Susan Pevensie and the Power of Stories
Spoiler Alert-If you have not read the Chronicles of Narnia this article contains significant spoilers.
Given that the United Kingdom seems to be currently facing a winter without a Christmas, it is perhaps no surprise that debate has again sprung up over Narnia. Twitter has, once more, been exercised by Susan Pevensie. Susan was one of the children who visited Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and features to varying degrees in other books in the series. She is controversial because as a young adult she stops believing in Narnia, having become more interested in lipstick and parties. As a consequence, she is not caught up in the events of The Last Battle, meaning that she does not enter the afterlife at the same time as her siblings.
These circumstances led Neil Gaiman to write The Problem of Susan, a short story which addressed a theme which he found deeply problematic in beloved books from his childhood. Equally, J K Rowling expressed her frustration that Susan effectively found sex and consequently, became irreligious, whilst Phillip Pullman was even more forthright in his condemnation, claiming that C S Lewis sent a girl to Hell for being interested in clothes and boys.
This blog post is not primarily about the “Problem of Susan” per se, but rather about these varying responses to her character: what they say about stories, their subjectivity and their power to make us explore uncomfortable questions?
It is worth noting that nothing in the original text remotely suggests that Susan “goes to Hell”, and that conclusion makes little sense either in terms of the narrative or Narnia, or in the wider theological writing of C S Lewis. It is hard to see Pullman’s assertion as anything other than pure projection, shaped by his own interpretation of Christianity. Even Rowling’s more nuanced suggestion that Susan’s drift away from Narnia had to do with the spiritually dangerous influence of female sexuality, is also problematic in relation to the words which Lewis actually wrote. His criticism was not that Susan had grown up and was now taking an interest in boys, but that she had become obsessed with superficial things and no longer had space for wonder and magic.
There was also no suggestion that her story came to an end with the close of The Last Battle. The implication was arguably that she still had things which she was meant to do on Earth, all that we were really told was that she was not killed in a train crash along with the rest of her family. It seems somewhat strange to interpret not dying as a punishment, although of course the bereavement which Susan experiences as the sole survivor is stark, especially for a children's book. (Of course, she is off-stage throughout The Last Battle, so readers are not confronted directly with her suffering, nor is there really any reference to it). It is also interesting to note in passing that Lewis served in the First World War, and had had the experience of “being Susan”, in the sense of surviving people close to him died. There is certainly no evidence that he regarded the rest of his life as a sentence. The Narnia stories acknowledge the reality of pain as one facet of human experience, and are reflect the notion that sometimes anguish is the result of poor choices, and sometimes it is simply bad luck.
Another angle on all of this is that in many ways, Susan’s fate is not so different to that of many girl heroines in children’s literature. Somehow becoming a woman is associated with assuming a "sensible" persona and sacrificing a spirit of adventure. This is a depressing cultural trope, and one which ironically Lewis was perhaps critiquing, in preferring less conventional heroines like Lucy, Aravis, Polly and Jill. Wendy in Peter Pan grows up and loses Never Never Land, but we are told: “You need not be sorry for her. She is one of the kind that likes to grow up. In the end she grew up of her own free will a day quicker than the other girls.”
Perhaps even more ironically, Hermione becomes a progressively weaker character as she ages in the Harry Potter series, ultimately marrying a boy she met at school, the terminally uninspiring Ron Weasley. Becoming a woman for Hermione seems to involve, in our view, becoming physically and emotionally more dependent on men. Of course, that is just our take on Hermione, undoubtedly many other readers might have a very different perspective, not to mention the author! This really is the point of our discussion: exploring social, moral and political questions through stories does not provide clarity, or impose universals when it comes to answers. Two different people may draw radically different impressions and insights from the same text, depending on their personality, experiences and preferences. Furthermore, the way in which texts are read and received is going to alter with time and place. It is impossible to deny that there are some deeply problematic themes around gender in the Narnia stories, but this is unsurprising from an author born in the Victorian age.
In using narrative as part of the engine of the BNW project, we were conscious from the outset of giving participants the freedom to respond differently and reach unique conclusions about the situations facing them. The capacity of individuals to view the same scenario in radically different ways, depending on their own perceptions and experiences is one factor which makes these discussions so fascinating. It is also what makes real world conversations about law and human rights complex, rewarding and profoundly necessary.
The fact that seventy years after the first Narnia book was published, adults and children alike are still arguing about Susan Pevensie, and what this means for how we see gender, religion and sexuality, is testament to the power of narratives to not just kindle, but sustain debate. We certainly do not claim to have the literary genius of C S Lewis, but if our stories and games get people to think, argue and reassess their assumptions to some degree, then our work will be worthwhile.