Redeeming Susan Pevensie

The first book I ever read on my own — the first book-book, one with more words than pictures — was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Most of my memories from that age are a blurry mess, but I still recall this vividly. I cried when I reached the end. The story was over and I did not want it to be over. I did not want to leave that story or its world or the people in that world, but there were no more pages to turn and it had to end and so I cried because I had to stop.

My mom, I remember, was pretty terrific just then. She gave me a big hug and told me she was proud that I had read a big person’s book all by myself. And then she told me the most wonderful thing. There were more books. Many more. So many that I could never reach the end and never run out of pages to keep turning.

Soon after that we went to the library. I’m sure she’d taken me there many times before,* but I hadn’t realized what it was until this trip, until I went there as a reader of books. Before it had just seemed to be an ordinary building, a regular wardrobe. Now I knew that it was a magical place, bigger on the inside than on the outside.

But the second big-person’s book I read wasn’t from the library. It was from my older brother’s bookshelf at home, from the same boxed set of paperbacks as the first book. I read Prince Caspian, and then The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. There were seven books in this series, and I remember thinking how wonderful that was — seven books would last me forever.

And they nearly did, because I soon learned that books could be re-read, and I re-read those books in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series many times over before finishing grade school.

That is why, 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.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* It wasn’t until many years later that I would realize that my mother was not just a casual visitor to our town’s library. She had helped to build it.

Our little town had a public library, but in Mom’s mind it was inadequate. It was a cluster of cramped rooms on the third floor of the same township building that housed the police station. It was too small to serve as a gathering place, too inhospitable to be a place for one to sit and read. And having to walk up three flights of stairs made it inaccessible to many of the older citizens who may have wanted — and, my mother felt, deserved — to make use of it.

And so my mother, who always had her big King James Bible next to a library book beside her chair, took her cue from the persistent widow in Jesus’ parable. The beautiful new public library — a sprawling, one-story building featuring the first wheelchair ramp our town had ever seen — was built, in part, because the mayor just wanted my mom and her little platoon of volunteers to settle down and leave him alone already.

She got a plaque from the borough — a “certificate of appreciation” decoupaged onto a wooden frame. It commended “________________,” with her name typed into the blank, for “his service and dedication to the community.” And with the same typewriter italics used to fill in her name, the town clerk had overstruck the last two letters of “his” to make it almost read “her.”

Mom never much cared for that plaque, but she was quite pleased with the new library. I was too, even if many times I found myself on a Saturday afternoon wishing I was outside riding my bike instead of in there, with Mom, gluing those little manila folders into the backs of books or shelf-reading to keep the place ship-shape.

It turned out Mom wasn’t done, either. The glorified closet that our church called its “library” also fell short of her standards. So did the one-room “library” at our private school.

The latter eventually came to occupy a whole wing of one of the old U-shaped Army barracks in which our school was housed (buildings once part of the World War II-era Camp Kilmer).

On one wall of that new, expanded library at the school, in the elementary section, was a lovely mural painted by my mother. It featured some of her favorite characters from children’s books, including the Cat in the Hat, Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and Max and the Wild Things (the last of which turned out to be “controversial”).

The centerpiece of the mural was the lion Aslan, racing across a grassy field. And there, on Aslan’s back, rode Lucy Pevensie and her older sister Susan.

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  • flat

    Lewis was a child of his age, and considering what kind of family background he had, and the war he fought in he could have easily ended up as Jack the permanent drunk war veteran.

    So I can understand that he has a dislike towards modernity because he fought in a modern war and considering that his mother died I can understand his behaviour towards women.

    But in contrast with ellenjay he didn’t stay in that state, as some people noted he grew out of it and married Joy and wrote his last work that showed his maturity as a christian.

    My point is in hindsight it is always easy to talk and mock his believes and his behaviour, but doing that makes me feel uncormfotable about a man who could write much better than me, and whent to a lot mor fifficulties in his life than I did so far.

    So I rather don’t judge mr Lewis. That is something I rather leave to God Himself.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Having lost one’s mother at a young age is absolutely zero excuse for misogyny. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ve ever read a more nonsensical idea. Considering his mother died, it’s okay that he wrote a story for children in which a young woman being the slightest bit sexual kept her out of heaven? No, it’s not, not the slightest bit. Nor is it the reason he told this hurtful, misogynistic story. The idea is frankly ludicrous.

    I feel perfectly free to judge “Mr. Lewis”. He certainly judged young women plenty for daring to be young women. 

  • flat

    I said it explained his behaviour not justified it.

    He married a divorced woman somebody he would have avoided when he was younger yet he fell in love with her and married her, and was in his own words surprised by joy.

  • Isabel C.

    Yep.

    Furthermore?Let’s not beat around the bush, people. “Blah blah mitigating factors blah blah it’s easy to mock blah blah I don’t judge…”  does, in fact, mean “I am trying to justify this person’s behavior, and *you guys* shouldn’t judge.”

    Or at least it comes off that way, pretty much across the board. 

  • flat

    I understand that what I wrote could be used as a simple excuse for his behaviour I didn’t want it to sound it that way.

    I am sorry if I offended someone.

  • olsonam

    Because of this post I’ve decided to re-read the Chronicles of Narnia using Mardoll’s commentary.  I’ve read the first three chapters out loud to my 7 month old son and as an experiment, I’m switching Peter and Susan.  It’s been pretty fun.  I can’t wait until we get further in to the book.  I got the idea after reading Mardoll’s commentary on how the four children fulfill stereotypical roles, and I’m always trying to escape such roles and not impress them on my son.

  • Tonio

     Great approach. While I resent the price tags for American Girl merchandise, I respect the ethic of the books’ founding author:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/for-25-years-american-girls-have-been-defining-youths-personalities/2011/06/22/AG93Y6hH_story.html

    In 1973, [Valerie] Tripp was working as a writer for an education company that
    taught children to read. She had a co-worker named Pleasant Rowland, and
    they would talk about all of the girl-empowering books they used to
    read…“We didn’t like the books where the girls said to the boys,
    ‘Don’t go in that cave!’ ” Tripp says. She and Rowland dreamed that one
    day they would write historical books for cave-exploring girls.

    So how would the old boy-centered books sound if we took your approach?

  • olsonam

     Hmm, other books.  Now I’m wondering how Tom Sawyer would sound with a girl for a protagonist.  And looking at my shelves, I’ve had a copy of Treasure Island for almost a decade that I’ve never read.  Now I’m wondering if I’d be more interested if I made at least one of the characters female.

    And yes, I read the American Girl books when I was younger and still have them – I think they made a bigger impact than I first realized.  Girls who go on adventures! Wow!

  • Matt w

    It’s been decades since I read the Narnia books, so much so that I basically only remember four things about them — and two of them were how much I hated the ending. 

    One big problem with the Susan arc is that, as far as I can tell, Lewis doesn’t build up to it at all. If you read the books in the original order, her last appearance is in the fourth book, she’s seen from afar in the fifth, and she and the other Pevensies aren’t in the sixth at all. Then, when the rest of the Pevensies appear part of the way into the seventh book, we’re informed that Susan has fallen away from Narnia. But we haven’t seen her for so long that there can’t possibly have been any build up to this dramatic moment. 

    It’s the sort of thing you do when you have to write a character out in a hurry — maybe because the actress who played her wound up all over the tabloids while you were shooting the prequel. But Lewis didn’t have actresses.

  • http://www.oliviareviews.com/ PepperjackCandy

    I always assumed that Susan’s sin was disbelief. I was taught (not that I believe it myself) that disbelief was the unforgivable sin.  Susan was growing up and forging her own identity, and for some reason she wrote off the times she came face-to-face with God as a childhood game. 

    I also never saw the “lipstick and nylons” comment at all to be an indication that femininity or sexuality is sinful.   Silly, maybe, particularly to Lewis and to kids of Lucy’s and Jill’s ages, but not sinful.

    And I just reread through the references to the train and to Susan and can find no indication that Susan was either on the train or on the platform.  They mention Digory and Polly, Eustace and Jill, and Lucy and Mr. and Mrs. Pevensie.  Meanwhile, Peter and Edmund were on the platform. 

    Oh, and for the record, I saw the allegory but didn’t realize it was allegory. I thought it was sacrilegious.

  • Mary Kaye

    In a more recent post on the same thread we had the “[roleplaying] gamers living in their parents’ basement” as a toss-off derogatory.   The sort of thing you say when you know that *everyone knows* those people are silly and a bit pathetic.

    A long-term gaming buddy of my husband’s just died in a hiking accident.  One thing we are wondering is whether that side of his life is going to be okay to bring up at the memorial.  I would be very sad if it weren’t.

  • Nan Rinella

    I’m totally in sympathy with Fred Clark. Susan IS out there and she want’s her story told. I am writing it. Lewis wrote to Martin in 1957 that she had “turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there was plenty of time for her to mend, and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end—in her own way.”

    Lewis wrote to Denise in 1962, a year before he died, that he was delighted she liked the Narnian books. “But why not do one yourself! And why not write stories for yourself to fill up the gaps in Narnian history? I’ve left plenty of hints.”

    Want to know what ever happened to Susan? Look for it in about a year.

  • GDwarf

    I always assumed that Susan’s sin was disbelief. I was taught (not that I
    believe it myself) that disbelief was the unforgivable sin.  Susan was
    growing up and forging her own identity, and for some reason she wrote
    off the times she came face-to-face with God as a childhood game.

    It does seem pretty clear that, if nothing else, disbelief is part of it. It’s difficult (though not impossible) to believe something and yet to act in ways that run counter to that belief intentionally.

    The thing is that I agree with you, disbelief should never be a sin. It’s almost always presented as one, especially in movies which need to get the idea of the lapsed believer out there quick and then want to “cure” them, but if you stop and think about it, it’s a ludicrous thing to turn into a moral issue. Every disbelieves almost everything passively (there are, one assumes, an infinite number of ideas. Most people don’t believe all of them at once) and even “active” disbelief (hearing of an idea and rejecting it) is practiced far more than belief.

    So clearly the sin is not “disbelief” per se, but rather, “Not believing this thing that the author believes.” Which means that the sin is being different. What a horrible thing to drag even a fictional character over the coals for.

  • Athenides

    Lev Grossman, I think, is similarly haunted by Susan. The Magicians and The Magician King both center on this question.

  • Lori

    Really? Do the books lose a lot if you can’t remember much detail about Susan? They’re in my TBR, but if I need to reread the Narnia books (or any subset thereof) to appreciate them I’ll probably take them off the list because I have no plans to reread any of the Narnia books.

  • Athenides

    Oh no, not at all. For one thing, they’re not directly about Narnia; it’s just arguably the strongest of several influences. It’s just that one of their major themes is the question of what it is to belong– or not to belong– to a magical/fictional/imaginary world.

  • Will Hennessy

    First, we have this in common. I started the Narnia stories with my mother and ended the series on my own, probably at around the same age as you had.

    Second, *cough*cough* Anna Popplewell.

  • Eda

    So I never quite really understood – reading the book at bookstores and libraries because I grew up with the first and -maybe- the second movie and there was always a big elephant in the room called religion, did Susan become an atheist? Because while that is a completely valid life choice, her becoming ‘evil’ is simply too much for me. 

    Susan Pevensie has always been my favorite character, unlike Lucy who though adorable was never really ‘me.’ And I don’t think she can be blamed not to believe in a childhood fantasy. IT doesn’t matter if Narnia was real or not, the truth is every single one of us lose the imagination and the belief we had once as children. Susan was a Queen in Narnia, a loved, just queen and back at home, back at the ‘Real World’ she was girl who grew up to quickly at war, a girl who had to look after her siblings she was forced to grew up to soon. -I don’t live in Europe, nor I am a Christian but my grandmother grew up in a post-war Austuria in 40’s and 50’s and it was our bedtime stories that how the unjust rules of the world could even damage the believes of a devoted Catholic.

    Then again, though with much more rules, Islam always has been easier for me to relate and understand because I was born to it.


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