A spy in the house of Narnia

Salon's Laura Miller on how the imaginative world of C.S. Lewis inspired her love of reading, as well as her career as a critic.

Published December 6, 2008 1:05PM (EST)

When I was about 6, my father was in the midst of reading to me about Aslan the lion in C.S. Lewis's "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." Aslan had been shorn and strapped to a stone table and killed, and then miraculously come back to life, when my dad stopped mid-chapter to ask, "Does this remind you of any other story?" I had zero religious training from my mixed-marriage parents, but I had had an elderly Slovak baby sitter who had ignited in me a temporary enthusiasm for the Baby Jesus. "Does this remind you of what happened to Jesus?" Yes! It did, as a matter of fact!

I don't know if it is truly possible to recall moments of cognitive growth from 25 years ago. But the memory of this episode is very strong: the creak and crunch of my brain as it struggled to absorb the idea that this was not just a coincidence or similarity, but an intentional melding of two otherwise unrelated stories. Although this moment of revelation lodged deep and hard in my brain, the Christian message of the Narnia books was ultimately unimportant to me. I was in it for the fauns. Narnia remained for me a place into which I could disappear, like so many of the other fantasy and adventure books I began to seek out.

For Laura Miller, my colleague and a co-founder of Salon, Narnia kicked off a rockier and more intense journey, one that neatly mirrors aspects of children's literature and fantasy arcs. After a teacher set Miller on her path by introducing her to Lewis' books, a world far beyond the wardrobe -- within the walls of a library and the covers of the books she gobbled -- opened for her. The teenage revelation that the founding text of her passion for reading had secretly contained a religious pill left Miller badly disillusioned, but her continuing education, and eventual career as a literary critic, both rooted in the thrill she had found in Lewis' stories, finally led her back to Narnia and her own conflicted feelings about the books.

Miller has recorded this journey in "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia," a lucid and vibrant tale that traces the evolution of her feelings about Narnia, Lewis and reading itself, all the while elegantly reflecting the very kinds of children's adventures -- and experiences of faith -- that so churned her up throughout her life.

Through her research about Lewis, discussions with other readers and writers about their experiences in his imagined land, and observation of young children and how they engage with the stories they're told, Miller discovered that she has lots to say about how we read and how we think about what we read.

How did you first encounter Narnia?

I was given "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" by my second-grade teacher, Wilanne Belden, who was someone I kind of worshiped. She is someone I'm still in touch with, and someone I interviewed for the book. When I marveled to her that she had given me this book, which, when I read it, became the whole center of my inner world, she said she gave it to me because, "You were just a kid who needed to read this book." What astonished me was that she had had the book for quite a while, probably around 10 years, before she actually gave it to one of her students to read. I was the first one she tried it on. And it was a huge success. She knew that I had been strongly affected by it, but she couldn't get me to talk about it.

Why wouldn't you talk to her about it?

I wish I could tell you that. One of the strangest experiences [of writing this book] is learning to think of my child self as a completely other person. People say, "You did this," and I don't have any idea why. When Mrs. Belden told me I wouldn't talk about Narnia, well, I don't remember that at all. I remember that my strong feelings about the book were so caught up in my admiration for her. She was the most amazing grown-up I had ever met, and this was something that we shared. What I remember is feeling that she must already know.

The point for me was that it was private. I was building my own self that was independent of other people, which is so important when you're that age. Everyone thinks about forming your identity as a teenager, but that is a much more outward transformation. When you're younger, you develop your own imaginative inner world that you don't have to share with adults or other kids around you. Not every child has a need to do that, but certainly everyone I've met who was a bookish child had that stage.

And you had a teacher who understood not only to give you the book, but to not try to talk to you about it?

What she said to me [as an adult] was, "Maybe if you talked about it, someone could take it away from you." And that was right. We were in a three-bedroom house and we were a family of seven. That was a normal suburban thing back then, not some horrible hardship. But I didn't have any privacy, and she understood that on some level. I needed this to be private, and she didn't push me on it.

That kind of understanding between student and teacher is very typical of children's literature. There's always someone, a teacher or an uncle -- Dumbledore, or Uncle Merry, or Professor Kirke -- who gives you a key to another world, or indicates that he or she understands your travels there.

Yes. When Susan and Peter go to Professor Kirke [in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe"] and tell him Lucy's story about finding this secret land through the wardrobe, they expect him to respond the way other adults would -- that she's just being fanciful. Instead, he says, "How do you know it's not true?" He is one of those adults who have that special understanding, even though he's not the kind of grown-up that is conventionally good with kids. So he tells them that it's OK for them to go to a secret other world, and that is what my teacher did for me.

Often children have an adult who's not a parent who plays that role, often aunts or uncles or teachers, who give them a nudge to pursue whatever is special to them. That's why they keep coming up in children's literature. Some children need an adult to come in and give them a nudge in the right direction, and a blessing to go on with their own adventure.

Your obsession with the Chronicles did not stop at one reading?

I became so obsessed with these books and read them so many times that I practically have them memorized. Except for "The Last Battle," because like many people, that is my least favorite one. It's just kind of a bummer. But I saved up my money to buy my own copies. My mother gave me a paperback set, but I wanted the hardcovers. And I'm not a collector; this was the only thing I've ever said, "I have to have it."

Then, when I was in my teens, in the process of trying to track down other books that would give me the same kind of thrill, I discovered [in a book of literary criticism] that there was all this Christian symbolism in the Chronicles, which completely shocked me. I had to have been 13. I was so horrified, because I had been raised as a Catholic -- not a super-strict or super-guilt-heavy Catholic, but nevertheless Catholic -- and I wasn't really a believer. I wasn't into church or religion in any way. For me, Narnia was everything I would want life to be, and none of the things I disliked. And one of the things I disliked was church and religion and the Bible. The idea that this thing I was trying to get away from was secretly lurking in the place I went away to, that was my most private cherished thing -- I remember feeling physically nauseated by this thought in my teens, and deceived, and betrayed. I avoided even thinking of them.

Were you upset by the religious content, or more by the fact that you hadn't realized the religion was there?

I was upset that I could be deceived, that I would be betrayed, by someone I trusted. It made me feel that I was a fool, that I could be tricked into doing something I didn't want to do. I was invested in my independence. A real sore spot was adults trying to trick and control me.

So I didn't think of Narnia for years. I went on to be an English major and all that. Then in the early Salon days, we did these features called "Personal Best," where you wrote about a movie or a record album or a book that had changed your life. It wasn't supposed to be like "Moby-Dick," it was really personal. So I said, "If I'm going to be really honest about it, it was only after I read 'The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe' that I became an obsessive reader." I decided I needed to go back and look at the book and figure out what I responded to so much. Was there anything that was still there? I began looking at it, and reading up on Lewis, and thinking: You know, there are Christian messages in here, but there are a lot of other things in here. And I still respond to it and think it is, in many places, really beautifully written, and that the imaginative power of it is really strong, and that is what I was responding to as child, and still as an adult.

When you read what scholars have written about it, you realize that unlike with Lewis Carroll or J.M. Barrie, the people who write about the Chronicles are only interested in the Christian aspect of it. I wanted to read a whole book that treated the Chronicles less as message delivery system than as a work of art. That book really didn't exist.

Which is funny to me, because I think lots of the kids who read Narnia couldn't care less about the Christianity.

Or they don't see it. And is that because children are dumb, or because children see different things than adults see? Because theoretically, if all there was to the Chronicles was the message of Christianity, how could I have loved them so much yet not been converted by them? Why do I still like them now?

For a lot of people, especially if they only read the books as adults, they just say, "Those books are a bunch of Christian propaganda," and stop there. They think of it as an allegory in the way that "Animal Farm" is allegory. "Animal Farm" is only about the Russian Revolution and the failure of Soviet politics. It's not really about animals; it's not really about farms. All it does is point to something else; it doesn't have a lot of layers to it.

But as someone who had the Christianity pointed out to me as a child, I wonder if any kid cares about the Christian message. I knew it, I didn't care. Is it possible for kids to be converted, or to have their faith affirmed, by a story about lions and talking mice?

It's hard for me to say. I tend to think that people who are religious believe because they want to believe. It's hard for me to imagine a conversion experience, but it's not a major part of my personality to need to believe.

But you did believe in Narnia.

Yes, it's like Neil Gaiman told me: He had no doubt that this was true and that these things had happened. I was really into the creatures of classical mythology -- I thought the centaurs were so cool! And the trees that were people. These are things that have nothing to do with Christianity, but everything to do with Lewis' background as a literary scholar who had read everything, and who knew this material backward and forward, and had been strongly influenced by "The Faerie Queene" and much more obscure narratives. But a lot of that material, it's older than Christianity, it's pervasive in Western culture. A lot of what we were responding to when we're responding to Narnia is the idea of Arcadia, from classical mythology. Those are the other things that I wanted to pull out from the background because they were overwhelmed by everyone's perception of the Christian message. This was Lewis trying to integrate all those things in his imagination.

Some of his critics, especially Tolkien, would complain that it was all these random crazy patchworks -- Santa Claus is there, and Norse mythology -- and Tolkien felt it wasn't consistent. But the thing that was consistent was that it was everything really meaningful to the author. And that tends to hit child readers. What I said to my teacher was, "I didn't realize anyone else had an imagination like mine." That has come up again and again: It's as if the author of this book had reached into my head and found the things I wanted most, and made them into a story.

Your path -- of ardent belief in Narnia, and then a rejection and repudiation of your childhood devotion, and then your return and reckoning -- actually mimics what many people consider a religious journey.

Yes, and very consciously so. The story of the naive faith, and then the loss of faith, and the recuperation of something that is not faith, because it's not unquestioning ... It's what Philip Pullman, who is a guiding light in some ways for this project, would call "experience," and not just as a loss of corruption of innocence, but as a different path to grace. It's like a religious narrative: my belief in the power of books as embodied in these particular books, and their ability to have an infinite number of meanings, to have meanings that the author didn't intend, or that the author put in there without being aware of it. My feeling of being cut off from that wellspring of my imagination during the adolescence of my reading life, which is the middle of the book, is like a loss of faith. Then there is the later process of working through how and why I loved these books as a child and continued to love them as an adult, that is so much bigger than my early belief in them.

Can you talk a bit about Philip Pullman's influence on that final stage of your journey?

Yes. In Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials, he has a character make a very open statement about innocence and experience. Lyra, the young heroine, has been able to read a special instrument without ever really trying, thanks to the grace of being unself-conscious; when she reaches puberty, she becomes self-conscious and loses the unconscious grace she had as a child, and can no longer read this device. This character comes to her and explains what's happened but says that there is another kind of grace you can find through experience. If you devote yourself and your time and energy to learning how to do this, you will again reach a point where you can read it even better than you did before.

When you're writing children's books, or writing about children's books, there is this feeling that the loss of innocence is just a loss. Lots of the great children's books' writers were obsessed with childhood and their desire to go back to childhood. But Pullman's idea is that there's something adolescent about just being disillusioned. Many people, in any situation -- it could be a love relationship, or how you feel about Barack Obama -- get stuck at the stage of disillusionment. But Pullman is saying that you have to persevere, and then put effort into something, and if you do that, you can come to an enlarged understanding, and that is, in its own way, a kind of grace.

And you pursued that enlarged understanding, in part, by pursuing Lewis himself?

One of the things I did was discover his literary criticism. He wrote two major works of literary criticism, "The Allegory of Love," and his volume of "The Oxford History of English Literature," which is mostly about Spenser. Those were kind of amazing, because they showed his enthusiasm and appetite for the literary experience that you rarely see in any academic, and in not that many literary critics. They enabled me to reengage with him as a writer.

I tried to track down everything in his biographies, in his letters, a few diaries and other types of writing that would tell me other things that contributed to Narnia. I came to see how my own relationship with the Chronicles continued, even though I didn't realize it. I was an English major and read a lot of the books that Lewis loved and inspired him, and that I also loved -- Dante, Milton, Spenser, Austen. When I thought about it, I realized I have always been coming back to this experience, because he put all of those things into Narnia. These books made a reader out of me not just in wanting to read more books but in preparing my mind for an imaginative experience that would last for the rest of my life.

When I was in college there was this very strict realism that was the only thing to do in American literature, and it would be hard to explain why you would want to read a book that had magic in it. In "The Allegory of Love," one of the things Lewis explains is that a story that's not strictly realistic can nevertheless be profoundly truthful. [When an author uses] magicians or witches or unicorns in order to tell a story about a human experience that transcends realism, that is universal in a certain way that human experience can't ever be.

But isn't telling the story of Christ through the use of magical, pagan figures a kind of heresy?

It depends. It's hard to say that strictly speaking it's heretical, but definitely one of the most common tenets of Christianity is that creation is good, and that it is sufficient, and therefore you would necessarily not need to make another creation, because that is to imply that God's creation is not sufficient. The case can easily be made that pagan elements don't belong in a story that's Christian, but only if you're a kind of really narrow-minded Christian. Christian writers have been doing that from the beginning, because Christianity itself is made up of myths from other cultures, in my opinion.

There's also something religious in your desire to move beyond your naive faith in Narnia to a world in which you could pick apart books. Your experience of reading "Animal Farm," alongside learning of Lewis' Christian message, are tantamount to biting the apple and getting thrown out of Eden.

I wanted to know more, I wanted to understand more, I wanted to read more, I wanted to be a grown-up, to have the knowledge and power and responsibility that comes with that. Part of that knowledge was having to admit to myself that there was no Narnia, that it had been invented by this man. I had been like Neil Gaiman, thinking, This has to be true; this is too good not to be true, which is actually how Lewis felt about God. He wanted God too much for God not to be real.

Then I discovered the whole idea that a story has a secret meaning and an alternative meaning, that it doesn't just describe things that happen. When you read as a child, these are things that happened and people who were, and that's all you need to know. But when you come to see a story as created by a person who has intentions, a story can have intentions, like the intention to teach you something. Basically, that's the form of criticism that you learn as a beginning student: What does this symbolize? That is the most rudimentary form of literary criticism: These pigs stand for these revolutionaries and Boxer the horse stands for the proletariat. There is powerful disillusionment as soon as you see these stories as having some purpose. They cease to just exist in all their wonderfulness.

Sometimes you indict books for their bad values, bad themes, which there certainly were in the Chronicles, presenting unsuspecting readers with lots of racism and sexism and weird kinds of snobby, clubby attitude.

Besides the religion, what are some of the troubling things in Narnia that you saw as an adult reader?

There is the class thing with Lewis. He was a middle-class person in an extremely class-conscious society. I've read all of his letters and his criticism, and as much as he tried to be humble, he was not a humble man. And he had a lot of prejudices, he was not that open-minded, and that is reflected in parts of the Chronicles that have to do with things he didn't really understand, like coed education. Anyone who has to do with onion and garlic is a dirty foreigner. Most of the people who write about Lewis waffle around these issues, and you just want to say: Grow up, it's racist. That doesn't mean there's nothing else of value in the books, but it is a problem if you're so invested in this that you can't recognize it and you make excuses for it.

What I love is that those who want to idolize Lewis have trouble on both sides. You might be angry about him being Christian, or racist, or socially exclusive, and then Christians don't want to accept the fact that he had these unconventional -- and un-Christian! -- relationships with women.

His romantic life was very unconventional and mysterious. We'll never really know what exactly went on between him and Mrs. Moore, who was 20 years older than him, and with whom he lived for 30 years -- this was before he met Joy Davidman, with whom he had a very famous marriage -- but he lived with Mrs. Moore for 30 years without being married to her. In later years he referred to her as his mother, but he also almost certainly slept with her in the early stages of their relationship. People prefer to see what they would like to see, and part of my reason for putting some of that in this book is that he had a lot of difficult attitudes toward women, and then he had relationships with women, and then he wrote about women. So it's difficult to nail him down on this.

But then he has this great female character in Lucy ...

But Lucy is him. Lucy is the ideal version of himself. I personally feel that a writer who does that has major aspects of himself that he does not want to acknowledge, and one of the ways you create distance is by making the character another gender. Now that's a psychoanalytic way of looking at literature that Lewis would have hated. But when I sat down and really thought about it -- why is his most appealing protagonist a little girl? -- the more I realized that when I read about Lewis, and read things he had written, I don't think I could have stood to be in this guy's company. But that little girl is in there somewhere. She wouldn't be so real if she wasn't in him.

It's so weird that I can not like someone who wrote Chronicles of Narnia, which is at the total center of my heart. You can be upset about it or you can wonder at what a miracle of sympathy it is to be able to be a soul mate with this person who maybe I wouldn't have been able to have lunch with without losing my temper.

But isn't that condition -- of hating the writers you love -- true of many of the word's most beloved writers? They're unlikable!

Yes, I know it's true because some of them are living writers, and I've met them. People don't actually become writers because they're socially adept. There have been charming and sociable writers but it's not a career that those people tend to go into.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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