The Problem With The Problem Of Susan

If you ever go to my Profile you will see two names in my Favorite Author list. I can’t remember if they’re right next to each other and can’t be bothered to check, but they are definitely in the same box. C.S. Lewis. Neil Gaiman.

Which leads to an interesting paradox, as Neil Gaiman–despite being one of my favorite authors–has written a story that raises my hackles.

Neil Gaiman  has talked about his initial childhood love of the Narnia series in his Mythcon 35 Guest-of-Honor Speech“…when my seventh birthday arrived I had dropped enough hints that my birthday present was a boxed set of the complete Narnia books. And I remember what I did on my seventh birthday — I lay on my bed and I read the books all through, from the first to the last…

For good or ill the religious allegory, such as it was, went entirely over my head, and it was not until I was about twelve that I found myself realising that there were Certain Parallels… I didn’t return to Narnia until I was a parent… I found that the things that I loved, I still loved — sometimes loved more — while the things that I had thought odd as a child… had intensified; there were also some new things that made me really uncomfortable — for example the role of women in the Narnia books, culminating in the disposition of Susan.” This uncomfortable feeling culminated, for Neil, with the writing of his short story The Problem Of Susan, the aforementioned story.  (I don’t encourage reading unpaid-for copies of authors’ intellectual property, but if you want to judge for yourself I’m told it can be found online–probably less-than-legally– here.)

The problem of Susan is this–that Susan does not enter Aslan’s Country at the end of the series.  When all the heroes of Narnia are gathered for the final victory, Susan is not there.  Peter says, rather shortly, that she “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”  Eustace adds, “whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia… she says ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy you still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”  And Jill says, “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.”  And thus the others all enter Aslan’s Paradise without Susan.

This has bothered many Narniaphiles for generations now.  Go to fanfiction.net, to the Lewis section, and I swear one fanfic in ten is about Susan getting a final chance.  Go to narniaweb.com’s forum and you’ll have that sentiment repeated about twice every thirty threads.

It has bothered non-fans even worse.  Phillip Pullman had this to say: “Susan isn’t allowed into the stable and the reason given is that she’s growing up…  This seems to me on the part of Lewis to reveal very weird unconscious feelings about sexuality…  Susan is shut out from salvation because she is… beginning to sense the developing changes in her body and its effect on the opposite sex.”  J.K. Rowling spoke along similar lines.  “There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex…I have a big problem with that.

So did Neil Gaiman.

On the one hand, his story “The Problem of Susan” is an excellent piece of metafiction–about how we read children’s literature differently when we’re adults.  How we see biases, plot flaws and prejudices that went over our heads as children.

On the other hand it twists the very things I love about the series.  Aslan is revealed to be cruel and self-serving at heart, literally no different than the White Witch.  And the old woman (Susan?)’s lines about Aslan, when recounting having to identify the bodies after the train wreck, well…

“My younger brother was decapitated, you know.  A god who would punish me for liking nylons and parties by making me walk through that school dining room, with the flies, to identify Ed, well… he’s enjoying himself a bit too much, isn’t he?”

Hold that thought.

The problem of Susan has is at this point branching off into seperate issues, and we’d better break it down.  The problem of Susan is that
             –She was punished for liking nylons and parties.  (The Problem of Female Sexuality)
             –She was punished by being denied entry to Paradise.  (The Problem of a Restricted Heaven).
             –She was punished by having to deal with bad things (i.e. the death of her family) happening to her.  (The Problem of Job).

The Problem of Female Sexuality

This is a compelling assertion.  Susan becomes sexually aware, adult, and this is somehow sinful in the eyes of Aslan.  Therefore she is excluded from paradise.  Therefore Lewis feared/had problems with female sexuality (it didn’t happen to Peter, after all).

The problem with this is that all four children grew to adulthood (and thus sexual maturity) in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.  All four were adult and mature–Susan had Rabadash as a suitor, and we are told that even Lucy–the innocent faith child–had princes vying for her hand.

Furthermore, both Pullman and Rowling subtly misquote the situation.  Blogger Andrew Rilstone outlines the misquotation (while comparing it to the serpent’s Edenic misquotation of God to Eve).  (His blog on the subject is, incidentally, superior to this one, and should be read.  Especially see his Footnote #4)

“Can you see what has happened?

Lewis: “She’s interested in nothing except nylons and lipstick and invitation.”
Pullman: She’s become far too interested in nylons and lipstick and invitations.
Rowling: She’s lost to Narnia because she likes lipstick
Times: She’s excluded from paradise because she likes nylons and lipsticks and invitations.
Independent: She’s interested in evil snares such as nylons and lipsticks and invitations.

The sin of “liking nothing except lipstick…” has become the sin of liking it too much, which has become the sin of liking it at all. Finally, lipstick has become an intrinsic evil. It’s rather as if you had read “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and concluded that, since the White Witch uses Turkish Delight to bribe Edmund to betray his siblings, Lewis thinks that confectionery is a great evil.”

Susan’s apparent obsession with the trappings of adolescence are depicted by Lewis, not as the cause of her denial of Paradise, but caused by the same root cause that caused her to deny herself Paradise.

Rilstone continues:

“Susan has lived in Narnia… She and Lucy have had an intimacy with Aslan that even Peter does not experience. She comforted Aslan during his agony before going to the Stone Table…  However, she now denies that any of this ever happened, and instead seeks joy exclusively through beauty products. Pullman wants us to believe that “Susan became interested in lipstick, and is therefore thrown out of Narnia.” I think Lewis is really saying “Susan ceased to love Narnia, and therefore, became a pathetic figure — a woman of 50, trying to be a girl of 21, capable of loving nothing apart from lipstick.””

So the problem of female sexuality as it pertains to Susan seems to be an inkblot, more in the mind of the viewer than on the page of text.  If we go strictly by what we find in the text, it’s not that nylons and parties–or female sexuality–are evil.  Nothing is said about any of those things’ intrinsic worth.  Rather they are given as Susan’s substitutions, what she turns to instead of the Narnia her siblings still remember and revere.

The Problem of Job

Neil Gaiman’s story is echoed in the words of blogger Abigail Nussbaum“Nowadays, when I think of Susan, I think of what it must have been like for her to get the news. Her siblings, her parents, her cousin, her adopted aunt and uncle–everyone she loves in the world–have died a horrible, sudden death. Did Lewis really believe that Susan deserved that pain, or did he truly imagine that ‘but they’re all in heaven’ was sufficient to comfort her? Did he even care?”

We’re on dangerous ground to begin with.

“Does she really deserve that kind of pain?”  Define deserve.  Prove the assertation that Susan losing her family is a product of something she deserves, rather than A) the unfortunate byproduct of Aslan calling the others to His Country, or B) an unfortunate coincidence (since we’re never told that Aslan caused the crash, though it seems awfully convenient).  But when does anyone ever “deserve” anything that happens to them?  (The Christian position is that all humans deserve Hell, and so we cannot make statements like this.  The Rosseau-existential possition that all humans are essentially good would mean that no-one would ever deserve anything.  In either case the logic of this statement crumbles.)

This is, of course, the problem of Job.  Why do bad things happen to good people?

It is, of course, unanswerable.  Perhaps God has a plan that involves personal tragedy.  (He did not spare Himself, after all.)  Perhaps this is an instance in which God allowed Satan to work.  Perhaps greater good will come from this temporal tragedy.  Perhaps there is no God and tragedy is simply the workings of a random universe leaning against you.  Perhaps God exists but is a sadist.  None of these answers will be satisfying to anyone going through a current tragedy.

In this, perhaps, Gaiman’s short story is accurate.  That someone left behind with the bodies of her siblings might come to see Aslan as no better than the Witch, would blame God, would become embittered.

But how can we blame Lewis for this?  No-one asks about the tragedy of the Telmarines killed in the Second Battle of Beruna, many of whom I’m sure had mothers, wives, children.  No-one asks about those Narnians who sincerely saw the White Witch as the rightful ruler and the Pevensies as murderous usurpers.  This “undeserved tragedy” must have happened all throughout the series, only we never saw it before.  Death is part of life.  Most of the time, in children’s literature, that fact gets swept under the rug, glossed over, quick-look-the-other-way.  Sometimes it peeks through.  Don’t shoot the messenger.

I think a lot of people who get mad at Lewis for this aspect of the Problem of Susan are really just mad at the concept of the Christian God.  Which, in the long run, I can’t really help you with.

The Problem of a Restricted Heaven

Again, this problem is far older than Lewis and Narnia.  People who take umbrage to this facet of the series likely take umbrage to the equivalent facet of Christianity.

Again, we find the need to define our terms.  If we define “Heaven” as a place of afterlife happiness or rest, that’s very vague.  That’s Elysium.  There’d be no reason to deny anyone entry to that.

If we define “Heaven” as a place of afterlife happiness or rest with a specific deity as owner or proprieter, it makes no sense to demand that those who are not followers or worshippers of that deity should be allowed admittance.  It’s like wanting employee benefits for a company you don’t work for, or the prize for a contest you didn’t enter.  (Yet Lewis even allows for this, with the Calormene Tash-worshipper Emeth!)

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, because the premise of the argument (as it pertains to Susan) is moot.

Susan is never denied entrance to Aslan’s Country.

Susan doesn’t go to Aslan’s Country because she isn’t killed in the train wreck.  She isn’t killed in the train wreck because she wasn’t going to find the Rings to help Jill and Eustace save Tirian.  She wasn’t going to find the Rings because she wasn’t at the Professor’s dinner (read: the first NarniaCon).  She wasn’t at the Professor’s dinner because she no longer cared about such things.  Remember Eustace’s line: “…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!'”

In the end how can you say that it was anything but her own choice not to be there?

But she is never denied access.  She is never damned.  She is (presumably) still living in our world, and even from our world there is an entrance to Aslan’s country (VODT).

We have the Author Himself’s own word on this: in Lewis’s Letters to Children, he writes, “The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there’s plenty of time for her to mend and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end… in her own way.”

Wrapping Up

I don’t like Gaiman’s story.  I don’t think I ever will.  But in the end, I can understand it.

Gaiman is writing out of problems he has with Lewis’s work.
Much of Lewis’s work is reflective (whether allegorically or thematically, you be the judge) of Christianity.  These issues in particular of reflective of similar issues within Christianity.
Gaiman is not a Christian, as far as I know.
Thus it makes sense that whatever issues Gaiman may have with Christianity will work themselves out in his fiction.  It happens to all writers–our mental struggles and tensions bleed through into our work.
Because Gaiman is not (as far as I know) a Christian, I cannot expect him not to have problems with Christianity.  If he had no problems with Christianity he would be more of a Christian than I: I’m a devout Christian and I have plenty of problems with Christianity.
Can’t fault a man for that.

I still like his other stuff better.

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