An interesting brief article came to my notice this week about the figure or “archetype” of the “Susan” in juvenile fiction– The Susan: Story of an Archetype, and Why We Need Her by Alice Nuttall. It’s sparked a brilliant conversation online and I’m brimming over with thoughts that want to organize themselves into something more coherent. This will probably not be that much more coherent, but we shall give it a go. I have a lot to say about this piece, more than will gracefully fit in one blog post (which doesn’t mean I won’t cram it all in anyway.)
I have so much to say about the subject, how much I love the figure of “Susan” and especially of Susan Walker, who I’ve long been convinced is the linchpin figure without whom none of the Swallows adventures would be possible.
“She will be the second child, and the oldest girl. She will always be the group mum, keeping her siblings in line and standing in for their actual mum, who is always absent and sometimes dead. She will make sure that her brothers and sister are fed, clothed, and have somewhere warm to sleep. They will not appreciate her for doing so.”
I loved that Nuttall includes Terry Pratchett’s Susan Sto Helit of Discworld fame. And I think I could probably write a separate post about how Sophie of Howl’s Moving Castle is totally a Susan figure. But I’m having trouble getting to all that because a huge part of my brain wants to go on a very long tangent based on one parenthetical aside in the piece, an aside about one of the original archetypal Susans, Susan Pevensie:
“There are varying degrees of Susan. There are the original Susans, the Susans who came first and gave the figure her name. There’s Susan Walker from Swallows and Amazons, who makes sure the washing-up is done while she and her siblings are camping on their Lake District island. There’s Susan Pevensie, who wraps her brothers and sisters up warm before they venture into the frozen wastes of Narnia (this is long before she’s exiled for committing the heinous crime of liking lipstick and boys).”
Susan in Exile
“this is long before she’s exiled for committing the heinous crime of liking lipstick and boys”
So many kinds of Argh!!!!
Let’s look again at the actual passage from The Last Battle:
“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 nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly site 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 of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”
1. First, Susan is not exiled by Aslan. Rather, she’s told that she can’t come back because she and Peter and too old and need to learn to find Aslan in their own world. I don’t think “exile” is a very exact word for what happens to Susan.
“To be in exile means to be away from one’s home (i.e. city, state, or country), while either being explicitly refused permission to return or being threatened with imprisonment or death upon return. In Roman law, exsilium denoted both voluntary exile and banishment as a capital punishment alternative to death.”
(see Wikipedia )
Every dictionary I consulted agreed that the primary meaning of exile has to do with being barred from one’s home primarily for political or punitive reasons so I contend that the word carries a connotation of punishment, especially when paired with the phrase “heinous crime”.
But at the time Aslan tells Susan and Peter that they can’t come back Susan has not yet taken the path defined by Jill with the phrase “lipstick, nylons, and invitations” (no mention of boys). That is what happens after many years have passed for the Pevensies in England and Susan has left school. I suppose you could argue that Susan’s flirtation with Rabadash in The Horse and His Boy suggests that even before they left Narnia Susan had already shown a strong propensity for being very interested in boys. But how exactly does her adult Narnian self map onto her adult British self. (If you want to talk about jarring moments in the narrative, the most jarring is the moment when after having attained adulthood and lived a complex adult life, the children step out of the wardrobe to find it all whisked away and are only children again. That moment probably could fill out an essay of its own.)
Also, Peter, Edmund, and Lucy have all also been told they cannot return to Narnia. There is nothing in the text to suggest this is punitive or that it indicates a separation from Aslan. And there is every indication in the text that those who cannot return have a choice: to remain Friends of Narnia or to forget about it. Susan alone chooses to forget. But none of them are able to return to Narnia. At the end of the novel the place they go looks like Narnia but is not.
2. Second, it seems evident from the text that everyone does outgrow Narnia, so it’s not as if Susan is being singled out for special treatment as a punishment. As Aslan says the reason they cannot come back to Narnia is that they need to find him in their own world. But some people outgrow it while still remaining a friend of Narnia and achieve adulthood and even venerable old age while still holding on to their love of Narnia. And others “outgrow” it by thinking Narnia is a childish toy they are too grown up to play with. But if Narnia is meant to be a reflection of the deepest truths of faith then to think it a childish thing is not really a mature but an immature stance. It is clear that Susan rejects Narnia precisely because she hasn’t yet found Aslan in her own world. But there is no indication in the text that Aslan has rejected Susan.
3. Thirdly, about “Lipsticks and boys” — actually boys are not listed. It’s “nylons and lipstick and invitations.” This is not at all Aslan ‘s assessment of Susan, or necessarily Lewis’. It’s Jill’s. The sneer, if there is one, is Jill’s sneer, not Aslan’s.
I think it’s interesting that everyone takes “nylons and lipsticks and invitations” as a metonym for Susan being boy-crazy, but as Matthew Alderman keenly points out in his essay “Whatever happened to Susan Pevensie” it’s not lipstick and boys, but lipstick, nylons, and invitations. Boys don’t even merit a mention. And in his reading lipstick et al represent not boys and sexuality but small, frivolous sins, the little things that distract us from the great possibility of becoming our better selves.
Susan’s fault, which I can’t see any evidence in the text is ever meant to be a heinous crime, is that she was once Queen Susan the Gentle and went on great quests and had epic adventures but then turned her back on it for trivialities. The problem with Susan isn’t that she’s boy crazy or sexual, but that she’s turned her back on greatness and true self knowledge and is instead seeking the momentary and fleeting and insubstantial trivialities of transitory pleasure.
4. Fourth, once again we aren’t actually told what happens to Susan. All we have is the point of view of the others. And as Aslan says more than once, no one is told any story but their own. Neither Edmund nor Peter nor Jill nor Polly really knows what’s going on with Susan… and neither do we. Critics of Lewis assume that the story’s silence on Susan’s ultimate fate is because she’s been condemned… and this choice is sexist and that Susan has been condemned because she’s a woman. But that’s all conjecture. There’s no evidence for it in the actual text. Whereas there is actually good evidence in the text suggests that Aslan is kind and generous and merciful… and willing to wait a pretty long time to allow people to recover from mistakes. Think about how long the star Ramandu endures his exile on the island near the end of the earth or the wizard Coriakin…. for both of them exile is only for a time, even if it is a very long time by human standards. We have no evidence that Aslan wouldn’t also extend the same grace to Susan.
5. Fifth, it bears belaboring the point a bit that Peter, Edmund, Lucy and the rest died in our world. Their story arc is over. But Susan wasn’t in the train, isn’t dead, has more of her story to live. Deliberately. Her story is open-ended. She may still find her way. She hasn’t been condemned, she can’t have been, because she has not yet faced judgment. You can’t be condemned if you haven’t been judged. And God is merciful and gives many people extra time because he is patiently waiting to give them the chance to choose him. Susan survives precisely so she can have more time to choose.
6. Finally, Aslan himself says that there are many doors into his country. Susan can’t get in through Narnia anymore, that opportunity is lost, true. But just because that door is closed doesn’t mean Susan won’t still find a way into Aslan’s country. After all the Pevensie parents obviously got in by a different door because they see them from where they are in Aslan’s country in the alternate England. And we have the prophecy, which is repeated more than once in the series: “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king of queen in Narnia.” There’s an obvious tension there: if Susan and Peter, and later Edmund and Lucy aren’t going to ever see Narnia again, then how can it be true that they are always kings and queens in Narnia? The solution to that tension is revealed in The Last Battle when Aslan’s country is revealed to be a new Narnia where they are still kings and queens. And so for Susan, the prophecy continues to be a sort of promise: she is and always will be a queen in Narnia. A place is waiting for her, all she has to do is accept it.
Complacent Pieties and Open-Ended Narratives
In a discussion on Facebook it turns out that many people feel Lewis is unjust to Susan and feel quite upset about her fate. It’s kind of baffling to me because the text seems so clearly not to tell us what her eventual fate is. But even when I point that out, they still don’t like that Susan, a girl, has a different fate than her brothers. One friend who mostly agreed with the author about Susan being exiled made reference to what she called “complacent pieties about how when we exile others, they’re really just exiling themselves.”
That comment pricked me and I kept worrying at it. I think it sort of gets to why I’m so very defensive of Susan. For me the idea of self-exile isn’t just a complacent piety. I’m one who did exile myself from my world of fantasy. It wasn’t anyone else who did it to me. At some point I decided it was childish and I kicked it to the curb. Very sadly, with many tears and a period of great depression. But I didn’t know how to drag my own childhood dreaming into adulthood. Except for a handful of books which I loved, Narnia included. Those beloved books were my bridge to my childhood dreamer self. Maybe I could no longer dream up new stories in which I was a fantasy heroine, but I could still revisit childhood through Narnia and other books. And I think maybe some day I will find my way back.
I’ve always identified with Susan and found her a compelling alter-ego. To me Susan’s narrative arc isn’t unsatisfactory or the story of a person who loses faith. It’s the story of someone who needs to find another door to Aslan’s country.
And I did. I found a door to a mature relationship with a Jesus who isn’t just an inverted Aslan mask. I made a lot of foolish mistakes, I dabbled in trivialities— not lipsticks and nylons, but my own sorts of shallownesses. So I do believe to the core of my being that Susan is not only not exiled, but that she is redeemed and that indeed she will find her path through grief and tragedy, the tragedy of the survivor. For me it was important that there be a Susan, someone for whom there was a question mark, an open-ended path whose end we cannot see. I needed there to be one plot line that wasn’t neatly tied up at the end of the story. One character about whom we can honestly say: we don’t know but we can hope.
And as I’m writing I’ve realized that that’s the exact formula we Catholics use for what we believe about the eternal fate of unbaptized babies: we don’t know for sure how they are saved, but we can hope in God’s mercy and love. As the mother of a miscarried child, Susan has become even more important not less. She’s the one about whom we can never know. And really that’s actually what the Church teaches: we don’t know for sure about any given person if they are damned or saved: all we can do is hope and pray. We pray for the dead because we have hope in God’s love and mercy and we hope to be reunited with them in the mansion of heaven.
So maybe I’ve written myself into changing my mind. Maybe I agree that Susan is an exile— but only in the sense that we are all exsules filii Evae, exiled children of Eve. All of us have lost our paradise and all of us are unsure of whether we will make it to Aslan’s country Maybe Susan’s story isn’t told because she’s the one Lewis identifies with most, because like all of us Christians, he can’t be certain he’s going to end up in Aslan’s country, he can only hope and pray that eventually he will give up all his attachments to the trivial things he knows all too well how much he’s attached to. Or that those attachments will turn out to be not mortal sins, keeping him out in permanent exile, but merely venial sins which will be purged in the fires so that one day he too can enter into the wedding feast in a snow-white garment.
Gosh this is a mess and rambles all over the place, but I think I can at least see more clearly what it is that is at stake for me in this question: why it matters so much to me that there be a Susan Pevensie who is not present at the end of The Last Battle. it’s a part of the plan, not a flaw. Or if a flaw, a flaw in the sense of the felix culpa: oh necessary sin that has won for us so great a savior.
Also, one last thought— one of my favorite novels, Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay, ends with an open-ended non-resolution for three main characters. We are given a prophecy in the form of a riselka, but all we know is that if three men see her there will be three different fates. We are deliberately not told which man faces which fate:
““One man sees a riselka: his life forks there.
Two men see a riselka: one of them shall die.
Three men see a riselka: one is blessed, one forks, one shall die.”
And that’s how the book ends. We will never know which man dies, whose life will fork, who will be blessed. A lot of people hate that ending. I love it.
The end of John’s Gospel has that flavor too: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” John tells us that he’s not telling us the full story, that there are bits of the story we will never know. Things Jesus said and did, so very many of them.
Kay’s later novels play with this idea of the myriad of stories that we don’t get to hear or that we only catch a glimpse of. In the Sarantine Mosaic and Last Light of the Sun we see minor characters who take their turn in the spotlight only to disappear again. We will never know what happened to them…
I think I have a strong affinity for the character whose fate we aren’t told, for the story where we aren’t sure if the resolution is happy or sad. It seems to me that very uncertainty reflects a deep truth about the nature of story and mimesis, the way that art, especially narrative art, imitates life. Stories typically give us a satisfactory arcs, a satisfactory resolutions–and the happy ending reflects the ultimate triumph of good over evil, of God over sin, of life over death. But.. at the same time, that’s a matter of faith, our lived experience most often does not have a happy ending. We all die, mostly its a sad thing for everyone and whether we believe or don’t believe or don’t know, mostly our experience is that life has a bunch of dangling threads. Faith gives us a hope that eventually we’ll get to see the other side of the tapestry and the beautiful pattern our lives make. But in this world we only get glimpses of the fullness of the pattern, hints and guesses. Mostly we see a mess.
In some cultures artists deliberately include a flaw in the pattern, an imperfection, a hole. It might be so as not to anger the gods. It might be because that imperfection tells us something about our human experience, about who we are and our limitations.
When I started quiltmaking I almost let my perfectionist win. It was a miracle I ever finished a quilt. But I embraced the wonky, the deliberately mismatched seams. I decided to let the flaws stand and speak for a vision of reality that is incomplete, knowledge that acknowledges its limitations.
I’ve learned that sometimes the flaws are what make a work, a person, a life, endearing. So I keep clinging to my love of Susan Pevensie and the more people tell me she’s a flaw, the more that makes me love her even harder.
+ + +
Also, I meant to include this in my original draft and then forgot:
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 is plenty of time for her to mend, and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end – in her own way. I think that whatever she had seen in Narnia she *could* (if she was the sort that wanted to) persuade herself, as she grew up, that it was ‘all nonsense’.
Congratulations on your good marks. I wish I was good at Maths! Love to all.
(collected letters of C.S. Lewis” v.3 2004, p.826)