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The problem of Susan: growing up?

19 September 2016

A few months ago I blogged about “the problem of Susan” — a reference to C.S. Lewis’s book The Last Battle, the last of his series of Narnian stories.

lastbatDavid Levey had read a paper On reading irreligiously, in which he had mentioned that some irreligious critics of C.S. Lewis were hung up about “the problem of Susan”, one of six children who had previously visited the land of Narnia, but had lost interest in it as she grew up. The meme was perhaps expressed most strongly by J.K. Rowling (of Harry Potter fame), when she said:

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.

David Levey mentioned this in his paper, though he was talking about Philip Pullman rather than Harry Potter, and you can see some of the background here and here. As Philip Pullman put it

And in The Last Battle, notoriously, there’s the turning away of Susan from the Stable (which stands for salvation) because “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.” In other words, Susan, like Cinderella, is undergoing a transition from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn’t approve of that. He didn’t like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up. Susan, who did want to grow up, and who might have been the most interesting character in the whole cycle if she’d been allowed to, is a Cinderella in a story where the Ugly Sisters win.

These criticisms suggest that what C.S. Lewis was objecting to in Susan was that she had grown up, and did not remain an eternal child. But I am not alone in thinking that both Rowling and Pullman have seriously misinterpreted Lewis at this point. Because the problem was not that Susan was growing up, but that she wasn’t. ‘Grown up indeed,’ said the Lady Polly. ‘I wish she would grow up…’

And now someone has come up with the perfect illustration of the difference.

Susan’s idea of growing up is in the picture on the left, and the Lady Polly’s idea of growing up is in the picture in the right.

girlslifeSusan’s idea of growing up is to be an airhead consumer; the Lady Polly contrasts this with becoming a thinking adult.

And the article at that site is worth a read too.

 

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 20 September 2016 5:28 pm

    I can’t agree with you about Susan – her exclusion was always a worry and your two magazine images as solutions are not even suggested by CS Lewis . ,CS Lewis was homophobic and horribly so – its possible to say he was of his generation but I suspect that there is more than a little misogyny in his portrayal of Susan which can’t be forgiven for being of its generation. So – nobody is perfect – I loved and love his books and his insights into theology but you don’t do anyone a service by trying to smooth over his failings – we all have them – CS Lewis did not treat Susan justly. Even if she was another sinner she could have been forgiven like Edmund.

    • 21 September 2016 10:09 am

      Like the prodigal son, Susan could have returned at any time and got the welcome he got. The problem is not whether Susan could be “forgiven” but her (and the consumerist society’s) notion of what it meant to be “grown up”.

    • Peter Gardner permalink
      24 September 2016 2:26 pm

      Don’t forget: Susan lived. In the world of the books, she might well still be alive now. She may still get to Narnia after all.

      • 25 September 2016 5:38 am

        Yes, but the question here is not whether or not Susan ever made it back to Narnia, but rather what constitutes being “grown up”.

        Look at the two pictures? Can you see the difference between them? Which provides the better model of what it means to be grown up? J.K. Rowling, rather disappointingly, seems to opt for the one on the left.

        • David Llewellyn Dodds permalink
          2 February 2018 2:47 am

          Thanks for a great post, here, and for letting us know about it at Pilgrim in Narnia! I think they’re both among the questions. I liked that Jonathan R. Scott, when he played Edmund in the BBC Narnia series, looked like a young C.S. Lewis – I suspected it was deliberate, but if not, it was still great – the little, nastiest, treacherous creep has a resemblance to the author – though Edmund’s conversion/reversion happily comes a lot sooner than Lewis’s did.

          And I think Susan is the next example of this. The recently converted Lewis, on first reading Charles Williams’s The Place of the Lion, significantly identified with Damaris Tighe, the self-serving academic, who needs – and experiences – conversion (though not uniquely in that novel: and in some sense like her namesake in Acts 17: 34 – “certain men [!] clave unto him, and believed: among the which was […] a woman named Damaris”).

          Susan, after a good start, might say, like the Lewis of Surprised by Joy, “I Broaden My Mind”. She, like he, opts for becoming “dressy”, “a new element had entered [her] life: Vulgarity”, though up till then she “had not been flashy.” Maybe she, like he, has a Pogo: “Here was sophistication, glossy all over , and (dared one believe it?), ready to impart sophistication to us.” Or, maybe glossy magazines like the post-war precursors of Girl’s Life (the left-hand original) were enough. Is not Susan more likely to be more like Lewis himself (or, earlier, Damaris Tighe, or a bit later, Orual), taking a longer harder time to become something like “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England”?

          The ‘Rich Young Ruler’ also comes to mind in comparison to Susan – I’m not sure what, if anything, Lewis says about him, or what the exegetical approaches he might have encountered were (something in George MacDonald? – I just can’t recall), but I’ve been struck by those which point out, what we hear is far from certainly the ‘end of the story’.

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