The Magician's Book

A reader struggles to reconcile her childhood passion for the Chronicles of Narnia with her more critical adult nature.

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Do you remember your first love? Of course you do. No one ever forgets. There was that falling sensation – that sort of dream-like passage into another world. Along with that came the wish that the journey would never end.

And then, of course, the inevitable sadness when it did – and the fear that nothing else would ever feel as good again.

I’m talking, of course, about books. Which of us ever really gets over that first, deep literary love?

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Certainly not Laura Miller. “‘The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’ will always be the best book I’ve ever read,” she states flatly.

Miller was a second-grader, living in a quiet California suburb when a teacher handed her a copy of the first book of the seven that make up C.S. Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

“It was this book that made a reader out of me,” remembers Miller, who is today a literary critic. “It showed me how I 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.”

So begins The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, Miller’s lovely, bookish examination of her first great literary love and the book(s) that inspired it. It’s a story for all of us who have never quite gotten over an overwhelming crush on a book.

Of course, literary affairs, like romantic ones, don’t always run smoothly, and Miller’s was no exception. “My relationship to Narnia would turn out to be as rocky as any love affair, a story of enchantment, betrayal, estrangement, and reunion,” she writes. She was a teenager when she first discovered that Lewis had infused the Chronicles of Narnia with a Christian agenda – something the adolescent Miller had vehemently rejected in her real life.

She was stunned – and devastated. “The road that had once seemed to lead to free and open country had in reality doubled back to church.”

This disappointment was compounded by Miller’s dawning realization that there were critics who charged Lewis with misogyny, racism, and elitism. The more she looked at the books, the less capable she felt of refuting such charges.

Was it possible, Miller wondered, that the man who created that magic world that she loved so dearly might have been a person she wouldn’t even have liked?

“The Magician’s Book” is her attempt, as an adult, to sort through some of this confusion.

There are two categories of potential readers of “The Magician’s Book.”

The first are readers like Miller: one-time or current enthusiasts of “The Chronicles of Narnia.” “The Magician’s Book” is a rich journey through many things Narnia-related, including interviews with other writers (Jonathan Franzen, Philip Pullman, and Neil Gaiman) on their feelings about Narnia, a trip to the Irish countryside that may have inspired Narnia, and an exploration of Lewis’s friendship with J.R.R Tolkien.

But when Miller narrates her own experience with Narnia, anyone who was ever once a child in love with a book will be able to relate.

As a 9-year-old, she writes, she desperately wanted to go Narnia. “For the rest of my life, I will never want anything quite so much again,” she says.

Her attempts to articulate what Narnia meant to her (with its tomboyish heroine, its talking animals, and its pretty, British “wildness”) and her desire to immerse herself in that realm will ring true to lovers of all sorts of imaginary universes. (Just ask any Harry Potter fan who listens to Wizard rock and plays in a Quidditch league.)

But as an adult, Miller hopes to find a way back to Narnia that allows her to combine love with a healthy dose of grown-up skepticism.

“For an adult, a book may be a work of art, possibly a very great one, but for the child reader, certain books are universes,” she writes. “If we are lucky, we retain some of that capacity to be immersed in a story.... Nevertheless, the adult awareness that a book is a made thing – the work of a human being who, however talented he or she may be, is still only human, and flawed – always takes up some of the imaginative space formerly occupied by total belief.”

There are two great pleasures to be found in “The Magician’s Book.” One is being reminded of exactly how blissful it felt to be a child in the thrall of a book.

The other is watching Miller find her way back to Narnia as an adult – where she discovers that a wiser reader is not necessarily a sadder one.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.

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