Into the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis's Narnia
As for treating the Narnia books as literature, Miller begins promisingly. Justifying her interest in Lewis-as-writer, as opposed to Lewis the apologist, she states that the Narnia books have not succeeded in overturning her resistance to Christianity, that they furthermore are not allegories and that she will not be taking up the religious aspect of the stories. But by his own testimony Lewis did indeed find himself retelling the story of Christianity for children: "Supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency." The Passion of Christ provides his first book with a shape, and Genesis and Revelation are behind his sixth and seventh books, The Magician's Nephew and The Last Battle. But the second through fifth books derive more clearly from secular books, some from altogether non-Christian traditions: the Odyssey, the Metamorphoses, the Arabian Nights, the romances of Chrétien de Troyes, The Faerie Queene, Gulliver's Travels, the poems of W.B. Yeats, the fairy tales of George MacDonald. Lewis's aim was always to tell stories, to do something with the pictures he saw: "Some people seem to think I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children.... I couldn't write in that way at all. Everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion." A skeptic of humanism, an anti-Modernist and an eventual Flat Earth Society member, Lewis nevertheless shared with his rival T.S. Eliot a profound need to rework beloved sources into new shapes. (I suspect that, having survived trench warfare, he viewed the Modernists as tourists of chaos.)
One of Lewis's main critical points in The Discarded Image and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century is that the so-called Renaissance in English letters was not a return to classical models but a rejection of the considerable systematic achievement of the medieval thinkers. Where others saw the new emphasis on the originality of individual authors as a shift of Copernican proportions, Lewis saw it as a tragedy of the Commons, a privatizing of the shared inheritance. Miller gets it half right, praising Lewis's spirited syncretism, while mislabeling it "medievalist." It's true that Lewis and his Oxford colleague J.R.R. Tolkien are mutually responsible for the armor-and-cleavage circuit of Renaissance Faires and Medieval Festivals, but Lewis never dreamed of returning to feudalism and poor sanitation. He did see a major shift, though; in his inaugural address at Cambridge he sees the great divide coming sometime between Jane Austen and ourselves.
After going around the world looking for an imaginary place, Miller does finally begin to treat the Narnia books as learned syntheses of Lewis's reading, while preserving her sense that there is more to them than that. Inapt comparisons of Lewis and Tolkien to Wordsworth and Coleridge aside, she touches at last on the books as books, having mentioned many of the likely strands that went into their making. She identifies the mouse-warrior Reepicheep and the Marsh-wiggle Puddleglum as two of Lewis's best creations. She discourses briefly on the work of Lewis's friend, the independent scholar Owen Barfield. She gestures toward the critical abyss of myth but stays clear of its enchantments. She even finds herself examining Lewis's habits of reading in much the way he outlines in An Experiment in Criticism. In the end, though, she remains at a loss to say how Lewis bound those strands. "Today, I wonder how Lewis managed to make all this feel as if it belongs together, in the same book. As a child I took it for granted, though if asked I might have said that The Magician's Nephew was as rich as plumcake." It is noble and appropriate for a critic to acknowledge a gap in understanding, but this is a canyon. Miller judges the various books--she prefers the episodic (and to my mind, static) quest narrative Voyage of the Dawn Treader to the freed-slave-royal-twin story The Horse and His Boy--but she does not provide a coherent theory of their magic.
I'll take a crack at it. What holds the story together is Lewis, or rather, the benevolent, attentive, encouraging narrator and his occasional presence in the story disguised as a professor, a dwarf, a badger, a lion. His is a sane and playful presence, not tame and never thoughtless. Though great danger is always imminent in Narnia, there is a profound sense of excitement, of mystery, of being loved. This sense is difficult to accomplish but also impossible to counterfeit. Lewis manages it partly through frequent second-person digressions keyed to the experience of any bright but otherwise ordinary 9-year-old, the age at which he lost his mother. Most of all, he forms a bond with young readers by pledging again and again to believe them by proxy: in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lucy persists in believing that she has gone to another world, and despite the betrayal of her brother Edmund, the other children go there with her. (To my knowledge, no one has followed up on the aside that Edmund's perverse, hateful behavior began when he was sent away to boarding school.) What continues to draw children to Lewis is not only the pleasure of traveling to a world that sounds better than this one but the promise of his company, so entertaining and learned, and so light about it.
Miller has written about Lewis before, mainly for Salon, where she is a senior writer. She reports that her first Lewis piece for Salon, a 1996 note on rereading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, prompted a greater volume of response than anything else she'd written. Also that year, film critic David Denby published Great Books, the story of his midlife return to Columbia College to see what had become of the books and classrooms that shaped him. There is a touch of pathos, a busman's holiday quality, to his and Miller's projects. The Magician's Book may well reach the many who saw themselves in that piece. Perhaps this skeptic's adventures will also send readers back to Narnia and to the rest of Lewis's work, or better still, to the work Lewis loved. If An Experiment in Criticism is any guide, though, Lewis would have doubted it.