“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.” - JK Rowling
Can we talk about Susan’s fabulous adventures after Narnia? The ones where she wears nylons and elegant blouses when she wants to, and short skirts and bright lipstick when she wants to, and hiking boots and tough jeans and big men’s plaid shirts when she feels like backpacking out into the mountains and remembering what it was to be lost in a world full of terrific beauty— I know her siblings say she stops talking about it, that Susan walks away from the memories of Narnia, but I don’t think she ever really forgot.
I want to read about Susan finishing out boarding school as a grown queen reigning from a teenaged girl’s body. School bullies and peer pressure from children and teachers who treat you like you’re less than sentient wouldn’t have the same impact. C’mon, Susan of the Horn, Susan who bested the DLF at archery, and rode a lion, and won wars, sitting in a school uniform with her eyebrows rising higher and higher as some old goon at the front of the room slams his fist on the lectern.
Susan living through WW2, huddling with her siblings, a young adult (again), a fighting queen and champion marksman kept from the action, until she finally storms out against screaming parents’ wishes and volunteers as a nurse on the front. She keeps a knife or two hidden under her clothes because when it comes down to it, they called her Gentle, but sometimes loving means fighting for what you care for.
She’ll apply to a women’s college on the East Coast, because she fell in love with America when her parents took her there before the war. She goes in majoring in Literature (her ability to decipher High Diction in historical texts is uncanny), but checks out every book she can on history, philosophy, political science. She sneaks into the boys’ school across town and borrows their books too. She was once responsible for a kingdom, roads and taxes and widows and crops and war. She grew from child to woman with that mantle of duty wrapped around her shoulders. Now, tossed here on this mundane land, forever forbidden from her true kingdom, Susan finds that she can give up Narnia but she cannot give up that responsibility. She looks around and thinks I could do this better.
I want Susan sneaking out to drink at pubs with the girls, her friends giggling at the boys checking them out from across the way, until Susan walks over (with her nylons, with her lipstick, with her sovereignty written out in whatever language she damn well pleases) and beats them all at pool. Susan studying for tests and bemoaning Aristotle and trading a boy with freckles all over his nose shooting lessons so that he will teach her calculus. Susan kissing boys and writing home to Lucy and kissing girls and helping smuggle birth control to the ladies in her dorm because Susan Pevensie is a queen and she understands the right of a woman to rule over her own body.
Susan losing them all to a train crash, Edmund and Peter and Lucy, Jill and Eustace, and Lucy and Lucy and Lucy, who Susan’s always felt the most responsible for. Because this is a girl who breathes responsibility, the little mother to her three siblings until a wardrobe whisked them away and she became High Queen to a whole land, ruled it for more than a decade, then came back centuries later as a legend. What it must do to you, to be a legend in the body of a young girl, to have that weight on your shoulders and have a lion tell you that you have to let it go. What is must do to you, to be left alone to decide whether to bury your family in separate ceremonies, or all at once, the same way they died, all at once and without you. What it must do to you, to stand there in black, with your nylons, and your lipstick, and feel responsible for these people who you will never be able to explain yourself to and who you can never save.
Maybe she dreams sometimes they made it back to Narnia after all. Peter is a king again. Lucy walks with Aslan and all the dryads dance. Maybe Susan dreams that she went with them— the train jerks, a bright light, a roar calling you home.
Maybe she doesn’t.
Susan grows older and grows up. Sometimes she hears Lucy’s horrified voice in her head, “Nylons? Lipstick, Susan? Who wants to grow up?” and Susan thinks, “Well you never did, Luce.” Susan finishes her degree, stays in America (England looks too much like Narnia, too much like her siblings, and too little, all at once). She starts writing for the local paper under the pseudonym Frank Tumnus, because she wants to write about politics and social policy and be listened to, because the name would have made Edmund laugh.
She writes as Susan Pevensie, too, about nylons and lipstick, how to give a winning smiles and throw parties, because she knows there is a kind of power there and she respects it. She won wars with war sometimes, in Narnia, but sometimes she stopped them before they began.
Peter had always looked disapprovingly on the care with which Susan applied her makeup back home in England, called it vanity. And even then, Susan would smile at him, say “I use what weapons I have at hand,” and not explain any more than that. The boy ruled at her side for more than a decade. He should know better.
Vain is not the proper word. This is about power. But maybe Peter wouldn’t have liked the word “ambition” any more than “vanity.”
Susan is a young woman in the 50s and 60s. Frank Tumnus has quite the following now. He’s written a few books, controversial, incendiary. Susan gets wrapped up in the civil rights movement, because of course she would. It’s not her first war. All the same, she almost misses the White Witch. Greed is a cleaner villain than senseless hate. She gets on the Freedom Rider bus, mails Mr. Tumnus articles back home whenever there’s a chance, those rare occasions they’re not locked up or immediately threatened. She is older now than she ever was in Narnia. Susan dreams about Telemarines killing fauns.
Time rolls on. Maybe she falls in love with a young activist or an old cynic. Maybe she doesn’t. Maybe Frank Tumnus, controversial in the moment, brilliant in retrospect, gets offered an honorary title from a prestigious university. She declines and publishes an editorial revealing her identity. Her paper fires her. Three others mail her job offers.
When Vietnam rolls around, she protests in the streets. Susan understands the costs of war. She has lived through not just through the brutal wars of one life, but two.
Maybe she has children now. Maybe she tells them stories about a magical place and a magical lion, the stories Lucy and Edmund brought home about how if you sail long enough you reach the place where the seas fall off the edge of the world. But maybe she tells them about Cinderella instead, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, except Rapunzel cuts off her own hair and uses it to climb down the tower and escape. The damsel uses what tools she has at hand.
A lion told her to walk away, and she did. He forbade her magic, he forbade her her own kingdom, so she made her own.
Susan Pevensie did not lose faith. She found it.
I’m thoroughly impressed by this well-written short essay, because “The Problem of Susan” is another reason among several that turned me right off the Narnia books.
“Susan Pevensie" was where Lewis aimed his bullet-with-a-name-on-it, but even at the age of twelve I had an uneasy feeling that the rest of the belt of ammo was for less direct delivery "to whom it may concern”. Being “talked at” (the oblique version of being “talked to” or worse, “talked down to”) is a good old Northern Irish custom, one I’d already experienced often enough to recognise it in print as clearly as hearing it aloud.
Accurate interpretation or not, it felt like it was meant not just for the unnamed girls who were grown-up enough to get interested in wearing lipstick and nylons, but the unnamed boys who were grown-up enough to get interested in girls who were doing that. Like, for instance, me. I was grown-up enough to get interested when I was about twelve-into-thirteen, but not grown-up enough for several years more to do anything but daydream. You call it letching if you like, but what I remember of those daydreams was that they were fairly innocent.
You have to remember that this was Northern Ireland in 1969-70, where The Troubles were just starting and the Swinging Sixties never happened. The joke “We are now landing at Aldergrove Airport, where the local time and year are both 19:55" was too realistic to be funny. I was growing up in that environment, and now I was being informed by one of the most highly thought-of locally born writers that appreciating more grown-up things was abandoning some sort of primal innocence. It was Wrong, I was Wrong, and I wouldn’t be allowed Nice Things even if all my other relatives got to have them. The feeling was a bit like going downstairs in the dark and finding you’ve miscounted. It’s a nasty jolt.
“Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” [C. S. Lewis]
I read fairy-tales when I was ten (earlier, too) and had already learned to call them “folklore.” I still read them now, and I still call them “folklore.” I was a bright but rather po-faced kid, and family photos where I’m smiling are unusual. Maybe I was trying to be grown-up and serious and sensible (my family wouldn’t believe that for a minute) or maybe I’d seen enough other photos to know what “grinning like an idiot” looked like, and wanted none of it.
However, condemning those who leap at all the new pleasures of becoming an adult - dressing up in clothes you get to pick yourself, going out to more than just parentally-supervised birthday parties, indulgence in things officially-unavailable-to-youngsters during that brief bright period before the appearance of other adult things like work and taxes, overdraft, rent or mortgage - is to manage the curious simultaneous feat of being annoyingly childish (Ew, cooties!) and tiresomely adult (Are you never going to grow up?)
C.S. Lewis was born in 1898, and died unreasonably young at only 64; he could have lived into the world of the 1990s, and what would he have made of that? Northern Ireland in his youth must have been even more stiflingly provincial than it was in mine. He had a long career as an academic at both Oxford and Cambridge (insert reference to ivy-covered cloisters or even ivory tower whether required or not) and as a writer. That doesn’t mean he spent his entire life wrapped in cotton-wool, unaware of what “The Real World” was doing – he served in and survived the First World War, and had a complex relationship with the mother of an Army friend who didn’t survive, but he was a man of his time, place and mindset.
After nine novels of my own and a bunch more as collaborations, I’m in a good position to say that fictional characters do not constantly speak with their author’s voice. But sometimes, even if only by accident, they do, and letting that voice get into print can be as revealing as saying something aloud without considering the consequences. Three of the Good People (Eustace, Jill and Polly) line up to take their shot at Susan, then her own brother dismisses the affair with startling brevity:
"Well, let’s not talk about that now," said Peter. "Look! Here are lovely fruit-trees. Let us taste them."
And that is the last we ever hear about Susan in the Chronicles of Narnia.
It’s also where things get awkward for me. The usual interpretation (as in J.K. Rowling’s quote at the very top) is that Susan was “no longer a friend of Narnia” because she was “interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations.” Translation from children’s-book speak: Susan is old enough to have discovered looking good, parties and probably boys (hang on, didn’t she go through something similar in A Horse and His Boy, to the extent that there were princes from all over the place vying for her hand?) Lewis’s more direct accusation is that she lost her faith, dismissed “all those funny games we used to play as children,” became frivolous, an airhead, a flapper, a bobby-soxer, a ditz.
Then lost her entire family in a rail crash.
For me it was (and is) not what’s said but what’s left out. Diane’s 1972 Bodley Head hardcover of The Last Battle continues for another four chapters and forty-five pages, but in all those words Lewis doesn’t suggest, doesn’t even hint at, the possibility Susan (and those like her) may be forgiven and redeemed. Forgiveness and redemption are two core tenets of the Christian faith he wrote so much about, yet for some reason he withheld both of them from a character in a children’s story who had been suddenly, massively bereaved.
Young readers of The Last Battle won’t be reading all the “what he really meant was…" explanations that are in print and on the Net. They aren’t a part of the book. When that is finally closed and put away, all they know is that the Good People have given reasons three times (sound familiar?) why Susan won’t get to Narnia and be reunited with the rest of her family. When the truth is revealed -
"There was a real railway accident," said Aslan softly. "Your father and mother and all of you are - as you used to call it in the Shadowlands - dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning."
- there’s no grief for Susan, no expression of hope that with repentance and a change of heart, or even just an iota of supposedly-infinite divine mercy, she will find her way back. Lewis may indeed have afterthought he’d dropped the narrative ball on this one, because he wrote a letter to a young fan – see Letters to Children, 22 Jan 1957 (p.67 of Diane’s Collins 1985 edition.) Whatever concern was in the fan’s own letter isn’t quoted, but that reference to “books” not “book” makes me wonder whether Martin had gone through the entire Narnian Chronicles looking for a clue that Susan might share the happy ending…
“Dear Martin - The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there is plenty of time for her to mend, and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end — in her own way. I think that whatever she had seen in Narnia she could (if she were the sort that wanted to) persuade herself, as she grew up, that it was ‘all nonsense.’”
But that hint of potential salvation isn’t in The Last Battle and wasn’t added during any reprints or new editions. So far as its narrative tells us, she’s been cast into Outer Darkness, meat for Screwtape, and there’s no reprieve, no Comfortable Words from any of them, not from Aslan, not from the Good People, not even from Lewis as narrator, to suggest her situation can or ever will change.
As a boy who went fairly willingly to morning and afternoon Sunday School, but was still more of an age to read Narnia books than any heavyweight theological stuff, that troubled me.
45 years later, it still does.