Tag Archives: narnia

Lev Grossman — they asked him anything

Friend of the blog Lev Grossman did an AMA on reddit tonight about his novels The Magicians and The Magician King.  (I wrote about The Magicians here.)  Lots of good material but I especially liked this from Lev on Narnia:

You know how you — by which I mean me — love your parents, but you’re also kind of permanently angry at them, all the time? That’s how I feel about the Narnia books. I really do love them. I’ve tried to make my daughter read them about 100 times. But I feel so bitter about them too — about what they did and didn’t prepare me for in life.

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Reading: The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

It’s out! And America’s 67th favorite book on Amazon at this writing, which means it surely doesn’t need the tiny puff of publicity this blog can give it.  But here are my thoughts, anyway, on what Lev’s made.

  • It’s great!
  • It’s very much a fantasy novel about fantasy novels, or maybe novels more generally and how it ruins your life to take them too seriously.  Much is made of the analogy between straining to imbue things in the world with “meaning” and straining to move a marble with the power of your mind.
  • In this connection, note that the book is in one sense about a bunch of magicians, but in another sense about a book-within-the-book called The Magicians.  This makes me want to italicize the title doubly, but I don’t know how.
  • Lev’s last book, Codex, was also a kind of literary re-envisioning of the conventions of a usually non-literary genre; in that case, the Da Vinci-style thriller with little nuggets of erudition stuck in it.  But Codex sort of looks down on its genre from above with suspicion, while The Magicians views its genre with affection, even self-consciously excessive affection, and from within.  That works much better.
  • People are going to say it’s “grown-up Harry Potter” but the “grown-up Narnia” aspect is much more important.  Lev is really interested in this moment at which you’re starting to not be a kid anymore, and you have to decide whether to go native in Narnia, or to shut yourself off from Narnia, until you start to forget there was a Narnia — the Susan Pevensie option.
  • Lev’s brother Austin, whose novel I wrote about in this blog’s first post, is also really interested in Susan Pevensie; a whole section of his one-man show “The Genius” is done in her voice.  Am I trying to say that growing up precocious in an academic household in Lexington, MA, and going on to nestle in privilege and pride at Harvard, is something like spending your childhood in a magical realm whose charms adult life can’t match, and even seems, at times, to mock?  No.  I’m saying that Allen Grossman is a warlock and all his kids have logged serious time in dimensions unknown to us.
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Grossman on Pullman on Lewis

Lev Grossman interviewed Philip Pullman for Time, and some of the outtakes made it into Lev’s blog. I thought His Dark Materials was superb on the axis of science-fictional inventiveness, but in the end didn’t function well as a series of novels, especially in the second and third books. It’s natural to set up Pullman’s rather anti-clerical series about British teens falling through to another universe as a kind of Bizarro Narnia, and it seems that Pullman himself sees his work this way: about Narnia, he tells Lev:

I think you’d come away thinking that the highest Christian virtue is martial valor. Courage in battle. You’d also come away believing that a lot of other things are part of the Christian message. Such as the disparagement of women. Such as a suspicion and hatred of people with dark skin who smell of garlic.

You’d also come away believing that the greatest task of a Christian would be to get out of this world, get out of this earth, as quickly as possible and go to the next one. Because what Lewis does with the children in that story is to take them through all these adventures, they see wonderful things, and they learn great truths, and so on, and then he kills them. Instead of letting them go free, as I think would be the moral thing to do, the Christian thing to do, to use these truths they’ve learned and these strengths they’ve gained to make the world a better place. To do good! But he takes them away. Doesn’t allow them to do that! Lucky children, you’re dead! You can relax now!

I read the Narnia books as a kid, not knowing much about Christianity and certainly not knowing the book was supposed to be an allegory. To me all the business about the “old magic” bringing Aslan back to life seemed like a cheap trick to get the author out of an impossible situation. So I’m not qualified to say what lessons about Christianity one is meant to draw from the books. But I can say that I certainly don’t remember martial valor being rated as the chief virtue — rather, you were supposed to be the kind and loving person that Lucy and Peter were, and Susan and Edmund weren’t, and courage in battle was supposed to follow from this.

But I might not be the ideal judge, since my favorite of the Narnia books was the trippy prequel The Magician’s Nephew, which is a bit like having The Silmarillion as your favorite Lord of the Rings book. (I really sincerely hope someone reading this is nerdy enough to have The Silmarillion as their favorite, and valiant enough to cop to it in comments.)

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