Saturday, April 20, 2019

Susan In Narnia

I have not read the Chronicles of Narnia aloud for almost thirty years, but have the current good fortune to be reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to my granddaughters, and double fortune to be reading the sacrifice, death and resurrection chapters during Holy Week. I notice different things when I read aloud, especially in the descriptions. LWW is about Edmund's betrayal, but once one has read the entire series, Susan's eventual betrayal of Narnia is in the background upon rereading. I choked up today reading to the girls the section where Susan and Lucy walk at night with Aslan to the Stone Table, touching his mane, stroking and comforting him. Susan's affection for him is so powerful in that scene. How could you? I thought. How could you turn away from what you once knew?

Well, how could any of us, but we do it all the time.

If anyone wants to go down the rabbit hole of JK Rowling huffily accusing Lewis of sexism in his description of Susan no longer being a friend of Narnia, I wrote a defense Sexism in Narnia in 2007.  I still agree with what I wrote then, though I might write it up differently. Bsking commented knowledgeably at the time - more important, she agreed with me - and my son Ben, who used to read this site and is deeply knowledgeable about children's literature, commented as well. He commented at enough length that it became a post at his own site, Books for Boys, Books for Girls, and the comments there inspired me to write a further post on Female Characters in Heroic Fantasy.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, I know that Lewis doesn't use the Oxford Comma in the title. It still pains me.

Texan99 said...

Lewis is kind of mean to Susan, but you can't accuse him of demanding that she fit herself into a feminine straitjacket. He implies she's all too willing to disappear into one and to forget what was really important. She's all about the nylons and lipstick these days, not so much the babies and the laundry.

I was always more uncomfortable with how Lewis treated Jane in "That Hideous Strength," who wants to be valued to the things that make her a thinking person, and is portrayed as clearly in error for ingratitude that everyone around her places so high a value on her youth, beauty, and fresh innocence. She thinks her husband is am awful schmuck and can't imagine how she's supposed to submit to him as a means of reviving her dead marriage. But at least she is expected to show bravery, loyalty, and commitment, not only in standing by her man but in using her gift of clairvoyance to save the day. By the time her husband returns to her he has turned into an adult human being. He's even stopped thinking of her primarily as a silly little piece of decoration. So you can imagine their marriage being reborn, with fertility this time, without her having given up on being a real person.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, Lewis deserves the accusation of sexism because of his treatment of Jane Studdock far more, I think. He may have accurately captured a type of academic woman of his time - there is rumor he was thinking of two younger women especially - but he should know how readers and authors work, and that she would be taken as a generalisation of all academic women. Even more, he might have foreseen that more-educated women were going to become common and any educated women might identify with Jane somewhat and take offense. He might even have seen that many women in general might identify with her and consider her treated unfairly.

Authors have to take care to be explicit that a character is not representative of class or group. Jane is more believable, and valuable, if we see her as something separate.

Texan99 said...

I often see her as a model, because it's the story of her conversion. I've re-read the book many times, and though I'm always troubled by some parts of her treatment, I'm still crazy about the book, and profoundly happy at the end when she finds a way not only to God but also back to her husband in her heart. Her husband's story gets me right in the gut, too, because the atmosphere at N.I.C.E. is so much like some aspects of my old law firm, and because I so thoroughly understand his mania to reach the inner circle at last, and his weak cowardice, and the incredible relief when he finally gains the approval of his own conscience at the risk of his life, a life that doesn't begin in earnest until that moment. That crazy-making insistence that he believe what is so obviously not true, and numb himself to all genuine feelings, also strikes a strong chord with me. I know lots of people prefer the other two books in the trilogy, but I much prefer the third.

james said...

I had missed the rumor that Lewis was thinking of writing a novel following Susan's life. I'd like to have seen how he dealt with that.

Susan missed the boat on Narnia: time may have moved differently, but their time is no more.

Her road home might be entirely through our world, until of course she reached the End of all worlds. I think he might have had a hard time making this play out satisfactorily. Readers would expect something different.

Or she could meet with someone who had traveled to other worlds--perhaps a student of hers--and been given a chance at conversion through an adventure in a different world.

A whole new world would have been challenging--he'd have needed a non-overlapping set of mythic creatures, and that world's Aslan counterpart. (A lion we understand; that's an easily understood myth.)

When I was 18 I had some trouble getting into That Hideous Strength, but I think I've read it more often than the other two.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I didn't comment there at the time, but I think it unlikely Lewis meant to push Susan's story further. I don't see any references to it. However, just for fun...

I don't think one could do an addition to Narnia just about her to complete her story. That is a modern sort of novel, not very mythological. However, she could be a secondary character in some other story, perhaps even a passing character who we only recognise as she is going by, but with enough detail to let us know what was up. It would have to be an encouraging outcome. A viewing of Susan that shows a further deterioration into silliness is something he has already covered in some of the characters in The Great Divorce. There would be no need for that story. In someone else's other-world adventure, as you suggest, she might only be an encourager in this world, enough to show she is on the right track. A definitive salvation might not be necessary for the reader - just a sign that things were likely to go well. Or she might even take a role similar to Merlin's in That Hideous Strength, arriving in some great catastrophe in that other world in an adventure that is not hers, but making some great sacrifice there, having some understanding how such things work, world-to-world, and having been fitted for the task by having to go it alone for many years in our world. EVen a sacrifice unto death. A student or other acquaintance of hers, as you suggest, might show signs she guesses at the meaning of. Care would have to be taken to keep her from being Deus ex machina, I think. We might get some of her internal struggle, rather like Jane Studdock's, but that could not sustain a book on its own, without doing some violence to the tone of Narnia.

Madeleine L'Engle had crossover characters in her series. I imagine it isn't easy to do. Come to think of it, I wish L'Engle would have inserted Susan in one of her books, giving us the proper update and just passing on. I doubt she would have dared, even if it had occurred to her, unless she was implored to by others who she thought had authority. Christopher Tolkien or some such.

Or we could just time-travel, have Lewis read her books, and ask for his permission. That would be simplest.