One of the unsettling details in the Chronicles of Narnia is that Susan, one of the original four children who stumble into the wardrobe, does not go into Aslan’s country at the conclusion of the series. She is apparently an apostate, who came to prefer worldly shallow concerns like “nylons and lipstick and invitations” to Narnia. Symbolically, she seemed to be rejecting the Christianity that Narnia means, signifying her damnation.
And yet, a child back in C. S. Lewis’s day asked the author about this, and he gave a very different answer. Jeremy Lott tells about it, and poses a challenge of his own.
When it comes time to defend Narnia in The Last Battle, Lewis’s take on the apocalypse, Queen Susan is unexpectedly AWOL.
Peter explains “shortly and gravely” that “my sister Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia.” Other Narnia kids pillory Susan in her absence for a number of things, including denying the reality of Narnia itself and embracing a permanent adolescence which excludes everything “except nylons and lipstick and invitations.”
That news left many readers baffled. Paul Ford, founder of the Southern California C.S. Lewis Society, admits in Companion to Narnia that Susan’s “fall from grace appears sudden and, to the extent that this appears so, shows an uncharacteristic lapse of style on Lewis’s part.”
Critics have built an awful lot on Susan’s sudden absence. Emily Wilson in the New Republic wrote about feminist qualms she had while reading the Narnia books to her daughter. Her view is representative of many liberal critics of Lewis on this point, though mercifully more brief. Wilson was bothered by the “fear or the hostility that Lewis expresses toward adult female sexuality,” as evidenced by the fact that “poor Susan cannot get into heaven because she starts wearing lipstick.”
With Lewis 50 years in the grave this week, we can’t pull off the Woody Allen-Marshall McLuhan “You know nothing of my work” routine, but we can do the next best thing. You see, children in the 1950s and 1960s read The Last Battle and were concerned about Queen Susan’s absence. They wrote directly to professor Lewis and he wrote them back.
What Lewis said to his favorite readers was that he hadn’t meant to suggest Susan was damned, just that her story diverged from the one he was trying to tell.
Lewis wrote to one young reader that Susan was written out of the story not because “I have no hope of Susan’s ever getting into Aslan’s country” — that is, Heaven — “but because I have a feeling that the story of her journey would be longer and more like a grown-up novel than I wanted to write.”
Lewis admitted fallibility and issued a startling invitation: “But I may be mistaken. Why not try it yourself?”
Ford calls Susan’s story “one of the most important unfinished tales of the Chronicles.”
Critics have argued a lot about Susan’s fate. Ford suggests a close reading of the books shows her departure isn’t as abrupt as it might seem at first. In First Things, Matthew Alderman usefully disputes some interpretations of the text.
Apologies to the scholars and all their diligent efforts, but frankly I find all that quite boring.
That’s because I find Lewis’s words themselves so exciting.
“Why not try it yourself?”
Who has tried to tell Susan’s story?
That’s not a rhetorical question. I really want to know, and am asking fans and scholars of Narnia to help a guy out here.
I have glanced at some fanfic sites but have found them bewildering and need pointers.
Also, Lewis’s question should have served as a challenge to serious fictioneers, of children’s books, YA novels, or serious works of literature. Have professional writers taken up the challenge to tell Susan’s story?
I’m even not talking about authorized interpretation, which the C.S. Lewis estate might or might not go along with.
In the story Halcyon, husband and wife team of Marc Guggenheim and Tara Butters wrote what was in effect a sequel to the famous graphic novel Watchmen by stripping the Watchmen characters back to their archetypes and telling what might have happened from the end of Alan Moore’s famous story.
I want to know, has someone done that with Susan Pevensie’s story?
And if not, what is keeping them?
Let’s take up the challenge, if not in a “grown up novel,” in your comments. Write a story pitch–as is common in the movie industry–summing up a storyline that ends in Susan’s salvation. In line with Lewis’s parameters, make it a realistic “grown up” story rather than a fantasy. Who knows? Maybe someone will turn your “treatment” into a novel or a movie!