(dana) Tue 17 Feb 09 09:20
It's our pleasure to welcome Laura Miller to the Inkwell. Laura is a journalist and critic living in New York. She is a co-founder of Salon.com, where she is currently a staff writer, and a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine and other publications. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" (Little, Brown, 2008) and editor of the "The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors" (Penguin, 2000). Leading the discussion is David Albert, or (aslan) as he is known on The WELL. David runs a computer lab half-time at a K-8 public school, and consults on technology and data issues for educational organizations. He is an avid reader of children's books. David has one daughter, age 9, who is not quite ready for the Narnia books but will be soon!
David Albert (aslan) Tue 17 Feb 09 12:46
Id like to re-welcome Laura to the WELL for our discussion of The Magicians Book. As a theme that may come up frequently during this discussion, I might well start by pointing out that I would very much love to discuss the original Magicians Book (the one in the Magicians House mentioned in Dawn Treader) from which Lauras title is drawn, and that as this discussion proceeds, I imagine that we will be discussing Narnia itself as well as Lauras take on Narnia, the books, and C. S. Lewis. As some people may wonder why my WELL name is Aslan, I will mention briefly how I came by it. In 1991, I was introduced to virtual communities by way of MicroMUSE, an online text-based virtual world (mentioned prominently alongside the WELL in Howard Rheingolds book on Virtual Community) in which it was possible to have a sense of place and of permanence as well as mere discussion. When pressed to come up with a name for myself, for an environment in which one could participate actively in the creation of the world, I thought immediately of the one creator I had always known and loved. I then set to work rebuilding Narnia in MicroMuse, a project that still exists. As I began to read Lauras book, I found many points of similarity in our reactions to our early readings and rereadings; enough so that I was surprised by the points of difference. So let me start with a big, perhaps fundamental difference, that manifests itself on page one of the Introduction. A few years after her first reading, Laura writes, when I discovred some of the more obvious secret meanings in C. S. Lewiss childrens books, I felt tricked, and for a long time I avoided even thinking about Narnia. I felt completely differently. I was thrilled beyond measure. I felt as if I had uncovered the meaning of a pirates secret treasure map. I wondered, in my teenage naivete, if anyone *else* had ever noticed the similarities between Aslan and Jesus, between the stories of the Stone Table and the crucifixion, or if somehow I had stumbled upon something that nobody else had ever found. I began searching eagerly for other similarities and messages. I suddenly understood some of the phrases that had confused me on my first, and second, and third, and fourth rereadings ([In your country] I have another name by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there WHAT other name, I wondered futilely for several years.) However, my thrill was not religious (except perhaps in the sense of the religion of the avid reader and puzzle solver). As an atheist from a non-religious Jewish family, my interest was purely academic. There was no trickery involved. Here was a fascinating puzzle, and I had solved the biggest piece, and now all that was left was fitting in the rest of the pieces. It never occurred to me, then, or even until reading Lauras book, that people with other early religious experiences might have felt differently about the discovery. Laura, there is so much in your book to discuss, that I scarcely know where to begin. As I began to read, I kept thinking, okay, shes talked about such-and-such, but she hasnt mentioned this other really important issue. Every time I had that thought, you would bring the issue up in the very next section or chapter. So in some ways, there is almost nothing left for me to ask. On the other hand, I would love to continue the discussion of almost every topic you raised. Im sure others will have more detailed questions. To get started, though, here is a question I do have: Have you spoken with people about Narnia who first read the books as children but did NOT feel betrayed in some way or another when they discovered the symbolism in the books?
Laura Miller (lauram) Tue 17 Feb 09 13:53
Hi David (and everyone else) and thanks for inviting me to do this. In answer to your question, yes, I've encountered people who weren't dismayed to discover the religious symbolism in the Chronicles, either because they had a more positive attitude towards Christianity at the time, or because it just didn't make that much difference to them. I've got interviews with some people like that in the book. For one woman, Aslan's resurrection just seemed part and parcel of what godlike beings did. Of course, I tend to hear more from people whose history was like mine because until now there's been relatively little written about *that* experience. What makes it interesting to me (besides the fact that it's my own experience!) is that it very early on set me up to have a dissenting and ambiguous relationship with authors, even and especially authors whose work I love. Narnia is pretty integral to who I am as a person and a reader, yet the most salient thing about it (in most adults' eyes) is its Christian apologetics, and I am not a Christian, despite having been raised in the church. That situation automatically sets a person up for a deeper, more active type of reading. It makes you want to lift up the hood and see how this thing works because the obvious answers don't add up. I hoped, with The Magician's Book, to describe the arc of my history with Narnia, but also to model a way of reading that's less passive, less of a love-it-or-chuck-it approach. I'm completely fascinated by reading, what people get out of it, how they do it, the interaction between a fictional world or voice and the person who's recreating it in the theater of her mind, the ways a reader's identity is changed by it, and the ways that readers make use of the things they find in books. Which is all by way of saying that having a problematic relationship to Narnia and its author was what made The Magician's Book worth writing to me.
David Albert (aslan) Wed 18 Feb 09 05:19
I had many problems with Narnia -- all of which became more interesting to me as I grew older, and some of which kept me reading and rereading -- even though none of those problems was of religious origin. You bring up most of the problems in the book, but to name but a couple: I was deeply troubled by Lewis's abandonment of Susan, or Susan's abandonment of Narnia, on first reading. When I first understood that Susan's absence meant that she was alive, while the other characters were dead, I became even more troubled: wasn't it GOOD to be alive, after all? Lewis's treatment of the Calormenes was even more troubling, and not just for the inherent racism. Although I saw the religious issues as purely philosophical rather than faith-based, I still spend a lot of time pondering the idea, espoused by Aslan, that all good things done in Tash's name are accepted by Aslan, and that all evil things done in the name of Aslan are really done for Tash. I was willing at the time to accept the notion of an ultimate good and an ultimate evil, but if they were set up as equals in stature then I was less sure as to why only one of them got to be the judge of which was which. And finally, why did the Calormenes have to get stuck "accidentally" worshipping the evil guy, given that surely much of what many of them did was good. Where I really and truly felt betrayed by Lewis was not in Narnia at all. As soon as I was old enough to realize that Lewis might have written other books, I found the Perelandra trilogy. There, I had no trouble finding Christian symbolism. What I had trouble finding was a reason to read the books. It had never occurred to me, prior to that time, that an author with such great books could also have written such dull ones. I abandoned those very quickly.
Laura Miller (lauram) Wed 18 Feb 09 05:42
The blithe way that Lewis handles the deaths of almost all of the favorite characters in the series at the end of The Last Battle is one of the things that most bothers Philip Pullman about the books. He called Lewis "gnostic," or at least he did when I spoke to him. I don't think that's exactly right, though it's always hard to say exactly what it means to be gnostic. Lewis was a platonist, or more specifically a neoplatonist, and I'd blame that for some of the less satisfying aspects of his fiction, especially the space trilogy, which he wrote (accord to Tolkien) under the influence of Charles Williams, an even harder-core platonist. That aspect of Lewis' personality was always at war with what I think of as a fairly hedonistic side. He liked to eat and drink and smoke and go out for long walks in the countryside, and he wrote very vividly about the sensual aspects of such things. Reading his criticism, I was struck by how often he will follow up a passage of relatively abstract argument with a clarifying metaphor that's absolutely immediate and material, often involving food or eating. For example, he compares reading good children's fiction as an adult to eating bread and honey, a treat for a child that adults still like at times.
(dana) Wed 18 Feb 09 10:23
(Note: Offsite readers with questions or comments may have them added to this conversation by emailing them to firstname.lastname@example.org -- please include "The Magician's Book" in the subject line.)
Daniel (dfowlkes) Wed 18 Feb 09 12:37
<scribbled by dfowlkes Tue 3 Jul 12 10:14>
Laura Miller (lauram) Wed 18 Feb 09 15:54
I have to confess, I haven't read That Hideous Strength because Perelandra put me off so thoroughly. You're unusual, Dan, in liking THS, since most of the people I know who have read it have told me that they found it the weakest of the three.
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 18 Feb 09 16:04
Great to see this book is out and in the hands of WELL readers! Laura, could you say a word or two about what you mean by Platonist and/or Neoplatonist? Wikipedia managed to further confuse me on that front.
Laura Miller (lauram) Wed 18 Feb 09 17:11
It's not surprising that you found it confusing, Gail, since I feel like I've read lots and lots about neoplatonism without ever quite getting a grasp of it. Same with gnosticism, which is one reason why I cut a big section on it out of the final draft. But, forging onward, I'll take a stab at explaining. Platonism in this usage means the belief that the material world consists of merely the flawed iterations of ideal things called "the forms," which, while not exactly material are inherent to the universe, and real. One of the easiest ways to understand this is to think of the number 3. It is certainly real without being an object in the material world, and in fact numbers are often of particular interest to people of a platonic bent. Neoplatonism encompasses a variety of beliefs and philosophies, but it's helpful to think of it a mystical form of platonism; the great ideal/original or form of the universe is God, an entity who is not necessary to the platonic model. Most, but not all, neoplatonism attempts to reconcile classical philosophy, specifically platonism, with Christianity. It runs into trouble when it seems to embrace the idea that the material world is not-God, or in some way flawed or a trap -- a gnostic belief that is unorthodox to the point of heresy in Christianity. The scene at the end of The Last Battle, where the characters turn away from the destruction of the material Narnia and go "further up and further in" to a Narnia that is perfected by the absence of death and other flaws, a Narnia that is described as "more real" than the one they knew before, and that in turn contains yet another Narnia that is in turn larger and realer and better than the Narnia that contains it and so on ad infinitum -- *that* is a classic neoplatonic construct. I remember Perelandra ending in an equally trippy, headache-inducing ecstasy and so to a lesser degree does Lewis' little-know last novel Til We Have Faces (otherwise very good). He had a weakness for this sort of thing, as if he couldn't bear to say, "This is the end," but had to keep promising more and more and better and better, thereby ruining the story, because a story is made by its ending and its willingness to end. To be honest, I think of his faith as being a version of the same tendency, a refusal to come to terms with mortality and limitations or to recognize their beauty.
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 18 Feb 09 17:25
And yet the discussion is usually about the Christianity and not the other classical themes! Thanks.
descend into a fractal hell of meta-truthiness (jmcarlin) Wed 18 Feb 09 17:46
> that all good things done > in Tash's name are accepted by Aslan, and that all evil things done in > the name of Aslan are really done for Tash. I loved that idea. How many times do we see people assuming that their religion is true and othes are false and those who cling to a false religion are going to hell no matter what. The theological perspective that any worshipper of truth, justice, love, compassion and honesty is on an upward road is not common in today's world.
Cogito, Ergo Dubito (robertflink) Wed 18 Feb 09 19:43
As imaginative works, I don't see religious writings to be any more or less interesting or irritating than the great bulk of myths, legends, fairy tales, fantasy fiction, etc.. For that matter, are "facts" or "truths" any more or less important than the products of human imagination? It is possible that human life today is more dependent on human imagination than it is on supposed "truth". Come to think of it, imagination may have been more important all the way along. The error may be in demanding certainty.
. (wickett) Wed 18 Feb 09 19:56
Agreed. I very much appreciated a god so wise, compassionate, and reasonable.
. (wickett) Wed 18 Feb 09 19:57
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 19 Feb 09 13:39
I think one of the thing that drew me to Narnia as a child was that epic, mythical religious sweep. I too was sort of offended when told by college friends that it was merely disguised Christian propaganda, but a lot of literature I love borrows from great mythic or religious tradition. As a third-generation agnostic, I love the movie Life of Brian -- but if I had never learned anything about religion, it might have been wasted on me. Many of my favorite science fiction/fantasy works touch on religion, when I think about it. But Narnia was different. I realize I had that betrayal response to Narnia too. Why this book?
David Albert (aslan) Thu 19 Feb 09 15:08
> when told > by college friends that it was merely disguised Christian propaganda But it isn't *merely* disguised Christian propaganda, even if it is that. For one thing, propaganda doesn't always work. I was well able to accept the wonders that were Narnia, even after understanding the symbolism, without suddenly saying "oh, so I guess I'm really a Christian after all". Maybe it is harder for anyone who has any doubt about their faith? I must say it didn't occur to me at the time of finding out the symbolism that the author had any INTENT behind including it. As I said earlier, it was just a neat puzzle and I'd solved it, just as I might solve a mystery story -- except that it was a hidden puzzle and you can read the book WITHOUT solving it and still enjoy the book. What about kids who have no doubts at all and whose faith mirrors that of Lewis's. What reaction do they have to the discovery?
Credo? (robertflink) Thu 19 Feb 09 15:34
>For one thing, propaganda doesn't always work.< Thank heaven (pardon the religious allusion). One approach is to assume that there is always a hidden message. Since much of human life is semi or unconscious, we may have messages in our communications that are even "hidden" from ourselves. Conscious manipulation through hidden intent may only be the tip of the iceberg. BTW, those that need the feeling of certainty will find it somewhere. I recall Marxists that conveyed a strong sense of certainty without any (traditional?)religion.
. (wickett) Fri 20 Feb 09 02:13
But they are wonderful stories! The Christian/mythic elements are common to many of our very best tales. I was raised in a fundamentalist household, so the memes were familiar, but that's not why I love the books. The Christianity was pretty much irrelevant to me. (I could enjoy Lewis' _Screwtape Letters_, highly Christian, but fun, and Twain's, _Letters from Earth_, highly anti, and great fun, without getting bogged down in the religious symbolism. It was helpful, of course, that I understood the metaphors and derivations.) The Narnia characters are pretty well developed, especially the magician and marshwiggle, nobody is too goody-two-shoes, even Aslan, and the adventures are plausible.
Daniel (dfowlkes) Fri 20 Feb 09 05:00
<scribbled by dfowlkes Tue 3 Jul 12 10:14>
David Albert (aslan) Fri 20 Feb 09 05:44
Partly agree about Pullman. My biggest problem with the Dark Materials series is that if I *don't* read it as pure symbolism, then it is all plot-plot-plot with new twists thrown in whenever he seems to want one, and no real character development. The sort of science fiction I loved as a child (raised on Asimov, after all) but now find rather one-dimensional. Glad someone mentioned the Screwtape Letters -- I should reread. I do remember enjoying that book, either despite of, or because, all the Christianity is right out in the open. Back to Narnia and Laura's book: I was glad Laura included in the introduction a note on the ORDERING of the books. To me, the re-ordering in modern republication borders on the sacreligious. (There, I've said it: Narnia was almost a religion to me, even if I didn't actually *believe* in it.) As to the ordering: it makes PERFECT sense to put the Magician's Nephew late in the series. Why would anyone WANT to know about the origins of Narnia before they'd read about Narnia in LWW? And what sense does it make from a storytelling point of view to reveal the origins of the White Witch BEFORE introducing her as a character? Plus, if you put H-and-his-B as the second or third book, who's going to read past it? I know at least one person whose first two books were LWW and HB and that was it -- they were off Narnia forever. Not that Prince Caspian is the strongest either, but it does have to come before the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, always my second favorite. So: whose favorites are in a different order, and why?
. (wickett) Fri 20 Feb 09 12:28
_Magician's Nephew_ couldn't possibly be such a pleasure without the earlier books.
Laura Miller (lauram) Fri 20 Feb 09 16:33
Sorry to be absent for a while there. I couldn't get to my computer for various boring reasons. Although Prince Caspian is often described as weak, it has several favorite scenes in it -- and I think for every Friend of Narnia (FON), it's more about the favorite scenes or vignettes than the books as novels per se. Caspian has the Pevensies exploring the ruins of Cair Paravel and coming to the realization that it's *their* old castle, that they've been archeologists of themselves. It has Caspian as the ultimate avatar of the FON, believing in the old Narnia in spite of the adult world's skepticism and disapproval and then joyfully finding a way into it. It has the werewolf (which may be one of Neil Gaiman's favorite and most formative characters). And it has that procession at the end with Bacchus and his girls, tearing down the schools and bridges. These are all great. I think it's just that long slog through the woods right in the middle that puts people off.
Laura Miller (lauram) Fri 20 Feb 09 16:40
As for sneakily inserting religious propaganda, I know at times Lewis did think he was doing that. He wrote of stealing "past watchful dragons" to communicate the Christian message in a way that wasn't spoiled by Sunday-school associations. Often, though, I believe he was in the grip of other or different mythic traditions, and he was always attempting to integrate them into his preferred faith. He and Tolkien adopted this inverted notion of "myth" by which all the similar stories in Western culture (dating back, probably, to a Vedic ur-mythology) were actually echoes of the one time the myth was true -- the life of Christ. They'd all read The Golden Bough, so they knew they couldn't claim that the New Testament was somehow unprecedented. But Lewis thought -- wrongly -- that historians and archeologists had found significant confirmation of the events described in the New Testament, so he did believe/hope that there was a historic basis to a lot of it.
Credo, Ergo Dubito (robertflink) Fri 20 Feb 09 18:15
It strikes me that seeking confirmation suggests some doubt even in the throws of belief. Also the building of additional talking points when dealing with infidels.
David Albert (aslan) Sat 21 Feb 09 07:24
I did love the ruins of old Cair Paravel and the archaeological discoveries. But I'm not much for werewolves for some reason, or lengthy battle scenes (and I was probably in graduate school or at least college before I'd learned enough about WWII to recognize some of the references like the Battle of the Bulge. Even now military history is not my strong point. I actually came to Narnia through the Silver Chair, at about age 10, which was the first book I was given. Boy was I confused. Of course it all made sense the second time around. Not my favorite book either, but the adventures are fun and I really liked the giant word they fell into and figured out, and other descriptions of living among the giants. As you mention in your book, some of my best take-away messages from these books were those of HOW to manage an adventure, and what to expect (e.g. the messiness of killing and cleaning your own food). In that respect, the Narnia series fell closest to a set of books I didn't discover until much later: Arthur Ransome's "Swallows and Amazons" series -- with children left essentially to their own devices and having wonderfully detailed (though in the latter case, realistic) adventures, of the sort one could truly imagine participating in partly because the books taught you how.
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