I have to be honest here; I have never understood the phenomenon known as ‘The Problem of Susan’. I just never ever got it. I am a terribly literal person and I just…
I’m mean, take all the allegory out of the equation for second and you are left with a whole bunch of people who are outraged, outraged!, that a young woman wasn’t horribly smashed to death in a train crash. Really think about that for a second.
Yes, I know that everyone else dies and goes to ‘Heaven’ and she’s left all alone and everything, but seriously. Are we all collectively wishing death on a young woman now? Really?
OK, got that out of the way.
So, as always when I don’t understand A Thing, I’ve been giving the matter a lot of thought and I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe one of the reasons people get so sniffy about that unforgivable fact that Susan is alive at the end of the Chronicles of Narnia series, is that she seems to be all set up for a Redemption arc that never comes. And that raises all sorts of questions in us that we’re uncomfortable with. So let’s look at that shall we?
There’s this phrase that we’re all familiar with. We see it in a lot of cop-dramas, it’s the undercurrent in a lot of sci-fi tv series and spy movies. We might even say it ourselves. It’s this one:
It’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission
I personally hate that phrase, on a deep and physically level. Why? Because there’s no Plan B in there. It assumes that you will – having done whatever you seem to know you shouldn’t be doing (since you seem to know you’ll need forgiveness) – be given said forgiveness without question. To which I say; what if I don’t forgive you? What then?
We’re going to come back to the expectation of forgiveness and why it is a terrible thing that is bad in another post, but for now we’re going to take a look at the interesting effects available for writers in simply not redeeming a character, of defying the expectations of your readers in a way that simply isn’t explored often enough.
Sense and Sensibility
Some of you may remember back to the start of A Very Potter Case Study, where we looked at characters and how they shouldn’t so much have flaws as character traits which are both advantageous and disadvantageous depending on the circumstances?
Well, Susan is another really good example of that philosophy in practice.
She’s very sensible and always thinking ahead. When all four children finally get into Narnia at the same time, it is Susan who suggests that this land of snow and ice is going to require the warm fur coats.
“Ugh!” said Susan, stamping her feet, “it’s pretty cold. What about putting on some of these coats?”
“They’re not ours,” said Peter doubtfully.
“I am sure nobody would mind,” said Susan. “It isn’t as if we wanted to take them out of the house; we shan’t take them even out of the wardrobe.”
“I never thought of that, Su,” said Peter. “Of course, now you put it that way, I see. No one could say you had bagged a coat as long as you leave it in the wardrobe where you found it. And I suppose this whole country is in the wardrobe.”
They immediately carried out Susan’s very sensible plan.
She’s also shown to be very observant. In the same chapter, she’s the first to notice that there’s something off about this wardrobe:
“O-o-oh!” said Susan suddenly. And everyone asked her what was the matter.
“I’m sitting against a tree,” said Susan, “and look! It’s getting lighter—over there.”
“By jove, you’re right,” said Peter, “and look there—and there. It’s trees all round. And this wet stuff is snow. Why, I do believe we’ve got into Lucy’s wood after all.”
Susan is quickly established as a girl who doesn’t shy away from unpleasant possibilities, preferring to tackle them head on. When the group is doubtful of the existence of Narnia, and Peter and Susan decide to consult an adult on the matter, it is Susan who voices their greatest concern:
“We were afraid it mightn’t even be lying,” said Susan. “We thought there might be something wrong with Lucy.”
“Madness, you mean?” said the Professor quite coolly. “Oh, you can make your minds easy about that. One has only to look at her and talk to her to see that she is not mad.”
The result is that Susan has excellent critical thinking and is just as much of a strategist as Peter is. Unlike Lucy, who bounds off into the unknown with nary a thought as to how she’d get herself out of trouble when she finds it, Susan will actively question the merits of the options available to the group. Peter, as the oldest, may be the leader, but he is constantly asking Susan for her input and usually agrees with her.
“I—I wonder if there’s any point in going on,” said Susan. “I mean, it doesn’t seem particularly safe here and it looks as if it won’t be much fun either. And it’s getting colder every minute, and we’ve brought nothing to eat. What about just going home?”
“Shut up—you!” said Peter, who was still very angry with Edmund. “What do you think, Susan?”
“I’ve a horrid feeling that Lu is right,” said Susan. “I don’t want to go a step further and I wish we’d never come. But I think we must try to do something for Mr. Whatever-his-name is—I mean the Faun.”
“That’s what I feel too,” said Peter.
I feel that this important to emphasise at this stage, because many critiques of the Narnia series have a bad tendency to isolate Susan from the group early on, they emphasise her ‘otherness’ (having good sense being apparently one such trait) and that’s just not upheld by the books at all! Susan is with Lucy when they witness Aslan’s sacrifice and resurrection, not the boys, she goes and helps liberate the White Witch’s petrified prisoners. Susan is an active player, she defends her friends and family, she talks tactics and makes plans, she keeps both her own and the group’s focus in difficult moments:
When they had sat down [Lucy] said: “Such a horrible idea has come into my head, Su.”
“Wouldn’t it be dreadful if some day, in our own world, at home, men started going wild inside, like the animals here, and still looked like men, so that you’d never know which were which?”
“We’ve got enough to bother about here and now in Narnia,” said the practical Susan, “without imagining things like that.”
In fact, in Prince Caspian, there is a moment when Susan chooses not to share her thoughts and observations with Peter until after the fact, and he is cross with her about it.
“I suppose your Majesties know the way all right?” said the Dwarf.
“I don’t,” said Susan. “I’ve never seen these woods in my life before. In fact I thought all along that we ought to have gone by the river.”
“Then I think you might have said so at the time,” answered Peter, with pardonable sharpness.
That said, as with all good character traits, Susan’s forward-thinking and sensible nature can work against her, especially in a world filled with magic.
Susan often doubts her intuition in favour of what she can observe, and in Narnia that’s not always the best idea. In Susan’s second outing in Narnia, Prince Caspian, Susan utterly refuses to trust in Lucy’s word that Aslan was communicating with the group because she, Susan, didn’t see him.
Later she confesses that she might have believed that he was there, but the lack of evidence and smaller concerns got in her way.
“What do you say, Susan?”
“Don’t be angry, Lu,” said Susan, “but I do think we should go down. I’m dead tired. Do let’s get out of this wretched wood into the open as quick as we can. And none of us except you saw anything.”
“I can’t see anything,” said Peter after he had stared his eyes sore. “Can you, Susan?”
“No, of course I can’t,” snapped Susan. “Because there isn’t anything to see. She’s been dreaming. Do lie down and go to sleep, Lucy.”
Later on, Susan is proven wrong, and Lucy’s version of events is proven (again) to be right. I actually really enjoy how even the book seems to know that the reader has spent several pages yelling at the group that Lucy’s crazy stories are always borne out by future events. It’s one of my favourite aspects of C.S. Lewis’s works; the sense of humour in them and a sort of proto-Peter S. Beagle or proto-Terry Pratchett style where the books totally know that they’re books. It’s a nice touch.
“Well, there’s just this,” said Edmund, speaking quickly and turning a little red. “When we first discovered Narnia a year ago—or a thousand years ago, whichever it is—it was Lucy who discovered it first and none of us would believe her. I was the worst of the lot, I know. Yet she was right after all. Wouldn’t it be fair to believe her this time? I vote for going up.”
Anyway, once proven to have been wrong all along, Susan does apologise gracefully. And I really like that Lucy (and more especially the plot) doesn’t drive this point in. Susan makes a completely understandable error in judgement and the plot treats this fittingly. Susan apologies, Lucy accepts it, Aslan breathes courage on her and the story moves right along. It’s just nice to see that C.S. Lewis didn’t feel the need to hammer in the lesson about trusting your gut or something.
“Lucy,” said Susan in a very small voice.
“Yes?” said Lucy.
“I see him now. I’m sorry.”
“That’s all right.”
“But I’ve been far worse than you know. I really believed it was him—he, I mean—yesterday. When he warned us not to go down to the fir wood. And I really believed it was him to-night, when you woke us up. I mean, deep down inside. Or I could have, if I’d let myself. But I just wanted to get out of the woods and—and—oh, I don’t know. And what ever am I to say to him?”
“Perhaps you won’t need to say much,” suggested Lucy.
Susan’s reliance on what she sees can lead her astray with people as well as magical lions. In The Horse and His Boy, set at the height of the Pevensie’s reigns as Kings and Queens of Narnia, Susan is shown having been taken in by the good looks and charming demeanour of a man with less than honourable intentions:
“That was my folly, Edmund,” said Queen Susan, “of which I cry you mercy. Yet when he was with us in Narnia, truly this Prince bore himself in another fashion than he does now in Tashbaan. For I take you all to witness what marvellous feats he did in that great tournament and hastilude which our brother the High King made for him, and how meekly and courteously he consorted with us the space of seven days. But here, in his own city, he has shown another face.”
“Ah!” croaked the Raven. “It is an old saying: see the bear in his own den before you judge of his conditions.”
“That’s very true, Sallowpad,” said one of the Dwarfs. “And another is, Come, live with me and you’ll know me.”
“Yes,” said the King. “We have now seen him for what he is: that is, a most proud, bloody, luxurious, cruel and self-pleasing tyrant.”
“Do you mean he would make me his wife by force?” exclaimed Susan.
“That’s my fear, Susan,” said Edmund. “Wife: or slave, which is worse.”
The take-away from this is that Susan is absolutely an integral, main character to the books and their readers. We sympathise with her when she’s cold and unhappy or lost and hungry, we root for her when she has archery competitions, and we are completely invested in her interests throughout the books.
And then… Well, then The Last Battle happens.
Follow me along to Part 2 to look at C.S. Lewis’s most tragic and chilling lesson: our own mortality.