Narnia: Showing and Telling

[Content Note: Depression]

Narnia Recap: In which Lucy and Edmund Pevensie are pulled into Narnia through a picture on the wall, along with their annoying cousin Eustace Scrubb.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 1: The Picture in the Bedroom

Ana's Note: I'm composing this on Day 9 of my illness (estimated to run 10-14 days by my fortune-telling doctor). So this may be less coherent than usual.

   Edmund and Lucy did not at all want to come and stay with Uncle Harold and Aunt Alberta. But it really couldn’t be helped. Father had got a job lecturing in America for sixteen weeks that summer, and Mother was to go with him because she hadn’t had a real holiday for ten years. Peter was working very hard for an exam and he was to spend the holidays being coached by old Professor Kirke in whose house these four children had had wonderful adventures long ago in the war years. If he had still been in that house he would have had them all to stay. But he had somehow become poor since the old days and was living in a small cottage with only one bedroom to spare. It would have cost too much money to take the other three all to America, and Susan had gone.
   Grown-ups thought her the pretty one of the family and she was no good at school work (though otherwise very old for her age) and Mother said she “would get far more out of a trip to America than the youngsters.”

This is one of those times where it's very frustrating to me that world-building wasn't apparently much of a priority for Lewis.

We have two major revelations dropped on us: one, Professor Kirke has now "somehow become poor". (Although not so poor that he doesn't have a two-bedroom house and can't absorb the living expenses of a teenager staying with him over the summer and being tutored in his spare time, but I'll leave that for now, and maybe the Pevensies are paying him handsomely for his troubles.) This brings up a tremendous number of questions, none of which are answered on Google, but most specifically I very much wonder if he kept the wardrobe in his possession as one of his few links to Narnia or if he'd been forced to sell it with the house. I don't suppose we're ever told.

We do know from Last Battle that Kirke was not very diligent about keeping the Narnia heirlooms in his possession: Eustace states that "the Rings had all been buried in the garden of a house in London (that’s our big town, Sire) and the house had been sold." So it's entirely possible that Kirke wandered off to his new downsized cottage and left the wardrobe behind just as he did the Rings because acting responsibly when it comes to dangerous magical artifacts is apparently not part of the Friends of Narnia charter.

Two, we are giving a frustratingly brief glimpse of Susan, in that she's been taken on a trip to America because she "was no good at school work". What does this mean? We aren't told, and I honestly imagine that's because Lewis didn't really care. The point here is very probably not about establishing facts about Susan, so much as just getting her plausibly out of the way so that Edmund and Lucy can have their adventure. I imagine the "otherwise very old for her age" is just an in-joke about how the children have all grown up once before, and we know that, don't we, Dear Reader? Ha ha ha.

So Susan-fans are left to labor in vain to try to suss some canonized sense of Susan's fate out of these two sentences. Why was she "no good" at school work? Does she have some kind of hitherto-unmentioned learning disorder that interferes with school work, or causes her to test badly despite being familiar with the material? Has Susan been afflicted with depression after being permanently banished from Narnia after the events in Prince Caspian? Is Susan experiencing an existential crisis at the prospect of growing up a second time and is uncertain of clear life-goals having already been an adult (and a queen) once already? (I'm reminded here of possibly-apocryphal stories of depressed astronauts, some of whom supposedly felt that they no longer had anything to strive for after reaching such an obvious pinnacle of human existence in the form of traveling to space.)

Then, too, there's a lot of questions surrounding the motives and intentions of the Pevensie parents: what is it, exactly, that they are hoping Susan will "get" out of a trip to America? Are they grooming her to be a sophisticated world-traveler in order to stand out on the marriage market? (In which case, Susan's "sinful" interest in lipsticks and nylons may be a direct consequence of her parents guiding her to focus on her appearance and attractiveness in order to land the right husband.) Are they trying to remove her from a potentially bad situation, such as running with the wrong crowds, or attempting to grow a more mature worldview in her? (In which case, Susan's "sinful" interest in lipsticks and nylons could be foreshadowed here, and her parents could be attempting to change her interests.) Is it possible that Susan's disinterest in school is related to her parents' plans for her, that perhaps marriageability or world-travel and social status has been emphasized over formal education?

We don't get to know! Ha ha. It's not like anyone cares about Susan anyway, right? For all we learn, she might just be bad at school work because she's a girl and girls have mush for brains. We're not here for the characters, after all, we're here for the shiny fantasy land of Narnia. Moving on!

   The story begins on an afternoon when Edmund and Lucy were stealing a few precious minutes alone together. And of course they were talking about Narnia, which was the name of their own private and secret country. Most of us, I suppose, have a secret country but for most of us it is only an imaginary country. Edmund and Lucy were luckier than other people in that respect. Their secret country was real.

And speaking of potential after-effects of Narnia on Susan, now we come to Edmund and Lucy.

I wasn't sure as a child, and I'm far from certain as an adult, just how "lucky" the Pevensies were to have their secret country be really real. On the one hand, I would absolutely love to be able to visit my fantasy worlds and rule them as queen and be generally awesome and badass. On the other hand, as a child I had already grokked that being tossed out at random intervals (and in some cases permanently) would seriously suck. I was a pretty emotional child, the sort of child that adults often describe as "sensitive", and being tossed out of Narnia without being able to say goodbye or set things right and have closure would have completely wrecked me. Apparently at least some of the Pevensies are not like me in that respect, and that's all well and good, but then you have a narrator tossing out words like "lucky" and I am just not so sure.

   And a promise, or very nearly a promise, had been made them in Narnia itself that they would some day get back. You may imagine that they talked about it a good deal, when they got the chance.

The "it" in that sentence that Edmund and Lucy talk about a good deal is ambiguous: they could be discussing the promise or they could just be discussing Narnia in general. When they are given dialogue here in text, they discuss Narnia in general and not the promise in specific, so either way it is established that the Pevensies spend a lot of discussion time on Narnia. Indeed, they talk about Narnia not only when they are guests in the Scrubb household, but they also took time to talk about Narnia privately when Eustace stayed with the Pevensies as a guest:

   “Still playing your old game?” said Eustace Clarence, who had been listening outside the door and now came grinning into the room. Last year, when he had been staying with the Pevensies, he had managed to hear them all talking of Narnia and he loved teasing them about it. He thought of course that they were making it all up; and as he was far too stupid to make anything up himself, he did not approve of that.

(Incidentally, here is another example of the narrative being over-the-top nasty when it comes to Eustace. It's not that Eustace doesn't appreciate being excluding from the Pevensie's apparent game of make-believe, and he's lashing out in response to this perceived slight, or something similarly understandable; it's that he's "too stupid" to be creative and therefore is on a mission to stifle all creativity everywhere.)

What I find interesting here is that while the text asserts that the children talk about Narnia a great deal, we don't really get to hear the content of these conversations.

There is no Narnia timeline that I can find which clarifies precisely when Eustace visited the Pevensies; all we have here is the statement that he stayed with them "last year". In Chapter 2, when Edmund and Caspian compare timeline notes, the children will learn that it has been "exactly three years" in Narnia since they left, and Edmund will offer that "it's been a year ago by our time" since the events of Prince Caspian. So did Eustace visit the Pevensies before or after their second trip to Narnia?

At the beginning of Prince Caspian, the children were at a train station heading back to school, presumably following their summer break. In which case, possibly Eustace had stayed with the Pevensies over that same summer break, i.e., one year ago exactly and therefore before the events of PC. This would mean that Edmund was exaggerating by ~three months (the length of summer break established in text) when he told Caspian they'd had a year go by. But there's another possibility that Eustace stayed with them sometime after PC (possibly over the Christmas break?) and that the note here about him staying there "last year" isn't meant to be taken as a strict "exactly one year ago today" unit of time.

Either way, I'd be very interested to hear what, precisely, the children were talking about when they sneaked away from their cousin in order to whisper about Narnia. Pre-Prince Caspian, maybe their conversations consisted of Susan weeping inconsolably about her new childlike body while Lucy moped about listlessly because she never had a chance to say goodbye to Mr. Tumnus. Possibly Edmund had shouting matches with Peter, angrily accusing Peter of shaming them into ignoring their "foreboding" and continuing past the lamp-post in the name of Honour and Glory. I imagine that Peter would defend himself rather guiltily, pointing out with obvious discomfort that he didn't make them agree to come with him; Lucy and Susan would leap into the fray and point out that he was the High King, and hadn't he always expected them to conform to his word as the final say in the matter?

Post-Prince Caspian, the conversations would possibly have been even more fraught: the text says that Eustace heard "all" of them talking, so we can assume that all four were there. I can just imagine the tension as Lucy and Edmund try to temper their excitement over the near-promise that they would go back again while Susan and Peter try to keep their chins up and not say anything bitter about their little siblings getting one more adventure by virtue only of being younger. They'd always suspected, of course, that Lucy and Edmund were the favorites of the family, but they'd never dreamed that Aslan of all people would feel the same way. And did anyone ever stop to think about how hard it was, to be the Surrogate Mother and the High King for the younger ones -- shouldering all of the responsibility and never being adequately thanked for it? But it wasn't Lucy's or Edmund's fault that they were younger or that the adults loved them more, so what good would it do to say anything, really? Better to just sadly reminisce about all the wonderful times in Narnia that they will never be able to experience again...

This is one of those times where telling rather than showing really hurts the reader in terms of getting authorial intention across. The narrator tells us that the children -- all four of them -- enjoy talking about Narnia and are lucky to have been there. I find that confusing in light of my own personality, but I'm willing to accept that this is so for the Pevensies. But without showing us what they talk about, it becomes harder to accept and understand that framing. If we could just see the conversations between the four Pevensies and learn why they consider themselves lucky to have experienced Narnia, it would go a long way towards resolving a lot of confusion that has sprung up around the text.

If we could see Peter and Susan talk about Narnia after Prince Caspian, we could get a better handle on how they feel about being excluded from Narnia forever -- as well as how they feel about their younger siblings getting another crack at adventure. Instead, we just get this assertion that they talk about Narnia a lot, and apparently in very general terms that can somehow still be quickly and easily assimilated by Eustace-who-does-not-read-fairy-tales-and-is-not-creative-in-any-sense-of-the-word. We don't get a sense of how much the children remember about Narnia, or whether any of their skills carry back over to England, or how their travels have changed them, for better or worse.

And because we don't really see them outside of Narnia, and because we never really follow up with them after Narnia, I think it's difficult to understand the underlying message of Narnia. At the end of Dawn Treader, Aslan will tell Lucy and Edmund that they were brought to Narnia in order to meet Aslan, that they might then be able to recognize him later in England. Yet we never see Peter knowing Jesus English-Aslan after he's been judged finished and done with Narnia; and we never come to understand truly why Susan does not or cannot or will not know English-Aslan in spite of having the same experiences as her siblings. We don't follow Lucy and Edmund afterwards to understand what being a Narnian in England really means or how they feel about that.

Lucy and Edmund are "lucky" because their secret country is real. But it strikes me that they only ever seem to live in their "secret country" and we never really glimpse how they live in the real one, except for a few brief passages which indicate that much of their time in the Real Country is spent talking about and reminiscing over and yearning for their Secret Country.

We're supposed to think that the Secret Country prepares them to live well in the Real Country. Dissenters like me speculate otherwise; we wonder if maybe the reason why Susan was no good at school work was because somehow the Secret Country ruined the children for living in the Real one.

Some showing over the telling could have fixed this, I think.


AnnaLK said...

It's interesting to compare the description of Susan's abilities given here with that given in Prince Caspian. In Prince Caspian we're told that "archery and swimming were the things Susan was good at". This might imply that she's not so good at other things, and in VDT that implication gets made a little more explicit with the line "Susan was no good at schoolwork". Taken together, these passages make me picture Susan as someone who excels in physical pursuits but is weaker in academic ones. But what really gets me is the contrast in the way Lewis chooses to paint this picture in each book. In PC it comes across as praise - he focuses on the strengths, and she gets to use these strengths to save Trumpkin. By VDT it's all about the weaknesses and the dismissiveness and the judging. I'm wondering if this is because Susan wasn't yet Designated Sinner at the time the PC passage was written, but is by the start of VDT. Therefore if we're going to describe her in VDT, it has to be in a negative light - even if we're describing the same set of traits that were considered a positive in the last book. Susan's a Sinner now, and everybody knows that Sinners don't have any good qualities.

On the timeline: Edmund tells Caspian that they've been gone from Narnia for a year, right? And I seem to recall that PC was explicitly set one year after LWW, meaning VDT is 2 years after LWW. Now, in LWW the children are evacuated because London is being bombed - the Blitz was 1940-1941, which places LWW near the start of the war, and VDT no later than 1943. Which raises the question: how are the Pevensie Parents able to go gallivanting off to America for 16 weeks in the middle of World War Two? Why haven't they been drafted into the British war effort in some way that would prevent them from taking extended holidays?

AnnaLK said...

Oh, that sounds like something I should go and read - what's it called?

AnnaLK said...

Thank you! (*downloads*)

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