Into the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis's Narnia
In The Magician's Book, Laura Miller has written an account of returning as an adult to the Narnia books, trying to understand what in them stunned her 9-year-old self into a life of wanting nothing more than to read. It is a strange, often dispiriting book, announcing itself as both memoir and literary criticism; in fact, Miller submerges her own story and never quite focuses completely on the work at hand or, for that matter, on what in Lewis's reading helped lead him to create an imaginary place she once longed to visit. Miller's declared goal is to illuminate the Narnia books' "other, unsung dimensions, especially the deep roots of the Chronicles in the universal experiences of childhood and in English literature." What Miller ends up doing is revisiting for a while the pleasure of identifying wholeheartedly with a character in a story.
This immersion, incidentally, was a particular interest of Lewis's. His remarkable book-length essay An Experiment in Criticism is an attempt to suspend labeling books as good or bad. Instead, looking closely at what people do when they read, he works from the premise that discussion of books takes place only among that small, odd group of readers who take pure pleasure in reading and rereading books not for self-improvement or snob appeal but because going even a few days without reading makes them ill. The many, he writes, read books to gratify personal wishes, finding what they look for, as opposed to hearing what the books have to say, experiencing what they mean to do to the reader. Unfamiliar description is, for this kind of reader, an impediment, "like trying to sell him something he has no use for at a price he does not wish to pay." And the necessary conditions of good writing--excitement, mystery and what comes of seeking happiness--are mistaken for sufficient. Lewis diagnoses the habit of reading to identify with characters as "castle-building," the egoistic fantasizing dramatized in the (soon to be remade) Danny Kaye comedy The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It is, he acknowledges, a pleasurable way to read, and it isn't fatal. He cites Anthony Trollope as an example of someone who began as a castle-builder and who went on to imagine worlds not entirely populated by himself. But for a critic, it is not the ideal mode when looking for what makes a book. There is, after all, something besides the reader to find.
Miller is aware of this, signs on and proceeds to erect Mont Saint-Michel.
To me, Lucy Pevensie was both an alter ego and a clear glass. Through her I could see the action of the first three Chronicles undistorted; her response to everything felt as fresh and natural as a breeze, because it was so close to my own.... Even today I find it hard to secure any perspective on her. "Lucy goes straight to your heart," Neil Gaiman observes, and once she is ensconced there, it's impossible to step far enough away from her to take her in.
Gaiman, a heavyweight fantasy novelist, is one of the big names Miller invokes throughout the book--Jonathan Franzen and Susanna Clarke are two others. Having cast herself as Lucy, perhaps Miller needed to fill the roles of Peter, Edmund and Susan. In Miller's defense, she keeps her eyes on Lewis's enduring appeal. She retraces her steps, interviewing the schoolteacher who gave her the first Narnia book in second grade, recalling her reading of other children's classics, from Little Women to Mary Poppins to the Little House books to Island of the Blue Dolphins. She observes the poetic naming activity of a friend's twin toddlers, and their animalistic, affectionate reactions to the world and the objects, animals and people in it. She visits Lewis's Oxford home and surveys English and Irish landscapes for some sign of the day residue that led Lewis to dream up the other world she still half wants to find.
These exercises don't get Miller any closer to understanding what attracts her to Lewis's books, but they do furnish her with picturesque settings for making several good debatable points: stories about children are better when the protagonists have no parents; characters should be flawed but not obnoxious; common sense and useful knowledge are rare and valuable; all readers look for the story automatically, the way all audiences listen for subject, verb and object. They also lead her to some remarks that would likely have surprised Lewis: that many adults view growing up as a tragedy; that she was a lot like Lewis as a child; that the "characters in books can never really be our friends because as much as we might learn about them, they can never know anything about us."
When it comes to understanding the books as the outgrowth of a particular place and time, Miller is adequate. Her general sense of Lewis as a bluff, bookish, somewhat sadomasochistic character follows the lead of A.N. Wilson's excellent biography. Her Lewis squares more with the composite picture that emerges from Lewis's oeuvre than does, say, the quiet bachelor Lewis of the radio-play-turned-movie Shadowlands. Miller's prose, though, is as general as her sense: she misses the details that make the story. For example, she reports that Lewis fell behind socially partly because of an awkwardness at sports, but she neglects to mention that Lewis lacked middle thumb joints.