Susan Pevensie: Always a Queen of Narnia?
Posted by Brian
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. 
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.”  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.
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. 
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.  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.” 
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.
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.” 
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
 C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle, (New York: Harper-trophy, 2004), 154.
 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.
 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.
 Lewis, The Last Battle, 2004.
 Letter to Martin, 22 January 1957, Letters to Children, (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 67.
About BrianI 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 C. S. Lewis, Chronicles of Narnia, J. K. Rowling, Narnia, Philip Pullman, Susan Pevensie. Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.