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.

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

 

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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 July 25, 2014, 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. 10 Comments.

  1. Really it is a mercy that she wasn’t on the train! If she had been, then she would have been judged as she is and Aslan/Christ knew she wasn’t ready to be judged. It is a mercy when we don’t see the face of God every time we kneel to pray. If we did, we would not be able to bear it.

    • Good point. It’s interesting how we associate mercy with pleasure and presume that pain has to be its opposite. I know from personal experience that sometimes the greatest mercies come through pain. The pain itself (and the threat of pain) keeps us from seeing it, though.

  2. Best analysis of Susan I’ve seen. Spot on.

    An additional thing I appreciate about Susan’s story is the way Narnia has exactly the same ambiguity about “eternal security” as the Bible does. One reason Christians have never all agreed about that doctrine is precisely this ambiguity: Scripture teaches about salvation as if it could never be lost, but then warns us against falling away as if it could. Similarly, you have to balance “Once a king or queen of Narnia, always a king or queen of Narnia” against Susan’s apparent apostasy. My own belief is that all true Christians will be saved in the end, and that Susan will indeed come back. But Lewis wisely never gives us that closure. He lets us squirm a bit instead. It’s good for us.

  3. Reblogged this on The Warden's Walk and commented:
    An excellent analysis of Susan Pevensie’s adulthood at the end of Narnia.

  4. Good article. I think it was important to Lewis to send a message that not everyone gets in, which is consistent with his Christian faith. He had to choose one character. It could not of course be the High King (think of what he stands for). It could not be Lucy because she has been the character closest to the reader and through whose eyes we have seen so much. That leaves either Edmund or Susan. Choosing Edmund would have created a huge flaw in the work because Edmund has already fallen and has been set right. Susan is the only other one left and the most convenient character for Lewis to make this point with.

    • Thanks! It certainly makes it more real. The fact is that even good people struggle with idols in their lives, and the worst ones are the idols that we don’t even recognize as such!

      I’m personally not sure how much intentionality Lewis put into the fall of Susan. I don’t mean that I don’t think he didn’t do it on purpose, but I’m not sure if he set out to “prove” the point with Susan from the beginning or if it was a point that rose naturally from her character. I haven’t come across any specific statement from Lewis on that, and would be very interested to hear if there was one.

      Thanks for commenting!

  5. Joseph Richard Ravitts

    I never could quite buy Lewis’ contention that Susan could actually _forget_ that Narnia was real. That would be as if I, _without_ suffering amnesia from physical brain damage, were to forget my first wife who had a quarter of a century with me before she was called home to Aslan’s Country. Too important a thing to forget, even if I had _hated_ my wife. But anyway, I don’t think that Lewis was categorically stating that Susan was damned to Hell.

    • I’m not sure. I’ve done some work on Lewis in World War I and how it might have affected Narnia. On his time in war, in _Surprised By Joy_ he commented that his wartime life “shows rarely and faintly in memory. It is too cut off from the rest of my experience and often seems to have happened to someone else. It is even in a way unimportant.”

      That sounds very similar to the situation he set up with Susan, though of course her experiences were positive while his was negative. The human mind is wonderfully strange, and once we’re separated from an experience it can accomplish all sorts of odd things. When we’ve been “cut off” from something, if the situation is correct, I think it is realistic to see someone’s mind perform what we consider ridiculous feats of intellectual and emotional gymnastics to leave it behind, if it wants to. And of course, Lewis isn’t necessarily stating that she had forgotten–just that she apparently wanted to act like she had. I’m reminded of Freud’s “fugue state”, though I don’t think that directly applies here.

      You are probably right in that this most likely points to something that “evolved” has the Chronicles came along. I wonder if Lewis really knew this would happen to Susan in LWW? If not, then the “clues” that would make it even more believable would be reasonably absent.

      “…and there is still time for her to mend….” 🙂

      Thanks for commenting!

    • But the Narnia books walk a line that can be interpreted in many ways. Either Narnia is real, or it is a childhood imagined world (which can be incredibly real to children, I still remember some of mine clearly) or it is an allegory, or even all three at once. I prefer the “all at once” theory.

      Narnia works like a child’s imaginings. It has doors everywhere, decades pass without much time passing in the other world, and its elements smell like childhood worlds.

      1. Perhaps Susan has talked herself into believing it imaginary, or has decided that it is because that is what “adults” think.
      2. Perhaps it IS imaginary, and she has lost respect for such things.
      3.Or perhaps the allegory represents a form of materialism that rejects the possibility that Narnia could be real.

      1 and 3 work well together, and that is always how I have read the story. Of course, that’s just one person’s perspective. Doubtless there are many, many more ways to read it.

  6. I think I see the problem from a slightly different angle, though I agree that people who are angry at Lewis because of Susan miss the point.

    “What the book is trying to say is that sex and the emergence of femininity aren’t sufficient ends in and of themselves.” I don’t think Susan’s problem has anything to do with femininity or sex, but is a fault many people, male and female, fall into.

    She rejects her child nature. She is chasing, as Lewis points out, an idea of adulthood. I watched this happen to many of my peers when I was growing up, and it made me very sad. They hated the idea of being children, blushed with shame or got angry when people treated them like “children” and grabbed for any trappings of adulthood they could reach. I know some adults, too, that are like Susan in that they are chasing some ideal of a certain age instead of meeting their life and time where it is.

    I suppose we are called to put away childish things in terms of taking on maturity and responsibility, but we are also to come to God like little children. This is one of the paradoxes of true maturity, I think, that it includes the child and chooses neither to hate nor abandon it. We lose something incredibly precious when we reject childhood. We lose the ability to imagine stories like Narnia, or to even really enjoy with wonder the world in which we live. Most people who have a beef with Lewis because of Susan are, I think, equating her rejection of childhood with sexual maturity. But I don’t think Lewis is talking about that at all. The Narnia books are a childhood saga, and the tack Susan’s interests take are far less important than her choice to despise her childhood. She could have matured, and kept the love of Narnia, the two were never mutually exclusive, but she chose to make them so.

    Now, I do find Lewis to be a bit sexist, especially in his earlier writings, both in his apologetics and in the first two books of his space trilogy (I haven’t read the third, yet). However, unlike some, I don’t think he was misogynistic (and people who talk about him being anti-sex have formed opinions without reading enough of his work). I think he didn’t understand women very well. Later in his life, he came to understand us better, and his writing, regarding women, improved greatly.

    And for the record, Lewis is one of my favorite authors. If there was nothing in his writing I didn’t disagree with, I would value and trust him far less than I do. 😉

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