The ‘problem of Susan’ has concerned a wide array of people across the last half century. The treatment of Susan Pevensie in The Last Battle has been condemned by authors such as Philip Pullman and J.K.Rowling,has inspired a short story from Neil Gaiman and has, unsurprisingly, provided fuel for numerous blogs and forums. This being the case, I must apologise for my presumption in thinking that my writing can add anything to the wealth of debate already out there. However, I do write, because the problem lies at the heart of one of my favourite author’s works and, to give it an immediate cause, I read an article which explored the woman Susan might become. The problem matters.
But then, I don’t think there is a problem. Of course, I am biased – Lewis is probably my favourite author – but please, hear me out.
In The Last Battle,in contrast with the other members of her family, Susan does not return to Narnia. She is ‘no longer a friend of Narnia’, being too concerned with ‘nylons and lipsticks and invitations’. This has led to denunciations of C.S. Lewis as a misogynist, obsessed with the innocence of children, but unwilling to allow them to grow up into sexual adults.
At the end of Prince Caspian, Susan and Peter are told that they will not return to Narnia. They are too old. The same happens to Edmund and Lucy after the events of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Aslan explains that he exists in their world too, but he goes by another name, and they must learn to know him by that name. The unspoken, but obvious point is that Aslan provides a means for the Pevensies (along with many readers since) to come to know God within a framework which they can understand, however this is an incomplete, simplified knowledge. As one Corinthians 13 puts it “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face”. After a time, such a simplified understanding ceases to form a suitable basis for a full adult relationship with God. It is a start, but the relationship must now be developed in a new way. They must learn to know him by another name. This is why it is Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole who are the human protagonists of The Silver Chair. It is in fact a necessary part of growing up.
‘But’,I hear you cry, ‘Peter, Edmund and Lucy are in Last Battle’. This cannot be ignored, but it is something of an aside. They do not arrive in time to witness the events surrounding the cattle-shed and the destruction of . Only Eustace and Jill are brought to Narnia until after everyone has gone through the stable door. Narnia has already fallen. The whole of Last Battle is an apocalypse, which sees the final end of Narnia and allows those involved (at least, those willing to see what is in front of them) to make the journey to Aslan’s country through the stable door. After this, Narnia is unmade and it is only then that the Penvensies are reintroduced. Having said that, it is certainly true that everyone we have met in the books with the exception of Susan is present with Aslan in this new world. Susan alone is written out of the final story.
To return to my starting point, Susan is denied a return to Narnia inthe last battle because of a desire to be what she imagines being a grown-up is. Her idea of adult life is one of all the fun without any of the responsibility – ‘nylons and lipsticks and invitations’.This preoccupation means that she has no time for the ‘childish’ stories of Narnia. She is ‘no longer a friend of Narnia’ and has actively turned her back on the world of which she was once a part and has refused to lean to know Aslan in her own world. She is denying the truth of something she herself has experienced, much as Edmund did in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, after he followed Lucy into Narnia for the first time. She has chosen to try and be something she is not, and refused to accept the truth both of Aslan and of her own life. Because of this denial of her past involvement in the adventures of the Pevensies, she alone is not involved in the train crash which kills all her immediate family and several family friends. This is not an issue of her development into a sexual adult (indeed, as has been pointed out by several commentators, an adult, sexualised Susan is depicted in The Horse and his boy). Lewis never once mentions puberty, sex or mature adult relationships as a reason for her absence. Indeed, his point is that she has singularly failed to understand what it is to be an adult and have mature relationships. In grasping at adulthood, she has become less mature and prioritises insignificant details.
Susan’s absence is not a punishment. Much like the dwarves, who are unable to accept the reality of what lies both beyond and within the door, Susan chooses not to seek to know Aslan by any other name, even refusing to acknowledge that she has ever known him at all, decrying her siblings’ continued interest in the ‘funny games we used to play when we were children’. For her Narnia and Aslan are part of the childish world which she thinks she is too mature for.
Perhaps more problematically, this does not seem to bother her family during the course of Last Battle. They are too preoccupied with going ‘further up and further in’ to pay much heed to her absence, even when their parents join them. They show no signs of discomfort at the absence of someone they love from Aslan’s Country, the Narnian representation of heaven. At first signs, this is enough to make the skin crawl, but there is more to say.
In The Great Divorce, published a decade before Last Battle, Lewis presents a picture of the internal conflict caused by the competing desires to go ‘further up and further in’ and to move away from the divine presence so as to draw others in. Narnia is an overt attempt to articulate Lewis’ Christian perspective in afresh and appealing way, by layering it within an allegorical children’s fantasy world, however, even allowing for the loss of nuance which this requires, it seems highly unlikely that Lewis could fail to place such a conflict within the Narnian frame. If this conflict is real, it will be as real for the Pevensie children who, according to some readings, are now forever cut off from their sister, as for anyone else. If Lewis chooses to ignore it, surely he has good reasons.
Lewis never presents Susan’s perspective. We never see how she is affected by the death of so many loved ones. Her story remains untold. Indeed, Lewis wrote in one Letter that ‘Susan’s story would be longer and more like a grown-up novel than I wanted to write… Why not try it yourself’. Susan’s story is far from finished. Susan has a life ahead of her. Certainly not an easy one. She has just lost her entire family and will have to live with this (a point illustrated by Neil Gaiman in The Problem of Susan), however, the point is that she still has a story. Just as they meet their parents as the go ‘further up and further in’, so to, it is perfectly reasonable to suppose, the Pevensies will meet their sister on a hill or in a valley, and soon too; for Aslan all time is soon. And Aslan, as we have repeatedly seen, is almost limitlessly forgiving. Though we do not hear the details of such conversations, Edmund, Eustace and even Puzzle (who was complicit in the destruction of Narnia itself), need only acknowledge their mistakes and with Aslan, they are able to more past them. There is every reason to suppose that Susan will come to realise her mistakes – she has just had perhaps the largest wake-up call ever. No-one is ever abandoned and I have no reason to doubt that she will, in the fullness of time, be able to go ‘further up and further in’ with the one who calls all time soon.