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…
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.
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.
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.