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2005.11.13

Comments

Sarah

I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one who wondered what was so wrong with poor Susan's choices. I guess I understood the need to sacrifice a character, but I always thought it should have been Peter, not Susan. (I have a brother named Peter and that may have had something to do with my choice.) I liked lipstick. Still do.

Lisa

Sarah, that would have involved a MALE having moral culpability. Unthinkable!

When I was a little kid, the way the girls were portrayed in the book really bothered me, and the fact that some of the most actively evil characters were woman (Jadis, whom I believe was also the White Queen) did not pass by unnoticed.

For all that I loved the books -- because what dreamy, fiction-besotted kid didn't? -- I remember being very dissatisfied as how the little girls and women were portrayed. I think it's kind of cool now that little girls growing up don't just have the Narnia books as a fantasy-series fix: they've got Harry Potter and A Series of Unfortunate Events.

drunken monkey

Not sure if you've seen it yet, but Adam Gopnik looks at the upcoming Narnia movie in this week's New Yorker as well.

http://www.newyorker.com/critics/atlarge/articles/051121crat_atlarge

Tracy

Okay, have only re-read Lion and Caspian in my effort to revisit all the Chronicles before Dec. 7, so please forgive if I have forgotten --

but I thought I remembered that it wasn't about Susan taking on these feminine tokens as much as it was that she was growing up and moving away from the childhood one must possess in order to believe in and experience Narnia?

Anne

Re: the NYT article, I think Pullman can stuff it. The more I read about him, the less I like his shrill little stories. And Gaiman wrote Aslan on Witch slash? That's just strange.

I'd have to reread the section about what happened to Susan, but I thought the lipstick was completely tangential to the real problem: Susan denied that Narnia and Aslan were real. She said it was a game they used to play.

Working with the allegory, Susan declaimed faith as childish and denied the existence of God. That shit doesn't get you into heaven.

I've read debates before about how sexist the Narnia books are, but I guess I always figured if I was putting aside the Christianity to enjoy them, I could put aside a little gender bias as well. The books seemed so Victorian to me in some ways, I'm always surprised at how late they were written. As a child, I was always much more bothered by the racism in the portrayal of the Tashmen (?) than by the sexism.

Lisa

There's a passage where Lady Polly comments that what Susan did was move into her adolescence, and that Susan's mistakenly rejected her childlike belief and trust in Narnia-as-paradise as part of her quest to become more mature. And her interest in lipstick and nylons -- while making Susan feel more mature -- is merely the sign of a permanently immature mind.

When I was younger, I thought it was hogwash that Peter never had the problem with adulthood that Susan evidently does. Now that I'm older (and had re-read books in the last few years), I see it as a sort of conservative look at how women should behave if they want to remain morally pure.

Lisa

And posting again to add:

Anne, when I reread the books recently, my jaw dropped over how the Calormenes and Tashmen were portrayed. That really hadn't come through for me as a little kid.

I think I responded more to the Susan thing as a kid because I was ridiculously hypersensitive to what short shrift girls seemed to get in the kinds of stories I liked. I remember being v. put out at "Star Blazers" for the women on that show being primarily princesses and nurses, and getting in playground brawls whenever we played "Battlestar Galactica" because I wanted to be Starbuck or Boomer.

(This is prob. why I like the casting for the new show so much. Heh.)

To my childish mind, Susan was another example of girls being denied all the fun and/or acive making of happy endings just because they were girls. As a grown-up, I can see why she's meant to be an example of the dangers of the secular world, but I question why it's her and not Peter.

Josh

Well, I found "The Last Battle" to be kind of creepy in a number of ways anyways, so I tend to just sort of ignore it in the Narnia canon.

Admittedly, I never really thought that much about Susan's treatment in that book, partly because I saw her loss of faith as being somewhat foretold by the events of "Prince Caspian", wherein she struggled to see Aslan most among the children. The only other character for whom that progression would have made any kind of sense would have been Edward (at best) and it wouldn't have fit from his redemption arc in the earlier novels.

So I tend to agree with Anne. But I'd need to go back and check that passage from Lady Polly as well as other Susan-related instances.

But I think it would be difficult to do the loss of faith allegory that Lewis clearly wants to tell with another character and have any real impact, especially since by having it in this way it contrasts with the attitudes of the Dwarves at end.

James

I think Lewis is emphasizing the need for a childlike faith that is lost when one starts valuing temporary things (like being a socialite) more than the eternal. As Lewis wrote elsewhere, "All that is not eternal is eternally out of date." Biblically he would have had texts such as these in mind:

"At that time Jesus said, `I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.'" (Matthew 11:25,26)

"Jesus said, `Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.'" (Matthew 19:14)

It's all about one's attitude. Lewis also reflected elsewhere about how he enjoyed children's stories greatly as a child, "outgrew them," and later came to the point where he could unabashedly enjoy them again. He's doubtless expressing the same point here in literary fashion.

As for the Calormenes, Lewis loved the Arabian Nights stories and borrowed from them in the same way that Star Trek borrows Vulcan/Romulan details from the Romans. The part in "The Last Battle" where they disguise themselves as Calormen by darkening their skin certainly strikes me as potentially negative today, but as a kid I think I took it the same way as when Kirk put on pointy ears to disguise himself as a Romulan.

Ellie

I agree with Anne and James - the criticism isn't specifically directed at Susan's femininity, but at her worldliness - her disavowal of the Narnian adventure in her determination to be "grown up". It would avoid any sexist bias if it had been Peter, but within the construction of the story, I agree with Josh that it would have been difficult to carry off. And the other girls are a part of the happy ending.

The racial aspect I find a lot harder to deal with, though it is patently due to the conventions of the time.

The Susan Issue does bug me when it gets brought up, because it misses the point in such an ironically appropriate way. Lewis's issue is with Susan's lack of adventure and her limited vision, and his critics decry him for denying her personal freedom.

Alexis

Well, Neil Gaiman had a problem with C.S. Lewis. His little short story in "The Problem with Susan" is a slam against Lewis's conservative gender role viewpoint.

In three different parts, Gaiman shows us how far women have come since Lewis's day. Susan has become a never-married professor and is interviewed by a woman professional writer. Secondly, the section in the short story about Susan reading the Mary Poppins book illustrates the patronizing attitude that was held towards uppity women. And finally, exposing the hypocrisy of Aslan having sex with the white witch takes the cake. Aslan doesn't have to keep his sexuality under control.

I love how Gaiman sees past the mythos, repackages it, and weaves his own new tale around it. He doesn't make any excuses for C.S. Lewis. After all, Susan was denied paradise and for what?! In the end, Susan doesn't mind and neither does Gaiman since she has not conformed to Lewis's stodgy mores.(If your familiar with his other works, the dreams are a nice touch!)

Anne

"After all, Susan was denied paradise and for what?!"

For looking into the face of God and then denying his existence.

I'm not a Christian, but I was raised as one, and I'm fairly sure that a basic tenet of many of the Christian sects is that you actually have to believe in God to go to Heaven. The make-up and nylons were just outer indicators of the shallow, vain side of Susan that she demonstrates throughout the series; they were not the cause of her not going to Heaven.

I'm really going to have to reread that section to see why the cause and effect that seems to clear to me is so muddy to others.

Also, if Gaiman *sets up* the situation with Aslan having sex with the white witch, it doesn't prove anything at all about C.S. Lewis or Aslan's hypocrisy as C.S. Lewis wrote him. It just indicates that Gaiman is kinkier than I realized. Maybe he's also the secret author of the Crowley/Aziraphale slash fic I happened across once.

Jack Saelig

I should like to encourage readers to examine the material regarding Susan again. I too have read Mr. Pulman's books and have great respect for his craft and imagination, if not his unfortunate choice to put on blinders regarding Susan, merely because he is intolerant of Christianity.

I spent the last week re-reading the CoN, and took note in particular of the character of each of the children. Susan is conspicuously conservative and practical. This proves useful on a number of occasions (e.g. they put on the fur coats at her prompting rather than going strait away into the wintery adventure in LWW). However, it is her reluctance to face the adventure before her that is the problem. This is the classic fairy tale formula peeking in; the adventure is always the one that you never expected, and is just a little over your head, but ONLY if you have the faith to undertake it, will you be the one to get the golden egg, the magic sword, the fairy castle etc. As astutely noted by James and Ellie, the problem of Susan is not that she is damned to hell, but that she has strayed from the path of faith. It bears a more subtle reading than the multiculturalist lens of victimization would allow.

In one sense, I'm a little surprised that the deconstructionist reader is not in fact more intrigued by Susan, as she is in many ways much more complex than say, Peter. While adventurous in action, he does not show exceptional imaginiation. He doesn't take a stand until he sees, at which point his dutiousness is pretty much redoubtable. Susan on the other hand is the one only one that grapples with faith. She is complex because she stands in the shadowlands, seeing in both directions, and must struggle with discernment. A careful reading, putting neither more nor less into it than is in the text, shows that she is not damned, but merely left to struggle. She is not with the rest in Narnia, only because she is not on the train that wrecked. In this instance, she prioritized worldly matters higher than spiritual ones.

The very interesting problem, is in what she is to do following the sudden death of all her family, and the only other people who could shed light on the issue (Prof. Kirk and Polly). However, two important clues come to mind. We are not privy to just what Aslan says to her and Peter in Caspian, but is probably is similar to what is said to Lucy and Edmund, to whit, "you must learn to seek me in your world by another name." Furthermore, it is clearly mentioned more than once, in the chronicles, that "once a king or queen of Narnia, always a king or queen of Narnia." See Luke 15:1-7, and Romans 8:38-39.

If we are to seek out subtext, it seems much more likely, that having been a queen of Narnia for literally years, Susan could not mistake it for pretend or stories, much less, the experience of Aslan, face to face. I think that it is far more reasonable to assume that her choice not to participate in the circle of the Friends of Narnia has much more to do with the reluctance to face the possibility of pain, very like the way that some people pretend that the death of a friend is not as bad as all that. Her characteristic reluctance takes her to the supposed safety of not being reminded of the most beautiful experience of her life. In choosing to be practical about the loss of Narnia, she can pursue safer pleasures of a sort that won't disappoint (even if they don't fulfill either).

I would encourage readers to look past the reckless simplicity of Lewis' form which caught me as a child, and focus instead on the substance, which is what brought me back as an adult.


Stephani

Aslan having sex with the White Witch?...

Abby

Why did you think that the Silver Chair, in which Eustace--first introduced in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader--and Jill go to save Prince Rillian, the son of Caspian, should be the first book.

Lisa

Because I screwed up the original post, in which I confused "The Silver Chair" with the chair that Jadis is sitting on in "The Magician's Nephew." Off to edit now!

22nd Pathway

Hm. I never thought that CS Lewis blamed the lipstick on Susan's change of character. I always believed that it's more on Susan's choice that she merely downplayed her experience in Narnia as just a "silly game they used to play as children". She thinks it's no longer real, despite the fact the others didn't share her sentiments.

Kind of like the Dursleys in Harry Potter. They knew a magical world exists, yet they tried so hard to think that it doesn't, simply because of their narrowmindedness. I wouldn't be surprised if Susan had felt that sentiment one way or another, considering keeping the memories of talking animals and a magical world is not hugely accepted in a mature society that she wanted so hard to fit in.

Will Susan be reunited with her family in the end in Narnia? I don't know. But unlike her siblings, Susan will have the luxury to complete her journey in life, and only her character will know where that road will take her.

Melissa

Thank you so much Anne for your rational and very complete expression of the "Problem with Susan". Neil Gaiman had a problem with C.S. Lewis and can anyone else see the green monster playing a role here? In my opinion it is a simple matter of someone wishing to tear down the mountian he cannot surmount. For further reading and clarification on matters of C.S. Lewis being a women-hater as Neil Gaiman claims please do yourself the pleasure of reading his other series The Space Trilogy in which a man (or men) play the force of Evil and ultamately a women plays the salvation of man. The tale of Adam and Eve re-explored on another planet where Eve is not blinded by satans temptation.

ginger

I believe, Melissa, that you have conflated Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman.

Steve

do yourself the pleasure of reading his other series The Space Trilogy in which a man (or men) play the force of Evil and ultamately a women plays the salvation of man.

Not to mention ignored the fact that in That Hideous Strength Jane's decision not to have a child is referred to as "a thing of which no less sorrow shall come than came of the blow that Balinus struck". I love Lewis, but a lot of his fiction has... conflicted attitudes about women.

Mark

Where in any of the Narnia books does it say that Susan was on the "fast track to hell"? In "The Last Battle" it is simply stated that "Susan is no longer a friend" to Narnia. She's simply forgotten all about it and gotten older. Nowhere does it say it is permanent...but the story is left open ended, much like life. Not everyone makes the "best" decisions.

Even if one does think of it as a "raw deal"...the character did it to herself. Susan chose to move on. Polly doesn't like the decision. Its that simple. It never says that Susan doesn't join up with them once she passes on. The parents meet them in the new world and they had never even been to Narnia. Everyone makes too big a deal out of this. She simply had forgotten Narnia and moved on...therefore she was no longer a "friend" to the people of Narnia. No more than anyone else from "our" world who had never learned of the existence of Narnia.

JK Rowlings critque of the whole thing is simply laughable. "Susan found sex" and therefore isn't welcome???? WTF?

Lisa

Simmer down, Narnia fanboy!

Although other people have made coherent, cogent arguments for why it was necessary for one character to fall away from Narnia (to illustrate the price of belief) and pointed out that the story's left open-ended -- and there's merit to those arguments -- that still doesn't discount my reaction as a reader.

When I read the books as a kid, I thought Susan (as a character) got short shrift, and her fate sucked. After writing this post and reading some of the responses, I went back and re-read the books with Susan in them. I still think she got a raw deal from her creator (C.S. Lewis) -- she's underdeveloped as a character, traits that aren't necessarily bad (prudence, practicality) are used to demonstrate flaws in her character (because she's unable or unwilling to blindly believe), and she gets kicked out of Narnia long before she decides not to be a friend.

In "Prince Caspian," Aslan's the one who takes Susan and Peter aside, tells them they're too old, and that they'll have to come to know him in their own world. We know she's had shaky faith -- she's cautious by nature -- and to be expelled from the kingdom and told to try again in her own world, solely because she's too old chronologically ... if the point is that faith tests us all unreasonably, and that point's fine with you, then so be it. I personally don't see why one character should be so tested without a shot at redemption in the narrative arc. Her story feels incomplete. What's the point of a character sacrifice if you can't see all the steps leading up to it?

Also, I think the way the other characters offhandedly dismiss her says volumes about C.S. Lewis's attitudes in re: mature female sexuality.

Finally, on a personal note, the whole "she did it to herself" sentiment REALLY rubs me the wrong way. It smacks of "she asked for it" -- the kind of argument used to justify anything from judgment to retaliation.

Dano

In a way, Susan represents the elements in Lewis' own personality from which he had turned away. She is "prudent" and "practical". This is what Lewis must have believed about himself whilst an atheist. In addition, the "sex" issue may also reflect Lewis- there is evidence that, before his conversion, he may have carried on a long-term affair himself. The critiqe of "sexism" in this situation seems weak, as Susan is as much Lewis himself she is a representation of female sexuality and independence.
The "racism" element toward the Calormenes, while certainly true, may not refer to Islam per se. Tisroc, Tash, and other Calormen cultural elements are as much derived from ancient middle eastern paganism as they are from Islam. The "may he live forever" line may come from the representation of Babylon in "The Story of the Amulet". In addition, at least one "good" Calormene gets into heaven, while some of the Narnians who tried to "straddle the fence" do not.
As to the witch and Aslan, in addition to being absurd and pointless, the witch was clearly terrified of Aslan. Why would she let him that close?

Rachel

I also agree with Anne and James.

When reading as a child and as a so-called adult, I did not see Susan as being eternally barred from Aslan's presence. She lived on. She may have tried the socialite race, matured and come full circle back to Aslan at the end of her natural life. In that respect, C.S.Lewis was very kind to her character. He could have had her on the train, too, and had her brothers and sisters wondering where she had gotten to for the entire book only to find her copulating with Tash in the stable!

Aslan never said that she was damned from him. In Lewis's world, even people who worship the wrong diety worship the right one in the end ;) I think Susan made it in after all.

Raissa

There's another issue inherent in Susan's situation -- Divine Right Of Kings:

Divine Right Of Kings

Narnia, Susan, & Divine Right

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