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The Problem of Susan

Quicksilver - Cover
This essay has been brewing in my mind for a couple of years now, and since I was recently reminded of it during a discussion on lizbee 's journal, I figured I might as well bite the bullet and put it down on paper. Comments are welcomed, but as I'm due to have my third child on (or before, or around) this coming Saturday, I'm sure you'll appreciate that I can't guarantee a timely response.

Anyway, here it is:

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THE PROBLEM OF SUSAN

Over the last few years I have heard many indignant complaints about the treatment of Susan in the Narnia books, specifically in The Last Battle. Numerous LiveJournal rants have been written on it, Philip Pullman (author of the His Dark Materials trilogy) has deplored it, Neil Gaiman has written a story about it (with the same title as this essay), and most recently it was brought up by J.K. Rowling in an interview with Time Magazine:

"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," Rowling says. "I have a big problem with that."

Well, I have a problem with it too -- albeit for different reasons. I have a problem with it because Lewis nowhere says or implies, and in other books of the series quite directly refutes, that being part of Narnia has anything to do with one's attitude to sex. Or "growing up", for that matter, which is the other accusation lobbed about by those who feel that Susan was Done Wrong by her author. Still, it is to some people quite "obvious" that Lewis despised the whole business of growing up, discovery of sex very much included, and thought that it was better to be a child, in mind if not in body, one's whole life. Thus he "rewards" his characters who remain in an immature state by allowing them to remain in Narnia (or at least come back to it, in the end) while those who grow up, especially in the sexual realm, are rejected as spiritual lepers.

On the surface the argument certainly sounds convincing. After all, weren't we told that Susan's reason for not being in Narnia at the end of The Last Battle was that she was "interested in nothing but nylons and lipstick and invitations" and that "she always was a jolly sight too keen on growing up"? And aren't all the characters from our world who make it to the glorified Narnia -- Peter, Edmund, Lucy, Digory, Polly, Eustace and Jill -- suspiciously single? Eustace and Jill were pre-pubescent at the time, but surely Digory and Polly, who have lived into old age, might have got their sexual act together, even if not with each other? And the Pevensies apart from Susan are positively in their prime, but if they've had any romantic interest or entanglement whatsoever we don't hear anything about it. So the whole thing looks rather damning at first glance.

Let's examine the details, however. First, the idea that Susan's absence from Narnia has to do with her discovery of sex. Here's the actual passage from The Last Battle that gives the reason for her absence:

... "Sir," said Tirian when he had greeted all these. "If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?"

"My sister Susan," answered Peter shortly and gravely, "is no longer a friend of Narnia."

"Yes," said Eustace, "and whenever you've tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, 'What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'"

"Oh Susan!" said Jill. "She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on growing up."

"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 all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race onto the silliest time of one's life as quick as she can and stop there as long as she can."

"Well, don't let's talk about that now," said Peter. ...

Those who argue for Susan's absence from Narnia being a kind of punishment for discovering sex usually zero in on Jill's words: "nylons and lipstick and invitations". But if Lewis had meant that Susan was obsessed with her romantic life and conquests, why didn't he simply tell us as much, which he could have done without any controversy whatsoever -- "she's interested in nothing nowadays except dressing up and having boys come to call on her"? Instead he chooses to zero in on material superficialities: nylons, lipstick, and invitations. And the suggestion that comes through most strongly here, especially when one looks at the speech of the very grown-up (indeed elderly) Polly which comes next, is not of sexuality but of vanity.

In other words, Susan is focused on her appearance. She's obsessed with clothes and cosmetics, with the idea of making herself look beautiful and sophisticated -- for whatever reason. Of course winning the attention of young men would be part and parcel of this, but the way Lewis phrases it puts the focus on Susan's own self-image, not her relationships with others. One is immediately struck with the idea of Susan gazing at herself in the mirror, painting on her lipstick, engrossed in artificially enhancing her physical beauty. We're also told that she is interested in "invitations", which suggests large special events of the sort for which a written invite would be issued. Susan is concerned with social status, with being invited to the right parties with the right people and having the right sort of "grown-up" good time. But the elderly Polly tells us that the life Susan is leading and the ambitions she harbors are foolish and superficial: indeed that she is living through "the silliest time of one's life" and that Susan is bound to waste her life trying to cling to a stage she ought to grow out of. In other words, Susan's problem is not that she has grown up into a woman but that that she is not "grown-up" enough (which is, again, precisely what Polly tells us) -- she is immature enough to mistake glitter and gloss and popularity for the things that make life worth living, and imagine that the vain trappings of cosmetics and fashion are what adulthood is about.

However, even this would not bar Susan from Narnia if she had any interest in coming there. The reason for her absence is not that Aslan (or Lewis) has harshly banished her for losing her childlike innocence, but rather that she has willfully chosen to put Narnia and Aslan aside in order to pursue her own interests, and as a result has gradually lost all interest -- and even memory -- of the spiritual realities that Narnia and Aslan represent. It is not that the Friends of Narnia have shunned Susan: as Eustace says, they have tried multiple times to encourage her to rejoin them. But Susan's response has habitually been to dismiss the whole idea as "funny games we used to play when we were children", and the Friends simply cannot get through to her any longer.

As a result, Susan is not on the fatal train that brings Eustace, Jill, and the rest (including the Pevensies' own father and mother, who are not only grown-up but have most certainly discovered sex -- it would be rather difficult for them to have had four children otherwise) to Narnia, and therefore we are left with no information as to whether she will eventually come to Narnia or not. The prospect may not look very promising at the moment, but there is always the chance that she will indeed "grow up" in the way Polly suggests, and discover for herself that beauty and clothing and popularity are not the things that make life worth living after all. One might well imagine, for instance, that the sudden deaths of her entire family would have a sobering effect on Susan, or at least interrupt her social whirlwind long enough to give her time to think about bigger issues. We don't know, because Lewis doesn't tell us, whether Susan can or will change; that is, as Aslan might say, "somebody else's story."

"So you say," some may object, "but that's all based on your interpretation of the 'nylons and lipstick and invitations' line, isn't it? I still think it really means sex, whatever Polly may have said afterward. After all, don't we know that Lewis was in the habit of banishing the kids from Narnia as soon as they hit puberty? It seems fairly obvious to me that he had a hang-up about the whole idea of his characters coming to sexual maturity."

Again, it seems like a reasonable argument, but only if you don't look too closely at Lewis's books. Particularly two books: The Horse and His Boy and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In the first, for instance, we are presented halfway through the book with a grown-up Susan, living in Narnia, who is not only stunningly beautiful and gorgeously dressed, but in the very process of being courted by a handsome Calormene prince. When Shasta (and the reader) first meets her, she is discussing with Edmund whether she will accept Rabadash's offer of marriage -- an offer she takes so seriously that she and Edmund have travelled a considerable distance to Tashbaan in order to get to know her would-be suitor better. And nowhere in the scene is the idea of Susan being grown-up, or beautiful, or considering a marriage proposal, treated as despicable for its own sake, or indeed anything out of the ordinary. The objection to Rabadash is not that Susan is coy of marriage or that Edmund thinks she ought not to marry -- if that were the case they would not have made the voyage to Tashbaan in the first place. Rather, it is that now that they have seen Susan's "dark-faced lover" in his natural element, Susan has finally realized that in spite of his winsome manner and pleasing proofs of manliness when he visited them in Narnia ("I take you all to witness what marvellous feats he did in that great tournament," says Susan, conjuring up for the reader an image of herself watching Rabadash from the stands with parted lips and shining eyes -- about as close to the idea of feminine lust as one is likely to get in a children's book), he is in truth "a most proud, bloody, luxurious, cruel, and self-pleasing tyrant". It is on account of Rabadash's evil character, not on account of some peculiar ideal of inviolate childhood and permanent celibacy, that Edmund tells Susan "I should have loved you the less if you had taken him," and Susan affirms that she would not marry Rabadash "for all the jewels in Tashbaan."

Further proof that Lewis was by no means against the idea of his characters growing up, falling in love, and even -- gasp -- having sex is found at the end of the very same book, where we are cheerfully informed that not only did Cor and Aravis get married when they grew up, but that they had a son who became the greatest of all the kings of Archenland. This being a children's book written in 1954, and Lewis being conscious that his young readership would not be particularly interested in the details of a romance, the whole thing is tossed off rather glibly; but there's no question that it is there.

So apparently growing up, or even being interested in sex, does not get one tossed out of Narnia -- not even if you're Susan Pevensie. So why were the children banished from Narnia when they reached a certain age? Isn't that a bit suspicious? It would be if the phenomenon were left unexplained, but as a matter of fact Aslan Himself explains it to Edmund and Lucy in the clearest possible terms:

"Dearest," said Aslan very gently, "you and your brother will never come back to Narnia."

"Oh,
Aslan!!" said Edmund and Lucy both together in despairing voices.

"You are too old, children," said Aslan, "and you must begin to come close to your own world now."

"It isn't Narnia, you know," sobbed Lucy. "It's
you. We shan't meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?"

"But you shall meet me, dear one," said Aslan.

"Are -- are you there too, Sir?" said Edmund.

"I am," said Aslan. "But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This is the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there."

The "you are too old, children" might in itself seem to lend credence to the idea that Lewis had a horror of growing up, were the reasons for Lucy and Edmund's departure not so explicitly set out for us in the rest of Aslan's speech. Narnia, for all its beauty, is merely a spiritual object lesson, a childish crutch which the children must learn to do without if they are to grow into true faith and a deeper knowledge of Aslan. They are not being banished or punished -- they are in fact graduating to a higher, more challenging school of spiritual learning. They must learn to know Aslan in their own complicated and adult world, rather than relying on the simpler, childish symbolism available to them in Narnia.

Take note: in this whole passage there is not a whisper of an implication that sex, or sexual maturity, plays any role whatsoever. Sex is completely absent from the whole context of the conversation. This is not an issue of the body, but of the mind and soul. Edmund and Lucy are moving on, out of and away from Narnia, because they are ready, because it is time. Far from being punished, one might rather say that they are celebrating their Bar and Bat Mitzvah -- taking the step into personal spiritual responsibility and adult faith. The problem with Susan in The Last Battle, therefore, is not that she has too eagerly welcomed her physical adulthood, but that she has embraced the outward illusion of grown-up femininity without at the same time maturing into adult faith and knowledge of Aslan in her own world. That, not sex, keeps her from Narnia.

Now Lewis certainly did have some hang-ups about children and sex: he tells us in one of his essays, for instance, that he has a "horror of anything resembling a quasi love affair between two children" and that the idea "nauseates and sickens" him. However, he quickly goes on to qualify that this is purely a quirk of his own, rooted in some "childhood trauma" he does not describe, and that "such things... do happen in real life," so he even recognizes his phobia as being somewhat extreme and unreasonable. (And, as already noted in regard to The Horse and His Boy, he certainly shows no objection to his boy and girl characters getting married and having sex once they have grown up.)

Another definite hang-up of Lewis's seems to have been female vanity, as witnessed especially by his short story The Shoddy Lands. If this story had not been published during Lewis's lifetime I would have a very hard time believing he could have written it, because it is one of the biggest pieces of vulgar, badly written tripe I have seen in my entire life. It is, basically, a heavy-handed sermon about a woman obsessed with her own body image and trivial selfish pleasures such as (here we go again) fashionable clothes: as the narrator says, "At the centre of that world is a swollen image of herself, remodelled to be as like the girls in the advertisements as possible." And, indeed, in spite of an effort to throw in a scrap of divine compassion toward the end, the picture Lewis paints is more than unsympathetic; it's nauseating. But the whole thing has very little to do with sex, for the narrator tells us that sex is in fact ultimately irrelevant to Peggy by comparison to her vanity:

...all her clothes and bath salts and two-piece swimsuits [sound anything like "nylons and lipstick and invitations", anyone? -- Ed.], and indeed the voluptuousness of her every look and gesture, had not, and never had had, the meaning which every man would read, and was intended to read, into them. They were a huge overture to an opera in which she had no interest at all; a coronation procession with no queen at the centre of it; gestures, gestures about nothing.

In other words, Peggy (and, it seems to me, Susan) are guilty not of craving male companionship and admiration, but rather of being obsessed with their own appearance and their own social status to the point that romantic and sexual relationships are rendered trivial or irrelevant. They are not, in that sense, sexually mature at all. That Lewis had no problem with the idea of sexual maturity, and indeed was prepared to celebrate it in a Christian context, is well established in both forms of his writing for adults, in books like The Four Loves (where among other things, he warns against making a tyrant or a dark god of erotic love, and recommends a spirit of playful enjoyment, of play-acting even -- far from the "sex as grim duty" notion that some associate with the Christian religion) and especially at the end of his SF novel That Hideous Strength, which positively drips with eros as all the characters dress up in luxurious, angelically provided attire that reveals their true natures and inner beauties (something Lewis seems to deliberately contrast to the superficial fashion and cosmetics he deplores elsewhere), and all the married ones go off to have sex with each other. The whole scenario is so voluptuously described as to be almost embarrassing: it certainly made me blush as a teenager, even though Lewis never actually takes us into his characters' beds. But in any case it ought to dispel any notion that Lewis was shy or disapproving of adult sexuality.

Finding our way at last back to Susan, there can be no question that her absence from Narnia, for whatever reason, is a sad and tragic thing, understandably upsetting to both the child and the adult reader. After all, hadn't Susan as a child witnessed first-hand the death of Aslan at the Stone Table, and been part of all kinds of glorious, seemingly unforgettable, adventures? Hadn't she proven faithful through all kinds of trials and difficulties? How could we possibly be expected to believe that when she grew up she would just forget Narnia?

But there are clues that Susan is strongly tempted to put selfish concerns above spiritual ones even in the earlier books. In Prince Caspian, for instance, she knows deep down that Lucy is right about seeing Aslan, but chooses to side against Lucy and go the wrong direction because "I just wanted to get out of the woods and -- and -- oh, I don't know." Even when Lucy is called by Aslan the second time, Susan is stubborn and even openly spiteful about it. The others are also described as having various degrees of bad attitude about the situation -- indeed, Lucy herself falters in her faith the first time -- so Lewis is by no means painting Susan all black, merely pointing out a weakness. But it is a weakness that foreshadows her eventual apostasy, so that when we learn of Susan's fate in The Last Battle it is not, as some have contended, a bit of character assassination coming completely out of left field. Earlier books have established Susan as "the beauty" of the family and conscious of that fact, as being inclined to see herself as grown-up while in some ways being rather naïve and immature (being dazzled by Rabadash's prowess as a warrior and his superficially courtly manners, for instance, while Edmund doubts his integrity from the start), and somewhat more concerned with her own comforts and desires than her siblings (who have different faults). As such, the "grown-up" Susan of Last Battle may be a disappointment and a shock, but she is not some entirely different and foreign character that Lewis dragged in at the last minute to make a moral point.

As for the distress that the reader naturally feels over being told that Susan is "no longer a friend of Narnia" -- I find it very difficult to believe that Lewis was not fully aware that this revelation would hurt, and indeed most likely felt badly about it himself. But the fact remains that people do become apostate, to their own grief and the grief of those around them, and not necessarily for lofty intellectual reasons either. As a student of Biblical theology, Lewis was likely to be thinking not merely of Judas Iscariot, the most extreme example, but of other New Testament characters such as Demas, Paul's companion who deserted in the middle of a missionary journey "because he loved this present world". He was very likely also wanting to evoke passages such as the one in Hebrews 6, which speaks of those who "have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age," and yet ultimately "fall away" and reject Christ just as Susan rejects Narnia.

The point is, as Christ's own life and ministry showed, that people can see miracles done before their very eyes, and yet still discount them and refuse to believe. Just as Susan was, in time, able to dismiss Narnia as "funny games we used to play when we were children," so the unbelieving people of Jesus's day explained away Christ's miracles as trickery or even attributed them to the power of demons, rather than accept Him as divine and bow to His authority. As Jesus said, "...this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil." As long as we have something else on our personal agenda that is higher than God, some beloved thing or philosophy or pastime (it might be quite innocuous in itself -- after all, there's nothing inherently evil about nylons or lipstick or invitations per se) that we value more than the knowledge of Him, it doesn't matter how much evidence is or has been presented to our eyes because we will not see.

In that respect, the description of Susan's fate given to us in The Last Battle may be painful and upsetting but it is far from being unrealistic or untrue. If anything it is too true to life, and therein lies the poignancy of it. We may see in Susan a reflection of ourselves, and resent her absence from Narnia on that account: surely one ought not to miss the beauties and pleasures of paradise on account of such harmless indulgences as nylons and lipstick! But it was not Aslan or the Friends of Narnia who kept Susan away from that final blessing, but Susan herself by her own free will -- and so it is with us.

ETA: Please also check out the brief follow-up post to this discussion, which brings up a very significant point raised by a commenter about the attitude of the Friends of Narnia to Susan.

ETA2: As of April 2013 I've been so inundated with spam replies to this entry that I've had to shut down Comments. Sorry to anyone who had further thoughts to add -- perhaps try the follow-up post instead.

Comments

( 274 comments )
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fernwithy
Aug. 30th, 2005 05:29 pm (UTC)
A very excellent essay--I think you've hit the nail on the head. It annoys me that JK decided to make a flip comment about this, especially one in the currently trendy "all sex is good and nothing that remotely might suggest otherwise shall be tolerated" mode of thought. (The one that also assumes that "growing up" is a synonym for sex. And that "being mature" is. And that eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or playing scrabble is. But that's another rant.) But JK gets asked a lot of questions, and I doubt she's thought through the implications of all of them carefully. I'm glad you've applied more thought to the subject.
rj_anderson
Aug. 30th, 2005 05:45 pm (UTC)
The one that also assumes that "growing up" is a synonym for sex. And that "being mature" is. And that eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or playing scrabble is. But that's another rant.

Hee! So very, tragically true.

Our society is obsessed with sexuality as self-fulfillment, and this is especially unfortunate when modern people are reading books and essays from time periods where sex was not considered to be the be-all and end-all. All kinds of odd perspectives and interpretations tend to emerge when we try to impose a contemporary attitude to sex onto our predecessors. I bet Lewis would have been positively flabbergasted to hear that anybody thought "nylons and lipstick and invitations" was a euphemism for sex, just as Tolkien was astonished by how many people were convinced that the Ring was a metaphor for the atomic bomb...
thewhiteowl
Aug. 30th, 2005 05:50 pm (UTC)
Can I just quickly say a giant WORD to that. I thought I was the only person in the world who thought it was vanity and wilful blindness that kept Susan from Narnia.
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sinick
Aug. 30th, 2005 09:01 pm (UTC)
why should one take a Christian-hating brute like Philip Pullman seriously?

I would have thought that one ought to approach his works exactly as one approaches other works of popular fiction: from the standpoint of rational literary critique.

But then, apparently I'm being naïve; I certainly wasn't aware that, in order to qualify for serious consideration, all literature must first pass a test for theological correctness.
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literature test - hrairoo - Apr. 22nd, 2010 11:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
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penwiper26
Aug. 30th, 2005 06:33 pm (UTC)
I think you've shown the problem in its complexity very well -- and thanks very much for quoting The Shoddy Lands -- it and other stories in the Dark Tower collection are very telling for this subject.

I'm not really in agreement with JKR on the matter, and I'd hardly consider myself an expert on feminine sexuality, but I might mention explicitly, in connection with your Shoddy Lands quote, that vanity is considered a prominent feature of misogynistic views of feminine sexuality. It is not so much a question of having sex, or even having inappropriate sex -- it's much more a matter of sexuality, of having and/or exerting sexual power. That power, for women, inheres mainly in attraction, and (so the theory goes) that power must therefore be illicit or at least suspect -- and considering how very little exertion of that power it takes to elicit scathing accusations of slutdom (cf Ginny Weasley), I'd say that this little Gordian knot of associations is well and thriving in everyday discourse at least. Lewis, who like Keats was at least a self-aware misogynist (I say self-aware because as you point out he did not try to publish his more vulgar expressions of those sentiments), was probably not making a direct jab at feminine sexuality, but the oblique shot does hit that mark at least a little -- and doubtless that's what JKR is reacting to.

That said, I have no objections to Lewis's ending the story with the defection of one of the main characters as such, and considering Susan's milieu it's possible but hardly likely that she'd choose another avenue of self-delusion and greed. A story about me defecting from a Narnia, of course, would probably focus on how pleased I was with my essays and blogs on faerie (the Scholar-Ghost in The Great Divorce would be my chilling analogue) -- but Susan isn't that. My own irritation with Lewis's handling of Susan centers more around his faint dismissal of her lack of cleverness or a valiant mindset rather than his fussy condemnation of Modern Woman stereotypes. But that's just the nature of writing characters; you get out of a frying pan and very often wind up in a fire.
hedda62
Aug. 30th, 2005 07:53 pm (UTC)
But that's just the nature of writing characters; you get out of a frying pan and very often wind up in a fire.

How very true. ;)

I have to say I never saw the Susan problem in terms of sex, probably because in the context of the Narnia books I didn't see Lewis dealing with sex at all. It seems clear enough that he was talking about vanity, and about wilful dismissal of a dear and shared experience with her family, and this seems consistent with Susan's character the way he set it up from the beginning. The only problem I have with the whole thing is that he chose Susan as the demonstration model, rather than, say, Peter (Edmund and Lucy are unlikely choices for other reasons). Is he picking on her because she's female - or just because she's easy? (Easy in the sense of unchallenging, I mean, not sexually available.)

Of course, if he'd used Peter there would probably be much complaining (in a rather different tone) about why a young man's obsession for cricket and fast cars should be so damning. But he didn't use Peter, so we'll never know. This is the problem with fiction; you so seldom get alternate endings.
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dr_c
Aug. 30th, 2005 06:34 pm (UTC)
Excellent essay, rj_anderson -- thanks for posting it!

This past weekend I was flipping back through Surprised by Joy, and noted some of Lewis' comments on his own youthful "apostasy" (his term; I'd use the word slightly differently). He views the Flesh as having been somewhat damaging to him during those years, but the World much more so (this comes up especially in his discussion of a youthful schoolmaster nicknamed "Pogo," who had taught him to desire to be sophisticated). Indeed, Lewis' consistent view of sin in general was one of viewing Lust as definitely sinful and damaging, but other things like Pride and Vanity as much more deeply corrupting to the soul.

The fact that Lewis wrote plenty of nonfiction works is handy for the scholar wishing to know what views his fiction works were, and were not, reflecting-- lest we be "attributing to [him] views which [he had] explicitly contradicted in the plainest possible English," as he complained of one scholar doing. Readers who know him only by his fiction stories will find it easy to make mistakes like that. (I agree with fernwithy that this probably isn't something about which JKR has thought deeply-- it's her job to write stories, not to comment on others'.)

So anyway, yes, I agree-- JKR's criticism of Lewis here tells us considerably more about JKR than it does about Lewis. JKR is certainly not the only person to have interpreted Susan this way, of course; I imagine that it must be easy for a young woman with a fondness for makeup and fashion too see herself in Susan, and to wish to react fiercely against Lewis' presentation. But the criticism would only be valid if the quest for popularity were inseparable from the hope of finding romantic love.

The odd thing about JKR being the one to say this is that her own stories seem (am I wrong?!) to show plenty of consciousness of the difference between a shallow young woman and a mature one. ("Three dementor attacks in a week, and all Romilda Vane does is ask me if it's true you've got a Hippogriff tattooed across your chest.") The most admirable young women in JKR's stories (Hermione, Ginny, and Luna) are not the budding Susan Pevensies of Hogwarts, but those (each in her own way) who retain a sense of adventure-- more to the point, the ability to be committed to something beyond herself-- as Lucy and Jill did. And an important step in Harry's maturation as a young man was when he got beyond the stage of "going for looks alone"-- when he realized that "wanting to impress Cho seemed to belong to a past that was no longer quite connected with him," when he matured to the point where he could start liking a girl because he actually enjoyed her company. (Notice that HBP never tells us that Harry thought Ginny was pretty or beautiful or anything like that-- of course he does think so, but that's no longer where the emphasis lies. Her attractiveness is only made known to us through the comments of others.)

And so I don't think the stories JKR and CSL have told are really all that much different in their handling of young adulthood after all. There are some differences, of course-- but mostly on the surface.
fpb
Dec. 25th, 2009 06:17 pm (UTC)
To analyze an author, let alone a living one, is highly dangerous, but my impression is that JKR has very little concern with make-up and appearance. She is, in fact, potentially very lovely indeed, but it is only when a professional make-up artist takes over that her potential is realized. She seems unaware of her own attraction, and I find it interesting that all the blond characters in her story are unattractive. I would even suggest that she failed to understand the real reason for Susan's fall because it is one that just has no hold on her.
cesario
Aug. 30th, 2005 07:17 pm (UTC)
You make an excellent point. I myself had always considered Susan's absence in the last book to a willful defection, rather than a banishment. But as you point out, The Shoddy Lands and other pieces of Lewis' writing make clear what I consider to be something far more problematic about Lewis' characterization of the women in his stories. He is very critical of women in general, and very precise in his standards for them. He seems to obsessed with women's vanity, and not terribly comfortable with independent "modern" women. I'd have to do some rereading to come up with specific examples, but there was something about his treatment of Jane Tudor in That Hideous Strength that made me uncomfortable even as a young teenager, when I still religious and believed for the most part that women were meant, to a certain point, to be submissive. I think it's that when he deals with female characters, he goes to some lengths to define what is proper for them as women, where with male characters its not so much about the demands of their gender role as about the demands of whatever challenge they face in the story.

One thing I will say about The Shoddy Lands, though, is that it has one awesome line of description that I find hilarious: "She was so free to talk about things her grandmother could not mention that one wondered if she were free to talk about anything else."

Now I need a Narnia icon...
rilina
Aug. 30th, 2005 07:22 pm (UTC)
I've mentioned on several occasions that I have difficulty rereading the Narnia books with pleasure. I think you're right in arguing that it's too simple to say the problem of Susan is sex--that Christianity and sexuality aren't compatible.

However, I do still find Lewis's treatment of Susan and of other women in the Narnia series deeply problematic. Yes, vanity certainly is problematic, and it can be indicative of larger issues that might lead someone away from Christianity. I don't have an issue with that; clearly it's all too true. Here's my problem: why, of all the things that could lead a woman away from her faith, does Lewis choose vanity? I've known a number of people who have turned their back on the church, and it hasn't been something they've done lightly or painlessly. Sometimes it's because they've come out, and they don't believe there's a place for queers in Christianity. Sometimes it's because they've fallen in love with someone of a different faith, and they don't want religion to separate them from their beloved. Sometimes they just find themselves unable to continue to reconcile Christianity's account of the world with what they see around them. Yes, sometimes silliness and shallowness can drive people away from the church, but more oft than not, at least from the people I've known, there's been a lot more behind the choice to leave. This is not to say I necessarily approve of their choices to leave, but I recognize that the choice is often very hard and only made after serious consideration.

Perhaps it does say something about JKR and co. that they have to reduce the problem of Susan to "Christianity thinks sex is bad." But it does say something about Lewis that when he decided to write about a young woman losing her faith, he chose to show her losing her faith out of vanity and shallowness. That's a straw man argument too.

And I'd also observe that Susan is hardly the only place where we see problematic portrayals of women in Narnia. I don't have a copy of The Silver Chair on hand for reference, but some of the comments that Lewis makes about the incompetent female Head of Eustace's and Jill's progressive school are, IIRC, distinctly mean-spirited. Clearly Lewis had a low opinion of progressive education methods, and when he decided to skewer it--complete with incompetent Head--he made the Head a woman.

So perhaps the problem of Susan isn't always what other people make it out to be. But I still think there's a problem.
rj_anderson
Aug. 30th, 2005 08:54 pm (UTC)
why, of all the things that could lead a woman away from her faith, does Lewis choose vanity?

Well, it's not just feminine vanity that Lewis disparages; you can see him skewering male vanity in The Magician's Nephew, for instance, in the form of Uncle Andrew. And I think dr_c makes a good point when he observes that Lewis himself admitted to having been corrupted and led astray by vanity in his youth, to his own spiritual detriment -- in other words, he wasn't talking about a sin he hadn't committed himself.

As for why Lewis would choose this rather than some loftier or more altruistic-seeming reason for Susan to reject Narnia, I think it's because, while many of us do justify our rejection of Christ (or a particular teaching of Christ) on those kinds of higher philosophical or emotional grounds, ultimately it does boil down to wanting our own way. Having been a youth group leader for over ten years, I watched far too many young people walk away from spiritual things for precisely the kind of vain and shallow reasons Lewis does describe -- not because they were genuinely struggling with the reliability of the Christian faith or had suffered some profound emotional and spiritual shock, but because they wanted to party and be "cool" and they felt that the church was cramping their style.

As for Lewis making the Head of Experiment House a woman and this being evidence of misogyny, what about Uncle Andrew, the all-around fool and butt of endless jokes (some of them based firmly in the traditional concept of the male ego -- as when Lewis remarks that "the foolish old man actually thought the witch would fall in love with him") in The Magician's Nephew? It seems to me that Lewis was pretty equal-opportunity when it came to portraying shallow and foolish characters. Eustace Scrubb is remarkably silly in the beginning of Dawn Treader, for instance, and in much the same way as the Head seeing as he comes from a "progressive" family.

I think Lewis was less a misogynist than a product of his generation. If you want to see some truly eye-popping sexism and downright weirdness, for instance, try reading Margery Allingham's The Fashion in Shrouds. Every one of the criticisms that have been made of Lewis's portrayal of women in this thread could be levied at Allingham, and then some. Yet Allingham herself was a woman, and not a particularly religious one (or even, that I can recall from her biography, religious at all).
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sreya
Aug. 30th, 2005 09:05 pm (UTC)
Oh, thank you so much for this essay. I just read the Narnia books this summer, and was very disappointed in The Last Battle when Susan was no longer a Friend, because she had been one of my favorite characters. But I had always been baffled by the claims that she was "excluded because she discovered sex", not only because it didn't read that way to me, but it just didn't seem to fit with the tone. I hadn't taken the time to really sit and think about it though, so it's nice to see such a well reasoned essay.

Good luck with your new child, what an exciting time, and you still took the time to write this essay!
rose_in_shadow
Aug. 30th, 2005 11:30 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much for this essay, Rebecca! *adds to memories* I get really tired of people blithely blowing off Lewis as a stodgy, misogynist, prude for some of the reasons mentioned in this essay.
jonquil
Aug. 30th, 2005 11:43 pm (UTC)
blithely blowing off Lewis as a stodgy, misogynist, prude

I refer you to the discussion of women's appropriate roles in "That Hideous Strength", in which it is said in so many words that birth control is a tool of Satan.
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sophia_helix
Aug. 30th, 2005 11:49 pm (UTC)
saw this in rilina's blog
You're probably right re: Lewis's intentions. Your arguments are excellent, and you've certainly convinced me of the layers of meaning -- and I'm one of those people who was really arguing the opposite side, for a long time.

I still don't like it. Sadly, the more insight I get into the Narnia books, the less interest I have in rereading them. I'm rather sorry my parents didn't know what the books were about, when they gave them to me as a child, because it's been hard having my perceptions changed. I wish I still thought they were just pure fantasy (while, of course, being jealous of people for whom the real interpretation makes them better).

Can we at least agree the recent reordering of the book is bizarre? *g*
pharnabazus
Aug. 31st, 2005 12:05 am (UTC)
That's very interesting indeed. I would go a bit further, though. The vanity you spoke of was only the “occasion” of Susan’s falling away from Narnia, and not (I think) its source.

Susan always did have a concern for what other people would think, or would think right, from her first appearance in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. At that time, it was her mother she was trying to be like. Later, it was (presumably) the world of new teenage friends. But my point is that Susan was always more likely to adapt to the culture around her, whether it was late twentieth century England, or the very different culture of Narnia. That's why she was the most reluctant to follow the White Stag out of Narnia – an important point which is too easily forgotten. Susan wasn’t just the one who “forgot” Narnia; she was also the one that most nearly stayed behind there, and that tried to persuade the others not to go.

Actually, I find the way that Susan forgot about Narnia (or thought of it as a kind of dream, or a memory of childhood story) as being very like the way all four of them (when in Narnia) slowly began to think of "our" world as a sort of dream, and to all but forget it themselves. This wasn’t only Susan – “all” of them began to think of our world as a dream, and they certainly didn’t recognise the “tree of iron” as a lamp post, when the White Stag led them into Lantern Waste. Perhaps this is not unlikely, if someone moves to another world, to “another universe, another nature,” as Uncle Andrew once put it – especially when they came back and returned to how they had been before. Perhaps the really interesting thing is not that Susan forgot, but that the others remembered.

I don’t think (myself) that for them to remember was as easy as all that. Two things helped them. One was that they were constantly "trying" to remember, talking about Narnia among themselves, whenever they got the opportunity. The other is that they weren’t trying to remember Narnia on their “own.” They had help. They could remind and reassure each other. Actually, it can be difficult to keep “any” faith, entirely on one’s own, without support.

But that is what Susan had to do. She was cut out of it, for a year, I think, when she went with her parents to America. Susan would have made new friends, with whom she could share none of this – and peer pressure "is" strong. We don't know for sure how any of the others would have fared, cut out of the Narnian exile community, for a whole year. And going back to the question of vanity, Lucy has more than a trace of the same faults, and was partly spared quite simply by there being less exposure to temptation: not being “considered the beauty of the family.” The scene with the magician's book in Dawn Treader does reveal a very real jealousy of Susan in this regard, as if she wished she were able to follow her in the same path, and have the same attention.

However, I do think that vanity and other distractions were only the “occasion” of Susan’s falling away from Narnia, and not its source. Exposure to different (or greater) temptations than the others was indeed a factor (especially the trial of being left on her own, which they did not face) but there may be something deeper than this. In Prince Caspian, Aslan seemed to think that the root of Susan’s problem was that she listened to fears, didn't he?

It’s also something that’s very easy to empathise with. We “all” listen to fears. We’ve “all” wavered, when without support. There are things (especially in childhood) which we’ve all forgotten. And we nearly “all” are often willing to trade the “pearl of great price” for a lesser and more immediate substitute.

It's also interesting that Susan said to Lucy (after her denial, in Prince Caspian) that she really had known “deep down” that Aslan was there, though outwardly she was completely hostile to the idea. I wonder if something of that still remains true of Susan at the end of the series, as she’s described in The Last Battle. Maybe she really "hasn't" completely forgotten, "deep down" – though I don’t think it will be an easy way back. I did have quite a complicated story in mind about her, though, as to how this might happen, which I dreamed up years ago and still haven’t given up on!
penwiper26
Aug. 31st, 2005 12:41 am (UTC)
I think you raise a very telling point, and perhaps some (if not most) of the negative reaction to the end of TLB may have something to do with the distraction of Jill's scornful comments, which aren't a complete gloss for the situation as a whole.
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starbuckx
Aug. 31st, 2005 02:21 am (UTC)
Excelent essay. It leaves me tempted to go back, and re-read. Thank you for posting it.
davidbrider
Aug. 31st, 2005 04:12 am (UTC)
Thanks - what I've read of this is fascinating. I'll have to print it out so that I can study it in full later.

David.
(Anonymous)
Aug. 31st, 2005 08:52 am (UTC)
I think my problem with Susan being excluded is because she represents, to me, the rest of the outside world. She had, after all, grown interested only in worldly things. And here was Narnia ending and Paradise coming, and only seven people got to come?

It just seemed to be to be incredibly killjoy and Puritan of Lewis to exclude her on such minor grounds as vanity. If that's all it took to be denied Heaven, what was the chance of the rest of us getting in? It was a valid theological stance for him to take, but it was too much for me to handle as a ten-year-old and I'm not all that fond of it now.

And then add to that the Dwarves. Being in Heaven and being able to witness someone in Hell, right in front of you; it just always seemed to me that there was something horribly smug about Lewis' version of Heaven. There was just so much emphasis on who couldn't get in.
flidgetjerome
Aug. 31st, 2005 08:54 am (UTC)
(Sorry, forgot to sign in.)
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rj_anderson
Aug. 31st, 2005 12:46 pm (UTC)
here was Narnia ending and Paradise coming, and only seven people got to come?

Huh? A huge number of Narnians got to come -- the ones who came up to the Door, looked Aslan in the face and loved Him. We're told that this included not only the ones alive when Tirian & Co. were thrown into the stable but all the Narnians throughout history who loved Aslan -- and some surprising additions too, including a bunch of Calormenes. They all went running past the Friends of Narnia and disappeared, going "farther up and farther in", but they were definitely there.

As far as the "only seven" is concerned I'm guessing you mean that only seven people from our world got to come to Paradise -- but that's not true either, because the Pevensies saw "our people" -- meaning their father and mother, and other dead family members and loved ones -- waving to them from a distance when they got deeper into Narnia. But note, it was the end of Narnia we were witnessing, not the end of all the worlds and not the end of our own world either. There were seven people from our world there because they were all on the train heading to Bristol that smashed up and killed them all, not because the whole of Planet Earth had been destroyed and only seven people were Found Worthy. Planet Earth was still carrying on just fine, and that's where Susan (who was not on the train) remains.

It just seemed to be to be incredibly killjoy and Puritan of Lewis to exclude her on such minor grounds as vanity. If that's all it took to be denied Heaven, what was the chance of the rest of us getting in?

Peter, Edmund, Lucy and the others didn't get into Paradise because they were perfect (we're shown their faults, and even their serious sins -- remember Edmund was a traitor? -- in other books of the series) but because they loved Aslan and believed in Him. Susan's vanity didn't keep her from being worthy of Heaven, because none of us are worthy and we don't get to Heaven on the basis of our own goodness in the first place. Susan's vanity simply distracted her, at this point in time, from being interested in Aslan and Narnia any more: thus she wasn't with the Friends of Narnia when they died on the train. But as another poster to this thread pointed out, Lewis wasn't writing her off at all.
v_mike_smith
Feb. 23rd, 2008 12:28 am (UTC)
Yes, and...
Some very good points here; I like your line of thought a lot. (I've read the Chronicles several times myself; my faves are Nephew and Battle.) One does have to wonder how the dwarves could deny what was there for them to see, or how Susan could act as if her experience was just imagined. Is experience or memory so fickle? There must be other reasons. Vanity was a symptom, not a cause.

Someone earlier mentioned that Susan's trip to America and the resulting peer pressures there may have had an effect. I think this is also a good point, but they didn't apply it both directions: that the presence of others who had had a common experience helped bolster the validity of that experience for Peter/Edmund/Lucy. The same logic applies to why we go to church every Sunday, but I find we don't compare notes, or talk about things like the "Friends of Narnia" did.

Contradictorily, Professor Kirke admonished the Pevensies against talking about it at all, even among themselves at the end of LW&W. And I have a lot of trouble believing that several years' experience in a real place could be revoked by single year's worth of peer pressure, American or even Malacandran for that matter.

I suppose because I like the way you've considered these thing, I'll throw this out, too: what about Emeth the Calormene? Not to change the subject (this one being about the Problem of Susan,) but he says so many things that are true for me, I find him the most sympathetic in the entire series. His name is an Aramaic word variously translated as "truth, veracity, firmness." He relied upon his experience, made the most ethical decisions he could, displayed the greater part of valor, boldly faced his gravest fear, and did every bit of it with the most admirable nobility and comportment (and a delightfully foreign manner of speech, too!)

Hmm...as I re-read that, maybe this should be a new topic. But I'm too new at this, I don't know how to bring all these great people along to a new topic, so...well, there you have it.
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amanuensis1
Aug. 31st, 2005 03:17 pm (UTC)
I keep coming back to this basic: the books are allegory, and therefore, many of the elements within them are also to be read as allegory. Susan doesn't lose Narnia because she's keen on boys and growing up and becoming sexualized--she loses Narnia because she forgets Narnia, and the elements of lipstick and nylons and invitations are the superficial things she uses to fill her life as she grows up, having lost sight of the Narnian values which would be more fulfilling to her if she still had them.

I don't like that Lewis did that to our beloved Susan, but it's like disliking that a beloved character was killed or gave into his/her weakness or what have you. It's nothing to do with "girls being girls and growing older," I think. It's that he chose Susan to be "the one who lost faith," and it could have been any of them, and would have hurt no matter who it was.
rj_anderson
Aug. 31st, 2005 03:56 pm (UTC)
I don't like that Lewis did that to our beloved Susan, but it's like disliking that a beloved character was killed or gave into his/her weakness or what have you. It's nothing to do with "girls being girls and growing older," I think. It's that he chose Susan to be "the one who lost faith," and it could have been any of them, and would have hurt no matter who it was.

Yes, yes, exactly. And if he'd chosen some other character we barely knew or had scarcely learned to care about, it wouldn't have the impact that it does. We don't fret that much about Edmund being a traitor in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, because we've only just been introduced to him and he doesn't come across as a very pleasant sort of person anyway. I note also that his siblings' reaction to his treachery, particularly Peter's, is a good deal more "scornful", or at least frankly exasperated, than their reaction to Susan's absence in TLB.

Which reminds me: I haven't seen anyone remarking that Edmund being the traitor in TLTW&TW is any kind of commentary on the stereotypical male lust for power and domination, even though Edmund's reasons for joining the Witch are described in those kinds of terms: he wants to be a king, and to have his physical cravings endlessly gratified in the form of Turkish Delight, and to see Peter, especially, brought to heel. Of course we get to see Edmund eventually redeemed and reformed, which is more than we get with Susan, and may be a good reason people don't object to this as sexist or otherwise unfair (aside from the basic fact that it seems to be much more generally acceptable for authors to speak ill of male characters than female ones).

I do suspect that there is a certain hypersensitivity about the portrayal of female characters, especially by male authors (but sometimes even by female ones -- look at the criticisms some have made of J.K. Rowling's female characters, for instance). It sometimes seems to me as though there is simply no way for an author to write any female character in a way that is acceptable to everyone. Indeed I don't think I could do it myself, and if I think too much about all the criticisms I've heard of female characters, I'll be so busy second-guessing myself that I won't be able to write about women at all.
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shatterglass
Aug. 31st, 2005 07:29 pm (UTC)
Wow. Thanks for writing this--I'll look on it a whole other way now.
aqua_eyes
Aug. 31st, 2005 10:31 pm (UTC)
Hello. Got here via a rec and found the essay to be a) well written and b) very interesting because I have never considered why Susan blanked it all out and haven’t heard the various comments other authors have made about it. My thought process was along the lines of ‘How could you not want to go back to Narnia? Fool’ and carried on reading – I was about 10 the last time I reread the series cover to cover. And at the time I didn’t know it was a big Christian metaphor, or more than a vague notion of sex. (I didn’t know His Dark Materials was anti-Christian either when I first read Northern Lights either…) And an atheist I wouldn’t have considered it from the Christian point of view that it was written from. XD!
davidjoates
Aug. 31st, 2005 10:59 pm (UTC)
The thing that had me howling when I read the Narnia series, more than any of these, which seem to be the root of the Pro-Susan arguments, was the characterisation issues - and being a beta and analyst for a long while now, this is something which really set me off.

Let's think about it - four children between the ages of 8 - 16 enter Narnia and have all manner of adventure. At the end of this, they're crowned kings and queens. They have families and sire heirs and fully integrate into life within Narnia.

40 or so years later, they tumble out of the closet again, back into their teenage/pre-teen bodies, but retaining all of the knowledge and experiences they had in Narnia. Instantly, they start behaving like they did at the start of the tale, placidly accepting the explanation that the closet would no longer allow them passage to Narnia.

Forget Susan and her lipstick, this had me absolutely foaming at the mouth from a characterisation issue - They have spent decades as KINGS and QUEENS, giving orders and living as part of the high society; if you allow them their memories and emotions when they come back to reality they will not be the same as they left; they will stride into the office as Kings and Queens and deal with anyone they meet as such, not as the teenagers they are portrayed in the story. In addition, they have been in relationships, have married, had children; the first thought they will entertain when being kicked out of Narnia is "where's my husband", "where's my children?". We don't see this - and that is a fatal flaw.

This is the reason that Vanity!Susan doesn't work for me - she's already had a husband and kids, along with the trappings of power and wealth. 40 years worth of memories can't be forgotten so easily. If C. S. Lewis had portrayed Susan at a mental institution, trying to reconcile her memories of a queen with her hormonal teenage body, I might well believe it, but characterisation was sacrificed for the benefit of the plot and teachings in this instance. If they tumbled out of the wardrobe not knowing a thing about their time in Narnia, having forgotten it all, it would have worked, but it didn't.

The sheer notion of a much loved character being selected as a sacrificial lamb to illustrate a moral point is abhorant to me to begin with, which ensures that C. S. Lewis isn't a favourite of mine, but to not even care about proper characterisation and development is, to me, a crime.

David.
thewhiteowl
Sep. 1st, 2005 07:08 am (UTC)
None of them were actually married in Narnia; Susan was just thinking of it in Horse and his Boy.
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cicer
Sep. 1st, 2005 02:03 am (UTC)
Very nice essay. It's been awhile since I've read the entire Chronicles of Narnia. I reread The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Magician's Nephew, and A Horse and His Boy frequently, as they're my favorites. But I haven't read The Last Battle in quite some time, so perhaps I'm not fit to comment on it. But I do agree with what you've said here.

C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite authors, and I've read many of his works. Thinking back on all his writing, I find it hard to believe he objects that strongly to sex. He refers to it every now and then in other books, and it's usually with a positive attitude and opinion. I don't remember him refering to sex at all in the Chronicles, but that's perfectly understandable since they were written and directed toward a young audience. And I think there's every reason why he should object to putting sexual overtones in the books, since most of the characters are children. But he does refer to marriage and childbearing in a positive way (as you said, mostly in A Horse and His Boy). So I definitely don't read Susan's banishment as a punishment for sexual behavior.

I actually wasn't even aware that people thought that was what he was implying. The way I always interpreted the situation was that Susan lost faith in Aslan and Narnia, and that's why she was no longer welcome there. She passed it off as a game they used to play as children, and imersed herself in the "real world", ignoring the people she had met there and the things they learned. This seemed completely logical to me, since Aslan is a thinly vieled allegory to Jesus, and one of the most important things in Christianty is haven't faith and believe in God. So it seemed perfectly logical that she was banished from Narnia (i.e. Heaven) for ceasing to believe in Aslan (i.e. God).

Of course, that's only my interoreation. I liked this essay a lot, it made me think deeply about a series a haven't thought of in quite awhile. I think I'll dig out my books for a reread.
sistermagpie
Sep. 1st, 2005 03:56 am (UTC)
I definitely thought this was how Lewis intended it. JKR's comment completely confused me--I never thought it had anything to do with sex. Lipstick and nylons simply represented worldly things that don't last and don't give the fulfillment God does. They weren't supposed to be sex--actually, I didn't even think of it primarily as being about vanity, though of course they are about that. If she were a man I suppose she'd have become interested in money and big business or something.

That said, I still dislike the whole passage because it does rather get to the heart of something Lewis feels is wonderful and I think is not. But I don't think he's speaking of something much more important to him than sex or women's fashions, even if I don't think his views on women were particularly enlightened.
crowie
Sep. 1st, 2005 10:24 am (UTC)
Thinking back on when I read the books I didn't see them as a religious analogy until much later. So for me Narnia was all about the wonders of childhood, the imaginary worlds that children create.

So I read Narnia as being childish wonder manifest. And Susan, well.. Susan grew up. There are alot of people who grow up without loosing their 'inner child' (fandom probably has a very high proportion of them). Who still want to play. There are also alot of people that take themselves very seriously and abandon their childhood worlds.

I didn't get the Aslan=God/Christ until years after Id read all the books (I didn't read the Last Battle until then). So for me Susan's abandoment had nothing to do with faith or turning your back on religion but everything to do with being too eager to grow up and loosing her playfulness and her sense of wonder.
snarkhunter
Sep. 1st, 2005 10:54 am (UTC)
This is a remarkable essay, and I think you do a brilliant job responding to the relevant arguments about Susan.

I've always despised The Last Battle, in no small part because of the exclusion of Susan (even as a small child, when I first read Narnia, the thought of her alone in the world and cast out of Narnia made me feel ill), and it wasn't until I was much older that I began to hear the arguments about why she was left behind. I have always known that it was her will, but it was still so upsetting for me that I was never able to enjoy the book. (Not that I would, anyway. Never been a fan of the Book of Revelation.)

I really quite prefer your interpretation, and I think you've done a marvelous job arguing for it. If I'd read Narnia recently, I might even be able to respond in more detail, but it's been awhile since I read anything except The Silver Chair and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

So thanks. :)
nell65
Sep. 1st, 2005 03:53 pm (UTC)
Wandered in from metafandom -
I realize you may not be on line, just at present, but I thought I would respond anyway as I have a POV on Susan I haven't seen expressed here yet - and wondered how you, or others who've commented here, might respond.

I read Narnia meta occasionally, and so came to yours and it is a lovely essay.

But my entire reaction to Susan and Narnia and the Susan problem has always been something entirely different than the topic of your essay.

I was given four of the Narnia books as a child and, like so many, adored The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and really enjoyed some of the others, and enjoyed some less...and gradually over several years read my way through the end of the series.

I'm definitely one of the ones who hated The Last Battle, but - and not having the faintest notion that this was all Christian allegory or that Aslan was Christ or God (I've always been a little unclear which....) - what I hated was that Lewis destroyed his own fantasy world and revealed that it was all insubstantial and, well, in my tweenish veiw - essentially false. The whole image of the world of mirrors and it's association of funhouses at cheap carnivals connected in my mind with scary clowns and cheap thrills. As far as I was concerned, Lewis had taken his beautiful Narnia, where I wanted to go through the back of a closet, and ruined it be revealing that it was nothing more than the inside of some stupid talking Lion's head. A talking Lion who had been shitting with me about what he had to offer.

Again, I repeat, it was only decades later and as a grad student that I realized that I was supposed to be making the Narnia=Heaven association.

The result of this was that I manged to invert the entire thing and read Lewis as presenting Susan as the only *lucky* one! Susan, and only Susan, was the only one of her family to escape the horrid fate of being trapped between the dimensions of some crazed, megalomaniac's mind. (Okay - so, I was reading a LOT of science fiction by that point....!). So, I manged (in the absence of knowing anything else of Lewis) to see him actually approving of her 'growing up' and putting Narnia in the category of childhood pretened.

It came as quite a shock, later on, to discover that I was supposed to see that Susan - the one who lived - was the excluded one, and that the rest of her family, who, you know, *died* and got sucked into that weird funhouse world, were the chosen.

Thus revealing that despite having attended church most of my life, in one form or another, that the basic Christian POV hasn't ever really made sense to me. (BTW, I know I'm not the only reader who managed to invert the whole like this. It may be a minority reaction, but it isn't just me...)

So - just throwing a completely different take on Susan and Narnia into the mix.
rj_anderson
Sep. 1st, 2005 04:07 pm (UTC)
Re: Wandered in from metafandom -
That's an unusual take on it, to be sure! I can't recall anything in the book that would support the idea that the whole thing was in Aslan's head and that Narnia, the children, etc. were just imaginary, though. Perhaps it was the description of "layers like an onion" that made you think so, and made you feel that the heavenly Narnia and the heavenly England described at the end of TLB were less real than the "Shadowland" versions of them, rather than being more real, more glorious, bigger etc., as Lewis (or Aslan) described.
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elspethdixon
Sep. 1st, 2005 06:05 pm (UTC)
This is a very thought provoking and well written essay, and you bring up some very good points, particularly in regards to Lewis's attitudes about sex and vanity. I, too, never saw Susan's decision to abandon Narnia as having anything to do with sex. I saw her absence in The Last Battle not as Aslan's rejection of her, but as her rejection of Narnia. For me it was her, "Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children." that was the significant sentence. Her relegation of Narnia to a silly childhood game implied to me that, while she might have fond memories of it, she no longer truly understood Aslan, Narnia, or her own siblings, and was even somewhat ashamed of her own participation in the whole thing.

On the other hand, while the idea made me sad, I never blamed Susan for it. All of the adults (and other children, too) who knew the Pevensie children would naturally have assumed that Narnia was part of some complicated game of pretend any time they heard them discussing it, and would have told them so ("You children have such wonderful imaginations! Now let's talk about real things, please."). It only made sense that one of the kids, at least, wold start believing that, once they'd been told Narnia wasn't real (and that it was time to grow up and think about other things) often enough.

Granted, I read all the books in elementary school, when I was young and inocent and had only the vaguest notion that they were a Christian allegory. I knew Alsan was supposed to be like Christ from the Stone Table sequence onward, but I never really thought about what that might imply about the nature of Narnia. Instead, I related what happened in them to my own experiences. Edmund, Peter, and Lucy were the "geek" or "fangirl" children, the ones who kept the abilty to live in their own imaginary world beyond childhood. Susan was the normal one--and therefore was probably just as happy outside of Narnia as she would have been inside it. I did always feel sad that she had to lose the whole rest of her family, though.
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