Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book is that very postmodern thing, a book about books, a personal account of how she first read, then abandoned C.S. Lewis’ Narnia tales, before recently returning to reconsider her reaction now to the books she once loved, and attempt to engage and deconstruct them as an adult. It is a story or group of stories about personal space, about the whole notion of reading and the imagination, about imaginative life, private space, and how langauge can be used to create worlds.
It is also a discussion of allegory, allusion and myth. It is not an academic book – indeed at times I longed for more citation and referencing, some deeper thought and consideration of her themes, more context and less opinion – but it is an entertaining and enjoyable read that at times reminded me of Alberto Manguel’s writing about books. [This is high praise by the way.]
Miller first visited Narnia as a child, and like many other children (myself included) loved the series and reread them many times. But when a friend revealed to her that they were rooted in Lewis’ Christian faith and were an allegory, the magic went out of the work; indeed, Miller actively rejected them, feeling tricked and used. Only recently did she pick them up again, to write a magazine article about her favourite childhood books. That article is where the idea for this book originated.
Although she still remains unhappy with the way christanity underpins and informs Narnia, and particularly criticises and dismisses The Last Battle, Miller is now able to discuss these elements in terms of myth, and engage with Narnia despite the Christianity within it. She convincingly argues that Christianity is just one story in the mix that Lewis draws on, a mix which includes mythical creatures such as fauns, Father Christmas, witches and talking animals, thus enabling her to not prioritise or highlight the Christian content, although it is clear that a childhood resentment still lingers.
It is quite a strange idea to me to try and read Narnia without the supporting framework of christian belief. Miller clearly points out that it is Lewis’ very sincere and traditional belief that holds the stories together, in contrast to, for example, the over-contrived and elaborately detailed world systems that Tolkien devised for Middle Earth. Elsewhere, of course, Lewis was writing fluent and intelligent books of apologetics, and the satirical Screwtape Letters. He also appears to have been parochial, xenophobic if not actually racist, sexist towards women, a heavy drinker and smoker, and opposed to social change.
One can of course say that none of this matters. Indeed, when I am in the mood, I too am prone to saying let the art/book/music stand for itself. Certainly, the work itself is the place to start, but it is clear we cannot take away or ignore any context we are given, and if we wish to fully understand or are really interested in something, we will find out more about the circumstances of its making, and its relationship to the time and place of its making.
You’d think this was fairly straightforward, yes? We can easily find biographical detail out about an author of Lewis’ stature, can easily imagine a tweedy Englishman [although Lewis was actually Irish] who liked his ale and inhabited a fuggy, smoke-filled room in the academic city of Oxford. We know about his faith, his books, his correspondence, and we could perhaps suggest that what I have called racism and sexism were merely the norms of the time, acknowledging that the English are renowned for disliking and feeling superior to those they deem “foreigners”, despite being a race descended from a variety of invaders!
But for how long do we allow “the norms of the time” to be forgivable? Is it okay for Miller to state, as she does, that the White Witch his an erotic character, with hints of the dominatrix in her, or that the dark-skinned foreigners in Narnia’s neighbouring countries are cliché and racist? Or is she out of order? And if we do allow that, where does it get us? In England we have seen the gollywogs removed from Enid Blyton’s Noddy books, many titles changed, and gaps left in the reprints of early Rupert Bear annuals where racist terms which were acceptable at the time used to be. Is this censorship? Or a way of acknowledging and making amends for what has been offensive in the past? Do values somehow leak into a reader so that we end up with a new generation of society with the same negative traits? Or do children initally read stories as simply stories with little concern for more than plot, setting and character? Miller was certainly caught up in Narnia at this kind of level, indeed was naively unaware of the Christian element and has actively continued to reject that element of the books.
Which, of course, raises other questions: Was Lewis writing to convince or convert readers? When does storytelling become polemic? Or coercion? Evangelism? Is it fair to try and co-erce young children into religious faith? To persuade them to believe? Was Lewis deliberately trying to make an allegory or just use the imaginary and religious world he knew to make a new world with?
It’s these kind of questions that fascinate any 21st century reader. This doesn’t mean I never gain pleasure from reading a story, nor that I only read literary fiction or criticial or academic texts, but it does mean these kind of questions are never very far from one’s thoughts.
By nature I’m conservative [small ‘c’, I hasten to add]. Like Lewis I don’t like change, I like beer and conversation, and also like being on my own reading [and in my case listening to music]. But I’ve had to face the fact that things change, not only in the real, physical world, but in educational, academic, social and other areas. Little remains secure or fixed, guaranteed for ever or – and I hesitate here – true. There are too many things changing, and too many versions of all the stories in the world.
To us now it seems obvious that slaves would tell a different story to that told by a slave trader of the time, but for centuries only the traders got to tell their version of things, and slavery was considered acceptable. The history of the subject was only told by those who owned or sold slaves. It’s not that far a jump from the slave’s and slave trader’s differing stories to the notion that if several of us have a meeting and then tell other people about it, there will be several different accounts of what went on at that meeting. Just as there are four gospels, four different versions of Jesus’ life, in the New Testament.
If we add to that the idea that we are all prone to being who we are because of upbringing, race, gender and sexuality, and that these, and other factors, influence how and what we think about the world, then we are left with a large number of things to consider when we approach a book, author or record.
Until recently these ideas were bundled together and labelled Postmodernism, an -ism that proposed everything is in flux with no definitive version possible, and rejoiced in plurality and possibility. It saw the removal of what it called metanarratives, the underlying stories that many societies have previously relied on, and suggested that other societies and faiths should be respected. It placed an emphasis on experience and context, and on how human beings use language to tell each other – indeed, in philosophical terms, construct – the world around them.
While the majorioty of people would see tolerance for difference as a positive, there are of course those who are too scared or belligerent to accept that. The rise of the religious right, and the wars that the West have waged against those who “threaten” its failing capitalist systems show this. There has also been much argument between scientists and the arts & humanities, much of it semantic, about notions of truth and reality. One of the scariest books I’ve recently read is Why Truth Matters, which really does read as a rallying call for conservatism. It and books like Can We Be Sure About Anything? want a return to meek and mild acceptance of what science offers, the reinstatement of a cultural hierarchy, preferably with science at the top. They think facts is facts and that’s the end of it, and don’t wan’t to discuss the fact that science also changes as it progresses.
What do I mean by that? Well, the current “truth” of science, which I’m sure most of us accept, is tentative and open to change and revision. I totally accept that scientists have tested hypotheses and theories, concepts and such, to the best of their skill and ability, and that current medical, engineering and other practices are based on this. But several hundred years ago people thought the earth was flat and the sky a golfish bowl over us with stars painted on, that the sun orbited the earth. There is plenty of stuff out there waiting to be discovered or deduced, and much of it will mean we have to revise what has gone before, including what is currently percieved as “fact.”
Ironically, just as some christians have started to actually tackle postmodernist ideas in theological and socio-theological terms, academia has pretty much decided that postmodernism is really a continuation of modernism, and the -ism is slowly being removed from the syllabus, leaving postmodernist ideas and thought to be studied as something that happened in the late 20th century.
Books such as John D. Caputo’s What Would Jesus Deconstruct? and James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? are tentative mainstream Christian steps into a theoretical area already well explored by the likes of Don Cupitt, Richard Holloway and Mark C. Taylor. Whereas Cupitt et al almost abandon Christian faith altogether, and see belief as a useful tool in modern society, Caputo and Smith tiptoe in and try to use a sanitized form of deconstruction to reinforce evangelical ideas and conservative Christianity, mostly using a pretty basic form of contextualisation and inter-textuality on a God-given literal text.
They do little to address the whole notion of God’s Truth within a world that no longer has a time or place for truth, less to address the notion of the supernatural or spiritual within a materialistic and disbelieving society, and fail to ask whose version of events is Christianity based on once we move away from the childish belief of God-given text, and consider issues of revelation, translation, cultural context, and even narrative and other variation and discrepancy.
Perhaps we need to return to earlier theologians and apologists who have argued that God is ultimately unknowable, at best partially knowable or describable? We need to learn to use myth, allegory, parable and storytelling as others, including Christ himself, have before. Faith is not straightforward nor prescriptive, it takes place within a complex mesh of society, culture and place. We cannot impose our beliefs on others as individuals or nations; it is the legalism and pettiness of Lewis’ last judgement scenes that make The Last Battle such a disappointing finale to the Narnia Chronicles for Laura Miller and many others.
Miller might be surprised to hear me suggest that her book is a model nonacademic book in the way it reflects upon and engages with her subject. She opens up all sorts of ideas, intelligently linking them back to the subject at the heart of her study. Even in her continuing rejection of Christianity she opens up the opposite possibility for those who are otherwise disposed. Neither Lewis nor Miller are theologians, but despite themselves, they both have much to say to 21st century christians adrift in our ever-changing, restless world.
Can We Be Sure About Anything? Science, Faith and Postmodernism, ed. Denis Alexander (Apollos/IVP, 2005)
Why Truth Matters, Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom (Continuum, 2006)
What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church, John D. Caputo (Baker Academic, 2007)
The Magician’s Book. A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, Laura Miller (Little, Brown & Co, 2008)
Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, James K.A. Smith (Baker Academic, 2006)
Rupert Loydell is Senior Lecturer in English with Creative Writing at University College Falmouth, the editor of Stride magazine, and the author of several poetry books, including the recent An Experiment in Navigation (Shearsman, 2008).