansion of Lewis’s hagiography. But, like any memoir, Miller’s is spiced with revenge. In her analysis, Lewis’s proclivity for S&M fantasy finds its way into Narnia in the shape of the White Witch, who seduces poor Edmund Pevensie not with bullying but with Turkish toffee and hot cocoa—thank you, ma’am, may I have another!—though she does eventually throw poor Edmund into her dungeon. After her dogged search for the antecedents of so many of Lewis’s other narrative tropes, Miller’s sudden resort to Freudian cliché seems shallow.
Miller spends three chapters contrasting Lewis’s syncretism with his friend J. R. R. Tolkien’s prudishness and intellectual rigidity. The hidebound author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy—a man who could find lewdness in the mixing of Anglo-Saxon English and Norman French—never forgave his fellow Inkling’s “giddy disregard of genre boundaries,” nor his Anglicanism. Miller takes pains to be clear about how Tolkien’s Catholicism defined him and his work. Puzzlingly, she never goes on to plumb the Protestantism of the Chronicles.
Perhaps Miller ignored that because, after all, her skepticism is at the center of the story. “I drifted away from the church and what I saw as its endless proscriptions and requirements, its guilt-mongering and tedious rituals,” she writes. When Miller discovers that Lewis has been writing about Christianity all along, she assumes that he’s luring her back to its “drab, grinding, joyless view of life.” (She is careful to quote the former nun Karen Armstrong equating religion with ritual, and ritual as a door to a higher reality.)
But that is not what the Narnia stories espouse. The history of Protestantism, from the Lutheran and Anglican break to Quaker simplicity and Pentecostalist spiritualism, can be written as the repeated efforts of Christians to drag Jesus out of church, away from smoky rituals, and to let the truth of his story burn with pure fire. For all his high, Oxonian Anglicanism, Lewis casts Jesus as a beast who wanders out of doors and who saves by his simple act of love. (It is the White Witch who turns his sacrifice into a ritual.) It’s that rededication of the Christian story that Miller misses. “The Christianity in Narnia has been...transformed—to the point of being much less Christian, perhaps, than Lewis intended,” she claims. Lewis might have replied that Narnian Christianity is more essentially Christian precisely because the ritual has been removed. That purity, too, accounts for Christians’ devotion to the tales.
Just as believers can’t expect someone like Miller to imagine Christ outside of the church’s trappings, skeptics can’t expect that a Christian hero like Lewis might try to tease them apart. The Magician’s Book shows that we need skeptical readers, but we could also use better skeptics.
Related: Inside the Wardrobe, by Robert H. Bell