Susan Pevensie: Always a Queen of Narnia?

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!”

Next week:  The Origins of a Story–Shadesisters

[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.

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About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on October 6, 2011, in Authors, Books, Brian Melton, C. S. Lewis, Christianity, Fantasy, J. K. Rowling, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Narnia, Prince Caspian, Social Commentary, Susan Pevensie, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Horse and His Boy, The Last Battle, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Universes and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. Very well said. This is one of the best treatments of this topic I have read. How about beefing it up a little for The Lamp-Post?

    BTW, one of the features of this topic that I find really fascinating is that Narnia has precisely the same ambiguity about “eternal security” that one finds in the New Testament. On the one hand, salvation is described as if it were not the kind of thing that could be lost. “Once a king or queen of Narnia, always a king or queen of Narnia.” On the other hand, we are warned against falling away from salvation as if it could be lost. “My sister Susan . . .” We have our different ways of resolving that tension, and mine is not the point here. But it is a detail about Narnia that I find very impressive that it presents us with exactly the same problem, and exactly in the same way, as the New Testament does. Now, that’s faithfulness!

  2. Michael Covington

    I seem to recall that Lewis was writing the Narnia books for a specific group of children that he knew, and one of them explicitly asked to be written out of it. Is there any truth to this?

  3. “Rowling and Pullman have misrepresented Lewis’s point entirely.” Indeed. Rowling’s comment was a big stretch; Pullman’s Cinderella-upside-down metaphor, one of the most tortured I have ever seen.

  4. It has always bothered me intensely that Susan wasn’t there at the end, specifically because she was “always a queen of Narnia.” I had never heard of Lewis’s quote about not ruling out her entrance by other means. I really like that.

    Great response to Pullman and Rowling as well.

  5. I have always felt strongly about criticism directed toward Lewis about Susan. May be I’ll write a Susan story. Thanks for a great essay!

  6. I honestly thought that Susan’s ‘fall from grace’ (and Narnia), had less to do with sex and more to do with superficiality, materialism, and her losing sight of God and religion. This article has made me consider other reasons though. However I think that Pullman and Rowling are very far off base in their assumptions and analysis. I for one truly believe that C. S. Lewis’s letter to a young fan in 1957 stating that perhaps Susan will rediscover Narnia ( or how to get back there) in here own way as very encouraging. As said before ” Once a King or Queen of Narnia ALWAYS a King and Queen of Narnia”.

  7. It seems to me that Lewis made his ideas clear (through various writing but including the Horse and his Boy) that one’s journey is his or her own, and that our choices will inevitably have their own consequences. I appreciate that he left room for Susan to continue her journey and perhaps find the true heart that Aslan inspired in her. She is meant to always be a queen of Narnia, and just as a child brought up with the truth of God’s love, will never depart from it forever. I have always had faith that she would turn back to Aslan and the Emporer over the Sea in the fullness of her journey. Perhaps in the loss of her family, or perhaps in eventually becoming a mother, she would have realized that true love, like that of Aslan, means more than the superficial infatuations and trappings of the teenaged years. It is not the thrill of new lipstick at a party, it is sometimes sacrifice, sometimes pain, and always a soul deep full heart of commitment, integrity, and forgiveness. She was there once, she saw that side once, she can find it again. She just needs to remember who she was, a queen of Narnia. I hope those in control of Lewis’ rights let someone write the end to her story someday, and I hope they choose someone who understood the heart of his story.

  8. Hi Brian

    I see your point about choosing something possibly more substantive than things that may seem superficial. I think, however, that Lewis (and you) have basically decided what “a sufficient end in and of itself” is, rather than recognising that each individual is free to determine the meaning and purpose of their life. Polly and Lucy’s comments are quite catty and do not give me the feeling that they tried to understand Susan at all, but are just judging her without scratching below the surface, and i think this is what has bothered Rowling and Pullman, both of who’s writing i find less judgemental than Lewis, even though i do enjoy the Chronicles. Anyways, let me know what you think.

    • Sorry, “whose” not “who’s”! I need coffee…….

      • Wazza,

        Thanks for commenting! I’m glad to offer you what I can. 🙂

        Actually, I think you are spot on, though what you take for a mistake, I (and I presume Lewis) would think is a simple truth: Human beings aren’t completely free to determine their own meaning and purpose in life. As a Christian, I do believe in free will, but I also believe that there is a higher standard (a “Higher Will”, if you will) than my own. I don’t believe that this is a standard that I set. Instead, I believe it is something that we as human beings seek out and attempt to recognize. The closer we get to it, the more we can say our chosen course is “good.” The farther away from it we get, the more we will call it “bad.” In the case of Susan, it seems that, according to the story, she has veered away from the good and into the bad not, as I argued in the article, by growing up or by enjoying her own beauty, but by idolizing both, even to the point that she is now willing to lie about her time in Narnia. In terms of judgment, if that is true, we will all be held accountable to a much higher authority that will apply the standard equally.

        As for the actual state of her soul, of course, you and I could speculate endlessly. “What if Susan isn’t really the way Polly (and I think it was Jill, not Lucy) describes?” “What if they are just jealous and rude?” The problem with that line of speculation, as fun as it is at times, is that it goes nowhere. Lewis was their creator, and we only have what he’s given us to work with–and that seems to point to the idea that Susan has become rather self-absorbed and is no longer willing to be a part of the story. We might not like that he created her that way, but she isn’t a “real” person we can track down and fact check.

        If you don’t mind me asking, I did notice something that seemed rather odd: You mention that you don’t prefer “judgmental” writing, and imply that is the problem you have with Lewis’s treatment of Susan. At the same time, you are making some very clear judgments of your own–as are Rowling and Pullman, neither of whom pull punches–regarding Lewis, Polly, and Jill that are pretty potent and at least somewhat negative. You seem to be at least implying that you know a better way for the situation to be handled, inside and outside the narrative, and in so doing you deny their ability to self-realize, in at least this instance. How does that balance out?

        Thanks again for your thoughtful comments and fairly worded rejoinder.

    • To join what Brian said, I think we can trust that if the girls were being catty about Susan, one of the other characters would have called them on it so that the truth about Susan would be heard. Instead, all of them are sad about Susan and her state of life. Lewis was a truth teller. He always wrote in such a way that you could trust that the characters would speak, eventually, truth about each other. It is one of the things I appreciate in Lewis and hope that I am doing with my stories. Susan is lost at the end of the Last Battle, but not damned, if you will allow that language. That is why she is not on the train in that book. If she had died, she would not then be able to change her ways. I hope this makes sense. I hope I have not offended.

  9. Rebecca Clark

    My biggest problem was really the execution of Susan’s fall form grace rather than the message behind it. I just think it’s a really horrible way to treat a beloved main character by having their fall from grace completely off page and then only attributing a few paragraphs as to why there now Evil-McEvil Face. As well, then having the reason being pretty lame considering by the description we’re given Susan’s just going through a phase of her life most people do go through and that most people grow out of.
    Honestly I just think Lewis could have had Susan do something slightly less general and more dramatic than she’s putting on lipstick and likes getting invited to parties (which most people do) as the reason she’s been kicked out of heaven and now has to live with the death of all her friends and family. I have to say though i really wish he had written a book about Susan’s return to grace, I think that would have been pretty interesting.

    • Thanks for your comment. 🙂 I understand what you mean, though I think the lack of drama was part of Lewis’s point. Often, it isn’t the big, dramatic things that lead to our downfall–it’s the little, simple things. It’s the things that “don’t matter.” But one little thing leads to another little thing, until, in the end, looking back, we don’t even recognize who we are or where we’ve come from. I think that’s what happened to Susan, and, in a very real way, by reminding us of it, Lewis does us more good than being dramatic.

      And I wouldn’t say that she had been “kicked out of heaven.” Aslan didn’t do anything to her or even deny her entry. In the story, she chose lipstick over heaven. It was her decision, following on along after all the others, that led her to disbelieve in Narnia, not Aslan’s at all. So, in a very real sense, Aslan just let her live with the consequences of her own decisions.

      I do agree–a story bringing Susan back to Narnia would be great. But Lewis left that story for us to write. 🙂

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