Like any good mythology of fairy tale, there are many heartbreaking moments in the Chronicles of Narnia. Chief among them is Alsan’s death on the Stone Table. Lewis, the narrator, even says to his readers that he hopes they were never as miserable as Susan or Lucy were the night they watched Aslan killed by the Witch. There is also the illness of Digory’s mother in The Magician’s Nephew, which was drawn from Lewis own childhood as he watched his mother succumb to cancer. Last of all is the destruction and end of
Neverland and Wonderland got to go on and on. To some readers there is a hope that other fantasy realms like Narnia and Middle-earth would do the same. In fact even the characters in the final Narnia book, The Last Battle, express the same sentiment. However much as Asgard in the Norse myths, Camelot in the Arthur legends, and the age of heroes in ancient Greece came to an end, so to must Narnia, all so something better can take its place. It’s the way the world works, old things must give way to new.
Yet in the shadows of this end and new beginning is another heart wrenching revelation. Susan Pevensie one of the original four children in the Narnia books is not with her brothers and sister in The Last Battle. King Tirian, the last King of Narnia inquires about this, knowing from his history lessons that there were two sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve during Narnia’s golden age. Peter solemnly tells him that Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia.
Eustace elaborates on this, saying,
“Yes…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.'”
Had the talk of Susan ended there, readers would probably have not read too much into it. However, that is when Jill Pole, Eustace’s friend, remarks that Susan is obsessed with nothing but “lipstick, nylons and invitations.” This has led the book to receiving a charge of sexism and misogyny. This argument is best summed up Harry Potter author JK Rowling in an interview with Time Magazine,
“There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that.”
It is easy to see where the critics are coming from. As Fred Clark says in his essay “Redeeming Susan Pevensie”,
“…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.”
To say nothing of the fact that it leaves a lot of unanswered questions for readers to grapple with. After all, how could Susan, one of the original four children turn her back on Aslan and Narnia? Why isn’t she in “heaven” with her family? Is there any hope left for Susan? More over was this a sudden development for Susan or did she always struggle with her own faith?
To understand Susan’s fate we must look back at her story from the beginning. From the outset of the four children she was always the more practical and “grown-up” of her siblings. In the 2005 film as their mother sees them off at the train station, while Peter is told to watch out for them, Susan is told to “be a big girl”. However, while Peter still feels like an older brother, Susan’s attempts to be grown up and mature come across as patronizing, in particular how she refers to the professor as an “old dear” and starts telling them when to go to what to do and when to do it.
As Edmund says when she tells him and Lucy to go to bed,
“Oh, come off it!… Don’t go on talking like that…Trying to talk like Mother… And who are you to say when I’m to go to bed? Go to bed yourself.”
The 2005 film of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe even goes so far as to have her play a game with her siblings wherein she gives them a word from the dictionary and they have to state its origin and definition. Frustrated, Edmund retorts that the word she gives must come from the Latin for worst game ever. It’s only when Lucy suggests a game of hide and seek, and even pleads with Peter in the classic sweet baby sister fashion to convince him, that we see Susan act like a kid.
Later, when they speak with the professor about Lucy, Susan is baffled by the Professor’s words, especially that he seems to believe that Lucy’s story could be true. The narrator even tells us that Susan never heard an adult talk like that before and is left at a loss for words. She reasons that a land that is in a wardrobe can’t exist, much less one that is there one minute and gone the next. Magic, fauns, to her it’s all kids stuff, and probably a sign that Lucy is ill or worse.
Further, not long after they all arrive in Narnia, Susan says,
“I wonder if there’s any point in going on … I mean, it doesn’t seem particularly safe here and it looks as if it won’t be much fun either. And it’s getting colder every minute, and we’ve brought nothing to eat. What about just going home?”
Yet there are also times when Susan’s practical mind at times can be more of a help then a hindrance. When all four of them walk through the wardrobe, it is Susan who suggests putting on the coats to keep warm, telling them,
“Ugh!..it’s pretty cold. What about putting on some of these coats? I am sure nobody would mind…It isn’t as if we wanted to take them out of the house; we shan’t take them even out of the wardrobe.”
However, despite her desire to appear grown up, Susan is just as capable of acting stubborn and petulant as any other person. In fact when Peter and Edmund are ready and willing to follow Lucy in Prince Caspian after the disastrous first attempt Susan complains in a huff, ‘suppose I start acting like Lucy’. She is acting less like a queen, and more like a child in this instance as she would like Lucy to be wrong and her to be right. After all, Lucy is younger and therefore “dumber” then Susan. Why should Lucy get the special privileges from Aslan?
Despite her vices, Susan possesses a tender heart, perhaps even more so then her younger sister. She is after all, known as Queen Susan the Gentle. This was a major area of contention for many long-time fans of the books when it came to the 2008 film adaptation of Prince Caspian that saw her fighting like a warrior princess. Director Andrew Adamson recalled in an interview with Christianity Today prior to the release of Prince Caspian that he and CS Lewis’ step-son Douglas Gresham butted heads over the subject Adamson made the assertion,
“Yeah. I always thought it was such a negative message to send to young girls and women to say, ‘Here’s a bow and arrow. But I really should have given you a butter knife and a plate, because all you do is get to make sandwiches.’ To me, it’s like why is he giving her a bow and arrow and then saying you have to rely on your brothers to defend you? This is where Doug and I got into it a little bit. I said maybe that was C. S. Lewis’s point of view at the time, but times have changed and it’s certainly not my view at this time…I think Lewis’s view of women changed when he met Joy—Doug’s mother. I think he sort of cast women down in the earlier books, but when you look at The Horse and His Boy, it has a strong female character. Doug’s mother was a strong woman. Doug said, ‘I don’t really know if that’s true. I’m trying to remember if he wrote The Horse and His Boy after he met my mother.’ I went, ‘Doug, the book is dedicated to you’.”
However, with a moniker like “Queen Susan the Gentle” the idea of her being a warrior princess goes against the grain of who her character is, especially as is established in the books. Much as Lucy wouldn’t have gained the name Lucy the Valiant for sitting around and making daisy chains while singing “Kum-by-ya”, Susan wouldn’t have earned the name “Susan the Gentle” for racing into a battle field and shooting evil hoards left and right. In fact in the original book Prince Caspian she refuses to engage in a shooting contest with the dwarf Trumpkin as he has already been beaten in a sword duel against Edmund, and she can’t stand to beat someone who already lost. When she proves a better shot she makes excuses and tries to brush off her success, almost like saying someone missed an easy catch in baseball because “the sun was in their eyes”.
It is her gentle spirit that causes her to step out in one of the greatest acts of faith in the series. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is it Susan, not Lucy who suggests that they go check on Aslan in the night when he goes to the Stone Table, and it is Susan who insists that they follow him. In fact the whole chapter about Aslan’s death and resurrection is meant to come from Susan’s perspective.
As Devin Brown notes in Inside Narnia,
“…Although Lewis gives Lucy the prominent position throughout the novel…he had the responsibility to bring each of them to life. Of the four children, Susan has been given the least development so far, and when the opportunity came up to show more of her character, Lewis took it. A second answer may have to do with a direction Lewis will go in the book’s final chapter…if she is going to be known by her gentleness later, to be realistic we need to see some indication of it earlier, as we do here.”
To this end, in many ways she and Lucy are not unlike Martha and Mary the sisters of Lazarus of Bethany found in the Gospels. Their story is well recounted in the gospel of Luke, wherein Jesus goes to visit them at their house and Martha is busy with the ordinary mundane tasks of cooking and cleaning, the practical household duties, while Mary sits at Jesus feet in listens. However, in the story from the Gospel of John where he raises their brother Lazarus form the dead, it is not Mary, but Martha who runs to greet Jesus on the road to Bethany and even proclaims that she believes that Jesus can and will raise her brother from the grave.
Susan, like Martha, is concerned about the ordinary, practical things, yet at key moments she can also show her own faith. To this end, Susan’s gentleness can override her common sense concerns when someone’s well being is at stake as is the case of Aslan. Susan even demonstrates this early on in their time in Narnia, upon arriving at Tumnus’ house and finding it ransacked. After reading the note, Susan says,
“I don’t want to go a step further and I wish we’d never come. But I think we must try to do something for Mr. Whatever-his-name is – I mean the Faun.”
Further, Mr. Beaver even commends her for her common sense approach when she admits that she would be nervous meeting Aslan upon learning that he is a Lion and that he is not safe or tame. Mr. Beaver tells her that anyone who can look upon Aslan without their knees knocking is either braver than most or just very silly. They would be meeting with the great Creator of all Narnia, who happens to be a Lion. This should be a moment of reverence and awe, not ego.
She is also more than able to admit when she is wrong when she sees the truth for herself, as was the case in Prince Caspian where she doubted Lucy saw Aslan and insisted on going the wrong way. When she sees Aslan face to face, The Lion does not condemn her. In fact the narrator tells us that the others seem to think that Susan had been crying. Aslan, full of compassion tells her she was only listening to her fears. He invites her to come close so he may breathe on her as he did Lucy and urges her to forget her fears. While Lucy feels like a lioness, Susan only admits she feels a little braver.
Then came the real blow at the end of Prince Caspian when she and her brother were told that they could never return to Narnia again. It wasn’t a matter of if they had done anything wrong, but a matter that they had grown too old. This is the last time we ever see Susan, save for her appearance in The Horse and His Boy which is set during her time as Queen in Narnia.
Even in Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” we only get a one off mention of her as going to America with her parents while Peter is staying with the professor and Edmund and Lucy are staying with their bratty cousin. The narrator tells us that part of the reason her parents take her and none of the other children is she was not very good at school, always considered the beauty, and would probably get more out of the trip then the others.
Whether this trip was the beginning of the end for her is left up to debate. Seeing that she was known as “Susan the Gentle” she probably took Aslan’s pronouncement that she and Peter could never come back to Narnia harder than the others. To add to it, her bratty cousin Eustace would get to go and he spent his time mocking them. To be told you can’t come back to the land of Narnia while a brat gets to go in your place could be a hard pill for any one to swallow.
But this is all fan-speculation. All that matters is that sometime after her last trip she stopped believing in Narnia and dismissed the stories as the foolish games of childhood, even to the point she appears to take a condescending tone with her elders, Professor Kirke and Polly Plummer, who maintained a belief in Narnia. Thus, it is not the matter that she “grew up and became a woman” that caused her not to be in Aslan’s Country, but the fact she stopped believing in Narnia.
Howeverm this is not the end of Susan’s story. As Paul F. Ford notes in his entry on Susan in A Companion to Narnia,
“ This is not to say, as some critics have maintained, that she is lost forever … It is a mistake to think that Susan was killed in the railway accident at the end of The Last Battle and that she has forever fallen from grace. It is to be assumed, rather, that as a woman of twenty-one who has just lost her entire family in a terrible crash, she will have much to work through; in the process, she might change to become truly the gentle person she has the potential for being.”
Lewis himself stated in Letters to Children,
“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.”
Lewis went on to encourage young readers to write their own stories exploring not only what happened to Susan, but other untold stories, opening up the world to the readers for them to come and play in his fantasy world. To this end he became one of the few authors to essentially urge readers to write what we now call “fan fiction.” In fact, the forums of Narnia fansites are filled with countless stories exploring the fate of Susan .
Even more esteemed authors have sought to find out what happens to Susan after The Last Battle, such as Neil Gaiman in his short story, “The Problem of Susan”. In this story a young fan of Narnia meets and interviews a “Professor Hastings.” While nothing is explicitly said, there are many hints that this older woman is Susan, including mentions of her younger brother “Ed”, as well as an older unnamed brother and an unnamed younger sister. We also learn that it was Susan who had the emotionally grueling task of identifying the bodies of her family, some left in very ghastly states.
Professor Hastings tells her young interviewee Greta,
“I only remember thinking what a great deal of damage a train can do, when it hits another train, to the people who were traveling inside…I remember looking at them and thinking, What if I’m wrong, what if it’s not him after all? My younger brother was decapitated, you know. A god who would punish me for liking nylons and parties by making me walk through that school dining room, with the flies to identify Ed , well… he’s enjoying himself a little too much isn’t he ?”
Here, she is angry at Aslan for taking her family and even more disgusted by the insinuations put forth in the story. Yet, in many ways, whether by accident or by Neil Gaiman’s design, her response is not that dissimilar from that of Oreul, the sister of Psyche in CS Lewis Till We Have Faces when a priest tells her the story of Cupid and Psyche in which she is angered at how she is portrayed. In their version of the story, she is seen as jealous and petty, trying to keep her sister away from her true love. Oreul responds,
“It’s as if the gods first laughed, and then spat, in my face. So this was the shape the story had taken. You may say, the shape the gods had given it…The case against them should be written. Jealous! I jealous of Psyche? I sickened not only at the vileness of the lie but at its flatness. It seemed as if the gods had minds just like the lowest of people.”
However, Oreul cannot rant against the gods for long, and perhaps neither could Susan. Oreul was sent on her own journey, one that brought her from her anger and disgust at the gods to reconciliation with them and with her sister, much as Susan would have to go on her own journey of faith. Oreul came to realize that to the gods her possessive nature of Psyche was just as silly as Aslan would see Susan’s pursuit of “lipstick, nylons and invitations.”
As Lewis himself wrote in his sermon The Weight of Glory,
“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
While we are not told what Aslan told her or Peter before sending them back to their own world after the events of Prince Caspian, we do know that for Edmund and Lucy he promised that he was not only in there world but that they would come to know him there as well. It can be surmised that perhaps he told them the same thing. But Susan had a hard time comprehending how a world like Narnia could be behind a wardrobe and then not there at all. Perhaps she struggled in her faith here as well and settled for her own share of mud pies after all the wonders of Narnia.
As Matthew Alderman notes in “Whatever Happened to Susan Pevensie” from First Things,
“Susan has turned her back on Narnia in favor of nylons, lipstick, and party invitations. Boys, much less the joy of sex, don’t even merit a mention…The problem is not that Su’s world was, say, the world of Gidget , but that it could become what Sex and the City looks like in the unflattering light of reality. A never-ending quest for party invitations looks awfully flimsy when stacked up against the deeds of Narnia’s own strong-willed women like Susan herself, once.”
In fact as Polly ( whom by all accounts did in fact grow up and mature) says in The Last Battle, in regards to Susan pursuing these vanities,
“Grown-up, indeed…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.”
As Lewis noted in The Problem of Pain, which looked at the question of why God allows for pain and suffering, as Susan would have no doubt experienced in losing her family.
“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
After all, Aslan himself promised the children that once a King or Queen in Narnia, always a King or Queen in Narnia. He is not the kind to make idle promises and not leave a way for them to come back should they slip. If a character makes a mistake he never tells them what could have been, but only tells them to press forward in obedience and accept what he has to offer. If he could forgive Digory for awakening The White Witch and bringing her into Narnia, Edmund for betraying his siblings and him, Mr. Tumnus for willingly working as an agent of the White Witch despite the faun knowing how evil she was, and Eustace for being such a brat, then Susan’s worldliness and vanity is merely a trifle.
Indeed, this was someone who ruled over an entire kingdom and even braved great dangers to be by Aslan’s side as He gave his life for her younger brother. As author Kelly McClymer notes in her essay “Serious Action Figures” from the book Through the Wardrobe,
“…After seven books where all the girls play major roles…and only one of the girls-the one who has denied the existence of Narnia-is left behind, I’d have to disagree ( with the charge of sexism)…Instead I’d argue that Lewis is simply emphasizing his point that characters who turn away from honor and valor and duty for the frivolities of life cannot see or enter Narnia…Susan with her lipstick, and nylons and concern about invitations, is too smart to forever embrace the Victorian fallacy of the “angel of the house”. I have faith that by the end, of her life, Susan will have re-embraced the magical and vibrant world of authentic girls that Lewis created and find her way to Aslan’s land.”
There are times where we have great faith like Lucy, and then at the same time can struggle with our own insecurities. There are moments we can be just and fair minded, and then struggle with temptation like Edmund. There are moments we can be a good leader like Peter and then turn around and waffle in our decisions and delegate responsibilities. Then there are moments were, like Susan we can seem “wise beyond our years”, and then turn around and pursue vanity at the exclusion of all else.
And yet all too often something happens that comes around, shatters our perceived wisdom and our vein pursuits and cause us to admit that we were wrong, as is often the case of Susan or even Lewis later creation of Oreul. It’s not unlike what one of the spirits tells a woman in CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce when she refuses to admit that she was wrong in refusing to move on after her son’s death. The spirit tells her,
“But of course!…That’s what we all find when we reach this country .We’ve all been wrong! That’s the great joke. There’s no need to go on pretending one was right! After that we begin living.”
Susan herself knows this deep down due to her experiences in Narnia in Prince Caspian. Much like Lewis’ later literary creation of Oreul, Susan finally sees the truth and can no longer deny it. When it is clear that Lucy was right, Susan tells her younger sister,
“Lucy…I see him now. I’m sorry…But I’ve been far worse than you know. I really believed it was him – he, I mean – I mean yesterday. When he warned us not to go down to the fir wood. And I really believed it was him tonight, when you woke us up. I mean, deep down inside. Or I could have, if I’d let myself.”
Interview: Adamson, Andrew and Mark Moring “The Weight of Story” Christianity Today. May 6, 2008. Archived. Last Accessed May 20, 2015.
Alderman, Matthew “Whatever Happened to Susan Pevensie” First Things. February 17, 2009. Last Accessed January 13, 2016.
FILM: Adamson, Andrew (Dir.)The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Starring Georgie Henley, Skander Keynes, William Mosely, Anna Popplewell, James MacAvoy, Tilda Swinton, Ray Winston, and Liam Neeson. Ann Peacock,Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely ( writers). 2005. Walden Media/Walt Disney.
FILM: ” ” The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Starring Georgie Henley, Skander Keynes, William Mosely, Anna Popplewell, Ben Barnes, Eddie Izard, Peter Dinklage, Sergio Castellitto, and Liam Neeson. Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely ( writers). 2008. Walden Media/Walt Disney.
FILM: Apted, Michael ( Dir.) The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Starring Georgie Henley, Skander Keynes, Will Poulter, Simon Pegg, Ben Barnes, William Mosely, Anna Popplewell, and Liam Neeson. Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely ( writers). 2010. Walden Media/Walt Disney.
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McClymer, Kelly “Serious Action Figures” Through the Wardrobe: Your Favorite Authors on CS Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. pgs. 106,107. 2008. Teen Libris/BenBella Books. Dallas, TX.
This Blog is not authorized, endorsed, or approved by any entities involved the creation, development, distribution or ownership of the Chronicles of Narnia franchise. The views and opinions contained in this blog reflect those of the author and do not represent the views or ownership of in the the CS Lewis Estate, Harper Collins, Walden Media, Walt Disney Studios, 20th Century Fox and any other parties involved in the creation or ownership of the books and films.
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