Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Susan Pevensie: The Redemption Arc That Never Happened (Part 2)

This is the second of a two-part post, and I don’t expect that it will make any sense without having read Part 1 first…

Susan Pevensie Part 2

Growing Up or Growing Apart?

I hope that by now, you will see how Susan is established firmly in the books as an integral part of her family unit? I say this, because now we are going to look at how Susan becomes distanced from her siblings.

It’s easy to say that Susan does not reach Narnia in The Last Battle because she forgot about it, and while that is broadly correct, to think that way effectively robs Susan of her own agency in her life, which is a bit distasteful. Susan’s fall, should you think of it like that, is not a passive process, but rather a series of choices, such as we all make every day of our lives.

In literal terms, Susan does not reach the True Narnia, or the True England, with her siblings simply because she was not on the train which crashed. The Pevensies’ parents are never told about Narnia, do not visit it, and therefore do not need to believe in it, yet there they are:

Suddenly they shifted their eyes to another spot, and then Peter and Edmund and Lucy gasped with amazement and shouted out and began waving: for there they saw their own father and mother, waving back at them across the great, deep valley.

It is Susan who shatters her bonds with her family, who refuses to attend the Friends of Narnia meeting. But why would she do such a thing? As a general rule, I believe that all proper tragic moments stem from a misunderstanding, and Susan’s separation is just such a one. Susan, we are told, wishes to be a Grown Up, but like many young people may not really understand what she is asking for.

Susan is called many complimentary things in the Narnia series, but she is only ever called Grown Up as a criticism. We’ve talked about Susan as being sensible, but this is almost always presented as a good thing. The only times when this differs is when she uses good sense as a way to talk down to her siblings, thereby distancing herself from them by assuming a position of authority over them. As can be expected in a children’s book, this is rarely taken well, either by Edmund and Lucy, or (from my memories) by a child reader. At least in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Susan’s clearly acting in Edmund’s best interest, even if no ten-year-old wants to be told to go to bed by a sister two years older then he.

“I think he’s an old dear,” said Susan.
“Oh, come off it!” said Edmund, who was tired and pretending not to be tired, which always made him bad-tempered. “Don’t go on talking like that.”
“Like what?” said Susan; “and anyway, it’s time you were in bed.”
“Trying to talk like Mother,” said Edmund. “And who are you to say when I’m to go to bed? Go to bed yourself.”

But a year later on, we see Susan using this assumed distance to question and undermine her sister’s story, and since we know that Lucy is right, it feels far more irritating to endure:

“Where did you think you saw him?” asked Susan.
“Don’t talk like a grown-up,” said Lucy, stamping her foot. “I didn’t think I saw him. I saw him.”

Susan’s attempts to be Grown Up are always shown in conflict with her familial bonds and, as those ideas and her character develop, in conflict with her beliefs in the unseen, and therefore with Narnia. As a result, we’ve had enough clues and foreshadowing that it feels a lot like the conclusion of a sad tale instead of last-second twist, when we learn in The Last Battle:

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”
“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'”

And it is this which makes Susan’s story at the end of the series so tragic, because unlike the events of Prince Caspian, this time there will be no chance for Susan to apologise to her family and make things up. By The Last Battle, Narnia’s time has run out, and so too has Susan’s time with her loved ones.

Valar Morghulis

The Chronicles of Narnia are very distinctly children’s books, but The Last Battle deals with an issue which we don’t tend to deal with until well into our adult lives (if at all): the notion of running out of time before one is ready or prepared. There might, narratively speaking, be a sense of completeness in a series which begins watching the construction of an entire new world, and ends with its total destruction, but as a child (and as an adult) the idea of everything ending unexpectedly is a difficult one to grasp.

Susan is a young woman when the series ends, in her early 20’s and with every reason to expect that she and her family will have many years together. That there will be plenty of time to reconcile and rebuild bridges.

Polly, an old lady by the seventh book, has a rather better idea about the value of time, and is scathing of a younger woman’s mistake of believing that time can and will stand still:

“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. 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.”

I don’t know if it was C.S. Lewis’s original intent, but the way he set up the idea of Narnia having a time all of its own is brilliant for driving home the fickle and shifting nature of time for all of us. But with magic, because that makes everything cooler.

The Pevensies originally ruled for many years before tumbling without warning out of Narnia and back to England, and when they get back literally everything they ever knew has crumbled and changed beyond recognition. Like, so much time has pasted that a small river has created a deep valley by now:

“I’m not sure the High King is lost,” said Trumpkin. “What’s to hinder this river being the Rush?”
“Because the Rush is not in a gorge,” said Peter, keeping his temper with some difficulty.
“Your Majesty says is,” replied the Dwarf, “but oughtn’t you to say was? You knew this country hundreds—it may be a thousand—years ago. Mayn’t it have changed? A landslide might have pulled off half the side of that hill, leaving bare rock, and there are your precipices beyond the gorge. Then the Rush might go on deepening its course year after year till you get the little precipices this side. Or there might have been an earthquake, or anything.”

That’s a long time.

Literally everyone the children knew in their first out-timing is dead, and I know everyone else talks about The Problem of Susan, but this is the thing I never got over as a child! I never got to say goodbye to Mr Tumnus, and neither did Lucy, and I’m nearly thirty and I’m still not past this!

In fact, every book has some version of this huge leap forward in time, save for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, possibly because even C.S. Lewis could break our hearts in every book by making us care about characters who will be dead the next time we see then (Caspian in The Silver Chair is an elderly man who dies at the end, it still counts!) Jill earlier on in The Last Battle speaks for us all, I feel:

“Ha!” cried Tirian, “are you then that Eustace and that Jill who rescued King Rilian from his long enchantment?”
“Yes, that’s us,” said Jill. “So he’s King Rilian now, is he? Oh of course he would be. I forgot——”
“Nay,” said Tirian, “I am the seventh in descent from him. He has been dead over two hundred years.”
Jill made a face. “Ugh!” she said. “That’s the horrid part about coming back to Narnia.”

My point is, that if the Narnia books taught us nothing except that climbing into wardrobes can only lead to good things, it’s that relationships can be cut short really abruptly and that the future is an uncertain place. That you may not see people when you think you will, and that you can’t bank on having tomorrow.

Others have written about the items C.S. Lewis chose to define Susan’s current life, dwelling on how utterly feminine they are:

“Oh Susan!” said Jill, “she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations.”

And they certainly are entirely womanly. But what interests me far more is how all three items are also completely ephemeral in nature. They are all items which exist in the moment and then are gone, discarded and worthless. Nylons (as any of us who have worn them can attest to!) tear and develop holes and runs, lip-stick is wiped off at the end of the day or the evening, and invitations are lovely to receive and anticipate, but are nothing but reminders at most when the party is over.

Nothing in Susan’s life, as we are presented with it, will last, certainly not like familial bonds can. Perhaps Susan knows this, and is merely enjoying them all while they are there, secure in the knowledge that her family will be waiting for her when she’s ready to talk.

But they aren’t.

Redemption Interruptus

It may be better to plan on begging forgiveness, but that only works when you can guarantee that it will come. And in real life there are no such guarantees. And as writers, perhaps we should ask ourselves more often if we should hand out such guarantees either.

I know setting up good characters takes time and effort, and it can feel completely counterproductive to abandon them without warning in the middle of a character arc. But if you do it right, it can be extremely effective; making your stories feel more real and making your readers feel uncomfortable as they confront harsh truths.

People remember what happened to Susan. You will probably know that Susan Pevensie did not return to Narnia long before you remember who King Tirian is, and he’s in the same book!

You remember King Tirian, right? The last King of Narnia, who wasn’t too proud to ask for help without any sign that he’d be heard. Who held true to his beliefs and watched his people and friends die and his world literally end, but not before it was torn apart from within and without. Who faced an unknown danger and possible death with as much dignity and grace as can be expected, while also getting a kick-ass moment of tackling his main enemy in an if-I’m-going-down-I’m-taking-you-with-me way.

In any other story, Tirian would be the star and yet in his story he is utterly upstaged in people’s memories by the horrible realisation that Susan hasn’t returned with everyone else, and that her relationship with her siblings was so painful that they literally can’t bear to talk about it except to tell us that she wasn’t with them when British Rail murdered them horribly.

This isn’t an insult to either C.S. Lewis or his readers, rather I think it’s a brilliant example of just how effective it can be to challenge readers expectations occasionally. Susan’s a main character we like, she’s got lots of good traits, but also relatable flaws which fittingly foreshadow her fate in a way that’s straight-up Shakespearean once you think about it. And the tragedy of her status at the end of The Last Battle so forces us all to face up to the uncomfortable truths of our own lives.

What The Problem of Susan teaches aspiring writers is that sometimes bravery pays off.

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Susan Pevensie: The Redemption Arc That Never Happened (Part 1)

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?

Susan Pevensie Part 1

Begging Forgiveness

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.”
“What’s that?”
“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.