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Narnia, Susan, grown-ups, etc - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
Narnia, Susan, grown-ups, etc
Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being an adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

C.S. Lewis


I've spent the morning reading articles on Lewis in a kind of desultory way--not really passionately, and I didn't take down notes on where they were and come up with smart links and good research paper habits. But the above quote was in several of them, and linked often to the question of Susan Pevensie, so I thought, hey--why not think about Susan and her fate? (I don't know if there's anyone on my f-list who hasn't read the Chronicles, but if so, the following contains spoilers about The Last Battle and the ultimate fate of the characters.)

So, just to get the sequence out, in The Last Battle, Narnia comes to an end, as do Digory, Polly, Jill, Eustace, and three of the Pevensie children (along with their parents). They meet their fate in a train crash, and come through into an inner Narnia, which is also an "inner England," where no good thing is ever destroyed (they find the Professor's house, destroyed during the war, standing again). In other words, they enter heaven.

Except for Susan.

Susan is no longer, in the words of her brother, "a friend of Narnia." She's become interested only in invitations and nylons, and thinks of their time in Narnia as a pleasant game they all used to play.

Lewis has gotten flack for somehow associating her going to hell with a discovery of sex, which strikes me as wrong on two levels. On the first, she's not in hell--she's just not in heaven. She's still on Earth and presumably has years in which she can make different choices. On the second, nylons and invitations don't equal sex--they have connotations of growing up, but honestly, they strike me as less connected to sex itself than to the trappings surrounding it in adolescence: parties and fashion. Susan has opted to choose the good opinion of her shallower peers over the reality of the life she's experienced and the true friendship of her siblings.

For that matter, it isn't the fact that she's interested in them, per se, that keeps her out--it's the fact that she's only interested in them, that she's allowed her imagination and faith to atrophy in order to indulge very temporary interests, particularly (from the look of it) vanity. Having friends outside her family isn't the problem--Eustace befriends Jill and Digory befriends Polly, after all--it's that they have become her exclusive concern. To make a comparable connection in Harry Potter, it would be like Hermione deciding after leaving Hogwarts that there had never been a battle with Voldemort, giving up her witchcraft, and spending her young adulthood clubbing in London with her Muggle neighbor, who has to have the latest in all fashions and technology. (I'd use Harry, but Susan has more of a side role, so it would have to be Ron or Hermione, and I can't think of a way for it to work with Ron, as he has no alternate world t to which he might turn.) In Star Wars, it would be like Leia declaring that there's no such thing as the Force and giving up politics to pursue her life as a wealthy heiress, the GFFA version of Paris Hilton. In Buffy, Xander might decide that there's no such thing as the underworld, he lost his eye in a construction accident, and now he's just going to run around and score chicks at rock concerts. And so on. Sex might well be a part of those lives, but it's not what's wrong. In Narnia, there's no indication that Polly and Digory led perfectly chaste lives as adults (or that they didn't; Lewis doesn't seem concerned about it), but it doesn't seem to prevent them from being Friends of Narnia, because they haven't given up their belief in it or their concern for it.

Where does the quote come in?

Lewis seems to believe that eventually, genuinely growing up will put a stop to adolescence, and the adult will be able to rediscover the things which have been shut away. Susan is resisting this at the time of The Last Battle, and her siblings are obviously hurt by it, but there's nothing preventing her from finally getting through this phase (which is what one of the others--Polly, maybe?--refers to it as: a particularly silly age that she's rushed to get to and staying in as long as she can... but that doesn't imply that she'll be able to stay there forever).

Anyway, that's my Susan thought. She's got time, and maybe the shock of what happened will cause her to grow up.

As long as I'm talking Narnia, though, I wanted to appreciate the vision of heaven that Lewis creates. I didn't like The Last Battle as well as the other books (Aslan's motivations didn't make a lot of sense to me), but the idea that heaven is a recreation of the world, of all worlds, where "no good thing is ever destroyed," is possibly my favorite notion of it. He describes the England that they see as the "inner England," but that's not exactly right--what they see is the Ideal England--kind of a platonic ideal, I guess, of which reality is a projection. It is everything that is good and true, concentrated where they can reach it. You just know that Arthur's on the throne, and the tabloids are never going to report on his wish to be an item of feminine care in the possession of his mistress. You can imagine and posit an inner America, an inner Australia, an inner wherever as well, all connected because it's really a place of the imagination, which doesn't die. The reason I like it is that it shows a profound optimism, an idea that the "inner" parts of things are good and true, and that they're there somewhere under the often crude workings of reality... they're a deeper reality, Tolkien's "sudden, joyful turn." (I simply love that joy is important in these books, as in HP.) It's refreshing after looking at a lot of journalism that thinks getting to the seedy backside of something is as deep as it gets. :)
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buongiornodaisy From: buongiornodaisy Date: December 22nd, 2005 07:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
...damn, reading this makes me want to finish the rest of the series.
elerrina_amanya From: elerrina_amanya Date: December 22nd, 2005 08:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
Completely agree with your last paragraph, especially the part about joy :)

It's also very nice to find someone else who doesn't write Susan off as a complete non-starter as far as ultimate redemption (belief, whatever) is concerned. The first time I read TLB, I have a fair idea that I cried about Susan (I was seven) but on re-reading the series I became a lot more optimistic: Aslan's "Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen" —may have misquoted—seemed to relate to me to the Biblical idea that all Christians, even backsliders, will return to God; similarly all who believed in Narnia, even fashion-obsessed partygoers, will find their way back in...or perhaps that was just wishful thinking on my part: my seven-year-old self hadn't got to grips with the idea that even in fantasy everything isn't always perfect ;)

I also worked on the maybe-the-shock-of-having-her-entire-family-killed-will-knock-some-sense-into-her theory; I have a feeling that somewhere at the bottom of a very large, very hidden box there is the excruciatingly badly written beginning of a Susan-redemption story, starting with some cheerful reflections at her family's graves.

So, bascially, all that was to say...I agree with you :P
texasmagic From: texasmagic Date: December 22nd, 2005 08:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've long since been aggrevated by the type of literary analysis that boils everything down to sex. Yes, it's there, veiled, in many a poetic reference, from Chaucer forward (and further back, I'm sure). But it doesn't have to be all about sex, and sometimes, it just isn't about it at all.

When I first read The Last Battle, many years ago, I thought it meant that Susan had become too focused on the trappings of our world, and not focused enough on the world of faith. It follows nicely from the first book, where all she ever does is want to go home, to safety, even when they're hunting the White Stag.

Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. As a devotee of "youth lit" I'm going to have to book mark this, and read more about Jack.
ladyaeryn From: ladyaeryn Date: December 22nd, 2005 08:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't know if there's anyone on my f-list who hasn't read the Chronicles, but if so, the following contains spoilers

I'm one of those three in the world who hasn't, so I appreciate the cut. ;)
a_t_rain From: a_t_rain Date: December 22nd, 2005 08:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've only read two of them myself (although I do know how the series ends, and since I don't plan to read the others I don't care about spoilers).
honorh From: honorh Date: December 22nd, 2005 08:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
THANK YOU!!!!!

This is something I tend to harp on with those who claim Susan's been "relegated to hell" because she likes nylons and lipstick. No, she's not in hell; she's in England. There is a difference. She still has time to grow out of being a stupid teenager and realize what's really important, just as Lewis himself did.

Besides, the point is, someone *had* to be left behind. There had to be an acknowledgement that Narnia, like faith, can be lost. It can fall victim to the "real world" (which isn't actually the *real* world, but it is what we see every day). Susan stops believing because she gets distracted by this world and makes it her motivation to fit into it. But one imagines the shock of losing all those she loves could well bring her back to what she likely still believes in her heart.

Or it may drive her still further away. We don't know. Lewis leaves her as a loose end, but that's no sign of sloppy story-telling. The rest of Susan's story is left to our imaginations.

It's also a persistant plot poodle. Ouch.
sophonax From: sophonax Date: December 22nd, 2005 08:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
I agree with Lewis as far as his condemnation of those who automatically dismiss anything even faintly smacking of childhood--that usually is a sign of immaturity. And I still very much love a lot of stuff that's designed or intended for children. But I don't think Lewis was simply criticizing the childhood-haters; in The Last Battle, he was also explicitly rejecting the idea that adulthood has any value or virtue at all.

The key lies not in what happened to Susan but what happened to the other Pevensies--their eternal reward is *never having to grow up at all,* other than their post-LWW stint as the Narnian monarchs. Even at my first reading of TLB, I thought this was really ghastly, that death in a train wreck was something to be celebrated and rejoiced in. I couldn't shake the feeling that Susan got the best deal of all--at least she was still alive in the real world.

Yes, real: while I could easily accept the pre-TLB Narnia as just as real a world as this one, the "further up and further in" Narnia falls completely flat. Maybe it's just that I've never been a Platonist (Lewis' embrace of the Platonic philosophy, at the time when he was writing, is much better evidence of his eagerness to embrace unfashionable ideas than either his religion or his penchant for fantasy; Plato was even less in vogue then than he is now), but the "ideal" structure really seems to work best for defining categories, and from either a Christian (which I was at the time I first read Narnia) or a secular humanist (which I am now)perspective, it seems cold and arbitrary to force beloved people, places, and ideas--often as much beloved for their flaws as their virtues--to be forced into categories for the sake of idealization.

And "idealization" sums up everything Lewis does with kids. Lucy is a great character and I love her, but Lewis makes clear with every scene he writes her in that her virtues come from her childlike qualities. Edmund's immature dismissal of Narnia, even after he's been there, is that it's only a silly, childish game--his desire to look grown-up in front of his older siblings is precisely what makes him so beastly. Uncle Andrew's total inability to function in Narnia in The Magician's Nephew is directly attributed to what Lewis calls his "grown-up" ideas that anything that can't be dealt with by either brute force or economic power must be too absurd to actually exist.

Maybe I'm the one idealizing in this case, but Lewis' caricatures of adulthood simply don't ring true at all to me. Adulthood at its best can produce a deepening of character, the connection of creativity developed in childhood to all the concepts of the outside world so that the creation and the concepts become richer, more context for emotions (which can then deepen into true passions), the adoption of the work ethic necessary for creative projects to be undertaken and completed. True, it can also produce narrowmindedness and stress and the forgoing of pleasure for profit, but equally so can childhood produce petty cruelty and screaming fits and overwhelming acquisitiveness. Adults didn't invent shallowness, but many of them have overcome it.

All of this implies that the rich and satisfying life poses the possibility for growth at all stages of life--which, to me, means that the farther you grow, the deeper you're able to go. But there's no one, Ultimately Deep Platonic-ideal bottoming-out, and the idea that you have to suspend growth in any other direction at some point in order to reach that is a little bit ghastly. Doubly ghastly if that suspension of growth includes dying in a train wreck and then implying that someone who didn't is somehow worse off just because her priorities are a bit skewed at the moment.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 22nd, 2005 08:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
If it had only been the children who died in the crash, I would see your point here, but in the case of TLB, it was Polly and Digory--older people who'd lived full adult lives, as well as the Pevensie parents--who came through as well. They are restored to youth, but that's as a symbol of immortality; they're brought back to a state of health and potential, a time when life stretches out langorously before them. It's clear from Lewis's quote that he doesn't believe that the adolescent state is an ideal to which people should aspire--they're supposed to grow past it. The Pevensie kids, did, after all, grow up while they were in Narnia; they were tumbled back into childhood later. I had the impression that Lucy and Peter and particularly Edmund retained a great deal of their maturity.

Of course, I haven't found adulthood to be especially enlightening--too many annoying and pedestrian concerns to really concentrate on neat questions the way I used to, and being unmarried and childless, I haven't had any of the compensations for the loss.
equustel From: equustel Date: December 22nd, 2005 08:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
The reason I like it is that it shows a profound optimism, an idea that the "inner" parts of things are good and true, and that they're there somewhere under the often crude workings of reality... they're a deeper reality, Tolkien's "sudden, joyful turn."

I love this notion. It runs through the rest of Lewis's work, as well - the Space Trilogy, his nonfiction, and especially Till We Have Faces... which is probably my favorite thing he's ever written. The idea that the world we know, and everything in it, is a mere shadow or "copy" of the ultimate reality has always rung true with me. It posits that the reason why the world never fulfills us is because it is just a placeholder or representation of the "real" thing, a fleeting hint of it.

It's the sort of thing I never understood cognitively while reading the Chronicles as a child, but which affected me just the same. I'll admit, I cried when first reading The Last Battle; I wanted to be in the "new Narnia" with them so badly, to experience what they were experiencing. And that desire speaks of something very profound indeed, I think. For - again, according to Lewis's theology - if there were nothing to fulfill my desire, why would I feel it in the first place? ;)
stephantom From: stephantom Date: December 22nd, 2005 09:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
I agree. I love this sort of platonic part of Lewis' ideology. I didn't love The Last Battle in general really, as much as some of the other books, but the last chapter or so I really did love because it all felt very right to me. Someone says - I can't remember who, Aslan probably - something like, the life they were leading before was just a dream and now they've awoken to the real thing.

Mm, I'm going to share my favorite Lewis quote now, even though it's wicked long (sorry!):

"In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence... Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth's expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it: what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them: it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things---the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire: but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited... The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret...

Our lifelong Nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation."

...It just. Makes me happy. Anyway.

I agree whole-heartedly with your discusison of Susan, btw, Fernwithy. I liked this post.
dsbs From: dsbs Date: December 22nd, 2005 09:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
You know, I'm sorry to say I never looked at it that way. Although, when I read the Last Battle, I was mostly peeved from an over-excited feminist's perspective - it figures that the woman will be the one to become all superficial and condescending, while the two males make it to "heaven" straight away. It was more of a "why Susan," sort of thing, though, than a "well, that's it. Lewis clearly thinks that sex is bad and these books are a load of rubbish," thing, you know? So thank you for that :)

I really do love that quote, though. I'm never ashamed at what I'm reading, but I do get frustrated at the constant need to justify it to other people. "You're reading Harry Potter/Chronicles of Narnia/Series of Unfortunate Events/the Georgia Nicholson/etc books? But I thought you were smart." Not to mention the fact that reading books (i.e. giving them a chance) does not necessarily mean you are going to like those books, but that's beyond the point. The point is, if you confine yourself to reading only those books which other people think are appropriate for you, you'll miss out on a lot. You can't choose when you were born (and thus, what "children's" books were available at that time," but you can choose what books you're going to read.

Sorry for that being so long...
rj_anderson From: rj_anderson Date: December 22nd, 2005 09:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm sure you already know I agree with you on this, but I don't think it can be said too often. :) I like the hypothetical parallel you drew using Hermione -- I think that helps to clarify the point very well.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 22nd, 2005 10:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, I'd forgotten about your excellent essay on the topic (everyone click--it's a good entry!). And I think that's the thing. In this world, if you've never seen Narnia and have no particular reason to believe in Narnia, it might make some sense to outgrow it like other folklore we play with as a child, but as with Hermione and Voldemort, Susan has actual, concrete memories which she has to deny in order to come up with the "pleasant game" interpretation of events, because in the world of the Narnia books, Narnia is very much a real place.
story645 From: story645 Date: December 22nd, 2005 09:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't remember how I thought of that scene when I read it, but I like your interpretation best of all the ones that I have scene. The Last Battle also wasn't my fave, but mostly cause it felt the most theologically heavy handed of the whole series.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 22nd, 2005 10:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
And moreover, it's a theology that I seem congenitally unable to get behind. For me, the holier way to end it would have been to have this ideal, "inner England" brought into the world of contemporary England, to have the people who knew Narnia and Aslan come in and, well, imbue the living world with holiness, instead of simply experiencing holiness after death. But Lewis does have a different theology about the subject, and on his own terms, it makes some sense. But it is quite heavy-handed.
akashasheiress From: akashasheiress Date: December 22nd, 2005 10:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
Were the Narnia series written before Lewis was married? Before Lewis met his wife, he was actually a bit of a misogynist, so I wonder if the expulsion of Susan from Narnia had something to do with Lewis seeing females as having a tendency towards vanity and frivolity.

Then again, I've never read the Chronicles nor seen the movie(but I'm planning to at least to see the movie).
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 22nd, 2005 10:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
In Wiki, it looks like they were concurrent events. He wrote Narnia from 1950-1956, and while I can't find the date of his marriage, he met Joy in 1953 according to her entry.

There's really nothing anti-feminist in the Narnia books except for a belief in the first one (which is Lion, emphatically not The Magician's Nephew) that the girls shouldn't be in the battles. By the end of the series, the girls have a much more active role.
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veryshortlist From: veryshortlist Date: December 22nd, 2005 10:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
The idea of heaven being an idealised version of your world has been done a couple of times in several intersting ways, actually. [These examples are from some of my favorite books.]

In The Lovely Bones, Susie's heaven, the one she goes to after being raped and killed looks just like the high school she never gets to go to. Her heaven is what she wants it to be, and crosses over with other dead people who have a similar idea of heaven.

And in Young Wizards, the wizards who die in this world go on to Timeheart, a place where there is light ang goodness, and no evil Powers to fight.


It's interesting what Lewis says about the need for acceptance being a childish need, because isn't there a case where that isn't true? Do you think people who sleep around a lot, looking for love and acceptance are not as mature as people who have a different attitude about love sex?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 22nd, 2005 10:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
Do you think people who sleep around a lot, looking for love and acceptance are not as mature as people who have a different attitude about love sex?

Yes--actually, I think that's an example of Lewis's point. Those are people who are indulging in sex in a childish kind of way. Sex is not inherently a mature activity; it depends on how it's done.
greyathena From: greyathena Date: December 22nd, 2005 10:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
I apologize if someone already posted this, since I'm dashing from work and didn't scan the comments, but there was a very good book review of a Lewis biography in the most recent New Republic that talks about this issue with Susan. The article agrees with you. But it's a great book review/article all on its own as well.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 22nd, 2005 10:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ah. I haven't checked NR. I'll go have a peek; thanks for the tip!
maglors_finch From: maglors_finch Date: December 22nd, 2005 10:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
To me, Susan's turning away from Narnia is first and foremost a metaphor for the loss of youthful imagination, fantasy and wonder. This is something only too many people experience when they grow up, because society confuses those things with childishness and immaturity, encouraging the loss. As far as I'm concerned, it's unfortunate that the Christian allegory in the Narnia books so often overshadows other levels of interpretation in the minds of many `adult' readers, and that Susan's disbelief becomes almost exclusively a loss of faith with dire consequences for the afterlife. I prefer to think Lewis was not just writing an allegory or a story with a moral, but paying tribute to the human imagination as well.
From: bangcollision Date: December 22nd, 2005 11:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
I read this when I was young, so although I've read the series I don't quite remember it all and I do have a different view on it.

But as an eight year old or so I remember being absolutely horrifed. Instead of them living onward to be nice and old they DIED. And they're stuck in this place that as nice as it sounds they will be in for the rest of their time. And this is supposed to be a treat.

And Susan-- I was so upset that although the others around her died she stayed alive. I personally think if everyone that was special to me died I'd rather have gone with them. You know? I didn't see it as she got redemtion(sp?) I saw it as she was all alone for the rest of her life.

Needless to say I haven't really looked on the books in a positive light for a while~ I cried too much.
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