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 reepicheep feastNarnia Aslan's army

I 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.

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.

Harriet the Spy (1964)

This is the story of Harriet Welsh, daughter of wealthy New Yorkers and attendee of a snobbish private school, where she has banded together with two other misfits. Harriet’s particular oddity is her obssession with writing down everything, and with wanting to know everything, which leads her to spying on the lives of others. She wears jeans and high-top sneakers and a toolbelt, and does things like climbing into dumbwaiter shafts, thus setting off the gaydar of every pre-teen lesbian in the 1960’s. Harriet gets into trouble when her beloved notebook is taken by her schoolmates, and they find truthful but unkind observations about themselves.

Two remarkable things occur during the course of Harriet resolving her problems. The first is when, having been deprived of notebooks as the supposed cause of the trouble, and having fallen into a serious depression, she is sent to a psychiatrist. In the course of their session he offers Harriet a notebook. “Her fingers itched at the thought of a notebook, of a pen flying over the pages, of her thoughts, finally free to move, flowing out.” As soon as she has the notebook in her hands, Harriet forgets all about the doctor and the session, and just writes like mad. This frantic need to get back to her comfort zone is one of the realest moments in children’s literature. The psychiatrist, despite his 1960’s style non-directive play therapy (which, Harriet is right, is a little batty), is one of the few adults who helps sanity prevail. He persuades her parents and teachers to encourage her writing.

The second remarkable thing is when Harriet’s former nanny writes to her with advice, and tells her something that most adults would never say in the pages of a children’s book: “Harriet, you are going to have to do two things and you don’t like either of them: 1) You have to apologize. 2) You have to lie.”

In addition to being smart, writing-obsessed, and probably not straight, Harriet comes across as on the autism spectrum. She doesn’t realize how odd it is to suddenly drop a shared activity and start scribbling in her notebook. She is heedless of people, shouts what she’s thinking, and is very particular about her routines. (Memorably, she only eats tomato sandwiches for lunch.) Her fascination with other people’s lives comes across like a scientist documenting an alien species. Some of her best social coping skills come from the advice of her beloved nanny, who gives her very blunt and explicit rules about how to manage people.

Harriet the Spy is an amazing book, but it isn’t for everyone. The people Harriet spies on are grotesques (in the artistic sense, like da Vinci’s grotesques), and probably not what most children want to read about. Harriet’s two friends are hard to like. Well, frankly, most of the characters are hard to like. But for children who identified with Harriet, this book was a lifeline.

A Wizard of Earthsea (1967)

Ged (with a hard /g/) is born in a tiny village of goatherds on the mountainous island of Gont, where he shows early signs of tremendous magical power. Ged is proud, prickly, and ambitious. Instead of staying as an apprentice with the contempletive old wizard Ogion, the boy chooses to go to the wizarding school on Roke, at the center of Earthsea. There he latches on to a rich boy named Jasper as a person to hate and be rivals with, and Jasper eventually goads him into an arrogant display of power. Ged boasts that he can raise a dead spirit, and astonishingly for someone his age he succeeds; but at the same time he releases a shadow into the world. This being nearly kills Ged before fleeing from the protective spells of Roke. When Ged graduates and leaves Roke, he becomes hunted by the shadow. Eventually he realizes that he needs to stop running, and chase the thing instead. When he finally confronts it, it turns out to be a part of himself; they merge, and Ged is whole again.

This is an emotionally complicated book. Ged is insufferable, but he is also right: he really is better at what he does than almost anyone. Before he can attain something of the peace and wisdom of Ogion, Ged has to have the vibrant aggression of youth knocked out of him by life. He is a loner with only one real friend, a fellow-student named Vetch who goes with him on his final journey pursuing the shadow. (Similar brilliant loner characters occur in Le Guin’s Very Far Away from Anywhere Else and The Dispossessed.)

In some respects, this book has not aged well. Stilted archaic language to imply profundity has gone out of fashion, and today comes off as an affectation. In addition, wizarding in Earthsea is an all-boys club, with Roke resembling Oxford in the 19th century. LeGuin has written about how male characters tend to take over if you let them. It’s sad the she was unable to envision women as part of the serious, strange endeavor that is wizarding in Earthsea. (She ammended this in later books, but it is clearly a retro-fit.)

But LeGuin also rose noticably above the usual pack of ancient-culture-inspired fantasy, possibly because she was the child of anthropologists. (Her mother, Theodora Kroeber, wrote Ishi in Two Worlds.)  LeGuin’s world-building has the imperfections that occur in real human cultures, to an extent that is unusual in the fantasy genre. This shows particularly in the second Earthsea book, The Tombs of Atuan.

LeGuin also gets props for creating a world where the people aren’t white, without making a big fanfare of it. Ged’s people have brown skin, and Vetch is from a region where people’s skin is so dark it is almost black. LeGuin had to fight with her publishers to not have Ged shown with white skin on the cover, though I think the peachy tone they chose still “reads” as white. I prefer the picture of Ged on the back cover of the 1970’s paperback.

Books for Odd Children: A Wrinkle in Time (1962)

Most books feature ordinary children to whom unusual things happen, or perhaps a character who turns out to be extraordinary in a generic sort of way (they are the lost prince, or a witch, or have a gift of talking to animals or seeing ghosts). But these characters are usually not, in and of themselves, different.

Eccentric children are a disproportionate percentage of avid readers, and they are starved for books about kids like them: intelligent, emotionally intense, hyper-imaginative, socially awkward, interested in things that are uncool, or other varieties that don’t fit in. Many of these characters would today be recognized as neuro-diverse.

In the Books for Odd Children category, I’ll be discussing books that feed this need.

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In A Wrinkle in Time, the main character, Meg Murry, is highly intelligent but awkward and plagued with self-doubt. Her parents are both research scientists, and her youngest brother, Charles Wallace, is a such an oddball genius that nobody knows what to make of him. Meg and Charles Wallace, together with a neighbor boy Calvin who is also unusually intelligent, are sent on a mission by three witch/angel/spirit-guides to rescue their missing father, who has gotten caught up in an interplanetary disaster that combines physics and religion.

It’s stunning how many kids of a certain age were gripped with a fervor for this book. (I’m speaking of earlier generations, before the renewed interest from the movie, back when the book was passed along by word-of-mouth.) It was the first to portray, in detailed realistic terms, a family of extraordinarily gifted individuals; and not the idealized heros of series novels, good at everything and popular and beautiful besides. These are real people with weaknesses as well as strengths, and real problems that are sometimes a direct result of their gifts. In addition, the reader is taken seriously by the author and invited into the world of large ideas. Young teens and pre-teens are expected, for example, to wrestle with the idea of folding space. There were certain readers who had been waiting all their lives for this kind of thing, and when it appeared, they struck like jaguars dropping from trees.

Another reason this book is such a stand-out is the seriousness of vision that L’Engle brought to her world-building. This was driven by her religious convictions, in a way similar to C.S. Lewis’s work, and one feels the depth of it whether or not one agrees with the beliefs.

A final point in the book’s favor is the strong plot at its core. The three children are taken to a planet where everyone is under the control of a being called IT, and six-year-old Charles Wallace arrogantly decides he is strong enough to defeat it. He is wrong, and though they succeed in rescuing the father, they lose Charles Wallace. Meg’s love for Charles Wallace turns out to be the one kind of power that IT cannot understand or combat, and it is this power that effects the final rescue.

Unfortunately, this material only makes up about a third of the book. The rest of it is (sotto voce) pretty bad. The plotting in this other two-thirds is loose and saggy, with endless passages devoted to quasi-philosophical, quasi-religious lecturing. The only way to account for the book’s raging popularity is that, in spite of its flaws, it fed readers who were not finding what they needed anywhere else.

It should also be mentioned that some of L’Engle’s books tip over into a kind of cultural snobbism that is distasteful. (This essay from the New Yorker explains a great deal about L’Engle and why her writing was both so amazing and so frustratingly awful.) Her first children’s book, Meet the Austins, is one example, particularly with its restored chapter “The Anti-Muffins,” which some earlier editor had wisely deleted.

The SaturdaysCourt of the Stone ChildrenRoom Made of Windows L’Engle shares this fault with a few other highly lauded 20th century children’s authors, including Eleanor Cameron in her later books such as A Room Made of Windows and Court of the Stone Children, and Elizabeth Enright in her Melendy books. (Indeed, L’Engle’s Meet the Austins seems to owe a great deal to the second and third Melendy books.) In such Meet the Austins books, one gets the impression that the author considers their characters to be not just different from regular children, but better. Their unusual talents and interests are uniformly ones that are considered “cultured,” such as classical music or modern art. These characters seem to spring less from the author tapping into the wellspring of quirkiness, and more from the author’s anxieties about being the right sort of person.

Despite these flaws, there are countless middle-aged adults walking around today who will never ever forget what A Wrinke in Time did for them.

The Changeling (1970)

Like Snyder’s The Egypt Game, The Changeling concerns two girls who form a friendship around a system of imaginings. Martha is from a socially prominent, emotionally unexpressive family; Ivy is from a large, poor, dysfuntional family prone to petty crime. Neither girl fits in her own world, so they spend their time in a shared world of magical beliefs and pretend. Their beliefs — that they can stop themselves from growing up, that they can perform magic, that Ivy is a changeling — allow them to escape the unsatisfying “real” world offered to them by their elders. Their deeply-felt games range from trying to steal an old horse to save its life, to inventing the tragic history of burned-out mansion; but their longest-running game is about the People from the Land of Green Sky, played in the trees of an oak grove.

Interestingly, as they grow older they lose their ability to really play the game. This was such an authentic insight on Snyder’s part that I hated it, because I didn’t want it to be true. Allie Brosh, author of Hyperbole and a Half, describes growing out of imaginative play like this:

As I grew older, it became harder and harder to access that expansive imaginary space that made my toys fun. I remember looking at them and feeling sort of frustrated and confused that things weren’t the same. I played out all the same story lines that had been fun before, but the meaning had disappeared. Horse’s Big Space Adventure transformed into holding a plastic horse in the air, hoping it would somehow be enjoyable for me. Prehistoric Crazy-Bus Death Ride was just smashing a toy bus full of dinosaurs into the wall while feeling sort of bored and unfulfilled. I could no longer connect to my toys in a way that allowed me to participate in the experience.

Martha and Ivy solve the problem by turning the stories into plays they act out. In the process, Martha (the quiet, timid one) finds an unexpected talent for dramatic acting, and Ivy discovers a passion for dance.

Over the course of their friendship, however, real life increasingly intrudes, often in the form of the class differences between their families. Eventually Ivy’s dancing talent draws the ire of the school’s queen bee, who falsely accuses Ivy and Martha of vandalism. Ivy’s family assume she’s guilty and leave town before the truth comes out. But Ivy escapes the gravitational pull of her family by going to New York to train as a dancer, and Martha, by falling in with the theater crowd at school, finds her own way to be in the real world without being a carbon copy of her family.

This book speaks loudly of the cultural shifts of the 1960’s, when “respectable” vs. “not respectable” were losing their power to define a good life; but it’s a process that every generation goes through. As Randall Munroe of the webcomic xkcd puts it, “We’re grownups now, and it’s our turn to decide what that means.”

Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth (1967)

In 1967, newcomer E. L. Konigsburg published two of the best books of the 1960’s (and, astonishingly, both got Newbery awards/honors in the same year). The better-known of the two is From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but here we will consider the equally excellent, and completely different, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth.

Jennifer, Hecate is the story of two girls who are uninterested in fitting in with the popular kids at school. Elizabeth is an awkward loner, and she is immediately intrigued by newcomer Jennifer, who seems grandly unbothered by the opinions of the other kids.

Jennifer is full of knowledge and ideas, and she claims to be a witch. She takes Elizabeth on has her apprentice, and leads her on a merry chase of rituals to be performed and trials to be endured (like eating raw onions for a week). Much of their time over the weeks and months is spent doing research and gathering ingredients to create a flying potion.

Up to this point, Elizabeth has been able to believe she sees signs of witchcraft, but on the crucial day of making the potion, they argue, and their friendship is apparently broken. One day a few weeks later, Elizabeth begins to put the pieces together: where Jennifer lives, how she had access to occult-looking items, how Jennifer had been hoodwinking her all along, even how she orchestrated the fight. Jennifer (who maybe is just a bit witchy?) chooses that moment to show up at Elizabeth’s door. Elizabeth lets her know the jig is up, and they become friends again.

It’s an amazingly good book, about which I’ll say more when I post about Books for Odd Children. It is ever so slightly marred, perhaps, by the length of time that Jennifer spends manipulating Elizabeth. What’s up with a kid who would do that? And can she really shift gears that completely? Never mind. It’s a great book.

This book was clearly a strong influence on Zilpha Keatley Snyder (to be discussed in a future post). The friendship between Martha and Ivy in Snyder’s The Changeling closely mirrors that of Elizabeth and Jennifer, down to the detail of Ivy finally admitting to Martha that she had been lying about magic all along. The two books contain nearly identical mean girls, who the adults are equally fooled by. Snyder’s book is deeper, richer, riper; but it wouldn’t have been the same without Jennifer, Hecate as a prototype. (There is also, arguably, some influence of Jennifer, Hecate on Snyder’s The Headless Cupid.)