Allegory details

Laura Miller returns to Narnia.

THE GOOD BOOKS Miller works through C.S. Lewis’s Christian themes.

Photograph: Nancy Crampton

Many bookworms trace the loss of their literary innocence to the moment they learned that C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” series is a Christian allegory, with the lion king Aslan as a stand-in for Jesus. What’s upsetting isn’t necessarily the overtly religious message, but the idea that Aslan is just a symbol—as if he’s not good enough just being his furry, benevolent, deathproof self. Worse is the realization that you’ve been tricked, followed by an even more awful betrayal: If Lewis invented Aslan to sell you, the reader, on Christianity, then Aslan—and by extension Narnia—isn’t real. And as soon as you’re drawing that distinction between fiction and reality, you’re reading like an adult. Your ability to immerse yourself fully in a fictional world has come to an end.

Salon critic Laura Miller has never forgotten the moment when she learned the truth about Aslan. “I felt angry and humiliated because I’d been fooled,” she writes in The Magician’s Book, her new look at Narnia. It took years for her to come around, but now, she continues, “What I dislike about Narnia no longer eclipses what I love about it.”

The Magician’s Book is about that love. Miller comes to Narnia as a critic and a biographer of C.S. Lewis, but her approach is as intimate as it is cerebral. “I think of it as being very autobiographical,” she tells TONY. “But it’s not a memoir about my personal relationship with my family or something like that. It’s a memoir of my relationship to this book and its author.” \

After that first childhood betrayal, the critic gave up on Lewis for a long time. But in the ’90s, she returned to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for an essay about the one book that had changed her life. “I don’t know if Lewis’s books merely spoke to a fundamental, smothered part of myself, or whether they actually helped create the person I am today,” she states. “I do know they made a bookworm out of me; again and again I sought the same engulfment in novels.”

In The Magician’s Book, Miller first tries to understand why Narnia captures so many young readers, then why it alienates older ones. In a section called “Songs of Innocence,” she uses her relationship with a friend’s toddlers to look at why kids are so often fascinated by certain facets of Narnia, like talking animals. She’s great at evoking Lewis’s enchanting imaginary world, but also goes on to show how it can be racist, sexist and elitist. Narnia’s enemies, the Calormenes, are dark-skinned camel riders who “smell of garlic and onions.” Susan Pevensie—one of the four siblings who discover Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—is ultimately denied entrance into heaven because she’s too involved in the feminine world of “nylons and lipstick and invitations.” And Narnia is an aristocracy in which high-born characters get away with everything.

Miller’s adamant refusal to get misty about Narnia is one of the most refreshing things about The Magician’s Book. “I didn’t want to write something nostalgic or sentimental,” she says, “because the child in me would have hated that.” A conversation with Philip Pullman, the author of the atheist young-adult series “His Dark Materials,” convinced her that experience is more important than innocence—that the shift from childhood to adulthood shouldn’t be mourned, but celebrated. Rather than long for the uncomplicated relationship she once had with Lewis and his “Chronicles,” in other words, she should strive for an adult, critical understanding.

Accordingly, the book delves into Lewis’s complicated life story. He was a contradictory figure: a fundamentally conservative, religious Oxford don with a wild, pagan imagination. Along with his friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis longed for an older, more orderly time. (At one point, the two convinced Oxford’s English department not to teach any books written after the debased modern era beginning in the 1830s.)

But Lewis’s obsession with the past is part of what makes the Narnia books so rich, since he wasn’t afraid to borrow from every old myth he encountered, populating Narnia with Greek-style nymphs and Germanic dwarfs and, in a move that appalls some purists, Santa Claus. And from his familiarity with medieval literature comes the story’s form, the romance—a mode of storytelling that prioritizes plot and symbolism over psychology.

As a critic, Lewis wasn’t just interested in analyzing fiction; he wrote about the pleasure of reading. As a novelist, he brought that pleasure to his readers. The Magician’s Book lays out a dizzying array of topics—the loss of innocence, the development of the modern fantasy novel, the secret hidden interests of a stuffy Oxford don. But Miller describes it succinctly as “a book about the experience of reading.” Lewis’s books never converted Miller to Christianity, but they did something that might be more significant: They turned her into a reader.

The Magician’s Book (Little, Brown; $25.99) is out Wed 3. Miller reads Dec 4 at Barnes & Noble Tribeca.

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