C.S. Lewis failed. He failed to clearly say what he was trying to say. He failed his readers. He failed Susan.
When I read The Last Battle as a kid, and got to the moment when Susan was “no longer a friend of Narnia” I was shocked. Well, I thought, there are still some pages left to go. I’m sure she’ll be back before the end. But she wasn’t. And all of her siblings and friends, her cousin, even her parents, were romping along through New Narnia without ever mentioning her again.
It felt strange, and dismissive, and horrible. Much of the end of the book is about catching up with old friends, with cameos and reunions with beloved companions from previous books, even those who were dead—Reepicheep and Fledge and Puddleglum and Caspian—and yet somehow Susan never gets a moment. We don’t even peek in on her back on Earth, and no one thinks to ask, “Is Sue alright?”
Many readers felt this way as they made their way to the end of The Last Battle. Neil Gaiman famously wrote his story “The Problem of Susan” to explore those feelings. (Not, as some have suggested, as a point by point refutation of Lewis. As Gaiman himself said, “There is so much in the books that I love, but each time I found the disposal of Susan to be intensely problematic and deeply irritating. I suppose I wanted to write a story that would be equally problematic, and just as much of an irritant, if from a different direction, and to talk about the remarkable power of children’s literature.”) He has also said of Susan’s fate, “It’s this weird moment that just seemed wrong.”
J.K. Rowling didn’t like it, either. “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.”
And Philip Pullman said, “I just don’t like the conclusions Lewis comes to, after all that analysis, the way he shuts children out from heaven, or whatever it is, on the grounds that the one girl is interested in boys. She’s a teenager! Ah, it’s terrible: Sex—can’t have that.”
So let’s look at what Lewis meant to say and then explore what we heard. What’s the argument he’s making, and who is Susan? What was he hoping we’d come away with? And did we understand him?
To start, we should look at the entire conversation about her in The Last Battle:
“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicles aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”
“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 now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight 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 one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”
“Well, don’t let’s talk about that now,” said Peter. “Look! Here are lovely fruit trees. Let us taste them.”
And then, for the first time, Tirian looked about him and realised how very queer this adventure was.
Yes, Tirian, this adventure is very queer indeed!
I should say this first, because—even knowing what Lewis intended—this still irritates me: I think Lewis knew early on what he intended to do to Susan. There are too many clues in the other books.
In a letter to a young fan who wrote upset about Susan, Lewis replied, “Haven’t you noticed in the two you have read that she is rather fond of being too grownup? I am sorry to say that side of her got stronger and she forgot about Narnia.”
What we know about Susan is a good place to start. What do we know as we’re entering The Last Battle?
Well, we know that even in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Susan tended toward being the adult in the Pevensie family. She told Edmund when to go to bed, she’s the only one who suggested taking coats from the wardrobe as they stepped into the Narnian winter (cleverly suggesting they weren’t even stealing because they were still in the wardrobe).
It was also Susan who asked for permission to go with Aslan to the Stone Table. She was there at the death and resurrection of Aslan. She played tag with him after he came back to life, she rode upon his back on the way to the White Witch’s castle and watched him breathe the statues back to life. In fact, in an early article in this series I argued that in many ways she’s the most suited to Narnia of all the Pevensie children.
When the Pevensies return to Narnia the second time (we talked about Susan in Prince Caspian at length here), Susan is still in the “second mother” role for her siblings… which seems both natural and right, given that they’re without their mother at this time. She’s the practical one who makes sure they eat. Lucy is annoyed by her talking “like a grown-up” when Susan says things like “Where did you think you saw” Aslan. She’s become a bit of a skeptic, though she admits that she believed all along “deep down.” But she’s still Susan the gentle. When they come across a wild bear she fails to shoot at it, because she’s worried it might be a talking bear gone feral. Once she’s back with Aslan she’s completely with Aslan. She and Peter offer to walk through the doorway between worlds at the end of the book, even though they know it means they will never come to Narnia again. (As Aslan explains, they’ve become “too old” for Narnia and it’s time for them to find him in their own world.)
Whatever Lewis is getting at in The Last Battle, it’s not just that Susan is beautiful and is interested in boys. In The Horse and His Boy, we see her when she’s about 26, ruling in Narnia, and she’s gorgeous. Tall and gracious and gentle. Everyone loves her. Many princes want to marry her, and in fact the Pevensies are in Calormen because she’s considering marrying Rabadash. Not once are we told that she’s being inappropriate, or working against the will of Aslan, or doing anything evil. She’s not kicked out of Narnia for it. Aslan doesn’t speak to her sternly about it. She’s become a sort of surrogate mother to Prince Corin, who thinks of her as “an ordinary grown-up lady.”
So if we’re looking at everything we know about Susan all together, we realize that the issue—according to the “friends of Narnia” even—isn’t that she’s gotten too mature, or that nylons and lipsticks and invitations are bad, or that sex is evil, or that Susan has discovered boys…it’s that she’s become so focused on what she thinks an adult should be that she’s lost sight of Aslan. She has settled for something she thinks she wants instead of something better.
She’s interested in nothing but nylons and lipstick and invitations. She’s so focused on growing up that Polly says she’s not a grown-up at all. Where is Susan the Gentle, who not only entertained suitors at court, but also cared for orphans? She’s become all about the one and forgotten the other. She’s become, Lewis says in one of his letters, “a rather, silly, conceited young woman.”
It feels a little forced to me, and I know to many others. Susan always came around before, so why not this time? She loved Aslan as much as anyone, how could she just forget?
Of course, here we come to another problem, another place Lewis failed.
This time it’s very much because he needs all his characters to stand in for something. He needs them not just to “be” but also to “represent.” We see this beautifully done on occasion, like when Eustace shows us what it means to be spiritually transformed. We see it awkwardly done in his short stories. So Lewis has a variety of characters standing in for various things: Emeth is the good heathen. Puzzle is the deceived but well-intentioned believer. Lucy is the natural believer, Edmund the redeemed traitor, Peter is St. Peter more or less, Eustace is the completely transformed person. We have the skeptics who can’t see they’re in paradise (the dwarves), we have the atheist scared literally witless by the true vision of Aslan (Ginger the cat).
But Lewis needed someone to answer the question, “What about a true believer who walks away from God and is distracted by the world?” It couldn’t be Lucy, of course. Couldn’t be Peter, the True King. Couldn’t be Edmund or Eustace, it would destroy their previous stories. So he chose Susan. He didn’t realize how much we loved her. Lewis’ need to “say something” overshadowed the story here. It was a mistake, and for some people it has destroyed the rest of Narnia retroactively.
A further failure is that Lewis has Susan’s family and the “friends of Narnia” behave so nonchalantly about her absence. They’re all saying, basically, “Silly Susan.” We the readers are horrified once we realize what’s happening. How could they be so cruel? As Gaiman forces us to ask in his story, “What about how Susan had to go identify her family’s bodies? Isn’t that horrible? She’s an orphan now herself, she’s alone.” But it’s good to remember that the Friends of Narnia don’t yet realize that they’re dead. Would they really have been so callous if they had known Susan was alone? I think not. They had no reason to think Susan would even know they were gone before they’d pop back into Earth like they had in the past. If they had known they were dead, well… Lewis has shown that he can write about death with considerable depth of emotion and compassion. Surely one of them would have expressed concern for Susan then, instead of annoyance?
Some have read these few paragraphs in The Last Battle to mean that Susan won’t get into Aslan’s Country (i.e. not into Heaven). Lewis says otherwise in his letters, “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.”
Also, Lewis doesn’t think Heaven and Hell work that way. Some of us are all caught up in a theological construct Lewis didn’t share. He doesn’t believe in “Oh you got caught up in sex and appearances and now you’re in hell forever because you didn’t believe in Jesus at precisely the right time in precisely the right way.” Remember, Lewis told us that Edmund was forgiven before Aslan died. In context we can see that Lewis is not saying “Susan can’t go to heaven because she likes makeup.” His theology of heaven is much more generous than that. Emeth got in and he didn’t even know Aslan. Just because Susan wasn’t in the club of those seven “friends of Narnia” doesn’t mean she’s not a friend of Aslan.
And notice—how strange—that neither Aslan nor Lucy comments on Susan’s absence. We don’t know for sure why she’s not there, we just hear the theories. And Aslan has corrected every single one of these people before, so maybe they’re wrong. Lucy, who most often has the “natural” understanding of what is happening, doesn’t say anything about Susan. Why is that, I wonder?
Someone wrote Lewis once and asked him about Susan’s story after The Last Battle, and whether she ever found her way. He said this: “I could not write that story myself. Not that I have no hope of Susan’s ever getting to Aslan’s country; 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. But I may be mistaken. Why not try it yourself?”
So Lewis failed us, or perhaps thought too highly of us. He thought we’d follow the argument, that we’d understand what he was saying. But instead we’ve been angry, or confused, or annoyed, or frustrated because we loved Susan or suspected that maybe we were Susan and we’ve had to find our own way (like Susan), had to write our own story (like Susan), and maybe even struggled (like Susan) to see Aslan in the whole thing at all.
For me, here’s the way I’ve found to look at it.
I like to think that maybe there’s a scene somewhere that got cut. There’s this little sheaf of paper somewhere, with Lewis’s handwriting on it, written in the middle of the night at his desk while the mice came out to look at him and take a crumb as he wrote. And though we don’t know exactly what it might say, I think the scene would be something like this:
It was Lucy who remembered Susan then, and cried out to Aslan, “Susan, Susan, but what’s to become of Susan?”
Aslan came to her, the joy in his face replaced for a moment with sorrow. “Her story is not yours to know, Daughter of Eve.”
“But she’s alone,” Lucy said, and tears sprang from her eyes.
“She’s not alone,” Aslan said, his voice low and soft, and Lucy leaned against his broad back, just as she and Susan had done, oh, years ago. “But she must find her own way.”
“But what if she doesn’t?”
“Emeth found his way,” Aslan said. “Do you truly think our good Queen Susan the Gentle will fail to find a doorway home when the time comes?”
“I know that I’m meant to be happy here, Aslan, it’s just…it’s just that it’s terribly sad.”
Great, shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. “She will know more sorrow than you. But perhaps her joy will be greater, too, in time.”
His tears fell to the bright grass and formed a crystal pond, bright and clear. Aslan blew upon the water, and where the water was troubled she could see Susan, sitting in her room at home, looking at herself in the mirror, putting on her mascara.
“Susan, Susan!” Lucy cried, and her sister looked up for a moment, as if she heard a voice in another room.
“She does not yet know,” Aslan said, “What has happened to you and your brothers and your parents. She does not yet know the pain that lies ahead of her. But because of your great love for her, Lucy, you may speak one last sentence to her. One sentence to help her on her way.”
Lucy fell to her knees beside the pool, her tears mingling with Aslan’s. She did not know what to say, and she began to wonder whether it was better to say nothing at all, when the great lion said, “Speak, dear heart, it will mean more than you can know in the years to come.”
Lucy leaned close, so close to Susan she felt she could reach into the water and touch her, and she said, “Dear Susan—dear, beloved Susan—always remember…once a queen in Narnia, always a queen in Narnia.”
Susan set down her mascara. “Lu, is that you? Are you home so soon?” A gentle smile came onto her face. “How strange. For a moment I thought…but of course that can’t be. I’ll have to tell Lucy all about it when she gets home.”
Aslan blew on the water again, and Susan was gone.
Lucy threw her arms around Aslan’s great neck and buried her face in his golden mane. “Was it enough, Aslan? Did I say the right thing?”
As for Aslan’s answer, well, that is Lucy’s story to tell.
And then, of course, higher up and further in…
In my wrestling with the problems of Susan here is where I’ve landed. Susan’s problem is not so much femininity except in a sense that Lewis often failed to understand: she cared about what was put on her by others. Why lipstick and nylons and invitations? Because that’s what a patriarchal culture teaches her should matter to her…even though, once upon a time, she was Queen Susan the Gentle, who hunted werewolves and attended a party with the gods and once even wept into the mane of a God in lion form, and played tag with him after his resurrection. It wasn’t that Susan was “silly,” it was that she believed the lies of the culture around her that told her this is all she was good for, that this was her best life.
I can’t help but remember that it’s Susan who wanted to stay in Narnia forever. It was Susan who told her siblings not to chase that white stag further at Lantern Waste. It was her siblings who pushed to leave, and Susan who said, “in the name of Aslan, if that is what you all want, then I’ll come, too, and we’ll take whatever adventure befalls us.”
She didn’t know then what that meant. She didn’t know that by agreeing to go along with them, she would find herself—years later—journeying alone.
In his letters, Lewis said maybe she would find “her own way.”
He never meant to say Susan wouldn’t make it back to Narnia. He never meant to tell us that she would be alone forever, cut off from Aslan and her loved ones. He didn’t believe that’s the way the spiritual world works.
But that doesn’t change what we heard. That doesn’t change what most of us understood him to be saying. That doesn’t change the way we felt.
And we, many of us, frustrated and angry and hurt, shouted out, “Aslan would never do that! He would never abandon Susan! I don’t care if she was wearing nylons or writing ‘Aslan sucks’ on the Underground with her lipstick.”
Because Lewis had taught us that Aslan was good, was loving. That Narnia was a place for kids like us, that maybe were bullied or had absent parents or felt alone. That even if you were a traitor, Aslan would literally die for you.
We knew that even though Lewis had introduced us to Aslan, even though he had written all the books, we knew for a fact that this time C.S. Lewis had gotten it wrong.
We looked at the story and knew it wasn’t right. Aslan is better than that. Kinder. More loving. Forgiving. Compassionate. He wouldn’t hurt Susan that way, and he definitely wouldn’t lock Susan out.
Lewis wanted so badly to introduce us to Aslan. He wanted so badly for us to find Aslan in the real world. I wonder how he would have felt to know that we not only knew the great lion, but that we, on this topic, knew Aslan better than he did?
I can imagine him leaning back in his chair, a great smile on his face, pipe in one hand, eyebrows raised as he said, “Ah, you’ve met Aslan, too?”
I can see old Jack’s face lighting up with wonder as we tell him: Jack, believe me, if Susan looks for Aslan, she’ll find him. If she asks a question, he’ll answer. If she—even in her old age, even years and years from now—finds herself finds herself alone in that great house, and wanders into the old guest room and gently, not quite believing, raps her knuckles on an ancient wardrobe door, believe me, Jack, Aslan will be waiting to throw it open.
And then at last the true happily ever after can begin.