One of the lesser fronts in the modern culture wars features a vicious if bizarre struggle over the soul of children’s fantasy literature, now become a zero-sum contest between opposing theologies. If you like The Chronicles of Narnia, in which C.S. Lewis’s child characters serve a Christ-figure (and later go to heaven), you’re supposed to be repulsed by the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, that militant atheist. Likewise, Golden Compass fans should consider the entire Narnia series to be what Pullman called it, “nauseating drivel.” The fact that millions of readers like both series, even the moral vision in both series, is grandly ignored.
There are Christians who like Pullman’s books and there are secular critics who love Narnia, though they are heard from even less. One of the most thoughtful of the latter is Salon.com writer Laura Miller, whose beautifully written The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, explores the extraordinary literary qualities of Lewis’s creation. Miller was entranced by Narnia as a child, felt betrayed by its Christian themes as an irreligious teen, and was drawn back as an adult by a first (reading) love so powerful that almost all can and must be forgiven. She, and the other skeptical Narnia aficionados she interviews—Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Franzen among them—haven’t much use for The Last Battle, the overtly Christian concluding volume, precisely because the sort of perfection a heavenly ending requires necessarily destroys the very story-ness, the wonder and adventure, of the other books. Miller makes an eloquent case for Narnia as imaginative literature at its best. “A long time ago, I opened a book, and this is what I found inside: a whole new world. This world is enormous, yet it all fits inside a book. It goes on forever and ever. At nine I thought I must go to Narnia or die. It would be a long time before I understood that I was already there.”