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Originally published Thursday, December 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

Book review | "The Magician's Book" conjures the magic of Narnia

Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn calls Laura Miller's "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" "one of the best books about stories and their power that I have ever read."

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"The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia"

by Laura Miller

Little, Brown, 311 pp., $25.99

For a fellow who wrote fairy tales, C.S. Lewis stirred up a lot of fuss and bother.

Millions of readers who devoured "The Chronicles of Narnia" as children or saw their film adaptations ("The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," "Prince Caspian") in the multiplexes know Lewis as the Oxford scholar who gave them a great imaginative gift — seven books about the alternate world of Narnia and the children who navigate its wonders and terrors.

Like his great old friend J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis, once described as "the best-read man of his generation," had another side — he was a committed Christian. Tolkien didn't write much about his faith, but Lewis not only used the Narnia tales as a metaphor for Christ and his redemptive role, he authored many other books expounding on his faith.

Ever since, Christian scholars have revered Lewis for his brainy combination of faith and intellect. But children who loved the powerful old lion Aslan but were allergic to Christian dogma have felt betrayed once they discovered that Aslan's self-sacrifice for the sins of a treacherous English schoolboy was one big metaphor for Jesus' redemption of mankind.

Literary critic Laura Miller first passed through the Narnia portal in the second grade. She was raised Catholic but had fallen away from what she calls the church's "guilt-mongering and tedious rituals." She writes, "I was horrified to discover that the Chronicles of Narnia, the joy of my childhood and the cornerstone of my imaginative life, were really just the doctrine of the Church in disguise." But Miller could never escape Narnia's spell, and in "The Magician's Book," she returns to the landscape of Narnia to search for its deeper meaning. It's a journey of great pleasure — Miller is a wise, down-to-earth and often funny narrator. The result is one of the best books about stories and their power that I have ever read.

"The Magician's Book" is divided into three parts. In "Songs of Innocence," Miller looks at why Narnia has cast its spell on so many children. She parses the elements of the stories' charm: the alliance the hero, Lucy Pensevie, makes with the animals of Narnia (all children long to commune with animals; that's why animals talk in fairy tales). The fact that the Pensevie children are effectively motherless and fatherless and must make their own way in a hostile world (what child hero, from Huckleberry Finn to Harry Potter, hasn't shed a parent or two?). The awfulness of guilt and betrayal — author Jonathan Franzen tells Miller that "Lewis understands how real evil is to children. How real a sense of guilt at having done something very, very bad is."

In part two, "Trouble in Paradise," Miller examines Lewis' shortcomings: his sexism, his English class snobbery, his probable love affair with and domination by a woman 20 years his senior (can you say "White Witch"?). In the pungent chapter "Garlic and Onions, " Miller documents Lewis' disdain for anyone not conforming to upper-class English standards.

But finally, so what? "Prejudice is repellent, but if we were to purge our shelves of all the great books tainted by one vile idea or another, we'd have nothing left to read — or at least nothing but the new and blandly virtuous," she writes.

Having cleared the stage of the naysayers, in part three, "Songs of Experience," Miller searches for why the Narnia stories resonate for readers in a deep, unnameable place.

The genesis of Narnia lies in one of the great literary friendships of the age — that between Lewis and Tolkien, a fellow Oxford professor, ancient-languages expert and author of "Lord of the Rings," the other great work of 20th century fantasy.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at those Monday morning sessions in Lewis' rooms: "They drank (tea and beer), talked, and read to each other from their work ... Tolkien needed someone with whom to share his love of Anglo-Saxon, Old England, and eventually, the secret, handmade world he had begun inventing ... Middle Earth." Tolkien would affirm to the end of his days ... that he never would have written "Lord of the Rings" without Lewis' constant nudging and encouragement."

The two shared a deep preoccupation with the lost myths of mankind. The lost gods of pre-Christian times. The vanished literature of pre-Norman England — from those hundreds of years between the retreat of the Romans and the Battle of Hastings, only one heroic epic, "Beowulf," has survived. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" was nothing less than his attempt to re-create this lost mythology.

Lewis, on the other hand, was a magpie, borrowing from everything to create Narnia. Medieval romance epics. The pre-Christian world of fairies and fauns. And, of course, the Christian story. My one criticism of Miller's analysis is that she fails to see how the Narnia stories reflect the Christian virtues of individual courage, truth telling and self-sacrifice in the service of a larger cause.

Lewis wove all this into a story that resonates for readers in a place almost deeper than language. He came to believe, with help from Tolkien, that the myths he was borrowing from were reflections of the one big story: "Tolkien persuaded Lewis that the stories he'd thrilled to all his life ... were really like echoes moving backward and sideways and sometimes even forward in time, reverberations of the one occasion when God actually sacrificed himself for mankind."

Skeptical readers may dispute this conclusion, but there's no denying the power of these two scholars' creations, Miller writes: "Lewis and Tolkien thought they were woefully out of step with their time when they wrote fiction voicing their yearning for the old ways and a deeper imaginative connection with the land; instead, they turned out to be speaking for millions."

Miller's return to Narnia convinced her that Lewis knew more about the spell of stories than can ever be put into a book — the tie between the listener and the storyteller is "older than the memory of our race." It will come as no surprise that the rift between Miller, a bright young girl grown older and wiser, and Lewis, a magician of stories and their power, ends in reconciliation.

Mary Ann Gwinn is the Seattle Times book editor and a director of the National Book Critic's Circle. She can be reached at 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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