The Magician’s Book: Actual Smart Things About C.S. Lewis (and J.R.R. Tolkien)

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I haven’t come across a whole ton of quality writing about C.S. Lewis. Some of it over-focuses on the Christian angle, pro and con, and a lot more of it is kind of fannish, which isn’t a huge problem for me because I’m a fan, but still. Sometimes you want fandom, sometimes you want hard flinty literary analysis.

Now I’m reading Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, which is incredibly interesting not because it ignores the Christian stuff or the fannish stuff — Miller is both a non-Christian and a Fan — but because it leaves all that stuff in, plus all the kinda racist stuff about the Calormenes, and the kinda sexist stuff about Susan, and tries to construct a theory of Narnia that embraces all that messy, problematic stuff and still explains why the books are great.

(Plus Miller reads people like William Morris and Lord Dunsany and tells you what they said, so you don’t have to. Which is great because they’re unbelievably boring.)

I’m not going to rehearse Miller’s arguments here, because they’re complex enough that they don’t compress into blog length very well, but I do want to call out one aspect of the book. I was a Narnia boy as a kid, which hierarchically speaking put me below the Tolkien boys in terms of manliness, which is pretty far down when you consider where the Tolkien boys ranked on the Great Chain of Manliness. What can I say, my young mind had not yet awakened to the joys of Norse philology. But I did read Tolkien. What I didn’t realize then was that Lewis and Tolkien were actually friends. For some reason I’m still amazed by this fact: Lewis and Tolkien, the two founding fathers of modern fantasy, actually knew each other, hung out once a week, sometimes more, drank together and read their work to each other.

The parts about their complicated, bitchy, rivalrous friendship are my favorite thing about The Magician’s Book. They were the original nerd Odd Couple. Lewis was the flamboyant, passionate, hell-bent scribbler, Tolkien was the touchy, meticulous, industrious intellectual. When he first met Tolkien Lewis described him as “a smooth, pale, fluent little chap…. No real harm in him, only needs a smack or so.” Tolkien was the fussy prude. Lewis — though he was as Christian as they come, and spent most of his life living with a woman who was 20 years older than him — had a not-so-secret bondage fetish. “As an Oxford freshman,” Miller writes, “he once got very drunk at a party and loudly offered to pay a shilling a lash to whoever would submit to a whipping at his hands.” Yup, that was college.

Their different personalities came out in their work. Miller calls them the Builder (Tolkien) and the Dreamer (Lewis). Tolkien constructed whole new languages for his characters to speak. Lewis could barely keep his continuity straight from page to page (try reconciling The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with its origin-prequel The Magican’s Nephew — it almost works, but you can’t quite do it). The whole production was thrown together (brilliantly) out of whatever materials Lewis could lay his hands on in the moment. Look, it’s Bacchus! Here’s Father Christmas! Here’s a faun! Here’s a Jesus-Lion! Not that surprising when you realize that he wrote the entire Chronicles of Narnia in a little more than two years.

No wonder Tolkien hated the Narnia books. Really, it’s amazing that the two men could stand each other. Except then you remember that they did have one thing in common: they were jointly engaged in inventing modern fantasy literature, virtually from scratch. Oh right.

OK, that’s enough lit crit. Here’s a cell phone ad of Bruce Lee playing ping-pong with his nunchucks. Somebody write in and tell me how they did this:


[p.s. a reader writes arguing, vehemently, that Lord Dunsany isn’t boring at all, and that more people should read him. so YMMV. I couldn’t get into it, but maybe you can.]