Repost: Susan, Problems of

[Ana's Note: By popular demand, this is a re-post of an old deconstruction, partly to have content while I struggle with my ongoing disability challenges and partly so that newcomers can comment on old conversations.

The original post is here. I have not edited the content.



[Content Note: Body Mismatch, Hostility to Consent, Mental Health]

Narnia Recap: "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe" has finished and we are now reading "Prince Caspian".

Prince Caspian, Chapter 1: The Island

There is a Problem with Susan.

The Problem isn't one that is immediately obvious to everyone. It's not one that is always agreed upon by everyone. And it might not even be one Problem; it might be a whole host of them. But there is a Problem nonetheless with Susan, and there's no sense in trying to avoid it any longer. 

In "The Last Battle", the final book in the Narnia series, a brief exchange between a group of humans-who-have-visited-Narnia (hereafter referred to as "Friends of Narnia" for simplicity) reveals that Susan is no longer "a friend of Narnia". Susan is not present to give her side of the story (except for this one brief mention, she does not appear in The Last Battle at all), but it would seem that she either no longer believes in Narnia or claims to no longer believe in it. And since she no longer believes (or claims not to) in Narnia, she does not participate in Narnia-related functions, and because she does not participate, she does not die and go to the afterlife when her brothers and sister do while acting in service to Narnia.

C.S. Lewis stated outside the books that:

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.

Paul F. Ford, author of "Companion to Narnia" wrote: 

This is not to say, as some critics have maintained, that she is lost forever ... It is a mistake to think that Susan was killed in the railway accident at the end of The Last Battle and that she has forever fallen from grace. It is to be assumed, rather, that as a woman of twenty-one who has just lost her entire family in a terrible crash, she will have much to work through; in the process, she might change to become truly the gentle person she has the potential for being.

And so perhaps a very great problem with Susan is that the man who wrote her and other men who write about her consider her a vapid, egotistical, un-gentle person and assert that she is so without ever feeling the need to justify this characterization on the page, with in-character actions. And this characterization-by-assertion is something that has frequently taken fans of the series by surprise, including fans who identified with Susan for her bravery, her courage, her gentility, and her depth of emotion.

But though Susan is not present to defend or explain herself in The Last Battle, surely we have some clue to her character through the descriptions of the others, no? Does not Eustace say, which is never contradicted by the others:

"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.'"

And doesn't that seem like a pretty rotten thing to do? Susan can't possibly have forgotten about Narnia, so she must simply be pretending to have done so. And while it's all well and good to argue that she may be "pretending" to do so out of an instinctive need to protect herself *, it still makes Susan a pretty rotten person to tease the others for believing something she fundamentally knows to be true.

* And now I am going to write a note that will likely be longer than the entire rest of the post, because I could write a thousand pages on all the reasons why pretending Narnia doesn't exist is a valid method of self-preservation in my eyes.

Narnia, by all the rules and understanding of the physical world in which Susan lives, doesn't exist. An alternate dimension that can be popped in and out of and in which time passes according to narrative fiat (sometimes impossibly fast, other times remarkably slow), and in which water spirits live, and the salt sea can simply stop being salt and start being sweet after a certain demarcation line, and flying horses fly is not possible. People who insist that the impossible is both possible and has happened to them are routinely considered by our culture to be mentally ill. Denying Narnia can be a method of self-defense against the growing belief that one's own self is mentally ill.

Narnia, as an experience, effectively isolates those which experience it. In all the world, Susan knows only a half dozen people who have been to Narnia: an elderly couple whose "adventures" in Narnia only came out after they heard about Susan's adventures there, her brothers and sister, a cousin, and this cousin's girl friend. For someone who is passionate, gregarious, and sharing, being so firmly isolated from the rest of the world by such an experience can be literally painful. Denying Narnia can be a method of self-defense against being continually walled off from the outside world of which one may want desperately to be a part.

Narnia, as a place, is deeply hostile to the idea of consent. Susan was brought into Narnia because a magic portal opened when she was hiding in a wardrobe. She may or may not have been magically herded into that wardrobe for that very purpose. Though she initially wanted to leave, she felt a duty to stay and save her sister's friend. And once she learned to love the land and chose to live her life there and take lovers and had decided to marry and raise a family, she was dumped without warning from the world she loved and back into a body she was no longer familiar with. One year later, she was physically yanked into Narnia without giving her consent only to find that (a) everyone she'd known and loved was long dead, (b) her kingdom was ruined by her sudden and unwilling prior exit from Narnia, and (c) she would never be allowed to return ever again because she was arbitrarily too old. Denying Narnia can be a method of self-defense against a phenomena that has emotionally hurt Susan in a variety of very deep ways.

But! That last one -- "Narnia has hurt Susan so she's pretending it doesn't exist in order to protect herself" -- is frequently a subject of rigorous debate. How much was Susan actually hurt by being tossed out of Narnia as an adult and back into England as a child? Was the unexpected body swap traumatic, or did magic ease the transition such that Susan and the other children adapted back to their old bodies and old lives easily and simply remembered the whole of Narnia as a fading dream?

And now we are out of the note and back into the post, because "Prince Caspian" is here to assure you that the answer is yes: the children totally took to their childreny bodies like fish to water and the whole Narnia thing was not traumatic at all because it was like a fading dream, half-remembered on waking.

PROBLEM SOLVED FOREVER.

Except... no... wait a second... How does that work, then, that Susan is a vapid, egotistical person for not believing in a dream? And for thinking it a little funny and odd that her brothers and sister believe in their dream? If you make it so that Narnia seems like a hazy dream to ease the trauma, doesn't that make it harder to justify Susan as "silly" and "conceited" for not basing major life decisions on a dream she had when she was a little girl and which she barely remembers?

I SAID, PROBLEM SOLVED FOREVER.

Haha, we have fun, don't we? And what you are going to love, or at least what I loved, going into these first few chapters of "Prince Caspian" is the realization that the Pevensie children only very barely remember anything at all about Narnia and yet they are still terribly traumatized by the experience.

This is going to be such fun. If by "fun" you mean "horrifying". And I do.

   ONCE THERE WERE FOUR CHILDREN whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, and it has been told in another book called The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe how they had a remarkable adventure.

One of the problems with "Prince Caspian" as a book is that I'm really not sure it knows what it wants to be. As far as I could see, "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe" knew precisely what it wanted to be: it wanted to riff off existing Snow Queen fairy tales with a strong dash of Grecian mythology world-building centered around an allegory for Christ's crucifixion. All well and good, and fairly well focused as far as all that goes.

But then you have "Prince Caspian" and it seems like it's really struggling for a thematic purpose. An obvious allusion would be the King Arthur mythos and anything involving the return of a legendary king to set things right, and Lewis is on record saying the book is about "the restoration of the true religion after a corruption", but frankly "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe" kind of already handled the King Arthur thing once already with the perpetually absent King Aslan and it's unclear how the Narnian religion is "corrupted" so much as "absent all over again". If you want religious corruption in this series, "The Last Battle" is almost certainly the better way to go.

So PC tends to get lost in the Narnian shuffle a bit, since it frequently feels like "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe: Two and a Half", and it's probably not a good sign when an author is name-dropping the last book in the series in the first sentence, but what is interesting here is that the name-drop kind of has to occur in order to really link the two novels.

And here is the first problem with the whole mess that is PC: who are these Pevensie kids, anyway?

I don't mean "who are they" in the literal sense; obviously they're Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. (See up there? The narrator just told us that.) But what are their personalities? At the beginning of LWW, they could be viewed as relatively complex characters. Peter was the eldest, but weighed down by responsibilities he wasn't ready for and frequently failed and took out his exasperation on the others. Susan was motherly, wise, and brave, but she was quiet and not always sure of herself or her position in the world or her family. Edmund was tense, frustrated by a childhood marked by bad schooling, family separation, and a world war. Lucy was the youngest, approaching the world with a childlike sense of wonder that may not always have been safe or wise.

In the last chapter of LWW, Peter had grown into his position as a leader, Susan had become sociable and gregarious, Edmund was wise and serene, and Lucy had grown into a vibrant young woman, hardened as a battle nurse and yet still full of life and joy. The children had deepened and grown and changed... and then they were dumped out into England without so much as a how'd you do. So what are they now? Have their personalities reverted to pre-Narnia personalities along with their bodily reversion, or have they retained their character growth somehow despite the jettisoning of their physical growth and -- we're getting there, I swear -- what seems to be a fair bulk of their memories?

And, really, you might as well just decide what personality to assign to each kid, because I'm just about tempted to make a game out of taking the "X said" tags off all the dialogue and see if I can still tell who is talking because I'm pretty sure I can't.

   That had all happened a year ago, and now all four of them were sitting on a seat at a railway station with trunks and playboxes piled up round them. They were, in fact, on their way back to school. [...] but now when they would be saying good-bye and going different ways so soon, everyone felt that the holidays were really over and everyone felt their term-time feelings beginning again, and they were all rather gloomy and no one could think of anything to say. Lucy was going to boarding school for the first time.

And here is the first moment of buh-who-what-now because the Pevensies are sad, but not because they've lost Narnia and they're no longer queens and kings and they've lost every friend they've known for the last decade or so. No, they're sad because... summer vacation is over. Which is more than a little mundane but also a whiplash moment of wahey because this is not what my reaction as a child would have been towards losing Narnia.

Granted, it's been a year, and granted, this is Narnia and not Edward Cullen, but still I would expect at least some mention of Narnia-related emotion, even if it was just a cozy mention of the fact that kings didn't have to go to boarding school. And yet, there's nothing. And since the narrative doesn't mention the children's thoughts on leaving the house that contains the only portal to Narnia that they're aware exists in the whole world, it creates the impression that the kids aren't thinking about it. Losing Narnia quite possibly forever -- in this moment in England -- doesn't seem to have much of an effect on them.

And that's so alien that I don't even know how to deal with it except to assume that the children have forgotten about Narnia entirely. Or decided that it never existed in the first place. Or otherwise dealt with the knowledge in such a way as to push it from conscious thought.

   It was an empty, sleepy, country station and there was hardly anyone on the platform except themselves. Suddenly Lucy gave a sharp little cry, like someone who has been stung by a wasp.
   "What's up, Lu?" said Edmund -- and then suddenly broke off and made a noise like "Ow!"
   "What on earth -- " began Peter, and then he too suddenly changed what he had been going to say. Instead, he said, "Susan, let go! What are you doing? Where are you dragging me to?"
   "I'm not touching you," said Susan. "Someone is pulling me. Oh -- oh -- oh -- stop it!" [...]
   "Look sharp!" shouted Edmund. "All catch hands and keep together. This is magic -- I can tell by the feeling. Quick!"
   "Yes," said Susan. "Hold hands. Oh, I do wish it would stop -- oh!"

And now here are a couple of things worthy of note.

First, the children are being pulled forcibly into Narnia. There may not be an immediately obvious difference in transport between stepping into a portal in a wardrobe, but it effectively means that the children are powerless to prevent being pulled into Narnia and they are incapable of leaving once there, since there's no obvious portal to step through. Words cannot describe how traumatizing this knowledge would be to me: the idea that I could be sitting here working on a blog post before then being tossed into a fantasy land for gods-know-how-long before being tossed out again without warning would mess with my head. Maybe I'm the only one, I don't know, but there's a fundamental loss of agency here that is terrifying to me.

Second, Susan tells the magic to stop. Twice. The first time she speaks, she might be addressing whoever is "pulling" her in general, even though at that point it's clear that it's not a Pevensie sibling doing the pulling but rather some unseen force. The second time is very clearly stated after she knows it's magic. She tells the force to stop and it doesn't. It doesn't ultimately matter if the puller is Aslan or The Emperor or Deep Magic or Father Christmas; Susan's consent is being overridden and that is a Very Big Problem.

Third, the children speak as they feel the pulling, and they do not feel the pulling in order of age. Chronological order would dictate a speaking pattern of Lucy, Edmund, Susan, Peter. Instead, we get Peter moved before Susan. Possibly because Peter is the more vocal of the two, more apt to speak up when he sees Lucy and Edmund having a problem. But I can't help but note that we're coincidentally following a hypothetical Pevensie pantheon with Lucy The Youngest, Edmund The Second, Peter The Elder, and Susan The Last.

   Next moment the luggage, the seat, the platform, and the station had completely vanished. The four children, holding hands and panting, found themselves standing in a woody place -- such a woody place that branches were sticking into them and there was hardly room to move. They all rubbed their eyes and took a deep breath.
   "Oh, Peter!" exclaimed Lucy. "Do you think we can possibly have got back to Narnia?"
   "It might be anywhere," said Peter. "I can't see a yard in all these trees. Let's try to get into the open -- if there is any open."

Again we have this strange, almost non-reaction when it comes to Narnia. Lucy, the youngest, excitedly proposes that it may be Narnia -- and, really, why wouldn't it be? How many magical worlds have they known? Is Peter resigned to visiting a new magical world every year? -- and Peter makes a noncommittal, disinterested response. Possibly this is meant to seem gamely of him: it might be anywhere! Let's explore and see! but a very real problem is that from now until the penny finally drops and the children realize that it is Narnia, they will all four seem shockingly incurious when it comes to comparing their surroundings with what the remember of Narnia.

Look at the Narnia map again. There are really only two dense forests in Narnia: a forest in the northwest of the country and the forest surrounding Cair Paravel, also known as "the forest surrounding the place where the Pevensies lived for a decade or more". It seems to me that someone would mention that, as in "if we are in Narnia, we must be near Cair Paravel". It seems to me that someone would navigate with that in mind, as in "if we strike an easternly route, we'll have to reach the sea at some point". It seems to me that someone would try to match landmarks, as in "does that boulder seem like the one we used to dance around on Boulder Dancing Day?" No one does this. Not yet, anyway.

   With some difficulty, and with some stings from nettles and pricks from thorns, they struggled out of the thicket. [...] Everything became much brighter, and after a few steps they found themselves at the edge of the wood, looking down on a sandy beach. A few yards away a very calm sea was falling on the sand with such tiny ripples that it made hardly any sound. There was no land in sight and no clouds in the sky. [...]
   Five minutes later everyone was barefooted and wading in the cool clear water.
   "This is better than being in a stuffy train on the way back to Latin and French and Algebra!" said Edmund. And then for quite a long time there was no more talking, only splashing and looking for shrimps and crabs.

And this, like the earlier disappointment framing only in terms of the summer ending, strikes me as utterly true for four ordinary school children, and yet utterly out of place for four ordinary school children who have done this before. I don't mean that the Pevensies shouldn't enjoy childish playing on the beach, but rather I mean that the "omg pretty magic land" reaction is going to be very different if you've already been to a pretty magic land.

For one thing, if this is Narnia, I would expect them to be very preoccupied with getting to the castle to see their friends and get back to ruling their kingdom. For another thing, if they think this is not Narnia, I would expect them to be at least a little on the lookout for the fantastical villain to drive up and cause problems. Edmund in particular should be wary of that, and not focused on Latin.

   "All the same," said Susan presently, "I suppose we'll have to make some plans. We shall want something to eat before long."

And now we're repeating the "omg pretty magic land but Susan points out they've no food on them". It seriously is LWW2.5, I swear.

   "It's like being shipwrecked," remarked Edmund. "In the books they always find springs of clear, fresh water on the island. We’d better go and look for them."
   "Does that mean we have to go back into all that thick wood?" said Susan.
   "Not a bit of it," said Peter. "If there are streams they're bound to come down to the sea, and if we walk along the beach we're bound to come to them."

HOW DO I RECONCILE THIS PASSAGE WITH THE FACT THAT THEY'VE BEEN TO NARNIA BEFORE?

I'm serious. What do you do with this? Edmund is referencing books for crying out loud, which makes perfect characterization sense if this is the first novel in a series, but none whatsoever if this is the second and they've been to a magical land before. The answer is not "omg Robinson Crusoe" but rather the answer is "well, if this is Narnia, the biggest stream letting off into the Eastern Sea was..." and then trying to navigate (north or south?) from there.

And then there's "water always returns to the ocean" Peter who you would never guess as having been king of a great bloody forest for the last decade or so of his life. Because, I mean, I've never lived in a forest, but I'm pretty sure there are streams and lakes and stuff that don't go to the sea, and I'm additionally pretty comfortable saying that the trees have to get the water from somewhere, so get back in that forest kiddo and additionally maybe the shade will keep you hydrated longer.

   They all now waded back and went first across the smooth, wet sand and then up to the dry, crumbly sand that sticks to one's toes, and began putting on their shoes and socks. Edmund and Lucy wanted to leave them behind and do their exploring with bare feet, but Susan said this would be a mad thing to do. "We might never find them again," she pointed out, "and we shall want them if we're still here when night comes and it begins to be cold."

B-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-bu--. You know what? I'm not even going to comment on this. The entire characterization issue is a scrambled mess as far as I'm concerned.

   Edmund said they must gather gulls' eggs from the rocks, but when they came to think of it they couldn’t remember having seen any gulls’ eggs and wouldn’t be able to cook them if they found any. Peter thought to himself that unless they had some stroke of luck they would soon be glad to eat eggs raw, but he didn't see any point in saying this out loud. Susan said it was a pity they had eaten the sandwiches so soon. One or two tempers very nearly got lost at this stage. Finally Edmund said:
   "Look here. There's only one thing to be done. We must explore the wood. Hermits and knights-errant and people like that always manage to live somehow if they’re in a forest. They find roots and berries and things."
   "What sort of roots?" asked Susan.
   "I always thought it meant roots of trees," said Lucy.

While the children continue to pretend like they've never been in a magical land before so that Edmund can reference his favorite pieces of literature, this seems like as good a time as any to bring back up the point (first mentioned in the comments) that Narnia does not culturally challenge the children. The language is English (even to the point of using common English nursery rhymes in conversational speech!), the food is English, the social norms of clothing and behavior are largely English.

At no point in the stories do the children have to deal with dryads and naiads who don't cover their breasts. At no point are they expected to eat unusual foods, whether it be insects (perfectly reasonable in a court completely staffed by Animals) or simply non-English fare. At no point are they limited by their language or forced to rely on interpreters to speak with the majority of their court. The most they are ever challenged is on their diplomatic visits to Calormen, where they bring along an entire retinue to entertain, service, and cook for them.

The world is molded to their needs, which is a cozy fantasy as a child and yet effectively means that the Pevensie children face fewer challenges to their social norms in their magical world than most of us face in our daily lives. They're effectively insular and isolated in Narnia, which makes it all the more interesting to have the one ex-member of the group labeled "silly" and "conceited" for having different values than the others.

And possibly not surprisingly as a result of this heavy insulation from want and privation, the children don't know the first thing about woodland survival despite having lived in a forest for a decade and been (apparently) avid hunters. Either they've forgotten everything they once knew, or their living and hunting was so much for sport that they never absorbed any actual knowledge as part of their daily lives. Food -- food that must have come from the forest, because Narnia had neither refrigeration nor railway -- just appeared in the Pevensie court, cooked into a form that no longer resembled the raw origins, to the point where the concept of roots and berries and eggs is almost baffling to the former monarchs.

   They were beginning to get very tired of it when they noticed a delicious smell, and then a flash of bright color high above them at the top of the right bank.
   "I say!" exclaimed Lucy. "I do believe that’s an apple tree."
   It was. They panted up the steep bank, forced their way through some brambles, and found themselves standing round an old tree that was heavy with large yellowish-golden apples as firm and juicy as you could wish to see.
   "And this is not the only tree," said Edmund with his mouth full of apple. "Look there—and there."
   "Why, there are dozens of them," said Susan, throwing away the core of her first apple and picking her second. "This must have been an orchard—long, long ago, before the place went wild and the wood grew up."

The orchard -- I'm going to go ahead and spoil this in advance -- is an orchard that the Pevensies ordered planted on their castle grounds thirteen hundred years ago. The castle has been abandoned and the orchard has grown up wild and untamed. And this seems as good a time to mention that apple trees when left in their natural state can grow to be 40 feet tall, and (I'm guessing, mind you, as I have no experience with 1,300 year old apple trees) not always easily picked by small children.

They could have planted small apple trees, of course -- pretty little decorative trees that grow less fruit but can be picked by hand whenever the desire arises. And knowing the Pevensies, they probably did. This orchard probably wasn't put into Cair Paravel to protect the residents from starvation over a long siege. The orchard probably wasn't put into Cair Paravel to feed the surrounding community and ensure they always had food stored up over the winter. It's easy for me to imagine that the priorities of the Pevensie monarchs -- who, let us not forget, spent their last days in Narnia hunting one of their subjects for sport -- were beauty and pleasure over security and social welfare.

And yet it's amusing to me that this isn't intended as social commentary. The Pevensies are called good rulers in the text, and I believe the author intended us to see them as such. They were good rulers who made no plans for the future, lived each day as if they had thousands more to come, and despite coming into their kingdom through the climax of a civil war that had raged a hundred years, saw no need to live as if Narnia was anything other than a peaceful utopia.

In the 1,300 years between LWW and PC, a foreign race will invade Narnia and launch a concentrated program of genocide that will drive all non-human Narnians -- which is, let us remember all Narnians, since the Pevensie were the only four humans in the entire country -- into hiding or exile. Vast numbers will be killed. Families will be destroyed. The country will be plunged into another civil war. And even when the Pevensies win and crown Prince Caspian king, the humans will still outnumber the Animals. The kingdom which was once entirely populated by Animals and magical creatures has been forever altered.

This isn't directly the fault of the Pevensies. They weren't, after all, there to stop it. But neither did they apparently plan for it. Despite living in a country wracked by civil war (a major campaign during their rule was fighting ghouls and werewolves and northern giants) and having tense relations with another country, the country of Calormen, the Pevensies did not build up Narnian defenses. They did not, apparently, maintain a standing army. They didn't install moats or drawbridges or fortifications into Cair Paravel. They didn't establish a fall back position for the Narnian people on the peninsula on which Cair Paravel stands. They didn't (apparently) designate a stable succession in case anything should happen to them.

Instead they planted apple trees. Not the kind that grow tall and great and feed multitudes, but the kind that grow short and squat and look pretty in the garden and from which small children can easily harvest a snack.

And so again we're back to some very great questions: who are the Pevensies, what do they know, and how do they think? Are they childish and ignorant now because they do not recall Narnia, or were they just as childish and ignorant back then when they were living as insulated adults unaware of the very real responsibilities of rulership? I genuinely don't know.

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