Susan Pevensie: Always a Queen of Narnia?

This month LHP is highlighting some of our readers’ favorite previous posts from our authors.  We hope you enjoy them!

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Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a picture of Susan that ISN’T Anna Popplewell?

When we think of The Chronicles of Narnia, Susan is not, perhaps, the first character that comes to mind.  She is robust and relatively well developed, but she also seems to be more of a supporting character.  After all, it is Lucy who leads the children into Narnia and seems to form the strongest bond with Aslan.  Edmund is the traitor redeemed, and Peter becomes the High King.  Susan’s most unique aspect is also one of the most controversial points of The Chronicles:  She is the only one of the four Pevensie children to fall away and not make it into Aslan’s country at the end of The Last Battle.  This has upset a couple of generations of readers now, and it has led to charges of sexism against her creator, C. S. Lewis.  For many people, Susan’s fall is one of the worst points of the books; it bothers them enough that they can’t let it go.  Fortunately, there is much more to Susan and her situation than what her critics imply.

As early as Prince Caspian, we see hints of something happening to Su.  When Lucy sees Aslan, Susan knows in her heart of hearts that she is telling the truth.  She refuses to admit it, even to herself, and later feels horribly guilty about it.  At the end of the book, Susan and Peter are returned to our world where they are expected to grow up and apply all of the lessons learned in Narnia.  By the time we meet them again in The Last Battle, their paths have diverged dramatically.

When the group meets inside the stable, in Aslan’s country, Susan is notably absent.  When that fact is brought up, Susan is described as “no longer a friend of Narnia.”  Jill notes that she pays attention to “nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.  She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”  Su has even gone so far as to deny Narnia’s very existence:  “Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.”  As such, she isn’t on the train when the wreck occurs, and she isn’t granted entrance into Aslan’s country at that point. [1]

This subplot has provoked (and continues to provoke) howls of outrage.  J. K. Rowling made the comment to Time magazine that “There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that.” [2]  Phillip Pullman, who constructed an atheistic fantasy series that has been described as sort of the “anti-Narnia,” stated that,

In other words, Susan, like Cinderella, is undergoing a transition from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn’t approve of that. He didn’t like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up. Susan, who did want to grow up, and who might have been the most interesting character in the whole cycle if she’d been allowed to, is a Cinderella in a story where the Ugly Sisters win.[3]

I would argue that Rowling and Pullman have misrepresented Lewis’s point entirely.  In fact, they may well have done so for the simple reason that they “got” it all too well.  Lewis is making a comment so pointed that it has made millions of people uncomfortable, which is something we aren’t used to seeing in Narnia.  It seems to come out of the proverbial blue, and people simply react to it with hostility rather than really trying to understand it. [4]

What the book is trying to say is that sex and the emergence of femininity aren’t sufficient ends in and of themselves.  Su isn’t kept out of Narnia because she discovered sex, she is kept out because she idolized it to the point that all other things–including Aslan and Narnia itself–were placed in subjection to it.  Growing up became not simply a natural process of maturation, but rather a stylized, exclusive state of being that precluded everything else.  Worse, the idealized state of anything has no existence in reality. [5]  Susan was chasing moonshine, when the real world around her could offer her much more. Polly noted this when she remarked,

“Grown-up indeed,” said the Lady Polly.  “I wish she would grow up!  She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste the rest of her life trying to stay that age.  Her whole idea is to race to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”  [6]

Susan has not, in fact, grown up at all.  What she has done is take on an empty obsession, a false idealization of what being “grown-up” means, and that keeps her from experiencing life as a whole.  That obsession has led her away from Narnia, and not “lipstick” at all.  Lewis’s critics are mistaking a symptom for the disease.

None of this involves a denigration of women or  real, meaningful sex.  In fact, it is a very positive portrayal of a  broader, deeper form of femininity where the value of one’s soul isn’t determined by one’s social circle or sex appeal.  Those things have their places, but cannot be ends in and of themselves.

This is made doubly clear in Lewis’s depiction of Susan in The Horse and His Boy.  While far from perfect, she is shown to be completely confident in her own beauty and sexuality.  During the story, she is even considering marriage–which obviously implies an approval of sex.  So, it is clear that the Susan we see referenced in The Last Battle isn’t an inevitability; she could and in fact had taken another, better path before.

Very well, if I must. Not that she isn’t pretty cute…

Of course, much of that level of nuance is obviously lost on Lewis’s critics.  They simply see a criticism of modern conceptions of sex and maturity.  They assume that Lewis’s criticism must fit into a certain sort of mold and, if it doesn’t, they are determined to forcibly conform it to their strawman assumptions.

I think that is a normal, human reaction, by the way.  We all want to be told that “We’re OK.”  We all want to know that our wants, our desires are indeed good, right, and normal.   What Lewis is getting at is a philosophy that is directly antagonistic to modern definitions of feminism, especially its glorification of sex and female sexuality as an ultimate arbiter of meaning.  When that point is challenged, especially in a way that implies that there is something more, something greater, the reactions are naturally instinctual and visceral.  We don’t want to understand the details because, perhaps, the details may just prove us wrong. I can’t say I would necessarily respond differently were the tables turned on me– “There but for the grace of God go I!”

One final point:  Most of Lewis’s critics assign a finality to Susan’s position that simply isn’t justified.  Susan isn’t turned away at the door of the stable–she simply isn’t there when it was closed on Narnia.   There are other doors into Aslan’s country from many other worlds, including our own.  Susan did not die in the train wreck that sent the others into Aslan’s country.   As Lewis noted, “there is still plenty of time for her to mend, and perhaps she will get into Aslan’s country in the end–in her own way.” [7]

What’s more, since Lewis did not consider Narnia to be his own private domain–he regularly encouraged his younger correspondents to write Narnia stories of their own–perhaps the final word has yet to be written on Susan.  While I doubt the Lewis estate would tolerate the publication of such a story these days, perhaps someone who understands what really happened to Susan should write it nonetheless.  Lewis left the door open to Susan.  It is now up to our own imaginations–not his–to take her through it.

And so, “Further up and further in!”

 

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle, (New York:  Harper-trophy, 2004), 154.
[2] http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1083935,00.html
[3] http://www.crlamppost.org/darkside.htm
[4] Of course, applying Pullman’s own method to his own statements, I might ask why he himself is so biased against “ugly” women that he apparently objects to them “winning” on occasion.  In fact, I am quite disturbed by his use of bigoted visual stereotypes regarding facial structure and arbitrary gravitational measurement, when he should be celebrating the empowerment of a traditionally downtrodden and forgotten underclass.
[5] To illustrate this tendency, just think of Christmas Day (or some other event that you hold dear).  The time we are in never seems to be “as real” or “as perfect” as times past. Worse, our idealized memory often distracts us from our enjoyment of a perfectly good present.
[6] Lewis, The Last Battle, 2004.
[7]  Letter to Martin, 22 January 1957, Letters to Children, (New York:  Touchstone, 1995), 67.

http://lanternhollow.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/newrule5.gif?w=239&h=27&h=27

 

Review: Shadowlands

I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about the upcoming movie about the friendship between C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.  Universally my correspondents are hoping that it will “do justice” to the real men and their story.  Every indication is that it will be as loosely “based” on the real people as the earlier movie Shadowlands, about the romance between Lewis and Joy Davidman, was–which is to say, very, very loosely.  For example, Tolkien will apparently have trouble finishing LOTR not because of his perfectionism but because of PTSD unresolved from WWI with accompanying “psychotic dreams.”  (The film will be set in 1941.)  Nonsense, balderdash, fishfuzz, and horsefeathers!  To help with realistic expectations, I resurrect my old review of Shadowlands.

The Chronicler of Middle Earth

The Chronicler of Middle Earth

LIGHT ON SHADOWLANDS

 

This review was originally published in The Lamp-Post 29:2 (Sum. 2005, pub. June, 2007): 18-20.

One of the most significant movies of 1993 was “Shadowlands,” the story of the marriage of C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman. It is a wholesome family movie and a rich experience, with excellent performances by Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger as “Jack” Lewis and Joy. Any new interest it stirs in Lewis and his writings will be all to the good; but viewers should remember that they are watching, not history, but historical drama. They are not the same thing, and in this movie especially it is important to be aware of the difference.

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis

Historical drama always distorts history in the interest of simplicity and theme. Characters are conflated and time is compressed (“Turning the accomplishment of years / Into an hourglass,” as Shakespeare put it) to make the presentation accessible to the audience. This is unavoidable and is to be expected as part of the genre. In “Shadowlands,” for example, Douglas Gresham’s brother David disappears altogether, and events that took place over eight years are compressed into what appears to be only one or two, as the ten-year-old Douglas who meets Lewis at the beginning appears to be the same age at the time of his mother’s death instead of being a young man in his teens. None of this should bother us. The real problem comes in the simplifications of the story for the sake of the movie’s theme, for they conspire to create a serious distortion of the man that C. S. Lewis actually was.

“Shadowlands” is the story of a stuffy, self-assured, emotionally sheltered ivory-tower British intellectual who is “humanized” by his relationship with the brash young American divorcee who storms into his life. It begins with Lewis lecturing church ladies groups on the meaning of pain, “God’s megaphone” to reach a deaf world, and ends with a chastened man who “no longer has any answers” after experiencing the pain of loss himself. Some reviewers I have read show no knowledge that the movie depicts people who actually lived. So far as that portrait of Lewis goes, they are ironically right.

Lewis lecturing to the RAF in WWII.

Lewis lecturing to the RAF in WWII.

This false impression of Lewis is created, not merely by simplifications, but by blatant historical inaccuracies as well. The ivory tower in which the early Lewis is sheltered is created partly by omission. We never see the avid hiker who enjoyed nature with gusto (a figure prominent in Lewis’s diary) until after the marriage. Joy accuses Lewis of being surrounded by intellectual inferiors so that he “never loses” the debates he relishes. Yet the friends who were his intellectual peers—people like J. R. R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, Dorothy L. Sayers—are conspicuous by their absence in the film. Lewis did not always see eye to eye with these friends (who were much more important parts of his life than the colleagues portrayed). His long friendship with the anthroposophist Barfield was jokingly referred to by them as “the great war.” But there are plain falsehoods as well as omissions. When the movie-Lewis takes Joy to see the Mayday celebration at the Magdalen Tower, he admits to her that he had never been before; he just never saw the point. But the real Lewis had been—on May 1, 1926, according to his diary—and apparently enjoyed it.

The most serious distortion of history comes at the end of the film, when a chastened Lewis seems to repudiate faith in general and the now seemingly glib pronouncements of The Problem of Pain in particular, saying that he no longer has answers—only life. It is as if the scriptwriters had read only the first half of A Grief Observed, which records Lewis’s real struggles in accepting Joy’s death from cancer, and not finished the book. Some distortion of history is inevitable in the transition from the real world to the stage or screen, but this distortion is inexcusable, for it reverses the real meaning of everything that happened.

Lewis in happy times.

Lewis in happy times.

A Grief Observed ends not with the repudiation of The Problem of Pain but with a reaffirmation of its content that adds to it the depth of a faith that has now been severely tested. Here’s how the book ends: “She said, not to me but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She smiled, but not at me. Poi si tornio all’ eternal fonatana (‘So she turned to the eternal fountain’).” The last words are a quotation from Dante’s Paradiso, the moment when Beatrice turns from the task of helping Dante to the vision of God back to re-absorption in the contemplation of that vision herself. Such was Lewis’s final conclusion about the meaning of his wife’s death. Joy’s last words were, “I am at peace with God.” The real Lewis died that way too, on the day President Kennedy was shot.

I am glad that I have seen “Shadowlands,” and I recommend that you see it too. It contains some of the truth about the Lewises’ relationship; it wonderfully helps us to visualize the setting and the culture in context of which these things occurred; and the portrait of Lewis’s brother, Warren, is delightfully true to life, judging from Warren’s own published journals. But we must see it, not as reality, but as an often distorted interpretation of reality.

CSLComfortableLife
For the reality, the following are indispensable. Primary sources: C. S. Kilby, ed., Brothers and Friends: The Diaries of Major Warren H. Lewis (Ballantine, 1982); C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Macmillan, 1940—source of the early lectures in the movie); C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (Seabury, 1961); Warren H. Lewis, ed., The Letters of C. S. Lewis (Harcourt Brace, 1966); Douglas Gresham, Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis (MacMillan, 1988); and Walter Hooper, ed., All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis, 1922-27 (Harcourt Brace, 1991). Secondary sources: Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Biography (Harcourt Brace, 1974); George Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis (Crossway, 1994)—but not A. N. Wilson’s biography, exploded as tendentious fiction by eyewitness Douglas Gresham.
Let us hope that the movie-renting public will be intrigued enough to discover the real Lewis, who, in Aslan’s Country now as he did in life before, probably finds all this attention a source of great amusement.

LWWCover

Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of NE Georgia.  For more of his work on Lewis and Tolkien, order his book Mere Humanity: Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman, 2006) or check out his works at Lantern Hollow Press.

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GOD: Concrete or Abstract?

The "Trinity Knot": Three in One

The “Trinity Knot”: Three in One

C. S. Lewis wants to combat the modern tendency to associate transcendent being with abstraction so badly that he boldly calls God “concrete.” If God is a spirit, this word cannot be meant literally in its normal meaning of tangible. But Lewis wants us to think of God as something more solid than physical reality, as something at the opposite pole from nebulous. He conveys this idea effectively in his portrait of heaven in The Great Divorce, where the grass pierces the feet of the spirits from the gray town. So if we take “concrete” metaphorically, it is one of Lewis’s more brilliant descriptions of God as the One who is ultimately real. There is nothing nebulous about Him; He has a definite what-ness. “He is ‘absolute being’—or rather the Absolute Being—in the sense that He alone exists in His own right. But there are things which God is not. In that sense He has a determinate character. Thus He is righteous, not a-moral; creative, not inert” (Miracles 90).  He is a Trinity, not a monad. One of the clearest statements is this one:

Very definitely one thing and not another!

Very definitely one thing and not another!

“God is basic Fact or Actuality, the source of all other facthood. At all costs therefore He must not be thought of as a featureless generality. If He exists at all, He is the most concrete thing there is, the most individual, ‘organized and minutely articulated.’ He is unspeakable not be being indefinite but by being too definite for the unavoidable vagueness of language” (Miracles 93).

Not an abstraction.

Not an abstraction.

To combine the solidity of a Being who exists necessarily and eternally and is the Source of all other existence with the definiteness of a God who is personal and holy and active taxes our imaginations and our understanding; but this is the God the Bible presents to us. This God has all the absoluteness a philosopher could desire, but He is not the god of the philosophers but of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the God of creation and Sinai, of the Cross and the Resurrection. His is what He is, and we must adjust to that uncompromising Reality. “And as Jill gazed at [Aslan’s] motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience” (The Silver Chair 20).

Aslan

Aslan

Not absolute or personal, not infinite or individual, not transcendent or dynamic: this is not the god we might have imagined but the unconditioned Reality that just is, and who is serenely and supremely both.

Donald T. Williams is R. A. Forrest Scholar at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of NE Georgia.  For more of his writings, check out the Lantern Hollow e-store!

http://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/

InklingsofReality5c

J. S. Bach rides through L’Enfant Plaza

I originally posted J. S. Bach rides through L’Enfant Plaza in March 2013, after riding twice through L’Enfant Plaza in one weekend, and for the occasion of J. S. Bach’s birthday. A cool subsequent discovery: The Washington Post article I referenced, “Pearls Before Breakfast,” inspired Son of Laughter‘s song “The Fiddler.”

This weekend I rode through L’Enfant Plaza.

There is nothing especially remarkable about riding through L’Enfant Plaza; many thousands of people did the same this weekend.  Not so many, though, had the music of Johann Sebastian Bach playing in their earbuds.  Maybe only one had Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita in D minor for solo violin playing in his earbuds. At least one did.

I’ve associated L’Enfant Plaza with Bach’s Chaconne ever since reading this fascinating article a few years ago. The article tells the story of how one morning, Joshua Bell played a free forty-three minute concert in L’Enfant Plaza, and hardly anyone noticed. One of the pieces Bell played in his concert to the deaf in L’Enfant Plaza was Bach’s Chaconne.

Much could be said about the article; it is worth a good read and not a little thought. What’s always fascinated me most about it, though, is this quote from Johannes Brahms about Bach’s Chaconne:

On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.

I won’t linger over Brahms’s first sentence, except to note hearty agreement. It’s the second sentence that interests me most here. For Bach did, after all, create the Chaconne – and creating it did not drive him out of his mind.

monument-to-johann-sebastian-bach-outside-st-thomas-church-leipzig-germanyYou may credit a number of things for keeping Bach’s boat from tipping over as he composed pieces of such magnificence that composing them would have overthrown Brahms. For example, Bach’s siring twenty kids gave the man’s domestic life plenty of heft, enough heft to provide a good ballast for him as he worked on the Chaconne – next to the demands of his wife and kids, the Chaconne probably seemed to Bach rather a light thing. Or you may look at the astonishing diversity of Bach’s genius – he was a brilliant composer, a formidable organist, and an expert in organ-building, among many other things – as something that kept him balanced and sane.

I attribute Bach’s sanity, though, to a few letters he wrote on most of his transcriptions. Bach began most of these with “J.J.” – Jesu, Juva (“Jesus, help”), or “I.N.J” (In Nomine Jesu).  He ended them with “S.D.G.” (Soli Deo Gloria – “to God alone the glory”). He opened with invocations, closed with dedications. Here the contrast between Bach’s thoughts and Brahms’s – “if I imagined that I could have created” – is as great as the contrast between Chesterton’s poet, who wants to get his head into the heavens, and Chesterton’s logician, who wants to get the heavens into his head. The one gets a good view; the other gets a bad headache. A sanity-killing headache.

Nothing kills creativity, or sanity in the midst of great creative exertion, like a creator’s interest in his own identity. A creator may create worlds – whole worlds of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings, for a small instrument, on one stave – but only so long as he is not busy creating himself, and not a moment longer. Here is the difference, not just between Brahms and Bach, or between Chesterton’s logician and Chesterton’s poet, but between the Serpent who ever provokes us to make names for ourselves, and the eternal Word of God, who rests wholly in the identity given Him by His Father, even as He creates and then renews the world.

Congratulations Erik and Melissa Marsh!!

Greetings all,

Today is a special and important day.  As this post goes up, two of our own will become one:  Erik Marsh  and Melissa Rogers will simplify things for us and become Erik and Melissa Marsh!

The pair of them are, individually, two of the most engaging, intelligent, and caring people I know.  Together, they not only fit better than just about any other couple I know, but I’m sure they will somehow transcend even their previous standard of awesomeness.  I’m sure they will only continue to grow in their love for each other and the Lord Himself.  I pray the future holds on the best for them!

Congratulations, Erik and Melissa Marsh!