What everyone gets wrong about Susan
January 7, 2013
The Chronicles of Narnia have been some of the most formative books in my life, a situation in which I know I’m not alone. I got my set as a Christmas present from my grandparents when I was 11 or 12.
There’s a common criticism of them, however, out of many quite reasonable ones, that’s irritated me for a long time.
He may not have been the first to think it or to say it, but author Philip Pullman’s articulation of what he finds wrong with the books, encapsulated in the problem of what happened to Susan Pevensie and why, when she does not return to aid Narnia in the final book of the series, may be most responsible for a now widespread interpretation that Susan is cast out of Heaven because she grew up and embraced her sexuality. Indeed, I think I have hardly ever had a conversation about these books since college in which “The Problem of Susan” didn’t feature prominently in their criticism:
Susan isn’t allowed into the stable and the reason given is that she’s growing up. She’s become far too interested in lipstick, nylons and invitations. One character says rather primly: ‘She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown up.’ This seems to me on the part of Lewis to reveal very weird unconscious feelings about sexuality. Here’s a child whose body is changing and who’s naturally responding as everyone has ever done since the history of the world to the changes that are taking place in one’s body and one’s feelings. She’s doing what everyone has to do in order to grow up.
And it is a god who hates life because he denies children life. In the final Narnia book he gives the children the end-of-term treat of being killed in a railway accident so they can go to heaven. It’s a filthy thing to do. Susan is shut out from salvation because she is doing what every other child who has ever been born has done – she is beginning to sense the developing changes in her body and its effect on the opposite sex.
It’s tempting and convenient, because it echoes charges so commonly made against Christianity as a whole–that it’s intrinsically set up to punish natural human sexuality, among other things like critical thinking and self-determination.
It’s too bad that Pullman’s interpretation is practically unsupported by the text. You’d have to take the passage in question completely out of context of the entire rest of the series for it to be even remotely plausible; indeed, even by quoting it incompletely, he leads his listeners in a nearly complete distortion of the reasoning behind Susan’s exile.
Here is the incident, from The Last Battle, which Pullman cites:
“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicles aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”
“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”
“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”
“Oh Susan!” said Jill, “she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”
“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”
Susan is not just doing what she needs to do to grow up. The reason given is not that she’s growing up; the text itself refutes this. Lady Polly, the speaker after Lucy’s now-infamous line, denies that growing up is what Susan is doing at all.
She is pretending that her previous experiences in Narnia never happened. She denies the people she knew there, who she loved and who loved her, people who died for her and what they meant to her, what she’s been through and everything she’s done up to this point. She calls all of it a childish game.
Nor is there any defiance of the will of Aslan here, who has never in this entire story forced any of these people into any task or burden or mortal danger against their own free will. Who has in fact, repeatedly, stood by and let them actively make bad choices. She doesn’t hear an order from Aslan and say “no,” “I don’t want to,” “not this time,” or “fuck you, I’m not a plaything.” She denies that she ever knew him.
Some other points of Narnian history further illuminate the absurdity of Pullman’s claims:
1. That time in Prince Caspian when Bacchus showed up for a romp…
The crowd and dance round Aslan (for it had become a dance once more) grew so thick and rapid that Lucy was confused. She never saw where certain other people came from who were soon capering about among the trees. One was a youth, dressed only in a fawn-skin, with vine-leaves wreathed in his curly hair. His face would have been almost too pretty for a boy’s, if it had not looked so extremely wild. You felt, as Edmund said when he saw him a few days later, “There’s a chap who might do anything–absolutely anything.” He seemed to have a great many names–Bromios, Bassareus, and the Ram, were three of them. There were a lot of girls with him, as wild as he….
“Is it a Romp, Aslan?” cried the youth. And apparently it was.
And it’s a delightfully saucy good time, for a god who supposedly hates life and is into damning children for sensual exploration.
2. Susan herself, in The Horse and His Boy, is described as having multiple suitors. She’s being courted for marriage by Prince Rabadash of Calormen…
“Now, Madam,” the King was saying to Queen Susan (the lady who had kissed Shasta). “What think you? We have been in this city fully three weeks. Have you yet settled in your mind whether you will marry this dark-faced lover of yours, this Prince Rabadash, or no?”
…but she’s awfully sweet on Corin, Prince of Archenland (though here she’s mistaken a runaway slave named Shasta for the prince)…
But he had no time to think of that before the most beautiful lady he had ever seen rose from her place and threw her arms around him and kissed him, saying:
“Oh Corin, Corin, how could you? And thou and I such close friends ever since thy mother died. And what should I have said to thy royal father if I came home without thee? Would have been a cause almost of war between Archenland and Narnia which are friends time out of mind. It was naught, playmate, very naught of thee to use us so.”
There is no condemnation whatsoever stated or implied for her romantic activities.
A minor character who also occurs in The Horse and His Boy, Lasaraleen is a childhood friend of Aravis, and perhaps unexpectedly, one of my favorite characters in the series. She’s a party girl, socialite, and trophy wife…and perhaps the most totally and unabashedly herself of anyone in this world. She loves luxury, being seen, and having a good time.
[Aravis] remembered now that Lasaraleen had always been like that, interested in clothes and parties and gossip. Aravis had always been more interested in bows and arrows and horses and dogs and swimming. You will guess that each thought the other silly.
We’re supposed to see Lasaraleen as doofy and shallow, but she’s also affectionate and loyal. She helps her friend escape from being caught and returned to an arranged marriage at serious risk to herself, and no further particularly harsh criticism is made of her life choices.
4. Other adults have come and returned to Narnia before.
-King Frank and Queen Helen
Former London cabbie Frank and washerwoman Nellie become Narnia’s first king and queen in The Magician’s Nephew. They are already adults when brought to Narnia (albeit accidentally in Frank’s case). Aslan treats them with trust and respect and is clearly not expecting chastity, but children and grandchildren from them.
“Rise up King and Queen of Narnia, father and mother of many kings that shall be in Narnia and the Isles and Archenland.”
-Digory Kirk and Polly Plummer
The first human children to stumble into Narnia, they return as adults (probably in their 60′s or 70′s) with the others for the Last Battle. Peter and Edmund, wearing beards at their reappearance, are also young adult men by this point. Presumably they’ve all done what they had to do to grow up, and it didn’t include betraying the memory of everyone they’ve ever loved.
Nothing in the world of this story indicates that any of the other protagonists who have grown up either in Narnia or out of it, did not go through “naturally responding as everyone has ever done since the history of the world to the changes that are taking place in one’s body and one’s feelings.” Nothing. Because, as Pullman correctly observes, these feelings and explorations are fairly universal.
The gravity of Susan’s sin is not in her embrace of superficial frippery, or in any normal adolescent desire on her part for adulthood, sexual experimentation, maturity, or self-determination. It’s her betrayal of her true self. It’s her denial of her own emotional history and experience, and what a lot of other people went through by her side.
And even for that, nobody bars the doors of the Stable to Susan as she begs to go through to eternal life. She is not in Narnia, because she, for her own reasons, chose not to get on the train whose demise brought her siblings and former mentors back to Narnia for the Last Battle. Susan may have saved her (earthly) life by not getting on that train, but at the ultimate cost of her own authenticity.
Ability to return to your true home requires acceptance of who you really are. That’s not something that Aslan, or the Emperor Over the Sea, or all the forces of Deeper Magic are capable of doing for her.