First off, I’m going to say that if you don’t know what I mean by “the problem of Susan,” this blog post probably is going to bore you to tears, as it’s a lengthy discourse on the fate of a fictional character. For the rest of you, go read the piece I read earlier this week that moved me almost to tears and inspired this blog post. That’s right, read it now. I’ll wait till you get back.
There can’t be many readers of the Chronicles of Narnia who haven’t been troubled by the fate of Susan Pevensie in The Last Battle. I know it bothered me, and I think Lewis meant for it to bother me. I’m not sure he meant for it to bother people (especially women) in quite the way it has been bothering them in the last couple of decades. The response a lot of readers have is very well explored in Neil Gaiman’s beautiful and disturbing short story “The Problem of Susan” (it’s OK, go read that too — I’ve got time – but remember I did say “disturbing”).
Contemporary YA fantasy author Philip Pullman, who notoriously hates the Narnia books, said of Susan: “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.”
And J.K. Rowling, who you’d think might understand a bit better, said, “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.”
Just so we’re all clear, here’s the actual passage in The Last Battle in which Susan’s fate is brought up and dismissed in a little under 200 words:
“Sire,” said Tirian … “if I have read the chronicles aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sister? 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 being grown-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 on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”
I feel strongly that many readers, including Pullman and Gaiman and Rowling, miss the point Lewis is making here, for reasons that are partly Lewis’s own fault and partly not. People interpret Susan’s fate as misogynistic and anti-sex because the things the other characters report as Susan’s new interests — nylons and lipstick — are traditional markers of adult female sexuality in that time period. And let’s not kid ourselves — Lewis was a misogynist, in exactly that casual, unexamined early twentieth-century white-middle-class-male way that Tolkein and loads of other writers were. But he had, I believe, a very specific point he wanted to make about childhood, adulthood, magic and faith, and he used Susan to make it, and it wasn’t a point about women or about sexuality. He certainly had his issues with women and sex, but I’d argue very strongly that they’re not on display in the Susan problem.
The point Lewis wanted to make about Susan could have been made just as easily by having Peter, the High King (who is after all only a year older than Susan so at the same point in young-adulthood) become obsessed with playing football, or starting a financial career in the City. It’s about the transition from the magical world of childhood faith and fantasy (as represented by Narnia) to the world of adult concerns, which in your late teens and early twenties often seem so much more alluring and exciting, but frequently end up being far less magical than we think they’re going to be.
The key to this is found in Lewis’s own spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, where he makes it very clear that he sees a direct link between childhood imagination and love of fantasy, and adult religious faith. Indeed, in Lewis’s worldview, one leads very directly to the other, but many of us get sidetracked by “growing up.”
“Boyhood is very like the ‘dark ages’ not as they were but as they are represented in bad, short histories. The dreams of childhood and those of adolescence may have much in common; between them often, boyhood stretches like an alien territory in which everything (ourselves included) has been greedy, cruel, noisy and prosaic, in which the imagination has slept and the most unideal sense and ambitions have been restlessly, even maniacally, awake. In my own life it was certainly so.” (Surprised by Joy).
The fact that J.K. Rowling is troubled by Susan’s fate interests me, because in my mind, the exact parallel would be if, immediately after the events of Deathly Hallows, Hermoine Granger had looked around at the wreckage of the Battle of Hogwarts and said, “You know what? I’m eighteen years old, I’m brilliant, and back in the real world, both my parents are successful dentists. I could probably take a year of home study to fill in the horrific gaps in my high school education, get into a good university, and go to med school. I’d be able to live out my life enjoying modern technology, having lots of money, and never getting murdered by evil sorcerers. Win/win! ‘Bye Harry! ‘Bye Ron!”
It’s not about adulthood equalling sexuality and dangerous femaleness, for Lewis — it’s about children rejecting fantasy and magic for what they see as a more serious adult world that promises success. This is exactly the vision of “the world” that Jesus warns His disciples they should be “in but not of” — the world of accumulating stuff, impressing others, being a success. And Lewis believed it was far less “real” than the fantasy worlds of childhood.
That, at least, is what I’m pretty sure Lewis had in mind when he allowed Susan to grow up to forget and even make fun of Narnia, when he kept her off that train and thus left her to experience the death of her entire family (and several close family friends).
Of course that narrative decision would have left a real-life Susan with horrific trauma and probably PTSD, but authors, especially fantasy authors, are notorious for leaving characters hanging without worrying too much about the real-world consequences of what happens in a fantasy world. I still remember with horror wondering what happened to the two characters from Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry when they got back to real-life Toronto — how they would explain the absence of their three friends who’d either died or chosen to remain in Fionavar. A friend of mine attended a talk at which someone asked Kay that question and he said he had no idea — he hadn’t really thought about it. (In fact, he may have been disingenuous with that, because he did answer that question in a much later book, Ysabel — but it took many years and at the time what lingered with me was a writer’s willingness to leave characters up a creek without a paddle).
My point is, Lewis is not the first or last writer to work things out within his fantasy world in ways that make sense within that world, without thinking too much about how that would work out in real life. By the time he wrote the end of The Last Battle I don’t think he was thinking much about Susan Pevensie as a real human being. I think he was thinking of her as a type of all the short-sighted young people, male and female — young people like he felt he had been himself — who are in a hurry to abandon what they consider “childish things” and may in fact be closing their eyes to deeper spiritual realities in the process.
There are some of us — the saints and mystics, the artists and writers, the geeks and nerds — who don’t successfully make that transition to adulthood, who keep reaching back into the fantasy worlds of childhood to fuel the rest of our lives, and these people, I think Lewis was arguing, are more easily and directly connected to the worlds of faith and spirituality. Because they have never given up believing in Aslan, they find it easier to believe in Jesus than do the girls who got obsessed with nylons and lipstick (or for that matter with stock portfolios and fast cars), and the boys who excelled in sports and had good careers. People who hold onto childhood’s magic, he would have argued, are more spiritually attuned than those who have lived only in and for the dull material world.
Except — it’s a lovely idea, and as a lifelong denizen of fantasy worlds I want to believe it’s true, but — it’s not, is it? Lewis wasn’t wholly wrong, of course — but he wasn’t wholly right either. I know deeply spiritual stockbrokers and ruthlessly materialistic poets. People don’t divide so simply into two different types. We are so much more complex.
The ideal path, Lewis suggests in the Narnia books, is to believe in Narnia as a child and transfer that to an adult belief in heaven that will eventually see you “farther up and farther in.” If you abandon that childhood faith, you are not eternally lost (as many people seem to think Lewis meant for Susan to be, based on absolutely no internal evidence in the book) — you just have a difficult process of unlearning to get back to simple childlike faith.
The thing is — I don’t think anymore that there is only one path. What I love about the blog piece I linked to originally, about Susan Pevensie, is that it imagines her life going down a different path. Not the path that took her siblings back to Narnia, but also not the path of frivolous self-absorption in the material world and its empty promises, either. Susan, in this telling, can remain both a fairy-tale queen and a denizen of the “real world.” She can mature in her own way, find richness and depth and compassion through experiences that Lewis could probably never have imagined her having.
I blogged a couple of months ago about standing at this crossroads in life where my kids are teenagers, moving into their own lives, making their own choices. About how important it is for me to realize that their paths through life are not going to look exactly like I would plan or imagine them. That some of the magical worlds I tried to introduce them to in their childhood might be left behind.
It’s important to me to remember, to believe, that there is more than one way to get through life with beauty and grace and love. That when I think a child is turning her back on a magical world, she may be moving towards something she needs to find, even if it involves nylons and lipstick.
For the record, I have always, always believed that Susan Pevensie got back to Narnia. Much later, after a long, sad, happy, full life. And that when she got there, her brothers and sisters forgave her, and she forgave them. And they lived ever after.