Thursday, May 29
Whatever Happened to Susan Pevensie?
SPOILER ALERT: TO THE FIVE OF YOU OUT THERE WHO HAVE NOT FINISHED READING THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA AND DON'T WANT CERTAIN CRITICAL PLOT POINTS OF THE FINAL BOOK GIVEN AWAY, CONSIDER YOURSELF WARNED.
There's always something that splits apart the Christian Narnia reader from his less eschatologically-minded counterparts. Certainly the books never approach pure allegory, even if they tend towards a greater literalness than his colleague Tolkien's work. They can be enjoyed as a simple, fantastic romp rather than a grand, childlike expression of Christian imagination, but without that sensibility something is lost--in the same way something is lost when a great mass-setting or religious icon--or even a sunset--is divorced from the sacramental framework. Something beautiful becomes merely pretty: The Last Battle becomes thus merely extravagant and gratuitous (and even slightly disappointing, for all its eschatological pyrotechnics), rather than majestic, bittersweet and hopeful; Dawn Treader's fantastic geography turns into the surreal end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And Susan Pevensie becomes the inexplicable casualty, it seems, of small-minded puritan moralism or worse.
How could they do that to dear old Su? one asks, astonished. Queen Susan the Gentle, Susan the sure-sighted archeress? (Susan, the schoolgirl who quite deliberately nearly killed a Telmarine soldier within a very few pages of the opening of Prince Caspian?) Susan's (apparent) end, for many, is the one great let-down in the series, and despite being a few sparse, vague lines, it gets twisted and knotted into the oddest alternate versions in reader's imaginations. Susan is condemned to hell for liking boys, lipstick and nylons. Susan got shafted by a celibate British misogynist. Susan is excluded from heaven for growing up.
Indeed, the latter interpretation seems to have been one of the things that spurred Friendly Neighborhood Atheist Philip Pullman to write his ramshackle Dark Materials trilogy with its fleeting, stylized allusions to adolescent promiscuity, with the conclusion Lewis wanted his perfect Christian readers to stay kids in a Peter Pan time-warp and never have anything to do with the great god Sex.
The funny thing is, Lewis never said any of this. And, presumably, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver must have done something on Saturday nights.
All we're told is Susan has turned her back on Narnia in favor of nylons, lipstick, and invitations: sex, whether committed or frivolous, doesn't even merit a mention. Nothing about hell; nothing about damnation; nothing even about boys, much less growing up. (And there's nothing wrong with invitations or clothes, or the opposite sex so long as God is there to put it all in context.) The problem is really vanity and conceit. As Polly puts it, 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." The absurdities of adolescence hardly count as maturity. Lewis wrote to a young reader, "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." (From Lewis’ Letters to Children, 22 January 1957, to Martin). She's simply not in the picture at the moment, and certainly capable of repentance out in the real world. Even so, one might complain, such flaws would hardly seem damning--just a bit of an understandable adolescent let-down--if it weren't for the fact she's also deliberately convinced herself her fifteen-odd years as Queen in Narnia were essentially little children's games, a dangerous and remarkably daring bit of destructive self-deception.
Someone brighter than me actually did the math and figured out that when Susan's three siblings got killed in that train crash and sent to Aslan's Country*, Su would have been at been 21, not sixteen or seventeen as some suppose, and time to be thinking about things a bit more serious than what comes across as adolescent frivolity. The problem is not that Susan's life is Gidget, but that it's what Sex and the City looks like from the sidelines, which is even sadder off the TV screen, in reality.
The fact Susan appears to have stumbled, perhaps momentarily, should come as no shock. Lewis's protagonists are often far more flawed than we may remember: Edmund tends to get pegged as the black sheep of the family, despite his full redemption and contrition, but Susan is a bit of a grouch in Caspian, and Peter not much better; even Lucy has a moment of vanity in Dawn Treader; and Lewis is simply recognizing humans do stupid, sinful things, even you and me--especially you and me.
And actions have consequences, as Aslan reminds us with an occasional growl from time to time.
Considering that the whole point of sending the Pevensie kids into Narnia was to help them know Christ in this world, as Aslan reminds them at the end of Prince Caspian, I sometimes wonder if the ultimate, mos important benefactor of the Narnian experience was, in fact, dear Queen Susan the Gentle herself, in some epilogue we will never know. Peter et al. died fairly early on into their own lives on this earth, with hardly enough time to grow into saints. Susan is the one who, unlike the martyr killed quick of Flannery O'Connor, is left behind to learn from her experiences, or to reject them. For repentance--even if it is repentance from the sillier, frillier sins, which can paralyze us as badly as murder and mayhem--can often have the strangest roots.
*There is some dispute about this calculation, as Lewis's chronology ends with a year that could be either 1943 or 1949 due to the Professor's odd handwriting, but most sources list "1949" as the year of the Pevensie siblings deaths. If 1943 is in fact the correct year (and there is a certain prima facie case for it), it makes Susan considerably younger than previously supposed, but nonetheless leaves her as the one most likely to, in time, benefit from her Narnian experience in this world, in contrast to the still yet more Stanislaus Kostka-like lifespans of her three siblings. And certainly her self-delusion becomes even more flagrant in that short lifespan, if perhaps her frivolity is, if still problematic, a bit more forgivable.