C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is one of the most instantly recognizable and beloved series of children’s stories of all time. In the series, there is a land called Narnia into which human children occasionally stumble, frequently to epic and long-lasting effect. Susan Pevensie is one of these children. She’s the eldest daughter of the Pevensie clan, one of four children to enter Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. She goes on to eventually become Queen Susan the Gentle.
Later, however, when readers encounter The Last Battle, an apocalyptic exploration of Narnia that includes many of Lewis’s own beliefs, we discover that Susan is, astonishingly, not with the other Pevensies. Susan, we are told by her somber brother Peter, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.” Apparently, she has taken to calling the former adventures in Narnia as just some games the kids played when they were younger, and she’s now much too grown-up for that sort of thing. Susan, we’re told, is much more interested in “nylons and lipstick and invitations” than she is in anything like Narnia.
I remember the first time I read this section. I was sitting in my parochial grade school, using the free time I had during the day to voraciously read anything that came my way. This book, I’d been waiting for. I’d been scared of reading it, because the cover with the unicorn, horn bloodied, was more than a little alarming. But I’d dived in, and discovered one of the strangest adventures I’d read. I didn’t know what to make of it, what with the deceitful animals, people who ignored reality right there in front of them, and more. But then Susan hit, and it hit me like a load of bricks. Surely Susan would never forget Narnia! It felt like a betrayal. Susan, who so practically believed what she saw. Susan, who thought of bringing coats into the always-winter Narnia. Susan, who was always the reasonable one. Susan, who was the Gentle. She was no longer a friend of Narnia? How was this possible? And how was it possible that Susan, who’d literally grown into adulthood as a Queen of Narnia, pretended it was all just a game? Was this the kind of horrifying thing that would happen to me when I grew up?
There has been a lot written about the problem of Susan. A friend shared a Youtube video that explained many of the problem(s) away by contextualizing some of the things within Lewis’s own world that he may have been referencing. I enjoyed it, but some of the explanation didn’t sit right with me because it felt so much like explaining away rather than simply contextualizing. A wonderful post on Tor.com, “The Problem(s) of Susan” by Matt Mikalatos, highlighted many of the issues I have with Susan as an adult. Mikalatos concludes:
“Jack [C.S. Lewis], believe me, if Susan looks for Aslan, she’ll find him. If she asks a question, he’ll answer. If she—even in her old age, even years and years from now—finds herself finds herself alone in that great house, and wanders into the old guest room and gently, not quite believing, raps her knuckles on an ancient wardrobe door, believe me, Jack, Aslan will be waiting to throw it open. And then at last the true happily ever after can begin.”
I love that, and I think it sits so well with me as an adult. Perhaps it is true that Lewis himself didn’t allow himself an expansive enough vision of Narnia–nay, Aslan’s–power. That’s something to think about.
The child in me wonders, though, if Lewis has outwitted me again. Perhaps that scene with Susan isn’t written for the adults–it’s for the children. It’s for children who, like me, would be stunned to think that Susan could forget Narnia. It’s a scene about the loss of enchantment, and one that teaches children to never let go of the enchantment of our own world–our own Narnia. A world in which God the Son entered human flesh and gave himself to die for us.
The notion of enchantment, wonder, and myth is absolutely central to Lewis’s writings throughout his life, whether from his younger period as an atheist, or as an old man. The idea that he might be sneaking this concept into one of his most powerful–and powerfully confusing–works doesn’t seem entirely impossible. If so, then Susan is a heartrending example of the loss of enchantment. Instead of Aslan’s call, she holds out for invitations to parties; instead of donning a bow, she cares deeply for nylons. It’s a tragic story, even as it stretches the limits of imagination given the character Susan has been established to be. Perhaps it is Susan’s nature as Susan the Gentle which leads her into disenchantment–she pursues the trappings of ostensible adulthood in order to continue to act as protector to her siblings. Her mannerisms and dedication lead her, tragically, towards disenchantment. It’s an awful story, and a jarring one. Perhaps it’s meant to be.
I don’t think that’s what Lewis was doing, but I wonder. Could C.S. Lewis have been playing a final twist, a final call towards enchantment for us–as children? A call to not give up on the world, and to realize that faith and hope really are powerful. I suppose I’ll always wonder whatever happened to Susan. Mikalatos’s answer is the one that resonates most with me. But I also like the idea of enchantment–as it feels exactly like something Lewis would do. Perhaps it is.
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