C S Lewis and the problem of Susan
Susan Pevensie, one of the four fictional children who enter Narnia in C S Lewis’s children’s book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a problem to the adult readers of the final book in the series The Last Battle. Unlike all the other protagonists of the series, Susan is not there and the reason for her absence is given that “she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations.”
Other authors have commented on this.
J K Rowling said that Susan “…is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a real problem with that.”
Philip Pullman said, “I just don’t like the conclusions Lewis comes to, after all that analysis, the way he shuts children out from heaven, or whatever it is, on the grounds that the one girl is interested in boys. She’s a teenager! Ah, it’s terrible: Sex — can’t have that.” And: “so dreadful and so redolent of sin that he had to send her to Hell.”
I think Rowling and Pullman are wrong about the sex, and Pullman is definitely wrong about Hell.
But the problem of Susan is not a problem for children, it is a problem for adults reading children’s books. Children do not read then the same way, enjoying the adventure but often not seeing the allegory until reading them later as adults. Why adults have such a problem with Susan whilst not complaining about children being involved in battles is beyond me. But children in battles is a theme of much children’s fiction, children like to picture themselves in the heart of the action.
But back to Pullman’s Hell. In The Last Battle Susan is not on the train that crashes that brings all the other characters into Aslan’s Kingdom. Susan is alive and well on earth, there is no Hell for Susan in the books.
Sex, no I don’t think so either. Lewis, in his other writings, refers to sex as one of the lesser of the sins but is hard on materialism. Susan has become materialistic. In the timeline of the Narnia books Susan would also be 21, I don’t think anyone would begrudge someone an interest in sex at 21. Lewis wouldn’t begrudge an adult that interest. The private letters from his wife Joy Adamson are explicit.
To understand Susan it is best to look at her character. She first appears as one of four children evacuated to the countryside in 1940. With no adult female around 13 year old Susan takes on the matriarchal role. This role is reprised in the second book Prince Caspian. This role leads to Susan to warn the other children against doing anything dangerous. It leads Susan into making the wrong decisions and being distrustful of the other children, but at other times is used in a positive way. Susan is portrayed as a big sister, even if she is a year younger than brother Peter.
The superiority and pride in trying to act grown up is something that Lewis struggled with all his life, there is a little of the autobiographical in the character of Susan. Lewis loved the character he wrote, but wrote his own flaws in there. Problems with materialism were Lewis’s own problems. He said about the absence of Susan in The Last Battle:
The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there’s plenty of time for her to mend and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end… in her own way.
But Lewis did write about an older Susan Pevensie. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The children reign as kings and queens in Narnia for 15 years, Susan is 28 years old in Narnia before returning to Earth aged 13 again due to time running at a different rate in the two universes.
The penultimate book, in writing order, The Horse and his Boy, Is set in this time and Susan appears in a cameo role as an adult, described as a gentle lady. Her caution, seen in earlier books as a problem in trusting Aslan, is now a virtue. I like this version of what Susan can become.
The problem with Susan? What problem?