Narnier Than Thou

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.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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21 Responses to Narnier Than Thou

  1. shsilver says:

    As a Jew who read the books as a kid, I completely missed it. As did my wife. She also missed the symbolism in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

    • JE says:

      I can see that, certainly. Maybe this particular issue is less of a big deal than I make out, anyway. Although Miller says she was raised Catholic, so I guess I still find her reaction a little odd… but it is what it is: I shouldn’t be trying to police other people’s reactions to books.

  2. sartorias says:

    Yes . . . the assumption that the skeptic’s position is default the only reasonable one is kind of irritating. I’d rather have a discussion of Narnia that examines the books from several paradigms, without hewing to a Party Line.

  3. kythiaranos says:

    I’m always baffled by the whole “betrayal” idea, too. I’m willing to accept that readers may not always *see* what the writer is doing, but to claim that a greater understanding “ruins” it . . . Huh. Of course, from my point of view, discovering the religious undertones was a wonderful thing. I loved the story, picked up the symbolism the second or third time I read it, and realized how many other things can go on in a story other than the surface plot. I doubt I’ll ever write something as overtly symbolic as Lewis did, but I still love what he taught me.

    • JE says:

      Yes–it seems like she doesn’t understand the boundary between Lewis and herself, that they might legitimately differ on things. That seems to be almost a theme of her book: that certain stories we read as kids become part of us, and we tend to read other stories in terms of them (like the story in the magician’s book that Lucy reads in Dawn Treader). Even if this is true (I’m not sure it is, and I’m sure that’s not what Lewis was driving at), I don’t see that it gives us the right to complain about CSL writing the book(s) he wanted to write.

      There are things I liked about the religion in the Narnia series and things I didn’t (and don’t). I think the Biblical pastiche is pretty heavy-handed in LW&W and in The Last Battle. Other stuff, like Puddleglum’s great speech to the witch in The Silver Chair, strikes me as being pretty impressive–the sort of thing someone with a completely different POV could look at and say, “Okay, I get that, even though I disagree.”

      • kythiaranos says:

        As a writer, I have a responsibility to write the best, truest story I can. And I can only hope that at least some of my readers will read it with open minds and try to appreciate it for what it is.

        Lately I’ve been fortunate to have a couple reviews of my poetry. Sometimes I scratch my head and wonder if the reviewer read the same poem I wrote. But that doesn’t mean I betrayed that reader, any more than they’re betraying me by not ‘getting’ it.

      • scbutler says:

        The Puddleglum speech is fantastic, but my favorite is the moment when Aslan explains to the ‘good’ Calormene in The Last Battle why, when the Calormene was worshipping Tash in the name of goodness, he was actually worshipping Aslan, and vice versa (when worshipping evil in the name of Aslan). It’s the second part of that argument that shows why Lewis was one of the great Christian apologists of all time. And a great writer too, because he got the idea across in about half a page of a children’s book.

    • marycatelli says:

      But greater understanding can ruin a story, because it brings forward the writer’s thoughts.

      And if those thoughts are shallow, frivolous, sophomoric, the works are going to look the worse for it.

      Of course, then we can get into a whole flamewar about whose thoughts are shallow, frivolous, sophomoric. 0:)

      • kythiaranos says:

        I agree that a greater understanding can ruin that story for that particular reader. But I don’t agree with those who feel their own opinions of what’s right and good should be the benchmark for everyone’s taste.

        As far as I can tell, Lewis was true to himself and his vision as a writer. As a reader, that’s what I ask for (even when I don’t agree). As a writer, that’s what I hope to accomplish with my own work.

        • JE says:

          I’ve never been sure the writer’s thoughts are the most important part of the story. Fiction is a poor medium for conducting reasonable argument, but a great medium for making an emotional impact.

  4. marycatelli says:

    I missed it.

    Then, I was rather young when I read them. I managed to pick it up several years later.

    • JE says:

      I’m hearing a lot of that–am tempted to go back and make that part of the original post less downright, but that’s like revising history.

  5. scbutler says:

    I read the first book at 13 and was riveted. One of the most important reading experiences of my life, one I remember vividly 40 years later. At that age I got the Christian imagery instantly; if anything, it made the story even better as far as I was concerned. This despite the fact that I had already declared myself an agnostic. But I also knew enough about literature to know that stories are often built on the backs of other stories. Even atheists should be able to admit that, religion aside, resurrection stories are profoundly cool. Why else are they found in almost every culture?

    My biggest beef with Pullman, and so many other secularists and skeptics (of which I am proudly one), is that they cannot let go of the religious aspect of the story. Sure, if the allegory bothers you, that’s an excellent reason to dislike the book. But don’t go insisting that it’s therefore a bad book. I’m not a big Harry Potter fan (though I loved the third book), but I understand why so many other folks love those stories, and can appreciate what’s great about them.

    Great thread. Thanks for the link to Salon. I’m going to link your blog to mine as well.

    • JE says:

      Thanks for the kind words. It has been a very interesting thread.

      “I also knew enough about literature to know that stories are often built on the backs of other stories.” A great line, and something Lewis was very good about also.

      I’d love to see Pullman and Lewis talk to each other, because I think they take exactly the same things seriously. I expect loud words would be heard and breakable objects would be broken…

  6. Anonymous says:

    I’ve made a few passes through the day on a reply to this thread, but nothing’s really gelled. But Penn Jillette keeps coming to mind. Penn has no use for the Gospel, but he enjoys gospel music.

    I finally finished the Gunnerkrigg Court archives today. I suspect the author’s worldview is portrayed in the web comic, and it is one I strongly disagree with, but I very much enjoy reading GC.

    So, not impressed with Miller.

    As a data point, I was 13 (which I’m guessing isn’t “young”) when I read CoN, and I knew who Aslan was long before he got to the stone table.

    –Jeff Stehman

  7. Anonymous says:

    I am amazed by folks that miss the Christian symbolism, but I have met quite a few face to face. Doubly amazed because these people have read the entire series, including THE LAST BATTLE, where Aslan actually turns into a man and explains that that is his form in their world. I don’t see how anyone could ever miss it.

    When they were talking about dumbing down the Christian allegory in the film (before it came out), I was horrified. Just as I was when a rumor surfaced around film time that the family was considering releasing an edited, “secularized” version of the series for a wider market. Miller’s assertion that Lewis betrayed her is nonsense. For a writer NOT to write out of their own belief system would be a betrayal, and for any adaptation or edition of their work to excise this would really be a blasphemy! – Lou

    • JE says:

      Wow. I hope the rumor is just a rumor. Once we start Bowlderizing stuff for thematic content, only stuff that doesn’t say anything will get published.

      It’s a tribute to a book’s power that some people who encountered it while young have a sense of ownership for it; it entered their world and became part of them. But I think that’s something one has to get past if one is going to talk seriously about the book as an adult; I hope Miller can do that (although I’m not sanguine).

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