Among the many things that bother contemporary readers in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is his treatment of Susan, the eldest sister and second-oldest sibling of the four Pevensie children who defeat the White Witch to become the rules of of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In The Final Battle, the last book of the series, the other Pevensies (Peter, Edmund, and Lucy) are killed in a train crash, along with their parents and other series protagonist (Digory, Polly, Eustace, and Jill) and then admitted to heaven, which turns out to be a second, better Narnia.*
Susan does not come with them.
Her brother, Peter, says of this, “My sister Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia.”
Their cousin Eustace adds that whenever you try to get her to talk about Narnia, she dismisses all the adventures as “those funny games we used to play when we were children.”
Eustace’s friend Jill bemoans that Susan is interested in nothing but “nylons and lipstick and invitations.” She says Susan is obsessed with being grown-up, but elderly Polly corrects her: Susan is not grown-up, she is just fixated on arriving at “the silliest time of one’s life” and staying there as long as possible.
Many interpret this sequence as indicating that Susan has been rejected from Narnia because she embraces her femininity and sexuality. J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman both criticize Lewis on this point. Neil Gaiman wrote a short story about it. And, as you might have seen around on the Internet, Faith Erin Hicks wrote this amazing blog entry on what Susan could have, should have been.
It’s fantastic. You should read it. And I would read and love Hicks’s Chronicles of Susan in a flash.
However, although I could agree that the Walden movies’ Susan lays the groundwork for a story like hers, I don’t think this view of Susan is consistent with the Susan Pevensie C. S. Lewis wrote in his books. And here’s why.
First, let me agree about a few things: C. S. Lewis’s work is sexist and anti-feminist. The most devastating literary betrayal I have ever felt was at the age of thirteen when I understood that not being Christian, male, or what C. S. Lewis would consider white made me a permanent second-class Narnian. Even Lewis agreed that he was sexist: in Mere Christianity and other works, he essentially writes, yes, these different roles for men and women seem unfair, but that’s what God wants.
I also stand by my previous commitment to the idea that the author is dead. I’m not critiquing Rowling’s or Pullman’s or Gaiman’s or Hicks’s interpretations of Susan as invalid or wrong. I’m just want to add my own thoughts to the plurality of voices on this topic.
Also, The Last Battle is seriously the worst and most boring book of the entire series.
But as I read it, Susan Pevensie is not Ginny Weasley, a sex-positive brave young lady. She’s Petunia Dursley. She has chosen to follow fear of rejection and discomfort over faith in what’s right.
Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia because she has chosen not to be, not because Narnia rejects her. She could have been on that train too — her siblings and cousins and friends asked her to join them, but she turned them down. She is the person who is scared to admit that fantasy and science fiction have value because they are not “real”–and who knows what people might think of you if you admit to finding truth in lies? In Prince Caspian, Miraz and his men suppress the truth of Aslan because they’re afraid of it; likewise, Susan suppresses the truth about Narnia because giving up the regard of her peers scares her.
(“Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children!”)
She’s the person who would laugh at our discussions about her because “they’re just kids’ books” and “omigod, it’s about a lion who’s Jesus. Seriously, guys?” but also because having to confront privilege and restrictive values and sexuality, having to rock the social boat, would privately terrify her.
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Susan wants to turn back and admits she wishes they’d never come but still is able to admit that they must stay and “try to do something” for the captured Mr. Tumnus. But when the Stone Table cracks, she wants to run away until Lucy makes her investigate. By Prince Caspian, she almost lets herself get mauled by a bear because she is too scared that it might be a Talking Bear to shoot it. She repeats that Lucy’s “been dreaming” when Lucy claims to have seen Aslan but she admits later that she really did believe it was Aslan. Instead of standing up for what’s right, as she did in the beginning, she’s learned instead to “listen to fears” (as Aslan puts it).
Although I understand why “nylons and lipstick and invitations” can be interpreted as symbols of sexuality, I read them differently as a teenager. In part, that was because of my personal experience. I don’t and didn’t care much about make-up or fashion, and I was never interested in popularity and the “right” kind of clothes or music or movies. Now, there’s nothing wrong with caring about those things. There’s nothing wrong with caring about anything.
But as a teenage girl, I often felt that others, my peers and authority figures, were trying to either force those things on me or judge me because I didn’t want them. And it made me saddest of all to see people I loved dismiss things I knew interested them as “for losers” because they were afraid of getting mocked. Lipstick and nylons represented to me not free expression of sexuality but social convention restricting the expression of self (and gender and sexuality to boot).
Now, I’m perfectly happy for those who want to wear lipstick and nylons to do so and don’t think they’re better or worse than anyone else, but my feelings about how they were enforced as a social norm still informed my interpretation of Lewis. I felt Susan’s tragedy was that she’d hidden away the way she saw the world in favour of the way she thought the world wanted to see her. C’mon, guys, Narnia is for babies. All the cool people only care about parties.
To me, then, Susan’s crime, then, is the human and often sensible one of considering consequences both practical and social before acting. It’s thinking–or overthinking, depending on where you stand on her final decisions. It’s cutting yourself off from who you really are out of fear of that person not being attractive enough or good enough or cool enough. And it’s not permanent–just like my friends and me eventually did, you can grow out of caring whether other people think you’re cool. I always figured Susan could choose to return to Narnia at any time.
Now, this is still horrible. Nobody deserves to have all the rest of their beloved family die because they entertained reasonable doubts and cared about being socially accepted just like every other person on the planet does at some point. And how the heck is it Susan’s fault she doesn’t have Lucy’s wide-eyed credulity (the girl goes home with a stranger who intends to kill her within five minutes of meeting him)? Or that she’s not as selfish as Edmund, who only comes around to Aslan because he betrays his siblings and then has to face the consequences of his actions? I’m not saying that there’s no problem with Susan.
There is definitely a problem with Susan.
I’m saying the girl has 99 problems.** And each one can spark discussion.
* If my writing style sounds stranger than usual, it’s because I’ve been reading nothing but George Bernard Shaw for the past few weeks in order to finish the last of my books before the new year. When I start to spell “show” S-H-E-W, stage an intervention.