R.J. Anderson (rj_anderson) wrote,
R.J. Anderson

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The Problem of Susan

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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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."

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.
Tags: c.s. lewis, christianity, essays, narnia, problem of susan
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