The Susan problem


I read the Narnia Chronicles immediately before I first read The Lord of the Rings. (My mother, who is wise in such matters, suggested that if I liked those books, I really should take a look at these). I loved both at the time, and I don’t know if I would have pegged LOTR as a favorite. A few years later, of course, Tolkien’s world was still in my mind, and the books were getting a reread; the world of Narnia, on the other hand, was fading fast and was never picked up again. I was rather surprised, when I first heard about the movie and turned my thoughts to Narnia, how little I remembered anything about the books–I’d actually forgotten all about the character of the White Witch.

One particular detail of the Narnia chronicles has always stuck in my head and my craw. Lewis did more to convince me I couldn’t be a Christian–at least not his kind of Christian. His treatment of Susan, the older daughter, in the final book, struck me as outrageous and egregiously unfair. I stand by that judgement, and as Timothy Burke points out it’s got the unhealthy stench of misogyny to it as well. It’s described in a NYT piece today, which contains a delightful tidbit about a Neil Gaiman story:

Then there’s the unfortunate business with Susan, the second-oldest of the Pevensies, who near the end of the last volume is denied salvation merely because of her fondness for nylons and lipstick – because she has reached puberty, in other words, and has become sexualized. This passage in particular has set off Pullman and other critics (and has caused the fantasy writer Neil Gaiman to publish a kind of payback scenario, in which Susan has grown up to be a distinguished professor, not unlike Lewis, and in which for good measure Aslan performs earth-shaking oral sex on the witch).

I’m not the world’s biggest Gaiman fan, and I’m not sure that sounds like the greatest premise I’ve ever heard for a short story, but I must say I want to read it, if only as an act of solidarity with Susan. The nature of Susan’s exclusion–senseless, trivial, petty and random, punished for her humanity–told me all I needed to know about Lewis’ brand of Christianity. A part of the human experience was arbitrarily repackaged as worldliness and condemned for this invented sin, for no discernable reason other than resentment toward her change and growth. Using the fetishization of childhood to excuse a childish cruelty. Perhaps Lewis did me a favor, making it all so clear to this ten year old. Having never bothered to think much more about this, let alone read any commentary on the series, I wasn’t aware this was a common criticism. Today, I’m happy to learn I’m not alone in my outrage.

As for the movie? I’m not intentionally avoiding it, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it, but there’s about a dozen current and upcoming releases that’ll have priority in the next month or two. Not likely.

See also The Rage Diaries.

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