At Salon.com (cookies must be enabled) there’s an interview of Laura Miller, talking about her new booklength essay, The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia.
I expected to enjoy the interview more than I did. Both Traister (the interviewer) and Miller are pretty good writers and, although I probably don’t qualify as a “skeptic” in Miller’s terms, I’m interested in reading something about Lewis’ fantasy that doesn’t get all gushy about his theological message. The message is there, no doubt; Lewis considered it important, and so should we in evaluating the books (whether it weighs in their favor or not). But story and imagination have a value separate from theme. A good theme does not redeem a bad story. Nor need a bad theme entirely invalidate an otherwise good story. (See The Worm Ouroboros.)
But I didn’t get much out of the interview, and I’m not sure I’ll get anything from her book. Miller is one of those who missed the Christian message in the Narnia books and when it was pointed out to her she considered it a “betrayal” which resulted in an epochal reassessment of the series.
I have trouble wrapping my head around this for two reasons. I know there are people who read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and don’t realize that Aslan’s sacrifice on the Stone Table is a retelling of the Crucifixion. I know this, because I have read about it, but I simply don’t understand it. Possibly because I attended a parochial school, the Christian content couldn’t have been more self-evident to me, even as a kid, if Lewis had provided footnotes, or a glossary in the back of the book. (“ASLAN: Christ, now in convenient lion form!”) I guess this is one measure of success in the secularization of American society, that people can fail to recognize religious content unless it comes in the appropriate wrapping. I guess.
But the bigger problem I have with here is the whole idea of a “betrayal”: as if Lewis were obligated not to write the book he intended to write but rather the book Miller wanted him to have written. That misconceives the reader/writer relationship, I think. She’s unwilling to bear any responsibility for her interpretation of the Narnia books: it’s all Lewis’ damn fault.
This issue soured the interview for me (and may keep me from liking the book much). Miller says some oddly naive things, too–as if her perceptions of the books are universal truths, like the existence of salt. Lewis’ “most appealing protagonist” is Lucy, she says. I like Lucy fine; she’s certainly more interesting than the other Pevensies. But my favorite character is Eustace. He’s surly and rude; he does not believe in this stuff; he is evil; he is damned (or at least dragoned); he is redeemable. And he retains his identity after his redemption: he doesn’t just become Pevensie #5. One of the reasons why The Silver Chair is my favorite Narnia book is that the conversations between Eustace and Jill have such a distinctive snap. (Jill is another favorite of mine.)
CSL is not beyond criticism, which is precisely why I’m hoping against hope that Miller’s book is worth reading. But it’s sort of starting to sound like the Gospel of Lewis According to Pullman. Not exactly good news.