A Susan Not Forsaken

“Our sister Susan is no longer a Friend of Narnia.”

This is one of the most chilling lines in classic fantasy literature, and among devotees of C.S. Lewis and his Chronicles of Narnia, one of the most hotly debated. At the climax of The Last Battle, Aslan shuts the door of eternity on Narnia, and our heroes find themselves in Aslan’s Country, a land that only gets bigger, and richer, and more real as they go further up and further in. It’s Heaven, for all intents and purposes, but somebody’s missing. Queen Susan the Gentle is nowhere to be found, and her surprising absence is summed up, without preamble, in those ten harsh, flat words from her brother, Peter.

The conventional wisdom has always been that Susan represents the once-faithful who have fallen away, seduced by the cares and pleasures of the mundane world—the lipstick and nylon stockings and parties and invitations—she’s the good seed that fell among thorns, strangled and stunted. Apostate, worldly, backslider, wanderer, lost sheep…the labels go on without end. Susan is a cautionary tale, pitiable, foolish, bereft of hope. Back in England, she’s the only member of her family remaining after the railway accident that ushers the rest of the Pevensie clan, plus Digory, Polly, Eustace, and Jill, to their joyous eternity. Susan is left alone, presumably to console herself as best she can with her boudoir and her social calendar.

susan3Still, somehow, the conventional wisdom never satisfied me, for some reason I couldn’t articulate. Susan’s dismissal jarred, like a single cracked bell in a carillon, a badly-tuned violin in the string section, a missing key on the piano. It didn’t ring true, not to the story, and not to Susan.

A few months ago, I stumbled upon a poignant essay by E. Jade Lomax that speculated about Susan Pevensie’s life after the train wreck, and it shed light on what had bothered me all along—Susan was a queen, and she never stopped being a queen, in or out of Narnia.

What was it Aslan said at the very beginning? “Once a King or Queen in Narnia, always a King or Queen.

But not always a King or Queen in Narnia. None of the testimony about Susan’s failings comes from Aslan himself. There’s no recrimination, not even a question to her siblings and companions: There were eight of you. Where is the other? Where is your sister? Might it be Susan’s story wasn’t finished yet, that she had other responsibilities to fulfill, that she might need a little more time to understand Aslan better in her own world, as he said, “by another name?”

susan4I discovered yesterday that I’d overlooked a companion essay to the one I’d read, set a little earlier on Susan’s timeline. Putting the two together yields a portrait of Susan that had never occurred to me, a Susan who learned in Narnia how to rule, but remained in England to become a different, stronger, nobler sort of queen, compelled by the virtues Narnia wove into her soul, always sensing the weight of the Lion’s commission. A Susan not forsaken. Always a King or Queen:

I want to read about Susan finishing out boarding school as a grown queen reigning from a teenaged girl’s body. School bullies and peer pressure from children and teachers who treat you like you’re less than sentient wouldn’t have the same impact. C’mon, Susan of the Horn, Susan who bested the DLF at archery, and rode a lion, and won wars, sitting in a school uniform with her eyebrows rising higher and higher as some old goon at the front of the room slams his fist on the lectern.

Susan living through WW2, huddling with her siblings, a young adult (again), a fighting queen and champion marksman kept from the action, until she finally storms out against screaming parents’ wishes and volunteers as a nurse on the front. She keeps a knife or two hidden under her clothes because when it comes down to it, they called her Gentle, but sometimes loving means fighting for what you care for.

This is just a taste. You should read both essays in their entirety, here and here.

UPDATE (Aug 1, 2014): Here’s yet another reflection from Ms. Lomax on Susan’s life in England, after Narnia. This seems to be a series. I’m enjoying these essays very much.

UPDATE (Nov 8, 2014): And another.

susan2Frankly, I doubt this occurred to C.S. Lewis, either. What little he said about the topic reinforces the conventional wisdom of a Susan who confused “growing up” with maturity, to her great cost, though perhaps there was a chance she might have found the way to Aslan’s Country later, after many tears and hardships:

What Lewis said to his favorite readers was that he hadn’t meant to suggest Susan was damned, just that her story diverged from the one he was trying to tell.

Lewis wrote to one young reader that Susan was written out of the story “not because I have no hope of Susan’s ever getting into Aslan’s country” — that is, Heaven — “but because I have a feeling that the story of her journey would be longer and more like a grown-up novel than I wanted to write.”

Lewis admitted fallibility and issued a startling invitation: “But I may be mistaken. Why not try it yourself?”

Sometimes authors do things in their writing they don’t consciously intend, and they later realize a deeper, better truth was hidden within their story all along. While perhaps not agreeing with the essayist on every detail, I think, on the whole, Lewis would have recognized her Susan, and approved.

As for me, those ten harsh words are now inextricably linked with some others, from Susan’s perspective:

Peter had always looked disapprovingly on the care with which Susan applied her makeup back home in England, called it vanity. And even then, Susan would smile at him, say “I use what weapons I have at hand,” and not explain any more than that. The boy ruled at her side for more than a decade. He should know better.

susan1

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2 thoughts on “A Susan Not Forsaken

  1. It did ring true to The Last Battle, though. I think people forget how grim that story was. Roonwit, found dead with an arrow in his side. The dwarfs murdering the horses in cold blood, so locked in their selfishness that they want to kill everything that stands in their way. That hopeless fight in front of the stable, which was a kind way for Lewis to show what it was like to be killed in battle for a cause you couldn’t win on earth. It’s a dark book, and its purpose I think was to awaken the idea of a good death when all else was lost. Susan turning away fits the narrative; heck, the Narnians were in despair because they feared Aslan himself turned against them.

    I can’t really stomach that essay because of it. I can see a novel about Susan returning to faith in Narnia, but not the kind of “you go girl” wish fulfillment the first essay was.

    1. “Susan turning away fits the narrative; heck, the Narnians were in despair because they feared Aslan himself turned against them.”

      Sure, I don’t see these essays as the *definitive* statement on Susan, and the conventional wisdom wouldn’t be the conventional wisdom if it didn’t make sense. However, despite its dark tone, Last Battle is as much about resurrection as it is about death. All the good and dear things about Narnia are restored in Aslan’s Country…except Susan. There’s the asymmetry again. I can’t help but suspect that the Lion who was able to repair so many harms and turn so much evil to good had a plan for Queen Susan’s restoration.

      That it might happen in England made sense, since her heart had been broken twice in Narnia (note her reaction at the beginning of Prince Caspian when she discovers the broken chessman in ruined Cair Paravel, and at the end, when she’s told she cannot return to Narnia), and going so far as to deny her memories of Narnia rather than face the pain of that loss seems a natural human reaction. In our world, the Apostle Peter denied Christ three times, then returned to fishing before he was reconciled.

      The tone of the essays suffers a bit from a sort of triumphalist response to the “lipstick and nylons”
      thing and the influence of reactions from folks like J.K. Rowling and Phillip Pullman that asserted “misogynist Lewis” was punishing Susan for embracing her sexuality. What I liked about the essays was that they didn’t settle for that dismissive, knee-jerk response, but actually delved into Susan’s character to speculate about what she was feeling, and why, and how that might have shaped her behavior in England, and it all flowed from what we saw of her in the Chronicles. Along with the dissatisfaction about Susan’s outcome, there’s a lot of fondness for the Narnia stories woven through the narrative.

      Of course, a Christian writer might have taken it a little further, describing a moment when Susan looked back, understood what had happened to her, and turned toward home, but in some ways, I like the idea of keeping the end of Susan’s story uncertain, rather than tying it up in a neat bow.

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