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.

Little Witch (1953)

Little Witch 1 small Madame Snickasnee is your classic nasty witch who like all things bad, like not washing, eating disgusting things, and turning the local children into flowerpots. She has a daughter, Minikin, who wishes she were not a witch, and could go to school and have friends.

Every night when Madame Snickasnee leaves to go do witch things, Minikin experiments with the colored powders on the shelf to see if she can make a fairy appear. So far she has not had much success, though she does produce a water nixie, a jester, and a centaur.

The story begins when Minikin braves her mother’s displeasure and goes to school (during the day, when witches should be asleep). She makes friends with Frances, a girl from a large family headed by a kindly grandmother who loves to paint but never has enough time. They become a sort of substitute family for Minikin, supporting her in her troubles though there is not much they can do for her. And soon Minikin’s troubles are multiplying, what with her suspicious mother, the school principal, the head of the PTA, and a hard-boiled detective investigating the missing children.

In the end Minikin’s real mother is released from a spell, and Madame Snickasnee is turned into an armadillo. (And all the stern adults who have been giving Minikin trouble would really like to try a ride on her broom.)

Little Witch 2I first read this silly, lightweight book as a child in its Scholastic edition, with its scribbly 1960’s drawings by Lisl Weil, which shaped my impression of the story. It was not until I read an edition with the original illustrations by Helen Stone that I understood the original tone of the book, which is much more sweet and classic, harking back to books from earlier in the century. Details like the centaur had completely slipped my memory, because they didn’t fit with the overall vibe I had absorbed.  Scholastic had pretty successfully re-packaged it as the kind of winking, knowing book about witches that we see from the 1960’s on, like The Wednesday Witch (who rides on a vaccuum cleaner) and The Worst Witch (who attends witch school).

  Wednesday Witch      Worst Witch

The image that stays with me most, though, from both editions, is the colored powders. What would all the other colored powders, and combinations of them, have done? I would really like a few hours alone in Madame Snickasnee’s kitchen.

Bonfires and Broomsticks (1945)

Two years after the events in The Magic Bedknob, Carey and Charles and Paul return to the little village of Much Fresham for the summer, only to discover that Miss Price really has given up magic. Her workshop has been given over to her wholesome new hobby of canning fruits and vegetables. Even the bed which used to belong to their now-deceased aunt has been sold. And the children had brought the bedknob with them and everything.

But then they discover that Miss Price herself bought that bed at the estate sale. And then they catch her using the bedknob to take the bed for a test-drive. Finally she relents and allows the children one adventure, because they have never yet tried the feature of going into the past.

They end up in the time of Charles II (half a century after the death of Shakespeare, shortly after the end of the Cromwells’ Commonwealth), and encounter a fraud of a necromancer named Emelius who is deeply impressed that they have real magic. Adventures ensue, involving the Great Fire of London, Emelius ending up in 20th century England, Emelius nearly getting burned at the stake back in 17th century England, and finally Emelius and Miss Price falling in love and settling in the past.

Though still fairly derivative (this book most strongly resembles a few chapters in The Ship that Flew, 1939, as well as Nesbit’s works), Bonfires is a more engaging, original book than Bedknob. This is largely because of the characters — they have personality quirks and real human concerns, and we care about what is going to happen to them next. It’s fun to read about the hunt for the half-forgotten bedknob in the tool-drawer and the box of old door handles, and about Miss Price piling the bed for its final journey with things she can’t live without, like her hot water bottle, egg beater, and best tea cloth. And how it falls to Charles as the oldest boy to explain to Emelius how to take a bath and why he really must do it.

I do have sympathy for the publishers — the second book is worth keeping in print, the first is not. But the second book makes no sense without the first. The compromise is the combined volume Bed-Knob and Broomstick, which many children already familiar with the genre will probably quit out of boredom before they get to the good parts.

Switching Places: The Kellyhorns (1942)

Two people look enough alike that one could pass for the other. Can they pass? What happens when people mistake you for someone else? What would you need to know in order to fit yourself into someone else’s life?

Authors have played with this idea for centuries. There are the separated twins in Roman playwright Plautus’s The Two Menaechmuses, Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night, and Dumas’ The Man in the Iron Mask (~1850); the distant relations who look identical in Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (1894); the similar or identical strangers in Dumas’ The Two Dianas (1846, which borrows the real-life case of Martin Guerre), Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper (1881), E. Phillips Oppenheim’s The Great Impersonation (1920), Jane Lewis’s The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941), and Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar (1949); and the device of actually switching bodies in Thomas Anstey Guthrie’s Vice Versa (1882).

Switching places burst onto the scene of children’s books in 1942 with The Kellyhorns by Barbara Cooney. Twin girls are separated in infancy because of the death of their mother, one staying with the father, the other going to an aunt. Because of a family estrangement, the two girls have never met. When they do meet, they switch places in order to facilitate bringing together the father and the aunt, who were sweethearts long ago.

Does this sound familiar? Yes, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the movie The Parent Trap (1961), which was based on the German book Das Doppelte Lottchen (1949, English title Lottie and Lisa), by Erich Kästner. Kästner first proposed his idea in 1942, the year The Kellyhorns was published.

In The Kellyhorns, Pamela is raised by Aunt Ivory, a disappointed spinster whose greatest joy in life is winning the quilting competition at the county fair. Penny is raised by Barnabas Kellyhorn, the girls’ “Puppa.” They live a few towns over from Ivory and Pamela, on a small island in the bay.

Once the two girls have connected, they hatch their plot to bring Ivory and Barnabas together, but first they have to make sure they will each like the other parent. On a visit, they simply swap clothes and redo their hair, and Penny goes home to Aunt Ivory, while Pam stays with Barnabas. Penny has to get used to Pam’s pink-and-white bedroom, her dresses, Aunt Ivory’s rules. Pam has to get used to wearing overalls and climbing a rope ladder to her attic bedroom. Penny is helped by Pam’s best friend, who is in on the secret, and likewise Pam is helped by Penny’s cousin-and-adoptive-brother Barney. Neighbors have to be memorized in a hurry, as well as a map of the town, and each girl has to deal with being better and worse in different school subjects than the other. This book digs a lot of fun out of the hazards of faking an identity. It’s a puzzle why books that use this premise so often don’t do it full justice.

There’s a lot more to The Kellyhorns as well. Aunt Ivory may seem prim, but she is fully capable of pulling a revolver on a bad guy, and before she settles down with Barnabas she fulfills her life-long dream of running away to join the circus. Then there is the bad guy, Rusty Hanna, a disreputable drunk who is cruel to animals and whose role in the story is rather similar to that of Injun Joe in Tom Sawyer. (My daughter confused them for a while, referring to both characters as “Rusty Engine.”) His vendetta against the Kellyhorn family, begun when Aunt Ivory refuses to give back his mistreated cat, leads to a highly dramatic climax. Even after the twins’ ruse is over, their identical looks figure in the resolution of the plot. There are also numerous sub-plots, deftly woven together, including finding out where Aunt Ivory ran away to, Barnabas reconnecting with his long-absent brother, a beloved member of the community framed for a crime committed by Rusty Hanna, and two old people finding love.

Since The Kellyhorns, numerous children’s books have used this switched-identities plot device. The aforementioned Lottie and Lisa and The Horse and His Boy (C.S. Lewis, 1954) use twins separated at birth. Devices such as time travel, in Jessamy (Barbara Sleigh, 1967) and Charlotte Sometimes (Penelope Farmer, 1969), or witchcraft, in Charmed Life (Diana Wynne Jones, 1977), replace one child with another, requiring them to fake an identity with very little to go on. Freaky Friday (Mary Rodgers, 1972) re-uses the concept of Vice Versa, with a daughter and her mother switching bodies. Father’s Arcane Daughter (E.L. Konigsberg, 1976) takes more of the Martin Guerre approach, in which a person resembling a long-missing family member turns up, having first pumped background knowledge from an informant.

Homer Price (1942)

In a previous post I wrote about the Inventive Small-Town Animal-Loving Boy Whose Name Begins with H. The first of these books by nearly a decade was Homer Price (1942, by Robert McCloskey, better known for Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal). Homer Price is clearly the original for this genre — it involves a pet skunk, the clever solving of mechanical or scientific problems, small-town folksiness (McCloskey’s illustrations here evoke Norman Rockwell), and of course a boy named Homer.

But in other ways Homer Price is strangely different from the rest. The style seems stilted if you are expecting the neutral prose of a children’s novel; but it clicks when your read it as someone spinning a yarn. Indeed, several of the stories in the sequel, Centerburg Tales, are narrated by Homer’s grandpa. The stories of both books are essentially tall tales, directly descended from the American oral folk tradition.

And then there is another layer of strangeness to this book. For context, four years earlier the picture-book Andy and the Lion by James Daugherty was published. It is a retelling of the Roman fable Androcles and the Lion, but set in 1930’s small town America. Homer Price takes this idea and runs with it. We are alerted to the deliberate choice of name in the frontispiece, which shows Homer Price with a statue of the Greek poet Homer.

Various stories in Homer Price retell classic tales, such as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the Greek myth of Atalanta. One chapter not only retells The Pied Piper, but has the characters acknowledge the connection. (They also bring up Rip Van Winkle and Odysseus’s sailors being called away by the sirens.) Homer has an uncle Ulysses (the Roman version of Odysseus), an uncle Telemachus (the son of Odysseus), and a grandpa Hercules. The title Centerburg Tales echos Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from the middle ages. McCloskey may or may not have been poking fun at the clutter of literary references in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1933). But it’s clear that he was also deliberately and cheekily layering widely divergent (or perhaps not so divergent?) strains of story-telling tradition.

Knight’s Castle (1956)

Edward Eager wrote seven books about magical doings, all of them modeled after E. Nesbit whom he greatly admired. But where Nesbit is serious or understatedly funny, Eager is straight-up comical. He was a playwright, and it shows in his quick pacing and sharp characterization. Who can resist writing like this?

Katharine was the middle girl, of docile disposition and a comfort to her mother. She knew she was a comfort, and docile, because she’d heard her mother say so. And the others knew she was, too, by now, because ever since that day Katharine would keep boasting about what a comfort she was, and how docile, until Jane declared she would utter a piercing shriek and fall over dead if she heard another word about it. This will give you some idea of what Jane and Katharine were like” (Half Magic, pp. 3-4).

Half Magic is the best known of Eager’s books, and it is indeed excellent. But his very best is arguably Knight’s Castle. While Eager excelled at style, he was weak at plotting, and this book is his best plotted.

The children in Knight’s Castle, a set of four cousins, set up a toy castle and medieval figurines, along with some inherited toy soldiers, to enact the story of Ivanhoe. The bedroom fireplace becomes the court of the wicked Prince John, and a forest is created on the carpet for Robin Hood and his merry men. The magic starts when the oldest of the soldiers comes alive in the hand of one of the children, and then in the middle of the night the children are transported into the world of the castle.

Their well-intentioned interference causes problems for the story-line of Ivanhoe, so they need to return to set things right. But it gets worse: in the daytime the children, inspired by Nesbit’s The Magic City, extend the castle’s world by building a city out of household objects — books and drinking glasses and perfume botttles and bars of soap. These changes become real the next time they enter the world of the castle, and Eager-esque shennigans ensue. Knights and ladies drive around in toy cars, a doll-house rejected by the children in the daytime turns out to contain vengeful giants, and there is a flying saucer that is genuine Wedgewood. In the delightfully loopy climax, there is a sword-in-the-stone moment with a can-opener, resulting in pea soup for all.

Ballet Shoes (1936)

The title of this book can mislead, making one think of sweet old-fashioned books about ordinary girls enjoying ordinary girl activities. But Ballet Shoes is cut from an altogether different cloth.

It concerns three very different orphan girls in London, adopted by an absent-minded paleontologist who disappears and leaves the family in poverty. First their adoptive aunt takes in boarders, and then the girls begin training in dance and theater so that they can bring in money as performers.

Noel Streatfeild knew her stuff, having been a performer herself in childhood and young adulthood, and she sandpapers off any soft, unrealistic glow. What we get is the nuts and bolts of children’s dance and theater training of the time, a tough-minded business that is anything but romantic. We also get striking, sharp-focused portraits of the personalities of the three girls, with all their ambitions and flaws.

The boarders broaden the girls’ world considerably. Among them are two retired spinster university professors, who appear to be, as the euphemism goes, “longtime companions,” and who take the girls’ education upon themselves; and an entrepreneur-turned-car-mechanic who is the saving of the middle girl, Petrova, who has no interest in the stage but has a passion for engines.

This book might not belong on a “best” list for everyone. There is much detail about things like the amount of pay a girl will earn for performing in a particular show, and whether this will be enough to cover the number of yards of material neccessary to make a new dress suitable for auditions. For the right reader, though, these realistic details are part of the draw.

(I spent way too much time dithering about which cover picture to use. I chose this modern one because it’s one of the few that gets the girls’ hair colors right.)

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.)

Twenty and Ten (1952)

Twenty and Ten was republished with minor revisions as The Secret Cave in 1973.

A class of French fifth-graders during the German occupation have been evacuated to the countryside, where a nun runs a school in an old house. The story begins with a stunningly good bit of action: the children are playing make-believe, and this being a Catholic culture and just past Christmas, the flight of Jesus’s family to Egypt is a natural choice. But as soon as they start playing, the children begin to incorporate everyday realities. Mary and Joseph are Displaced Persons. How will they get food? They have no ration cards. And so on.

Then almost immediately, things get real. The teacher calls them into the classroom, where they learn that ten Jewish children need a place to hide. The children agree to take them in and keep this dangerous secret. The stakes get suddenly higher when German soldiers arrive while the teacher is away. Together the children collaborate on a plan: the ten Jewish children hide in a cave, and the twenty Christian children play dumb and refuse to speak to the soldiers. The eventual resolution is both funny and earnest, when the children make fools of the soldiers by claiming that three of them are the Jews: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, as they had been playing in their game.

Many, many children’s books have been written about WWII. Some are moralistic. Some are determined to educate children about history. This one stands out of the pack because Bishop herself was French, and she knew the people and the place she was writing about. There are small, telling details, such as that men from the Normandy region were clean-shaven “like Americans” (and we infer that most Frenchmen were not). Bishop even sneaks in a mention of L’Heure Joyeuse, the children’s library that she herself founded in Paris. Though she moved to the U.S. in the 1930’s and made a career at the New York Public Library, she was accutely aware of conditions in her homeland. As the story unfolds, we learn details such as how precious a single square of chocolate was, and how a fresh orange was even more exciting than chocolate. How even children who were basically safe and healthy during the war never quite got enough to eat. Bishop was a Catholic who was a lifelong advocate of religious cooperation and a vocal opponent of anti-semitism within the Catholic church. The book is earnest, even moral, in tone, but it is not santimonious. Futhermore, the story she tells here is based on a real event. The reader doesn’t need to know this, to sense the slightly-not-quite-what-you-expected quality of authorial honesty.

Bishop wrote many other books, some of which are rather a surprise: the classic but now desperately dated The Five Chinese Brothers (1938); and The Man Who Lost His Head (1942), illustrated by Robert McCloskey of Make Way for Ducklings fame, whose distinctive style doesn’t even belong in the same universe as Twenty and Ten. Twenty and Ten itself was illustrated by William Pene Du Bois (author of The Twenty One Balloons).