The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia (2008)

Magician's BookWell, friends, I’ve avoided it long enough. We need to talk about Narnia.

Laura Miller, author of The Magician’s Book, describes it this way:

In one of the most vivid memories from my childhood, . . . I’m wishing, with every bit of myself, for two things. First, I want a place I’ve read about in a book to really exist, and second, I want to be able to go there. I want this so much I’m pretty sure the misery of not getting it will kill me. For the rest of my life, I will never want anything quite so much again. The place I longed to visit was Narnia.

That pretty much accords with my own experience. My fourth grade teacher (who was a huge Narnia fan) read the books aloud to us during after-lunch read-aloud time. (Do teachers even do that any more? If not, what a loss!)

Narnia Aslan's armyNarnia reepicheep feastI fell desperately in love with the fauns and the dryads, the waterfalls and green meadows and forests, the midnight dances, castles, feasts, and most of all the sense of emotional purpose. The dullness of public school, 1970’s fashion, barren southern California, ugly architecture in the newer parts of my town, and worst, peers who seemed to want nothing beyond this, made me despair for anything worth having in life. I would have disappeared into Narnia if I could.



What is it about Narnia that had this kind of effect on so many imaginative, bookish children? There are many, many fantasy books out there, but relatively few inspired the kind of urgent devotion that Narnia did.

And then, also, how did C.S. Lewis manage to create this and yet go so badly wrong? And more unnervingly, are those two things not a contradiction, but intimately intertwined? Was Lewis’s beautiful vision inextricable from–in some ways born from–his twisted authoritarian values and his fixation on suffering as noble?

Laura Miller explores these issues in The Magician’s Book, which I avoided reading until recently because I feel like way too much ink has been spilled about the Inklings, and about Lewis in particular — most of which seems to willfully miss what’s really going on. But Miller nails it. She and I differ on a few points. Her path to discovering she’d been betrayed by Narnia was very different from mine; and she gets a little too literary-analysis-woo-woo for me in a couple of places. But for the most part she is level-headed, insightful, and merciless.

I’ll have much more (perhaps too much more!) to say in future posts, but in the meantime I highly recommend The Magician’s Book for anyone who gets what I’m talking about in this post.

More about Robert Lawson

FerdinandMr. Popper's PenguinsLawson’s career as an illustrator is best know from The Story of Ferdinand (1936), and Mr. Popper’s Penguins (1939).  But his first effort was for a truly terrible sounding book, The Wonderful Adventures of Little Prince Toofat (1922). He also illustrated for, among others, Margery Williams (of Velveteen Rabbit fame, though he didn’t illustrate that). Over the years you can see the emergence of Lawson’s characteristic style (left to right: frontispiece from Prince Toofat; The Wee Men of Ballywooden; From the Horn of the Moon; The Hurdy-Gurdy Man).

Little Prince Toofat

Wee Men of Ballywooden

From the Horn of the Moon

Hurdy Gurdy Man





I Discover Columbus

Mr. Revere and I

Captain Kidd's Cat

After his success with authoring Ben and Me (1939), he wrote three more books with the same concept — a historical character seen through the eyes of a companion animal. These were I Discover Columbus (1941), Mr. Revere and I (1953), and Captain Kidd’s Cat (1956).

They Were Strong and Good

Rabbit Hill

Mr. Twigg's Mistake-1ysnmvg

He also tried his hand at several other kinds of stories. His next effort after Ben and Me was They Were Strong and Good (1940), a fictionalized account of some of his ancestors. The irony of the book’s title was apparently lost on him when he was writing about his family owning slaves, or looking down on the Native Americans whose land they were squatting on. Lawson’s toe-the-line patriotism (“None of them were great or famous, but they were strong and good. They worked hard and had many children. They all helped to make the United States the great nation that it now is. Let us be proud of them and guard well the heritage they have left us.“) strikes me as particularly nauseous, as I am currently reading some works by post-Civil-War black authors like Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. duBois. I’m kind of fed up to my teeth with the excuse that people didn’t know any better back in 1940. They knew perfectly well. They just thought it was A-OK.

Rabbit Hill (1944) is very much in the tradition of folksy fables peopled by talking animals. Mr. Twigg’s Mistake (1947) is about an overdose of vitamins that causes things to grow outlandishly big. Neither of them are especially interesting or well-written by today’s standards, and both contain hints of racism.

Overall, I would count Robert Lawson as “Overrated.” I find his drawing style unappealing (stiff and unnatural on a large scale, creepily over-realistic in the details), though he initially earned his reputation as an illustrator. And he never became more than a merely adequate story-teller, though he rode the wave a couple of high-profile awards.

Still, I did enjoy Mr. Revere and I.

Ben and Me (1939)

Ben and MeI wish I’d picked a different book to read this week! I read Robert Lawson’s Mr. Revere and I as a child and quite liked it. But Ben and Me was illustrator Lawson’s first attempt and authoring, and it is a clumsy effort.

A mouse named Amos comes to live in Benjamin Franklin’s house and gets involved with his experiments and other work. At first the conceit is that Ben isn’t particularly bright, and most of his ideas come from Amos. But that gets dropped in favor of Amos being an unreliable narrator, thinking he’s “helping” when he’s making things worse. Then both of those get dropped for the idea that Ben simply has a dangerous mania for electricity. But the least appealing part of the book is that Ben and Amos have a unpleasant, antagonistic kind of “loyalty” to each other, sometimes crossing the line into cruelty.

Still, Lawson gets credit for taking a rather dreary genre of children’s books, the fictionalized account of colonial American history (think Johnny Tremain or The Matchlock Gun), and treating it irreverently and humorously, in a way that an actual kid might want to read.

What I found most interesting, though, is that it was clearly source material for two later and much more famous books about sentient mice.

Stuart Little

First there is Stuart Little (1945). It is impossible to read about Stuart’s little conveniences and arrangements, his vehicles and his meals, and not be reminded of Amos. (Top right: Stuart. Bottom left and right: Amos.)

Stuart Little bed





Ben and Me Amos

Ben and Me Amos 2







RescuersThe second is The Rescuers (1959), which likewise gets a lot of fun out of mice making a cosy life in human habitation.

Rescuers pipe fireplaceBut the inspiration goes much further. Amos goes with Ben to France, where he visit embassies and meets a beautiful aristocratic white mouse who needs his help. Amos is rough and inelegant compared to her, but is stalwart and resourceful. With the help of a third (boy) mouse, they stage a daring rescue. (Top right: Miss Bianca, Nils, and Bernard of The Rescuers. Bottom left: Miss Bianca and Bernard. Bottom right: Madame Sophia and Amos watching a French aristocrat.)

Rescuers Miss Bianca

Ben and Me aristocrat mouse








Next week, more about Robert Lawson, who also illustrated Mr. Popper’s Penguins and The Story of Ferdinand, and was also kind of a big awful racist.

Misty of Chincoteague (1947)

Misty  There is a herd of semi-feral horses on the island of Assateague, off the coast of Virginia and Maryland. Once a year, on Pony Penning Day, the islanders of neighboring Chincoteague drive the horses across the channel. They auction off the foals and some of the adults, after which the remainder of the herd is released back to Assateague.

Misty of Chincoteague was written by Horse Book Person Marguerite Henry, who was already known for Justin Morgan had a Horse and went on to write King of the WindBrighty of the Grand Canyon, and more Chincoteague books. She lived in Wisconsin, but she visited Chincoteague to prep for this book.

This book is for a fairly young audience, both in terms of the writing and the story. Paul and Maureen are desperate to buy the legendary Phantom, a mare who has eluded capture the past two years. They save up money, and Paul gets to ride with the salt-water cowboys to bring the horses across. But Phantom has a foal! They must buy both! But someone else buys the foal! But they get the foal back!

Now they have both Phantom and Misty. Misty takes to human society easily, but Phantom is half-wild and only learns to be ridden with very slow careful training. Then, this being a horse book, there is a HORSE RACE! Where the wild proud horse that could never be ridden is ridden by the child who has no horseracing experience, and WINS! Because, as the children knew all along, this is the special-est horse ever.

Then Phantom returns to Assateague, where her wild heart belongs. The children lose Phantom, but get to keep Misty.

It should be noted that the gender politics are just terrible, even for 1947. Paul does everything, from rounding up the Phantom and getting her and Misty across the channel safely, to riding her in the race (they pull a wishbone for it, but you know Maureen was never going to win), to making the decision to release Phantom without consulting Maureen. Throughout, Maureen is his meek and devoted helper.

Maguerite Henry also gets her facts wrong about wild horses — not just exaggerating but romanticizing the idea of a harem controlled by a dominant stallion. Wild horses (really, feral horses), live in a herd that is broken up into bands, each band consisting of a dominant mare, several other mares, and their young. There is usually a stallion hanging out with them, though sometimes two or three or more. The stallion only stays with the band for a year or two before moving on.

Another interesting point to note is that the island of Assagteague is fenced right across at the Virginia/Maryland border. On the Virginia side the horses are only semi-feral, getting rounded up once a year so it’s hardly a surprise, and even getting regular vet checkups. On the Maryland side, they are left wild, the only interference being horsie contraception so the population doesn’t get out of control. (Although they do wander around the campgrounds, so maybe not all that wild.)

Horse Books! National Velvet

National VelvetWell this was a surprise.

National Velvet is not a children’s book.

I’m looking into horse books, of which I remember there being a vast number in our school library, and the first surprise was how much of the output was by a few authors. When you count books by Marguerite Henry (Misty of Chincoteague), Walter Farley (The Black Stallion), Mary O’Hara (My Friend Flicka), and — for those in the Antipodes — Elyne Mitchell (The Silver Brumby), you’ve got the bulk of the classic horse books. (I may be missing a few series’ from England that didn’t cross over.)

I decided to start more or less at the beginning (excluding Black Beauty which is from the 19th century and is basically Down and Out in Paris and London for horses). National Velvet is pretty far back, published in 1935.

From the first page it was obviously not a children’s book. Nothing inappropriate, just not at all geared to children and their interests and aesthetics. It is an unsparing portrait of a rural working-class English family. The father is a butcher with a slaughterhouse sharing a wall with the family sitting-room. The hired hand sleeps in former horse stall with a hole in the middle of the floor. The toddler of the family is obsessed with the idea of killing things.

Why, then, did some kids devour this book? Obviously, because it was A BOOK ABOUT HORSES. That was enough for a certain type of child to plough through the descriptions of scenery and weather, the complicated metaphors, the leaps of inference required, and the obscure regional phrases.

Less easy to explain is the choice of publishers and librarians and teachers to promote this as a children’s book. A sweet children’s book. I mean, check out these covers!

(The second book says “The Classic Story of a Girl and her Horse.” The third one says “Charming Classics” and comes with a necklace.)

Well, publishers were obviously cashing in on the movie, but as for librarians and teachers, I can only guess that they’d heard of the movie and never read the book.

Let me be clear, I think it’s fantastic when a passion for something like horses leads a child to voluntarily try out adult fiction. What I object to is the deceptive packaging, and the adult obsession with getting kids to read “classics” because it must be good for them, regardless of the actual content. (Honestly, why do people believe there’s anything to be gained by reading Robinson Crusoe, unless one is a scholar of the history of the novel?)

It’s too bad that this book has been overwhelmed by it’s movie reputation, because it’s a compelling read, and should be met on its own terms. The book is really about Velvet’s character and how she reacts to fame, coming out the other side unscathed because all she really cared about was the horse.

Enid Blyton! Oh noes!

Five on a Treasure Island 2Enid Blyton, an English author who dominated children’s reading material in the UK and Commonwealth countries for forty years, wrote a jaw-dropping 762 books. As you might guess, she was not deep or complex. She specialized in insipid tales for young children, with titles like The Adventures of Binkle and Flip, The Talking Teapot, Little Noddy Goes to Toyland, and Enid Blyton’s Happy Story Book.

She also wrote adventures for middle-grade children, formulaic mysteries with lots of kidnapping, spies, secret tunnels, and stolen documents, and flat characters who are often noxiously moralistic.

So I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I’m going to recommend Five on a Treasure Island (1942). It involves a ruined castle, a shipwreck rumored to contain gold, a treasure map, old dungeons, and being captured by bad guys. The titular four children plus their dog manage the whole operation themselves, only bringing in the police after they have marooned the bad guys.

The nice thing about reading books as a child is that you don’t yet know that clichés are clichés. Five on a Treasure Island shamelessly pulls out all the stops, and that’s its appeal for a reader not yet jaded by genre fiction.

This is the first of the Famous Five books, in which the children endlessly foil the plots of bad guys during their holidays. It’s hard to say if Five on a Treasure Island is the best of the series. Probably, whichever one a child reads first is the best for them forever after.

Anthropomorphized Animals III

Eventually, the animal fable developed in so many directions that it stopped being a Thing. There’s The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes (1939, a surprisingly woke book for its time, by the author of the play that Porgie and Bess is based on); Rabbit Hill (1944); The Rescuers (1959); A Cricket in Times Square (1960); Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971); and Watership Down (1972). All of these break out of the animal fable in one way or another, developing new forms.

Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 4.36.46 PM

Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 4.29.13 PMPerhaps closest to the original genre, in mid-century, were the books of Eve Titus, including the Anatole series (1956 onward) and the Basil of Baker Street series (1958 onward).




mr. and mrs. bunnyWhile all kinds of sentient-animal stories have been published in more recent years, there is nothing quite like the absurdist throwback, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire (2012). It starts in a fairly realistic way, with a girl named Madeline being raised by hippie artist parents on Hornby Island in Puget Sound. But then her parents get kidnapped by, um, foxes, and she has to enlist the help of bunnies. Bunnies who wear fedoras.

Anthropomorphized Animals, Part II

magic pudding

As much in the tradition of Alice in Wonderland as animal fables, Australia’s first contribution to the genre is The Magic Pudding (1918). It concerns three bombastic characters who own a magic pudding, which mouths off and runs away if you don’t watch it and is never used up no matter how much you eat. As in many other animal-fable style stories, humans and animals mix together in society without any apparent differentiation.

Aimed at younger children, the plot consists of repeated ruses by some puddin’ thieves to run off with the pudding, always ending with the thieves being punched on the snout and the puddin’ owners sitting down to feast. There is lots of nonsense poetry, characters who appear out of nowhere and do ridiculous things, and lines like “This is not a puddin’ thief, this is an Uncle,” and “at this season puddin’-thieves generally go south-east, owing to the price of onions.”

alice mongoose

One year later came the publication of the first Alice Mongoose and Alistair Rat book, whose author is sometimes called Hawaii’s Beatrix Potter. (Hawaii at the time was still decades away from statehood, and was much more distant from the U.S., both culturally and in terms of travel time, than it is today. )

The book itself is merely a long picture book, but there are sequels that continue the tale, together forming a respectable-sized book. Alice Mongoose is born in India, but decides to go seek her fortune by answering a job advertisement in Hawaii. She is shocked to discover that her job is supposed to be killing rats, and instead she befriends her next-door neighbor, Alistair Rat. Together they have friendly adventures such as setting up a restaurant together, and celebrating Christmas.

squirrel hare little grey rabbit

While Magic Pudding and Alice Mongoose moved with the times and reached in new directions, the works of Alison Uttley were almost aggressively retro. Her first effort was The Squirrel, the Hare, and the Little Grey Rabbit (1929), followed by numerous other tales about Sam Pig, Tim Rabbit, Little Brown Mouse, and of course Little Grey Rabbit. The attempt to recreate the world of Beatrix Potter is clear.

Alison Uttley is better known today for her novel for older kids, A Traveller in Time (1939). This is an overly-literary, overly-historical time travel book, which I simply couldn’t bring myself to finish. She was a neighbor of Enid Blyton, whom she detested, considering her vulgar. She was right, Blyton was vulgar, but I’m not sure that Uttley’s self-consciously cultured and refined persona makes her any “better.”

Freddy goes to Floridafreddy the detectiveNext up is Freddy Goes to Florida (1927), about a pig and his friends from the farm who decide to go south for the winter. By the third book Freddy has read Sherlock Holmes and decided to become a detective, and his detective adventures dominate the remainder of the series. (He is also clearly a precursor to Basil of Baker Street, to be discussed later).

travels of babar

Also clearly influenced by the animal-fable genre were the Babar books, written by a French author. Like many books whose world is a bit lacking in internal logic, these started as bedtime stories for a child (as did Wind in the Willows, incidentally).

The first book was published in 1931, but I’m using the cover of the second book because it’s a better illustration of the anthropomorphic lives of these elephants. In parts the world of the animals almost makes sense, as when the elephants battle with the rhinoceroses in the first book (though don’t get me started on the colonialist vibe); but when elephants interact with humans things get seriously weird. The author “puts a lampshade” on this with a joke in Barbar and Father Christmas:

Babar no crown

blinky bill

Blinky Bill frontispieceThen Australia got into the act with Blinky Bill, a much sweeter and cuter set of stories than The Magic Pudding. The first book, Blinky Bill: The Quaint Little Australian (1933), is represented here by its color frontispiece, which shows Blinky as an infant being baptised (as koalas do).

Blinky Bill movieBlinky bill tvBlinky Bill became a cultrual icon in Australia, spawning two television series’, a movie, and video game.

That’s a wrap for our 1920’s and ’30’s books. We’ll talk about a few later descendents of the genre next week.



Anthropomorphized Animals, Part I

Animals wearing clothes and buying things in shops, generally conducting their affairs like humans, sometimes actually alongside humans without the humans thinking there’s anything strange about it . . . this sort of thing found its way into children’s novels by a strange and circuitous route.

peter rabbit

Before there was the English Wind in the Willows and the American Old Mother West Wind, there were Beatrix Potter’s short fables. I always thought of Potter as a mid-to-late Victorian, making her citizen-scientist contributions to mycology and her naturalist’s drawings of wildlife. But her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, wasn’t published until 1902.

(As a side-note, Potter’s modern reputation for sweet cosy stories is bizarrely out of touch with reality. Squirrel Nutkin loses his tail, the Two Bad Mice smash up the doll house, rats try to eat Tom Kitten, and Ginger and Pickles is flat-out gothic.)

But back to my main point. Potter didn’t invent the genre. She was inspired by, of all things, the very American Uncle Remus books, which are stories from the African American oral tradition (recorded, sadly, by racist white dude Joel Chandler Harris). And these, of course, trace back to the animal fables of West Africa.

This kind of thing bounced back and forth across the Atlantic several more times, with a distinctive American or British stamp in each case.

mr. woodchuck

L. Frank Baum got into the act in 1905, with a set of short booklets collectively called the Twinkle Tales, published under the pseudonym Laura Bancroft.

(Baum tried his hand at everything. He wrote boys’ adventure stories under the names Floyd Akers and Captain Hugh Fitzgerald, and more ladylike stories for girls under the names Edith Van Dyne and Suzanne Metcalf, as well as a veritable firehose of works under his own name.)


wind in the willows paul bransom

In 1908 England gave us Wind in the Willows, represented here by an image from the earliest illustrator, Paul Bransom, from 1913. (The original edition wasn’t illustrated, and the iconic pictures by Ernest Shepard didn’t appear until 1931.)



old mother west wind

And in 1910 America shot back with Old Mother West Wind, the first of naturalist Thorton Burgess’s numerous books about Reddy Fox, Johnny Chuck, Peter Cottontail, and the rest.

My mother had this book as a child and I still have her copy, with that exact cover. (Picture swiped from internet, though.) The only thing I remember from reading it as a child is how Old Mother West Wind would bring out her children, the Little Breezes, in a sack, and set them loose to play all day in the meadow. In a way it’s a sweet idea, but . . . she keeps her children in a sack?

in fableland

I also have my mother’s copy of In Fableland, which originally belonged to her mother. Published in 1911 by an educator who mostly wrote reading primers, it is not high in originality. The stories are retellings of Aesop’s fables, and to capitalize on the going trend the drawings feature animals dressed up like 1910’s working-class Americans.




in fableland 2
End papers from In Fableland. Again, picture swiped from internet, not my grandmother’s copy.

Next week we’ll visit Anthropomorphized Animals as they changed after WWI.