The Magician’s Book

Status report: I’ve very tired. I drafted my abstract, and now I’m working on writing my introduction. I’m also in the middle of revising the first chapter. I’m doing quite a lot of reading, making sure I have all the background information I need. Mostly about the Great Exhibition of 1851 and Victorian freak shows. The freak shows are important because the people who were displayed were considered outside contemporary categories, and that’s what I’m writing about in the literature of the time as well. I’m writing about the other, the “monster” as socially defined. After all, my dissertation is called The Monster in the Mirror. But the information about freak shows is interesting as well (and yes, that is the term academics use, the official term), because when Mary finds Justine and Catherine, they’re working in a circus sideshow. Catherine is the Cat Girl, and Justine is the Giantess. The books I’m reading have reproductions of the sorts of pamphlets that were used at the time, and it’s good to get a sense for the language. And I’m tired, and I haven’t posted for two days, I know. They’ve just been those sorts of days.

Here, by the way, is Dissertation Dora:

I still haven’t had time to get my hair cut, and it’s long enough now that I can just knot it at the back of my neck, and it stays. But I thought I’d better include a picture in which I look at least slightly less severe:

But today I want to write about something other than my dissertation, although it is in a way related to it.

When I was writing my Folkroots column on Narnia, I didn’t have a chance to finish Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book. So I’m reading it now, slowly, before I go to sleep each night. And it’s wonderful. Just as examples, I’m going to quote several passages I particularly liked.

“Narnia is a place so thrilling that you can finally stop imagining you’re somewhere better. It is the place where adventures are transformed from something you read about in books to something you actually get to do.”

That’s where you want to go, isn’t it? The place where you don’t wish you were somewhere else? Honestly, I think that most places I’ve been in my life, I wished I were elsewhere. There were only a few place where I thought, yes, this is it.

“‘Adventure,’ then, is what might otherwise be called a hardship if it were attempted in a different spirit. Turning a difficult task or a perilous journey into an adventure is largely a matter of telling yourself the right story about it, which is one thing that Lewis’s child characters have learned from reading ‘the right books.’ This is surely one of the oldest tasks that stories are called upon to perform.”

I think that’s absolutely true. We tell ourselves stories about the world, and the stories we tell create a large part, although not all, of our reality. But reality is in large part how we perceive it. So we need to tell the right kinds of stories.

“The lives Lewis and Tolkien led might appear sheltered at first glance, but in this respect they endured more than almost anyone in my own circle ever will; middle-class American intellectuals in recent years have seldom gone to war. Tolkien, in a preface to The Lord of the Rings, wrote that by 1918, when he turned twenty-six, all but one of his closest friends had been killed.”

I confess – I had thought of Lewis’ and Tolkien’s lives as relatively sheltered. And yet they weren’t, were they? Miller points out that at the time Lewis was describing those feasts in Narnia, food was rationed. She quotes from letters Lewis wrote to friends in America, fervently thanking them for sending food.

“Lewis dreaded war (especially as his brother became a career officer in the Royal Army Service Corps and was called to active service during World War II), but the literature he studied showed it to be a continuing fact of human existence. He firmly believed that sometimes war was necessary. Religion explains why – sometimes we must be willing to sacrifice ourselves for a greater good – but stories show us how.”

And we’re back to stories again. But stories do teach us how to deal with hardship and pain. That’s how we learn, from stories. Which is why stories have been so important throughout human history.

“People read criticism of work they already know well because they hope to expand their understanding, perhaps even to relive the experience through someone else. Great critics show us new dimensions of a book or a film, but they also articulate what it feels like to encounter the work, a sensation may of us can’t adequately capture on our own.”

I think that based on that criteria, Miller is a great critic. She’s showing me so much about the Narnia books that I either didn’t know or knew and didn’t particularly think about. She’s putting things in context.

“If literary writing has any distinguishing characteristics, it’s that the more you look at it the more you see, and the more you see the more you want to go on looking. It invites a plurality of interpretations.”

Yes, I believe this. And it’s the sort of literature I try to write, despite the fact that I write fantasy. There have been times when I’ve been in places where there was very little to read. And in those places I ended up reading books like Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers or John Grisham’s The Partner (which I have to admit I skimmed). I remember feeling, after I’d read them, as though I’d seen a slick, sophisticated performance. I never wanted to read the books again. I was left with a sense of deep disappointment and wasted time. The books hadn’t given me anything. They hadn’t left anything with me.

What does this have to do with my dissertation? In my last post, I quoted from some academic writing. Miller’s writing is nothing like that. It’s clear, smart, informative. It speaks to everyone, not to a small group that has specifically been educated to read it. And that’s the sort of writing I want to do. I want to be able to write as clearly as she does, to be as insightful about literature.

I’m working on my dissertation, and it’s somewhere between Miller and the academic writing I quoted. But what I want to do after it’s done is write in a way that everyone will be able to read and understand.

I’m seriously thinking of writing Miller fan mail.

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2 Responses to The Magician’s Book

  1. I haven’t read Miller’s book. It sounds good.

    On leading sheltered lives: Tolkien fought through the Battle of the Somme, including the intense assaults on Theipval Ridge and Schwaben Redoubt. The battle scenes in the Lord of the Rings were, if anything, less horrific than what he had witnessed, enough “unsheltering” for many lifetimes. He then spent over a year in military hospitals, recovering from trench fever. Lewis also fought at the Somme, a bit later.

  2. Yes, and I thought of them as having fairly comfortable, hobbit-like existences. I think they were nostalgic for those comfortable things precisely because they knew what it was like to go without them . . .

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