Susan redux


It always happens that, just as I think I have figured something out, I immediately come across something which throws all of that in doubt.

Such was the case a few days ago when I decided to read Surprised by Joy in its entirety, instead of the snippets considered Edifying for Undergraduates At A Christian College. The first half of the book was not what I expected – who knew that British education could be so meandering and spotty. It would never survive the Standardized Testing System of today!

But along the way I met Pogo, the teacher Lewis had when he was twelve or thirteen. I think, chronology and the British school system are a bit spotty for me. Pogo was certainly not the teacher’s real name, Lewis clearly disliked Naming Names, his own cousins are referred to by their initials (or, “The Valkyrie”). I think Lewis was making a joke here to the Pogo stick, which was new and popular when he wrote SBJ. I think I usually get British humor, but Lewis confounds me sometimes.

Since I read about Pogo and his teaching method right after I wrote the post about Susan, I was more than a bit shocked to see Lewis saying what I posted about. Moreover, Lewis seemed to be saying that Susan’s problem was his own problem. Not only did he become a Non-Christian that year (not entirely Pogo’s fault), but he describes his fascination with “growing-up” by adopting the latest style of fashionable clothes, saying the right things, impressing the right sorts of people. The cultivation of lust also played a role, but Lewis says that it was really secondary to the Real Problem. Anyone needing a full picture of what Lewis thought about this phase in his life should just read the chapter in SBJ, but I was happy to see that maybe I wasn’t the only one who made this connection, and probably expressed it better than I am doing:

[info]dr_con August 30th, 2005 06:34 pm (UTC)

Excellent essay, [info]rj_anderson— thanks for posting it!

This past weekend I was flipping back through Surprised by Joy, and noted some of Lewis’ comments on his own youthful “apostasy” (his term; I’d use the word slightly differently). He views the Flesh as having been somewhat damaging to him during those years, but the World much more so (this comes up especially in his discussion of a youthful schoolmaster nicknamed “Pogo,” who had taught him to desire to be sophisticated). Indeed, Lewis’ consistent view of sin in general was one of viewing Lust as definitely sinful and damaging, but other things like Pride and Vanity as much more deeply corrupting to the soul.

The fact that Lewis wrote plenty of nonfiction works is handy for the scholar wishing to know what views his fiction works were, and were not, reflecting– lest we be “attributing to [him] views which [he had] explicitly contradicted in the plainest possible English,” as he complained of one scholar doing. Readers who know him only by his fiction stories will find it easy to make mistakes like that. (I agree with [info]fernwithy that this probably isn’t something about which JKR has thought deeply– it’s her job to write stories, not to comment on others’.)

So anyway, yes, I agree– JKR’s criticism of Lewis here tells us considerably more about JKR than it does about Lewis. JKR is certainly not the only person to have interpreted Susan this way, of course; I imagine that it must be easy for a young woman with a fondness for makeup and fashion too see herself in Susan, and to wish to react fiercely against Lewis’ presentation. But the criticism would only be valid if the quest for popularity were inseparable from the hope of finding romantic love.

The odd thing about JKR being the one to say this is that her own stories seem (am I wrong?!) to show plenty of consciousness of the difference between a shallow young woman and a mature one. (“Three dementor attacks in a week, and all Romilda Vane does is ask me if it’s true you’ve got a Hippogriff tattooed across your chest.”) The most admirable young women in JKR’s stories (Hermione, Ginny, and Luna) are not the budding Susan Pevensies of Hogwarts, but those (each in her own way) who retain a sense of adventure– more to the point, the ability to be committed to something beyond herself– as Lucy and Jill did. And an important step in Harry’s maturation as a young man was when he got beyond the stage of “going for looks alone”– when he realized that “wanting to impress Cho seemed to belong to a past that was no longer quite connected with him,” when he matured to the point where he could start liking a girl because he actually enjoyed her company. (Notice that HBP never tells us that Harry thought Ginny was pretty or beautiful or anything like that– of course he does think so, but that’s no longer where the emphasis lies. Her attractiveness is only made known to us through the comments of others.)

And so I don’t think the stories JKR and CSL have told are really all that much different in their handling of young adulthood after all. There are some differences, of course– but mostly on the surface. [Link]

The full article where that comment was left is well worth reading. It covers more ground than the other article I linked to (consideration of Lewis’s views on women in other works is offered, though the author inexplicably ignores Till We Have Faces), and it offers more consideration of Susan’s character as a whole.
Have I Solved This Dilemma yet? The only thing that is clear, and I’m willing to take a stake in, is that the character of Susan has been roundly misinterpreted, and this has negatively impacted how Lewis is read and the understanding of Lewis’s whole point with Susan.
But I am also willing to Posit that Susan’s Problem had nothing to do with her being Female.

I hate nylons and lipstick, but I love my eyeliner


Queen Susan by Achen089

The problem of Susan. Or, the problem with Susan. Or, the problem towards Susan. It doesn’t matter which preposition is involved, everyone seems to know that there is some problem or another.

The definitive treatment of this whole “problem,” I think, is Are the Chronicles of Narnia Sexist and Racist? by Dr Devin Brown over at Narnia Web. Dr Brown shows that the books nowhere say, nor even imply, that Susan’s problem was growing up, or discovering sex, or being a woman.

The relevant quote in this instance is (since I think it is important to see everything in context):

“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.’”

“On Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”

“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.” (LB, 154-5)

Nylons and lipstick, and by extension, boys, are clearly peripheral to Susan’s situation. So why is the belief so rampant that they are the problem? Why does JKR think that Susan’s problem consists in her having sex, when she herself wrote a remarkably Susan-like character in Aunt Petunia?

Maybe Susan is the Excuse. People don’t like the Narnia books because of the Christian themes, and Susan becomes the Excuse to justify the hatred. It’s sort of like sparkly-vampires being the Excuse to hate Twilight. It’s a popular and socially acceptable reason to hate otherwise popular books, so people latch onto it, even though it has no intrinsic impact on the books themselves.

But I think that there is something more complex going on, and one that I don’t think the detractors even fully realize themselves (also much like the detractors of Twilight).

I think the crux of the issue is that people think that Lewis wrote that Susan lost her salvation.

Once-saved-always-saved or the Perseverance of the Saints is a common doctrine in Evangelical and Calvinist circles, respectively. Since those groups hold Lewis to be a type of high spokesman for their beliefs, I think a lot of people just assume that Lewis did, in fact, hold to the same doctrines. And even if not everyone fully understands OSAS, they do understand the principle that, if OSAS were true, then Susan lost her salvation, which means that she must have done something completely horrible like the Unpardonable Sin.

And everyone knows that, for Evangelicals, the Unpardonable Sin is having sex.

I almost rolled my eyes here, but, well, there’s a reason why so many people think that.

Anyways, if all that were true, then Lewis was a totally horrible person. I agree. And poor Susan has had a great injustice done to her.

But Lewis was not an Evangelical.

Lewis was not even much of a Calvinist.

Lewis believed that Christians could lose their salvation.

Lewis believed that Christians could lose their salvation is completely normal and mundane ways. He himself could lose his salvation tomorrow.

All Evangelicals wish that they could tell me that what I just wrote was wrong. But they can’t, and they know it. They’ll just carry on ignoring the parts of Lewis where he says things like that.

Evangelicals do not understand Lewis half as well as they think, and they think they understand him quite a bit more than they do.

For Lewis there is no “problem” other than Susan simply embodying yet another example of his “things which prevent belief” meme. Susan serves as a warning: even someone who has personally met Aslan and seen him resurrected can forget about him in favor of the more superficial things in the world, do not let yourself do the same, is the real message.

Susan could be anyone. And in our materialistic and capitalistic culture Susan could be a great number of people. Is that why people don’t like it?

Susan!fics are rampant in the fandom, and everyone has a different idea about how Susan is eventually “redeemed.” But my favorite is As I Love the Mouse by songsmith. Why? Because it shows that, as Dr Brown says, vanity is only a secondary problem; Susan is redeemed by returning to spreading Aslan’s grace in the world. Which is something anyone could do.