I read the Chronicles of Narnia over again and again and again as a child. My dad read them aloud to us, and we read them to ourselves, and then we acted them out in the woods, creating wooden swords and bows and going on adventures. The oldest four of us, two boys and two girls, took on the roles of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. This meant that I was Susan.
I felt very conflicted about being Susan. On the one hand, I loved Susan – strong and beautiful and brave, one of the kings and queens of Narnia. I wanted so badly to be like her. And on the other hand . . . Susan eventually turns her back on Narnia. She stops believing and exchanges it all for “lipstick and nylons.” This never felt fair. Or true, for that matter. It felt fake and wrong. And I have to say, I was slightly mad at C.S. Lewis for it.
Which is why I was thrilled to see Fred Clark address exactly this in a post titled Redeeming Susan Pevensie.
To this day, 40 years after first meeting her in the first sentence of the first book-book I ever read, I still have strong feelings about Susan Pevensie.
Not strong feelings for her — I don’t mean a reader’s crush — but about her. Anyone who has read and loved Lewis’ Narnia books has encountered the problem of Susan. Her story ends poorly. What happens to Susan is just wrong.
Lewis, it seemed, had one more Lesson he wanted to teach, and he chose to make Susan the victim of that lesson. What he does to Susan isn’t fair. Worse than that, one can’t help but think that what he tells us about Susan isn’t true.
One finds oneself defending Susan against the author, protesting that he doesn’t understand. The condemnation of Susan at the end of the Narnia series misses its mark, circling back around to fall on the author instead. C.S. Lewis mistakenly wrote that Susan had turned her back on Narnia, but what it really seems is that Lewis had turned his back on Susan.
If you’ve read those books, then you know just what I mean. If you’ve read those books and you somehow don’t know what I mean, then I’m liable to be cross with you.
We don’t need to discuss this in greater detail here because Ana Mardoll has been exploring the Narnia books with great depth and insight. She’s on Prince Caspian now, and whether you are a friend of Narnia or, like Susan (allegedly), “no longer a friend of Narnia,” you’ll want to read Ana’s entire series on Lewis’ Chronicles.
You should also read this very agreeable disagreement on “The Question of Susan,” in which Hapax and Kit Whitfield try to make sense of Lewis’ damnable damnation of Susan.
And then there’s Neil Gaiman’s melancholy and strange short story, “The Problem of Susan,” wherein he confronts the problem and, in a sense, compounds it by pushing the happy ending poor Susan deserved even further out of reach.
All of these remind us that the problem of Susan exists only because Lewis succeeded before failing. This only happens when a good story takes a bad turn. He gave us Susan Pevensie and made us care what happened to her, and then he told us that what happened to her was something implausible and unpleasant. We’re upset by this because she mattered to us — mattered too much for her to be discarded and punished just for the sake of another Lesson.
If Lewis hadn’t made us come to view Susan as a real person, we wouldn’t have minded so much when he stopped treating her like one.
That’s why Gaiman’s story — or even just the idea of his story — is so evocative. It reminds us that Susan is still out there. She didn’t die at the end of these books, after all. She, alone, didn’t die.
World War II was a long time ago, but she was just a child then. I suppose she’d be almost 90 by now. But then we read, over and over, that there was something in that Narnian air — air that she breathed for a whole other lifetime. So I suspect that even now she doesn’t look or feel quite like what one might expect from a 90-year-old woman. I suspect that if you met her now, you’d guess she was several decades younger than that.
And I suspect that if you had the chance to ask her, she’s have a few sharp thoughts about Mr. Lewis and his version of her story.
So, Ms. Pevensie, your highness, if you’re out there, I hope you’ll weigh in on this discussion. Most of all, though, I hope you’re well. And I hope you’re happy.
I’m so glad it wasn’t just me who felt that Susan got the short end of the bargain. I absolutely agree with Fred – “C.S. Lewis mistakenly wrote that Susan had turned her back on Narnia, but what it really seems is that Lewis had turned his back on Susan.” So much this. So very very much this. I, too, want Susan’s side of the story. Because you know what? What Lewis said about Susan is probably very similar to what my parents would say about me. Not the lipstick and nylons necessarily, but the leaving for frivolous reasons, the betrayal of childhood beliefs, the being led astray by [insert here]. But that’s so far from the full story.
I’m glad I always played Susan as a child. Because in some sense, I am Susan. I too grew up. I too moved beyond my childhood. Lewis didn’t tell Susan’s ending correctly, I think, because he couldn’t understand her. But somehow, somewhere inside of me, I do. I feel a sort of kinship for her, and I think I always well.