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A lion told her to walk away, and she did.
December 12, 2013 11:10 AM   Subscribe

"Can we talk about Susan’s fabulous adventures after Narnia? The ones where she wears nylons and elegant blouses when she wants to, and short skirts and bright lipstick when she wants to, and hiking boots and tough jeans and big men’s plaid shirts when she feels like backpacking out into the mountains and remembering what it was to be lost in a world full of terrific beauty— I know her siblings say she stops talking about it, that Susan walks away from the memories of Narnia, but I don’t think she ever really forgot."
posted by MartinWisse (193 comments total) 149 users marked this as a favorite

 
Saw this and loved it, glad it got posted. It's fantastic.
posted by corb at 11:11 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


And the author's followup.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:12 AM on December 12, 2013 [13 favorites]


I, too, loved this deeply and hard. I loved the Narnia books as a kid, and didn't realize how I had internalized the message of Susan's worldly, feminine "corruption" until I read this piece and got that sudden free feeling like you get when you take off a bra that's the wrong size.
posted by KathrynT at 11:23 AM on December 12, 2013 [29 favorites]


Ana Mardoll's massive, ongoing read-through of the Narnia books is required reading on The Problem of Susan. Mardoll points out that her final trip to Narnia is made against her will and under protest. "The idea that I could be sitting here working on a blog post before then being tossed into a fantasy land for gods-know-how-long before being tossed out again without warning would mess with my head. Maybe I'm the only one, I don't know, but there's a fundamental loss of agency here that is terrifying to me."

But yeah, the reason Susan wants nothing more to do with Narnia after that must have something to do with her fondness for nylons. Shame on her! Shame!
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:26 AM on December 12, 2013 [33 favorites]


I liked this a lot, but it has nothing on Ursula Vernon's "Elegant and Fine".
posted by restless_nomad at 11:27 AM on December 12, 2013 [26 favorites]


Ana Mardoll has done a lot of posts deconstructing the Narnia books, this one particularly points out the ways Susan was a sort of scapegoat character throughout the series.
posted by emjaybee at 11:28 AM on December 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Wow, the author of that seems to have completely misunderstood Narnia. A fun and imaginative piece, though.
posted by brenton at 11:28 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Dammit justsomebody! Should have previewed.
posted by emjaybee at 11:29 AM on December 12, 2013


Oh, come on. They're kids' books. Lewis was trying to communicate, in terms understandable by and appropriate for children, that sometimes people lose interest in the faith of their childhood. "Lipstick" isn't shorthand for sex,* it's shorthand for precisely the things the author is talking about, i.e., creating one's own faith oriented around grown-up, professional pursuits and losing that childlike faith that Lewis so prized.

You can read sex into that if you like. You can read sex into anything. But if you want to get an idea of just how weird that move in this context, remember the recent movies and just how bizarre the implied romance between Susan and Caspian was in context.

I mean, seriously, it's a freaking children's allegory. And, let's be honest here, only an okay one at that. Not even Lewis's own best work. His academic, non-theological work is brilliant (there's a reason he was a Cambridge don), and even Till We Have Faces is better than any of his other fiction. Narnia has about the sophistication required to keep grade-school kids entertained. This conversation is asking it to do things it wasn't designed to do. Let's not beat it to death by trying to make everything have a 1:1 correspondence with reality. It doesn't.

*J.K. Rowling's idea, an individual who wouldn't understand a coherent allegory if it bit her in the ass.
posted by valkyryn at 11:30 AM on December 12, 2013 [25 favorites]


So, this is pretty much Mary Sue/self insert fanfic instead of an actual exploration of what Susan would go through?
posted by nooneyouknow at 11:32 AM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Part of being grownup is sexuality. I've read other works by Lewis; his misogyny towards adult women who did not hide their sexual maturity was not merely confined to Narnia.
posted by tavella at 11:33 AM on December 12, 2013 [66 favorites]


As a girl befuddled by the trappings of proper adult womanhood, it made sense for me at the time. Probably a little validating, to be honest. I never saw it as an eternal rejection of Susan because I figured it was likely she'd remember Narnia, even if it wasn't until she was older.
The one that hurt me more was the ending of the The Dark Is Rising sequence, the stuff that happens at the end of Silver On The Tree. That was far worse in my eyes.
posted by PussKillian at 11:35 AM on December 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


You can read sex into that if you like. You can read sex into anything.

Oh, thank you! You've no idea how long I've waited for someone to tell me exactly that!
posted by Naberius at 11:36 AM on December 12, 2013 [21 favorites]


I'm not a huge fan of the way this is written, but Susan does deserve a better ending than winding up alone, with all her family (as far as she knows) dead. Being interested in "lipstick and invitations" doesn't really merit that kind of suffering, narratively speaking.

(Still glad my parents didn't tell me about the existence of The Last Battle.)
posted by chaiminda at 11:36 AM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


The Narnia books are racist, sexist Christian propaganda packaged as a rollicking kid's adventure. Susan is barred from heaven because she is a slut. That is Lewis' theology; don't be an apologist because you read them when you were eight and liked them.
posted by sonic meat machine at 11:36 AM on December 12, 2013 [85 favorites]


Wait, what was wrong with Silver on the Tree?
posted by prefpara at 11:40 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Lipstick" isn't shorthand for sex,*

Of course it is.

The fundamental difference between being a kid and a grownup is an awareness of and interest in sex. That Lewis chose to represent that by Susan suddenly being more interested in lipstick than playing pretend in an old wardrobe is not a coincidence.

I agree that Lewis probably meant no specific misogyny by it, and probably didn't think "I NEED A GOOD METAPHOR TO SHOW THAT SUSAN IS A DIRTY SLUT NOW".

But the theme that girls stop being interested in cool/fun/interesting stuff and become "boring" when they start being interested in boys is certainly not a hard one to pick up on, either here or across the board in all kinds of texts aimed at children. Especially those aimed at young girls, which is what makes it especially disheartening.
posted by Sara C. at 11:41 AM on December 12, 2013 [71 favorites]


What, not only do the Narnia books have sexual undertones but religious ones too?

Well blow me down.
posted by Ned G at 11:45 AM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


(lol jk)
posted by Ned G at 11:45 AM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


mean, seriously, it's a freaking children's allegory.

But... Narnia isn't an allegory..
posted by Justinian at 11:46 AM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Part of being grownup is sexuality. I've read other works by Lewis; his misogyny towards adult women who did not hide their sexual maturity was not merely confined to Narnia.

I'm convinced that Lewis himself came to know, later, that something was wrong with his treatment of women. He was trying for something better (still failing, but trying) with Till We Have Faces. Notably, this happened after he fell in love with, married and grieved a woman who was nothing like a passive female stereotype.

It's a very flawed book with a horrifying ending (if you like the protagonist) and you can almost feel Lewis' own conscience revolting against the rules he set up of godliness as utterly masculine. He betrays his female protagonist in a way that is consistent with his theology, but that makes the reader inclined to throw the book across the room.

Those of us who are both female and have enjoyed Lewis' books had to deal with his giant blind spot when it came to half the human race. Rewriting Susan is one way of dealing with that.

I don't think what happened to her was exactly as simple as "sex bad!" either. I think he just had an automatic dismissal of teenage girls/young women as shallow and easily corrupted that made Susan an easy pick for "the one who lets herself stop longing for Narnia." Young women in general don't fare well in any of his books.
posted by emjaybee at 11:48 AM on December 12, 2013 [31 favorites]


On the Ana Mardoll Susan link: that's totally what I'm talking about. The problems she discovers aren't some hidden horrific implication of Lewis's ideas. They're evidence that the books aren't really intended to be read the way she's trying to read them. Hell, I don't really think of any of the books as being particularly good novels, and Caspian was always the weakest of the series. The "problems" she identifies with the beginning of the novel don't, to me, suggest deep problems with Lewis's vision, but with misunderstanding the nature of the books. They're not realistic (magical or otherwise) adult novels. They're allegorical works targeted at children.

But neither Mardoll nor the blogger in the OP seems to get that. As Mardoll concludes her post:
And so again we're back to some very great questions: who are the Pevensies, what do they know, and how do they think? Are they childish and ignorant now because they do not recall Narnia, or were they just as childish and ignorant back then when they were living as insulated adults unaware of the very real responsibilities of rulership? I genuinely don't know.
Of course not. No one does. The allegory isn't designed to answer those questions, so it doesn't. The result is plot holes you can drive a Mack truck through, but that's how allegory works. They're appropriate fare when you're six. Lewis's friend Tolkien actively disliked the Narnia books, in no small part because their narrative and structural approach was scattershot and inconsistent,* and because he simply didn't think Lewis was taking things seriously enough.

And I mean, come on, any work that starts off by taking a magical passage at the back of a wardrobe is necessarily going to involve a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. "But where did the orchard go?!" isn't the kind of question a book like this one is interested in answering. Trying to make it do that isn't really appropriate.

I'm not usually a Lewis apologist. He's actually heterodox on a few points, and a lot of his more popular works aren't actually all that good, objectively speaking. He enjoys a huge first-mover advantage, which might explain why so many American Christians are so into him. Far more than the Brits are, oddly enough. I don't usually recommend Lewis to anyone if they're looking for Christian authors. But Narnia just doesn't do what either the OP or Mardoll are trying to make it do. There's not enough going on to support that level of sophisticated criticism.

*What the hell is Santa Claus doing in a Christian allegory anyway? Or fauns and satyrs, for that matter?
posted by valkyryn at 11:48 AM on December 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


I think he just had an automatic dismissal of teenage girls/young women as shallow and easily corrupted that made Susan an easy pick for "the one who lets herself stop longing for Narnia."

It's the old patriarchial twostep: "you better look feminine/my, aren't you shallow for being interested in lipstick"; worse, for it all being unconscious on Lewis' part.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:51 AM on December 12, 2013 [23 favorites]


But... Narnia isn't an allegory

Yes it is. Not like Pilgrim's Progress is, but it's certainly within the broader allegorical tradition.
posted by valkyryn at 11:52 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


An allegory is a story which reveals its message through symbols. Narnia isn't a symbol. Aslan does not symbolize Christ, he is Christ. It's like saying that Jesus is a symbol for Jesus.
posted by Justinian at 11:52 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ah, poor Susan. I like the article, and I'd like to think Susan ends up that well.

FWIW I wrote a bit earlier on my own reactions to Susan: http://zompist.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/what-was-susans-sin/

In brief, this wasn't Lewis's finest hour, but he was clumsily expressing, not that Susan was too interested in boys, but that she had turned away from Christianity. Aslan = Jesus, y'know. Jesus doesn't care that she was no longer interested in Narnia-- indeed, he had ordered the Pevensies to focus on Earth.

More importantly, that's not the end of Susan's story. She wasn't killed; she wasn't sent to hell. We don't know Lewis's version of what happened to her, but he was strongly influenced by George MacDonald's universalism-- he would have maintained that Susan could return at any time.
posted by zompist at 11:53 AM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Narnia isn't a symbol. Aslan does not symbolize Christ, he is Christ.

Umm. . . no he isn't? I'm really not sure what you're trying to say here. Lewis never believed Aslan was real. Aslan was Lewis's fictionalized version of Jesus. It's maybe an obvious symbol--to the point of an outright stand-in--but it's no less a symbol for all that.

What's your point?
posted by valkyryn at 11:55 AM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


/me goes to get stuffed animal lion to nail to a cross. Then some lipstick because clearly sex is easier to get than I thought.
posted by poe at 11:56 AM on December 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Spoilers for Silver On The Tree, in order to answer prefpara:




I violently objected to the idea of everybody being made to forget. Forget the magic, forget what you did and saw and accomplished. All of that will be taken away.

The books were a much bigger part of my childhood than the Narnia books were, and I still adore them, but that really got under my skin.
posted by PussKillian at 11:56 AM on December 12, 2013 [10 favorites]


She’ll apply to a women’s college on the East Coast, because she fell in love with America when her parents took her there before the war.

This was not the only part that gave me an unintentional giggle. Not that I necessarily require the adventures of Susan at Oxbridge, but because it adds a light frisson of FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA in this paean to Strong Female Susan.

And "screaming parents" having objections to Susan volunteering as a nurse during WWII? Teaching archery in exchange for calculus? I do wish this had ended with Susan shrugging on a leather jacket and at least three pairs of sunglasses to announce that sexism was over and her last bullet... reads 'Aslan'.
posted by monster truck weekend at 11:57 AM on December 12, 2013 [21 favorites]


What the hell is Santa Claus doing in a Christian allegory anyway?

This always bugged the heck out of me - the idea that Narnians know about Christmas. What exactly do they think they're celebrating? Shouldn't they be celebrating "Aslan-mas" or something?
posted by Daily Alice at 11:57 AM on December 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


Related: For those who've read the Gaiman short story about Susan, what did you make of it?
posted by Wretch729 at 11:57 AM on December 12, 2013


Oh, I see what you mean, PussKillian. I am also troubled by that. I was just breaking my brain trying to figure out how the end was sexist... since that was what I had assumed you meant.
posted by prefpara at 11:58 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I am not sure I'm ready to rage all over Lewis here; instead, I am appreciative that someone so loved these books that they wanted something better for one of the characters. That is, Lewis's character & the story were good enough to have grabbed ink-splotch's imagination so strongly that she loves Susan.

It occurs to me that the Narnia books and Ender's Game are both stories that captivated us when we were young but which, upon reflection as adults, reveal their shortcomings. Despite the fact that Lewis is able to inspire such affection in readers for his characters, maybe his stories just aren't meant for adults. *shrug*

Damn, I forgot they all died. Thanks for bumming me out.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:58 AM on December 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Umm. . . no he isn't?

Yes he is. In the context of the fictional world Lewis created Aslan is simply another name for Christ, not a symbol for Christ. Aslan says as much... that he is known in the children's world but by another name.

Lewis never believed Aslan was real. Aslan was Lewis's fictionalized version of Jesus. It's maybe an obvious symbol--to the point of an outright stand-in--but it's no less a symbol for all that.

Something doesn't become a symbol simply because they are in a work of fiction. If I write a book with Napoleon fighting against Wellington while riding on a dragon, Napoleon isn't a symbol for the real-life Napoleon, it's just Napoleon in a work of fiction. Similarly, Aslan isn't a symbol for (what Lewis believed to be) the real Christ, he is just Christ in a work of fiction.
posted by Justinian at 11:59 AM on December 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


This is the passage in question:

“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 and 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.’”

“Oh Susan!” said Jill, “she’s interested in nothing now-a-days 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.”

posted by willF at 11:59 AM on December 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


What exactly do they think they're celebrating? Shouldn't they be celebrating "Aslan-mas" or something?

Yeah, danged if I know. Never made any sense in context. In Narnia, as far as I can tell, "Christmas" is the sort of purely sentimental holiday that a lot of Christians object so strongly to Christmas allegedly becoming in contemporary culture. Why that doesn't attract more interest has never been something I've been able to figure out.
posted by valkyryn at 12:00 PM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


FWIW, Lewis himself denied they were an allegory so I have that going for me...
posted by Justinian at 12:00 PM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Similarly, Aslan isn't a symbol for (what Lewis believed to be) the real Christ, he is just Christ in a work of fiction.

I'm not entirely willing to grant your point, but I'm still not sure what difference it makes. Everybody I've ever talked to has had no objection to categorizing Narnia as some kind of allegory.
posted by valkyryn at 12:01 PM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Man, I love Ana Mardoll's deconstruction.
posted by rebent at 12:01 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Lewis himself denied they were an allegory so I have that going for me

Yeah, he denied that because everyone else was convinced that they were and he thought the descriptor condescending. Doesn't make it wrong.
posted by valkyryn at 12:02 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


In brief, this wasn't Lewis's finest hour, but he was clumsily expressing, not that Susan was too interested in boys, but that she had turned away from Christianity. Aslan = Jesus, y'know. Jesus doesn't care that she was no longer interested in Narnia-- indeed, he had ordered the Pevensies to focus on Earth.

The idea that an adult woman's beauty rituals are in diametrical opposition to Christianity where Christianity=goodness is sooo sexist.

You see this a lot, actually, even in modern children's literature. The idea that young women and girls need to reject womanliness in order to be good, that they need to be beautiful but effortlessly beautiful or beautiful while rejecting beauty (Katniss suffers from this, with the coerced makeovers). The idea that most women are silly and shallow and that "good" women are exceptional and never grow into their bodies or their lives in a way that puts them in opposition to masculinity.

Anyway, this made me cry. It's good, really good.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:02 PM on December 12, 2013 [57 favorites]


I'm not a huge fan of the way this is written, but Susan does deserve a better ending than winding up alone, with all her family (as far as she knows) dead. Being interested in "lipstick and invitations" doesn't really merit that kind of suffering, narratively speaking.

In the world of the Narnia books - that is, a deeply Christian one - it absolutely does.
posted by kafziel at 12:03 PM on December 12, 2013


If I write a book with Napoleon fighting against Wellington while riding on a dragon

If you are writing Temeraire fanfic please link us.
posted by elizardbits at 12:03 PM on December 12, 2013 [30 favorites]


I've never been a huge C.S. Lewis fan, and I think this meditation on Susan is a big part of what always made me uncomfortable about the Narnia series (and by extension most of the rest of his work).

It's always reeked of that sort of self-satisfied English pre-WW2 certainty about the world. Everything revolves around men, and white people, and a certain sort of Protestant Christianity, with no room for anything else to exist. "We've solved all the world's problems, and if only those inferior Other People would get on board, everything would be paradise."

Richard Dawkins pings the exact same spot, for me, which is a big reason I can't get on board with his stuff, either.
posted by Sara C. at 12:04 PM on December 12, 2013 [19 favorites]


valkyryn: I don't believe he found the description as an allegory condescending, I think he found it incorrect. But, sure, in the grand scheme of things it doesn't change much if people consider it an allegory whether or not it actually is one.
posted by Justinian at 12:06 PM on December 12, 2013


It's always reeked of that sort of self-satisfied English pre-WW2 certainty about the world.

Oh, absolutely. There's a ton of that in Tolkien as well, though you have to look a little harder for it, as Tolkien never gets quite so insufferably smug as Lewis does. Also, Tolkien seems to have known that he couldn't write female characters worth a damn and so usually doesn't try.
posted by valkyryn at 12:06 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


question: What about narnia would have to change for it to be considered, in your view, an allegory?
posted by rebent at 12:07 PM on December 12, 2013


valkyryn and Justinian are not the first people to have this debate (pdf). Also here and a million other places if you Google around.
posted by Wretch729 at 12:08 PM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Also, Tolkien seems to have known that he couldn't write female characters worth a damn and so usually doesn't try.

All Tolkien had to do to write a female character worth a damn is use female pronouns instead of male ones. It's not like women are a different species.
posted by prefpara at 12:08 PM on December 12, 2013 [38 favorites]


Btw, what this also reminded me off was this Jo Walton story.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:08 PM on December 12, 2013 [13 favorites]


If I write a book with Napoleon fighting against Wellington while riding on a dragon

... and you change his name and make him into an animal?
I guess this is just a case of "it depends what the meaning of is is", but I don't see why calling it an allegory is insufficient. Especially when plenty of people could read the series and have no idea that Aslan was meant to have anything to do with christianity...
posted by mdn at 12:09 PM on December 12, 2013


Susan living through WW2, huddling with her siblings, a young adult (again), a fighting queen and champion marksman kept from the action, until she finally storms out against screaming parents’ wishes and volunteers as a nurse on the front.

What front? WWII would have been over by the time Susan was at all old enough to volunteer as a nurse. It happened when the Pevensie children were young — that's why they were sent to live with the Professor, because London was being bombed.
posted by orange swan at 12:09 PM on December 12, 2013 [11 favorites]


rebent: You're probably better off reading the links Wretch729 links to rather than having valkyryn and I reproduce the results of those debates here.
posted by Justinian at 12:09 PM on December 12, 2013


Also, Tolkien seems to have known that he couldn't write female characters worth a damn and so usually doesn't try.

I'd agree with you except I loved Eowyn.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:12 PM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


IMO, Narnia would have to get waaaaaay less subtle in order to be an allegory. It's not an allusion to religious stories, it's a religious story, straight up. Aslan, as mentioned, would have to be a fantasy equivalent of Jesus, instead of being literally Jesus.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 12:12 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I agree that Lewis was problematic in his general handling of women. But even re-reading that passage above I don't see Lewis as especially slut-shaming her. The problem he suggests with Susan is that she's simply more interested in Earth than in heaven. He knows how to express that well when it comes to a male, academic character like Mark Studdock in That Hideous Strength. For Susan, he just doesn't understand women well enough to depict that convincingly, and that -- rather than simple condemnation of sexuality -- is his failing. He's uncharitable to Susan, and he doesn't like her, but he doesn't put her in the stocks as a strumpet.
posted by tyllwin at 12:13 PM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


But the theme that girls stop being interested in cool/fun/interesting stuff and become "boring" when they start being interested in boys is certainly not a hard one to pick up on, either here or across the board in all kinds of texts aimed at children. Especially those aimed at young girls, which is what makes it especially disheartening.

This isn't even out of line with the rest of Lewis's writing - consider "The Shoddy Lands", where the narrator briefly experiences a world in which only cut flowers, jewelry, men's faces and women's clothes are clearly visible, with nature and everything else a disturbing blur...and then he realizes that he is inside a woman's braaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiinn. Luckily, the condition is not permanent.

Or the incredible misogyny of Perelandra and That Hideous Strength...now, I'd say that it's not sex per se which signals the Female Failings (after all, in THS, it was because Jane wanted to have sex without having a baby that the opportunity for the Second Coming was missed forever, god having so arranged things that there was only one opportunity, and it was totally all her fault). It's sex for fun, sex because you want to do it, flirtation, seduction, prettiness, etc - it's not sex, in short, it's both femininity and female agency. It's women existing for themselves. That's the "fall" that the Eve character in Perelandra avoids because she doesn't give in to vanity or too much interest in her own agency when tempted by the Un-Man.

There's a passage in THS which has always made me feel physically sick because it brings back some incredibly emotionally painful episodes from childhood where it is Explained by one of the theologically on-point characters that Jane is unhappy because she has not wanted to submit to her husband - that society is organized by submission, woman submits to man as smaller replication of how man submits to god. Everyone is "feminized" in some way (except god) with being "feminized" denoting abjection and powerlessness. Oh, it's super shitty.

(We won't even mention all the petty little slams at the left and progressives generally that are tucked away in The Silver Chair and Voyage of the Dawn-Treader, or the apology for schools beating their students.)

That's not to say that CS Lewis doesn't have anything going for him - he's a really memorable and economical writer of landscapes (the sea, the islands and the mountain in Perelandra are particularly well-realized); the Un-Man is so scary, guys - the passages where Ransom struggles with him are really visceral, intense and creepy; there's lots of little moments of delight in all his fiction (except maybe "The Shoddy Lands"). And I've often found myself returning to little moral tags from some of his work - there's a bit in Perelandra where Ransom is thinking about how he has to fight the Un-Man and he knows he's going to do it and he can do it singing like a martyr or blaspheming like a devil but because he is the person he is, he can't not do it; and there's some really funny but also eerie bits in That Hideous Strength where he makes fun of corporate-speak as the wicked people start to lose language ("it would be shark, very shark, debenture" is the bit I always recite to myself). He can write some really scary stuff - the end of the NICE institute is really creepy, and I find it much more visceral and plausible than the happy ending bits with the "good" characters, because the "good" characters are so nauseating and phony.

CS Lewis is a lot like early Orson Scott Card, in that he's obsessed with abjection and forced humility (and making it seem like abjection and forced humility are actually virtues that we ought to enjoy) in a way that just feels traumatized and sick. You have to wonder what happened to him in early years.
posted by Frowner at 12:14 PM on December 12, 2013 [77 favorites]


I never got invested in the Narnia books as a kid (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe always seemed to me to be a clumsy reworking of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen into a heavy-handed Sunday school parable), so this seemed to me to be the author's reimagining her favorite character from the books having the sort of awesome adventures implied by Rose Bukater's pictures at the end of Titanic. Nothing wrong with that, really.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:16 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's not really something that falls under the category of "slut shaming".

It's more "ha ha you dumb girl, having interests I don't share". It's under the category of always trying to be the "cool" girlfriend who doesn't ask for a commitment, Just One Of The Guys, and the darker side of the beauty myth wherein not only are you supposed to be obsessed with cellulite and whether your hair is frizzy, you're also supposed to pretend not to be.
posted by Sara C. at 12:17 PM on December 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


PussKillian, that infuriated me when I read it and it still does.
posted by mogget at 12:20 PM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I always read the passage about Susan to mean that Susan was no longer a friend of Narnia not for whatever other interests she'd developed (and I agree Lewis's representation of that is problematic) but because she not only no longer cared anything about Narnia but denied it even existed. And I always thought she might have got to Aslan's country eventually. She's only eighteen and has just lost her entire family, so it's easily possible she would have reconsidered her stance on her Narnian past during the rest of her life.
posted by orange swan at 12:20 PM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


You have to wonder what happened to him in early years.
You don't have to wonder too much what happened to him, we know most of it. His dog died, his mother died, he had a crazy headmaster, WWI freaked him out and he recommitted to atheism, then became an academic and Tolkien and Dyson dragged him back into Christianity. An intellectual, he couldn't stop thinking about it and writing about it and so you have his many fiction and nonfiction books. Sure that's an oversimplification but if you want to better understand what he thought about Christianity you just have to read his stuff.
posted by Wretch729 at 12:21 PM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


I agree that Lewis was problematic in his general handling of women. But even re-reading that passage above I don't see Lewis as especially slut-shaming her. The problem he suggests with Susan is that she's simply more interested in Earth than in heaven. He knows how to express that well when it comes to a male, academic character like Mark Studdock in That Hideous Strength. For Susan, he just doesn't understand women well enough to depict that convincingly, and that -- rather than simple condemnation of sexuality -- is his failing. He's uncharitable to Susan, and he doesn't like her, but he doesn't put her in the stocks as a strumpet.

I always read it as Susan was barred from fantasy funtimes and left alone to forget everything but always wonder why things never taste like they should because she was interested in being a teenage girl, and being a teenage girl made you inherently silly and dumb and not worth spending any time on at all.

And people wonder why girls’ self esteem plummets at puberty.
posted by dinty_moore at 12:22 PM on December 12, 2013 [22 favorites]


This always bugged the heck out of me - the idea that Narnians know about Christmas. What exactly do they think they're celebrating? Shouldn't they be celebrating "Aslan-mas" or something?

I really feel that this is a problem mostly because of the commercialization and ret-conning of the books. If you read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a stand-alone story with a relatively light-hearted and fun kind of world-building and a moderately Christian message, it doesn't make sense, but it doesn't have to make sense. Once you start getting into making all the parts match up and creating a perfect coherent backstory which hits all of CS Lewis's Lessons For Good Little Girls, it starts looking weirder and weirder.

I think this stands out especially because of the way the books have been republished - as if they're a contemporary children's series like Hunger Games or something and share contemporary YA beliefs about characterization, sequels and worldbuilding. Narnia is a pretty thin and small world - if you take it literally and try to figure out just how much land mass there is, or why Calormen can be so close to Narnia and Archenland (seriously, it's like a couple of hundred miles on the maps) and yet have a completely, radically different culture - it's as if Glasgow were Glasgow but Birmingham were Dubai, and as if Birmingham turned into Dubai without any other similar cultures in the whole world.
posted by Frowner at 12:22 PM on December 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


Argh, I can't find it -- a quick online joke post of a dialogue between CS Lewis and Jadis that goes something like this:

CS Lewis: "Welcome to my fantasy world of great evil and great good, of powerful sorcery and awful magic, of innocence and simplicity and of evil ambition . . ."

Jadis: "Hi, I'm a sexually mature woman with complex, adult motivations!"

CS Lewis: "Eeeeek!"

Only it was much, much funnier.
posted by jfwlucy at 12:23 PM on December 12, 2013 [15 favorites]


Also an argument can be made (though I don't say it is without flaws) that he didn't really even begin to understand women until he met/married Joy Davidman.
posted by Wretch729 at 12:24 PM on December 12, 2013


Like many other girls, I was upset at the part where Susan was cast out (because we identify with the characters in one aspect or another, as the author of this piece herself notes, and if the cool, collected Susan could be cast out, weren't we next?) in the books. I remember it clearly--it's one of those literary betrayals I've always felt as keenly as Jo not marrying Laurie--and I was delighted to read the author's 'might have been.' I may not agree with the track the author's imagination took (she moved to America?) but I am delighted that she put it out there anyway.
posted by librarylis at 12:26 PM on December 12, 2013 [21 favorites]


I think you have to be pretty selective about reading Lewis in order to justify the idea that Lipstick and Nylons are *automatically* stand-ins for being a slut or even more generally that he considered liking sex to be necessarily damning.

I don't have time for anything exhaustive, but a couple of cues off the top of my head include the fact that Screwtape devils plot not only to tempt people with sex but to remove the joy from it (making it clear that Lewis as an author thinks of joy in it is divine and joylessness is infernal). IIRC, The Malacandrans from Silent Planet are paired and *want* each other so naturally and completely that they don't want another (except in one case where someone was ill). And it's also clear to me that while he had conservative things to say about the temptations of the flesh, as Christian writers go it's really a pretty small fraction of his time, and he spends a *lot* of time on what people would apparently think of as the more petty transgressions, which is pretty reasonable inside the context of a theology where those would damn you as certainly as unrestrained lust, but also makes it clear (particularly in the choices of the characters in, say, The Great Divorce that it isn't the sin that's going to get you so much as setting your heart on it.

Given that, it seems more likely to me that lipstick and nylons were about personal vanity and perhaps the general vanity of many adult concerns.

That said, I think it's great to be aware in looking at his work that people *could* read it in a certain way that would be problematic. That can be a first step in addressing a problem.

Insisting on it being the only reading, though, strikes me as not only being pretty wrong but also as more or less the equivalent of a homeopathic cure, while learning to read it otherwise may be an actual antidote.
posted by weston at 12:30 PM on December 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


Or the incredible misogyny of Perelandra and That Hideous Strength...now, I'd say that it's not sex per se which signals the Female Failings... It's sex for fun, sex because you want to do it, flirtation, seduction, prettiness, etc - it's not sex, in short, it's both femininity and female agency. It's women existing for themselves. That's the "fall" that the Eve character in Perelandra avoids because she doesn't give in to vanity or too much interest in her own agency when tempted by the Un-Man.


In all fairness, that idea of complete "interest in [your] own agency"-- that you exist for yourself, you belong to yourself, you don't owe nothin' to nobody and nobody is the boss of you-- is pretty much the textbook Christian definition of pride, both for men and women. Lewis describes it in Milton's Paradise Lost as "the root of [Satan's] whole predicament-- the doctrine that he is a self-existent being, not a derived being, a creature."

It's certainly debatable whether he (or the whole Christian tradition) is unjustifiably touchier about pride in women vs. men, but even if weird gender issues get mixed up with it, the doctrine of the evils of pride is one that decidedly transcends simple gender questions. And Lewis does include very full discussions of pride in men (maybe not so much of personal vanity, although Uncle Andrew, for instance, is a very unattractive, very vain male character) elsewhere in the Narnia series.
posted by Bardolph at 12:31 PM on December 12, 2013 [12 favorites]


I haven't read the Narnia books since I was in 4th and 5th grade (which was decades ago), but at the time, I did not even see the religious symbolism, perhaps because my life was so suffused in it anyway. In high school, though, boy I thought it was funny: how could I miss the that it's always winter and never Christmas, until the son of the king, comes, dies, and rises again. Subtle like a sledgehammer, but still an allegory in my book.

I honestly don't remember a lot about the series, but I have carried with me the distinct impression that Susan was not allowed into Narnia because she was a grown up woman. Boys and men are ok, girls are ok, but not women. And that's long before I learned critical reading or even a smidge of feminist theory. There may be subtleties in a close read, but the take away is that women don't belong in Narnia. It's kind of like the original Peter Pan, in which the only girl allowed to the fantasy place is brought there to clean up.
posted by Measured Out my Life in Coffeespoons at 12:32 PM on December 12, 2013 [25 favorites]


I think this stands out especially because of the way the books have been republished - as if they're a contemporary children's series like Hunger Games or something and share contemporary YA beliefs about characterization, sequels and worldbuilding. Narnia is a pretty thin and small world

This, a thousand times this. Narnia, if read as any kind of serious, literal, worldbuilding fiction is completely bonkers. One Hundred Years of Solitude is downright coherent and straightforward by comparison. It's just not the kind of literature that the OP and Mardoll are reading it as.

The comparison that jumps most readily to hand is trying to read the Book of Revelation as if it were a straightforward description of events in the same genre as the evening news. Do that and you get Left Behind, which is just bad fiction in addition to being completely unbelievable. And hey, that isn't how responsible interpreters read it. But just like with Revelation, if you read Narnia as if it were written by a journalist or modern historian, you get really, really weird results.

Tolkien was, as far as I can tell, really the first person to engage in the kind of systematic worldbuilding that we expect from fictional authors these days, and Lewis was most definitely not doing it. There are a ton of things that just don't make any damned sense if you try to read the Narnia books that way. If we're okay skipping over those parts, there's no need to engage in the kind of analysis that can lead to these problematic conclusions. If we're not. . .well, shoot, go read something else.
posted by valkyryn at 12:34 PM on December 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


the take away is that women don't belong in Narnia

Except you've got the Polly character, who remains a friend of Narnia well into middle age.
posted by valkyryn at 12:35 PM on December 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


Don't Narnians know about Christmas because the first King and Queen of Narnia, who were from London, established it as a holiday?
posted by tyllwin at 12:35 PM on December 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


You don't have to wonder too much what happened to him, we know most of it. His dog died, his mother died, he had a crazy headmaster, WWI freaked him out and he recommitted to atheism, then became an academic and Tolkien and Dyson dragged him back into Christianity. An intellectual, he couldn't stop thinking about it and writing about it and so you have his many fiction and nonfiction books. Sure that's an oversimplification but if you want to better understand what he thought about Christianity you just have to read his stuff.

No, I mean, I know that - I actually have read a lot of CS Lewis, although I admit I haven't read the non-fiction since college. But there's just something really kinked in his work, kinked like Card is kinked, that makes me wonder about early sexual experiences, early eroticized experiences (beatings at school, for example - those seem to have messed with a variety of men of his generation), the actual honest lived experience of times when he felt feminized or abject. Obviously, this stuff is pretty much unknowable at this point - but that's not to say that there's nothing to be known.

Seriously, his work is so perverse the minute that anything involving sex or the body comes into it - any time anyone doesn't act like a brain on a stick (or a radiant brood mare maybe - someone maternal who has no actual bodily associations with babies)...jeez, the giant snake that kills the Star's daughter, the gross and bodily situation where Uncle Andrew gets all muddied and covered with food...it's all really weird.

I'd be inclined to be way more sympathetic to him generally, actually, if it weren't for the racism about Calormen - he's obviously someone who suffered plenty from having terrible ideas about gender and embodiment rather than simply getting a kick out of them, and there's a great deal to be said for being wise to yourself, which I think on these fronts he was not.

When I was little, I read Susan's fate as a Ghastly Warning about gender and girlishness. I hated it. I think a lot of girls do. And I don't even identify as a women, and I was a pretty butch and non-feminine little thing even then.
posted by Frowner at 12:36 PM on December 12, 2013 [14 favorites]


Susan living through WW2, huddling with her siblings, a young adult (again), a fighting queen and champion marksman kept from the action, until she finally storms out against screaming parents’ wishes and volunteers as a nurse on the front.

What front?


Susan went to Korea, I suppose.

Also, Tolkien seems to have known that he couldn't write female characters worth a damn and so usually doesn't try.

All Tolkien had to do to write a female character worth a damn is use female pronouns instead of male ones. It's not like women are a different species.


No, that's not right either (see Martha Washington by Frank Miller). Men and women might be biologically the same species, but during a preindustrial mythic world in a world of Anglo-Saxon warrior codes? They are almost a different social species. The upbringing, education, expectations, and available social roles are different, for better or for worse, and a writer who is attempting to portray a world like that (or a historic world) must take into effect that the experiences that shape a woman in that world are different than those that shape a man. It doesn't mean that women can't be portrayed as heroes that break the socially defined roles they were born into (Eowyn tries), but they're starting from different places. If there's anything I think does a disservice to a female character in fiction, it's writing out her womanhood.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 12:37 PM on December 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Related: For those who've read the Gaiman short story about Susan, what did you make of it?

I personally think it's a hell of a read. Not only does it give us a Susan who has triumphed -- has had lovers and regrets, her own conversations with and about God -- but it's a well-placed rip into period children's literature as the framing. There's something very satisfying about a Professor Susan being able to address directly the "what was wrong with Susan?" argument.

There's bits I think are cheap -- the sexual sequence with Aslan/Jadis, frinstance, is like a knee-height slam dunk -- but otherwise I think it presents us with a greater hinted possibility of Susan living a fantastic, difficult life; of a flawed Susan who is nonetheless more human and tender than her dead perfect siblings are. I like it for all the reasons I found "Can we talk about..." unfortunately mawkish and chintzy.
posted by monster truck weekend at 12:39 PM on December 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


As a girl who wasn't much interested in lipstick, and as a woman who more-or-less still isn't, when I first read the passage about Susan being into lipstick my thought was more along the lines of "hey someone else who thinks lipstick is a bit silly!". And yes, when I was made fun of in middle school for not wearing makeup, I recalled that passage and thought "but it's ok not to be into makeup."

Of course, then I got a bit older, somebody told me that the books were Christian allegory, and I felt -so- betrayed. (I was always a bit dim about religion; wasn't until I got to college that I really intellectually realized there were other smart humans my age who actually believed in a deity.) And now, as the sex-positive atheist who still isn't very femme that I currently am-- well. I guess my feelings about that passage are pretty complicated.
posted by nat at 12:39 PM on December 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


Hey jfwlucy! That online dialogue stuck with me too back when I first read it. I found where it came from - a McSweeney's article:

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

C.S. LEWIS: Finally, a utopia ruled by children and populated by talking animals.

THE WITCH: Hi, I’m a sexually mature woman of power and confidence.

C.S. LEWIS: Ah! Kill it, lion Jesus!
posted by cadge at 12:40 PM on December 12, 2013 [37 favorites]


It's just not the kind of literature that the OP and Mardoll are reading it as.

In fairness, it's not the OP and Ana Mardoll insisting that it should be so. Narnia has been propped up as the Christian™ answer to Hogwarts, Panem, and the like for at least the last decade.
posted by Sara C. at 12:41 PM on December 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Thank you, Cadge! That is exactly it!
posted by jfwlucy at 12:42 PM on December 12, 2013


In all fairness, that idea of complete "interest in [your] own agency"-- that you exist for yourself, you belong to yourself, you don't owe nothin' to nobody and nobody is the boss of you-- is pretty much the textbook Christian definition of pride, both for men and women. Lewis describes it in Milton's Paradise Lost as "the root of [Satan's] whole predicament-- the doctrine that he is a self-existent being, not a derived being, a creature."

Well and good, but in That Hideous Strength it's Jane's "pride" (if you can call "I don't want to have a baby while I'm trying to finish my PhD and my husband is a junior lecturer" pride) that is depicted as equivalent to the sin of Eve. And when Merlin comes back, there's this very gloaty passage that is pretty much "why, we're so lucky that we live in modern times because if we lived in Merlin's times we'd just behead Jane for refusing to have that baby - you are so lucky, Jane you ignorant slut". There's also some passage, IIRC, where someone is like "why didn't you just rape her so she'd have the baby you wanted". "Pride" for women is "I don't want to have sex I don't want or a baby I am not ready for". That's not what the husband (Michael?) experiences. If anything, he reasserts his own control over his body when the people at the NICE try to make him trample the crucifix. (I think it's suggested that Michael is naturally more in tune with the will of god because He Is A Man, actually - he isn't mired in sexual concerns like Jane.)

I think that when many women read the Narnia books (or the Space Trilogy) they/we are just plain old shocked to experience this kind of gratuitous insults to our interest and agency - it's difficult to believe that someone who is supposed to be the kindly and moral old narrator could really think that Jane is sinful because she doesn't want to give up her PhD to have a baby right this second, or that there's anything really wrong with wanting to go to a party now and then. "Don't you pay any attention to anything that I have experienced?" I always want to say. "You don't know anything about a woman's decision to have a baby or how girls feel about parties, or you wouldn't say something so flatly, gratuitously contemptuous". It's not even that CS Lewis is down on parties and careers for women; it's that he's so flatly ignorant in his assertions, so totally writing from the outside with no interest in how women experience these things.
posted by Frowner at 12:45 PM on December 12, 2013 [23 favorites]


early eroticized experiences (beatings at school, for example - those seem to have messed with a variety of men of his generation

It's always fascinated me that, among a certain sort of English people, it's actually expected that you'll send your sons away at 5 or 6 to live in a strongly hierarchical all-male environment up until adulthood (and potentially beyond). And being raised by potentially abusive strangers away from immediate family -- and completely segregated from the opposite sex -- is considered a completely normal and mainstream way to grow up.

It wouldn't surprise me to know that a lot of people are broken by that type of childhood.
posted by Sara C. at 12:47 PM on December 12, 2013


Justinian: "Yes he is. In the context of the fictional world Lewis created Aslan is simply another name for Christ, not a symbol for Christ. Aslan says as much... that he is known in the children's world but by another name."

Aslan may not be an allegory over in Narnia, but here on earth, he really kinda is.

Alternately, we could call it fanfic, if that's more pleasing to you and Mr. Lewis.
posted by desuetude at 12:48 PM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Narnia has been propped up as the Christian™ answer to Hogwarts, Panem, and the like for at least the last decade.

Well then in fairness to the OP and Mardoll. . . the people proposing that don't know what the hell they're talking about. Which isn't terribly surprising, given that anyone who feels the need for a "Christian™ answer" to other franchises don't generally get top marks on identifying (let alone actually producing) quality literature.
posted by valkyryn at 12:48 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Alternately, we could call it fanfic, if that's more pleasing to you and Mr. Lewis.

Given that Aslan is Furry Jesus, that seems reasonable.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 12:55 PM on December 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


I was never a fan of The Chronicles of Narnia. Something about C. S. Lewis always seemed so smug, so condescending, and his stories’ plots seemed so transparently moralizing that I could never get past whatever the fourth book was called again. The couple times I made it up to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader required plenty of stamina as-is.

Nonetheless, this brought a lump to my throat, because there’s something so damn powerful about the themes of childhood and maturity, age and innocence, that the Narnia books never fucking touched on that this touches on pretty excellently. I grew up reading a lot of excellent children’s literature, some of which I still reread pretty much annually, and this Susan story reads like a story I would have loved to have. Something about it reminds me a lot of Diana Wynne Jones’ Christomanci series, where you deal with children having magic and doing horrible, fucked-up things with it, and adults are punishing them for all the wrong goddamn reasons as if children ought to know better and as if it wasn’t the adults’ jobs to teach them better in the first goddamn place.

Ah, the joy of fucked-up-ness aimed at pre-teen children. My favorite obscure children’s series opened with the bombing of London during WWII and progressed to descriptions of child abusers murdering all the main characters. Sigh.

Also, for all that y’all haters can keep condescending about J. K. Rowling just because her Christ symbolism is better than your Christ symbolism, let me point out that Hermione was given all sorts of opportunities to date and act girl-y and do all sorts of fun things, and that not only was she slut-shamed for it but Ron tried to slut-shame her and the result was pretty evidently that we are supposed to think that Ron is a buffoon at best, and an ugly sort of insecure at worst. Because J. K. Rowling is actually the best.
posted by Rory Marinich at 12:57 PM on December 12, 2013 [21 favorites]


"Lipstick and Invitations" sounds like the name of an album.
posted by Foosnark at 12:59 PM on December 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


I just noticed that Mardoll covered the allegory or not debate too. Darn, wish I had included that in my first comment.
posted by Wretch729 at 1:00 PM on December 12, 2013


I liked this a lot, but it has nothing on Ursula Vernon's "Elegant and Fine".

From that piece, there's this line

"Susan didn’t care. If he was going to go around refusing to be a
tame lion, he could hardly fault her for refusing to be a tame woman."

which I love, love, love, love so much that I want to marry it, except that would mean that line (and/or I) might end up wearing lipstick and nylons at the wedding, which means we wouldn't be able to go to heaven, and that part of that piece is so beautiful, it deserves eternal life. Drat.
posted by lord_wolf at 1:03 PM on December 12, 2013 [21 favorites]


Next up: Jackie Paper, murderer of animals.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 1:08 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Lipstick and Invitations" sounds like the name of an album.

Actually I think I've seen that! It was an Eastern Bloc bootleg of an Elvis Costello CD.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:19 PM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


I love this post, and especially the Ana Mardoll stuff.
posted by corb at 1:19 PM on December 12, 2013


Oh, and not to sound more critical than I want to sound, but I have noticed the trend of (white, male) academically-inclined MeFites jumping always into threads like this to state their nice, lengthy, urbane explanations of why whoever it is that's writing about literature/art/whatever in a way that lots of people are clearly responding to is actually going about commenting about this work in all the entirely wrong ways, and it's so unfair to poor dead Mr. Lewis that we're accusing him of misogyny or of portraying a nasty sort of Christianity or of doing all sorts of unconscious things to his characters that nowadays seem sort of jolting or unsettling. I've said this before on MetaFilter, but one of my favorite things about the Internet is how it gives voice to a lot of intelligent, articulate people whose opinions towards things aren't completely polluted by their being trained to write/speak in a particular cultural environment and therefore come off as light and interesting and generally pleasurable to read, but also thought-provoking and moving, and I notice that this happens more for me with women/nonwhite/queer writers than it does with straight white male writers, simply because those are all the voices I've been exposed to the least over the course of my life (both because I'm a straight white male myself and because academia/"high culture" is still grotesquely imbalanced in favor of a bunch of people who look and sound an awful lot like me).

I feel like it's worth pointing out that this sort of thing is a feature, not a bug, and that challenges to the existing cultural and academic norms are sorely needed. I find it interesting that Ana refers to herself as a deconstructionist, but does so without any of the jargon that Noam Chomsky famously found so impossible to decipher. Her own blog posts respond to some of the criticism here very well, and use deconstruction as their central argument: that is, she's specifically unconcerned with what Lewis thought of his own work, because art exists as an objective artifact with many different subjective interpretations, and the insistence that it can only mean one kind of thing usually just shuts out all the many voices that the dominant cultural voice finds irritating or pesky. There's a lot of bandying-about of the phrase "postmodern" on the blue and a lot of using it to refer to the Internet in a kind of joking sense, but here (I think) is a perfect example of the Internet behaving in a postmodern, deconstructive sense, only instead of being pretentious or dry about it it's doing interesting things with beloved characters and all these words may be masking the fact that I'm crying at work a little bit and I don't even like those books, dammit.
posted by Rory Marinich at 1:21 PM on December 12, 2013 [53 favorites]


Rory, I am indeed white and male. But I wasn't excusing Lewis: instead, I want to pay closer attention to this pretty amazing piece of writing, and think more about a reader who is so engaged with a text.

There are plenty of books that caught my imagination like this, especially when I was young. I would like to linger on that phenomenon and explore it some more.: what other tests are o attractive to us when we're young? How do they hold up? Does anyone know of more essays like this one?

The thread in this FPP about Lewis distracts from that conversation, which is why I commented as I did. *shrug* Is Lewis an important writer? Yes. Does he write women poorly? And treat them worse? Definitely. Am I excusing that? Not at al! We can get back to Lewis later -- and most certainly, I will read that FPP with keen interest.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:31 PM on December 12, 2013


I saw this and loved it. What a wonderful ... for lack of a better word, reclaiming of the character. And celebration.
posted by rmd1023 at 1:32 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I loved the books as a child, and read and reread them countless times. It was years later when someone pointed out the religious stuff to me and I was shocked -- I had enjoyed them simply as adventure fantasy stories, and had missed the other layers totally. I've deliberately never gone back and reread them as an adult, nor read criticism of the (beyond discussions here), because I honestly don't want my young enjoyment of them complicated by a deep exploration of their faults. The religious part doesn't bother me, but the sexual and social issues that have been mentioned would be so apparent now that I wouldn't be able to enjoy them as literature.
posted by Dip Flash at 1:39 PM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


The fundamental difference between being a kid and a grownup is an awareness of and interest in sex.

Of course. The reason we don't let 7-year-olds drive, fight in wars, vote, or drink beer is because they haven't had sex yet.
posted by straight at 1:40 PM on December 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


But the metaphor used in the book isn't that Susan was lost to Narnia because she was only interested in cars, the Air Force, politics, and artisanal breweries.

Think on that.
posted by Sara C. at 1:42 PM on December 12, 2013 [21 favorites]


The fundamental difference between being a kid and a grownup is an awareness of and interest in sex.

Also, I guess asexual people are simply children who need to grow up already.
posted by straight at 1:43 PM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Dip Flash, if it makes you feel better, just about all children's literature is that way.

Only yesterday it occurred to me how weird it is that the award-winning YA novel Number The Stars is told from the perspective of a gentile who helps to hide her Jewish best friend from the Nazis, rather than being told from the perspective of a Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis by pretending to be just another sister in a family of Danish gentiles. Isn't the story much more interesting that way? Why focus on the goyim, in this tale?

Oh, right.
posted by Sara C. at 1:46 PM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


I just want to plug Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. He creates a fantasy world that's an explicit rebuke to Lewis's worldview (and it's a great read).

He really doesn't like the Narnia books.
posted by diogenes at 1:47 PM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Also, I guess asexual people are simply children who need to grow up already.

Well, to judge by tumblr ...
posted by kafziel at 1:55 PM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


I had a viscerally negative reaction to the Pullman books. I know it's silly to say this in the context of a discussion of CS Lewis, but they just felt like such propaganda.
posted by prefpara at 1:56 PM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Speaking of His Dark Materials, here's a relevant little story for this thread.

"She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”

A better writer would actually think after writing this particular sentence and wonder, hmm, maybe Susan has a pretty good reason for wanting to grow up, seeing as how she's a 20- or -30-something woman trapped in the body of a prepubescent girl, god damn it C.S. Lewis!!
posted by sonmi at 1:56 PM on December 12, 2013 [15 favorites]


They're evidence that the books aren't really intended to be read the way she's trying to read them.

I don't think that this statement makes sense. Authorial intent is not magic; Robert Frost emphatically denying that "Stopping by Woods" has anything to do with suicide or self-reliquishment, for instance, doesn't mean that interpretation must be rejected. C.S. Lewis may have meant his treatment of Susan to be solely a condemnation of vanity and un-Christian pride, but whether he intended to do so or not, it's presented in a way that seems to put particular emphasis on her burgeoning sexuality as the main problem. His treatment of women privately and in other books furthers this association between sinfulness and female sexuality, so I do think that it's relevant to this discussion. The fact that this is just children's literature is hardly a free pass, either, since it is one of the more beloved series given to children and since many contemporary female readers have noticed this treatment of one of its most central characters. That doesn't mean we have to condemn the entire series but I don't think we shouldn't pretend that those themes aren't there or are invalid simply because they may not have been "on purpose."
posted by en forme de poire at 2:00 PM on December 12, 2013 [16 favorites]


But the theme that girls stop being interested in cool/fun/interesting stuff and become "boring" when they start being interested in boys is certainly not a hard one to pick up on, either here or across the board in all kinds of texts aimed at children.

Yeah, but is that something coming from adults, or does it legitimately reflect how children see things? My daughters seem baffled and bored by their peers who they say seem to be mostly interested in fashion and boy bands.

Is Susan legitimately and rightly interested in "lipstick and nylons" out of a feminist desire for sexual autonomy? Or has she simply internalized patriarchal notions that she and other women exist for the male gaze?
posted by straight at 2:00 PM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]




told from the perspective of a gentile who helps to hide her Jewish best friend from the Nazis, rather than being told from the perspective of a Jewish girl...

It's been a long time since I read "Number the Stars" but couldn't this be for the same reason that the Sherlock Holmes stories are told from Watson's point of view? I mean, I think that it would be hard for a writer to take us into the head of Holmes himself, because how can any of us really understand how he thinks?

I think for a children's book author, it may be more that the kinds of emotions the Jewish girl would feel are too alien and too scary to her readership (and harder to write well). Writing at one remove makes the story more accessible.
posted by OnceUponATime at 2:04 PM on December 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Next up: Jackie Paper, murderer of animals.

THIS SUMMER BLOCKBUSTER: join new-generation crew J. PAPER and CALVIN, along with their grizzled mentor DR PEVENSIE and her off-and-on-again lover WENDY "CAPTAIN" DARLING, as they EXPERIENCE FANTASTIC CHILDHOOD ADVENTURE REMORSE and FUCK UP THEIR OLD IMAGINARY FRIENDS in:THE HALF-PATHOLOGIZING, HALF-WISTFUL ATTITUDE PERIOD CHILDREN'S LIT HAD TO GROWING UP. Keep a weather eye for Pevensie's and Darling's nemesis, CHRIS ROBIN!

Not appearing in this film: Reverend Kingsley's Water Babies horseshit, nor how Pullman -- in his efforts to riff off Narnian-esque themes -- presented an adolescence-sex liminal state that was just as Goddamn weird as what he was ripping on.
posted by monster truck weekend at 2:05 PM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


My daughters seem baffled and bored by their peers who they say seem to be mostly interested in fashion and boy bands.

As they've been taught to be, practically from birth.

We make no secret of the fact that anything feminine is inferior. Some girls accept femininity and internalize their inferiority. Other girls fight it, believing that if only they could establish themselves as the correct sort of girl, they'll be granted admission to the boys' team.
posted by Sara C. at 2:06 PM on December 12, 2013 [38 favorites]


I mean, I think that it would be hard for a writer to take us into the head of Holmes himself, because how can any of us really understand how he thinks?

Ding ding ding.

Look, I have no problem with Lois Lowry or that particular book. I don't think it's deliberately anti-semitic or anything.

But it is interesting how often fictional narratives of the Holocaust revolve around gentile characters. It's actually one of the reasons I liked Inglorious Basterds so much.
posted by Sara C. at 2:10 PM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is Susan legitimately and rightly interested in "lipstick and nylons" out of a feminist desire for sexual autonomy? Or has she simply internalized patriarchal notions that she and other women exist for the male gaze?

Part of the issue is that we're never really shown her motivations here, because by this point she has been written out of the story entirely. An interest in lipstick and nylons and party invitations is meant to self-evidently demonstrate something so negative about Susan's character that little else is said, certainly nothing from her own perspective.

Even aside from that, there is also not much way for Susan to win here: either she is submitting to patriarchical norms about beauty and fashion, or she relinquishes her interest in adult sexuality to submit to male religious authority, as per Frowner's comment above. It's a classic double bind.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:13 PM on December 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


I read some of the Narnia books in childhood, but never the whole series. I remember relatively little about them; they never really "stuck," for some reason. I have only the vaguest idea who Susan is or what happens to her, mostly from other people's conversations and Neil Gaiman. I've not read any Lewis since, but the impression I've picked up from other people has not really made me eager to. I am, however, a little bit in love with various Lewis quotes I've stumbled over along a certain theme. This is a good one:
“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing...to find the place where all the beauty came from.”
It's in that spirit that I dislike this piece. It reads to me like a rejection of imagination and rapture and transcendence and an embracing of...I don't know, exactly, status and prestige. The version of Susan here at least works to improve the state of the world somewhat, but has in some way I can't articulate walled off her soul. It's a story about someone who held magic, and broke it in their hand; and I hate that. I'd hate anyone who did that. I know that I'm missing a whole butt ton of context, but I don't think this stands on its own. It reads too much like a revenge piece--the Susan in the story is a thinly disguised version of author or everygirl who was told she couldn't, who did, which on the face of it is fine, but...

I suppose I'd just rather read about a Susan who masters strange magic in obscurity and invades and conquers Narnia, transforming it into a Lovecraftian garden of rapturous madness. Or a Susan cast out of fantasy who struggles to reclaim her own meaning instead of just effortlessly following a trail of given successes. Is Lewis' Susan really cast out of Narnia for...what, wanting to be an adult? Or does she lose a connection to it because of her inevitable maturitng and the rejection of imagination and loss of childhood magic inherent to the adult world? I'm genuinely asking; because the former is a bit ick, but the latter is poignant and powerful.
posted by byanyothername at 2:15 PM on December 12, 2013 [10 favorites]



My daughters seem baffled and bored by their peers who they say seem to be mostly interested in fashion and boy bands.


"I am not yet sexual and so this stuff bores me" or "my romantic or sexual interests are different from these and so they bore me" or "I just am not going to be especially a sexual/romantic person" are not the same as "when girls start being interested in boys they become boring/duplicitous/stupid/sexbots".

There's this perpetual contradiction in that as a society we push girls to perform really girlie femininity and then we despise them for it.

I wasn't a girlie kid (and as I say, I don't identify as a woman now). I felt there definitely was a cultural push to get interested in all that pink/boys/"hunks" a la Hyperbole and a Half/flirting stuff, and that was frustrating for me. It wasn't that I wanted to be a correct girl or internalize my inferiority; I just wanted not to be pushed. But that's the one thing we can't be having with.

It's also especially risible that CSL is down on poor Susan and her nylons - what exactly did he think Susan's alternatives were other than death? How was she going to attract a husband? Get a job? Obviously, being Fairy Hardcastle (homophobic caricature in That Hideous Strength) was not on the table. In CSL, there's only one acceptable adult femininity, and it's self-oblivious and abject, like the old woman in THS (who puts herself down all the time, and this is because she is virtuous) or the Eve figure in Perelandra. Radiant brood mare or death, those are the choices. Unfortunately, no matter how much CSL himself approves of the radiant brood mare, that's not what most women have to do to get over, so poor Susan's choices (regardless of what she herself might have actually wanted) were rather limited.
posted by Frowner at 2:16 PM on December 12, 2013 [20 favorites]


It's in that spirit that I dislike this piece. It reads to me like a rejection of imagination and rapture and transcendence and an embracing of...I don't know, exactly, status and prestige.

I'm not actually into Super Post-Feminist Girl Power Susan in the OP myself. The breathless sentences and the sort of ressentiment bug me a bit. There's this sort of disingenuous tone in this type of narrative - we're supposed to see the hero as victimized but we never see them feel victimized in their adult life. Susan is a Wounded Romantic Hero who has a sad past and Loss and Tragedy, but who isn't depicted as damaged the way a person who really had Loss and Tragedy would be - she just turns into Girl Power Susan and Does Everything Right. That's why I do like some parts of "The Problem of Susan" better, even though since it's Neal Gaiman of course there has to be Sex That Is Titillating And Yet Bad as the ending metaphor (NG would be a hugely better writer if he never, ever wrote about sex ever again because his ideas about it are so stupid, reductionist and just gross-straight-dudely but he thinks he's soooo progressive and transgressive and clever.) But anyway - in "The Problem of Susan" we see a successful Susan but not a super-Susan and not a Strong Female Character Susan.

That said, there's lots of stories with Wounded Romantic Male Heroes, so there's no reason Susan can't be a Wounded Romantic Female Hero. And obviously it speaks strongly to a lot of people even if not to me.
posted by Frowner at 2:24 PM on December 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


What I mean about Girl Power Susan is that what she suffers always and only makes her succeed. It's like an equation.
posted by Frowner at 2:25 PM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


I read the books when very young, and never really picked up on the Christianity connection until years later when it was pointed out to me.

But I very distinctly remember it being the first time where I realized the author had an opinion and I disagreed with it. Not because of Susan; I was a 9 year-old boy with no sisters, what did I know of lipstick and nylons? The one I remember being really bothered by was the island of monopods in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

I've just read the Ana Mardoll post about them, which gets into it more than I can here. But my problem boiled down to: the monopods didn't like they were turned into monopods, but their opinions about what should be done with their very own bodies are ultimately treated as invalid.

I only vaguely remember The Last Battle as a muddle of confusion and sadness, so Susan's bit may have been lost in the crowd of things from that book that I found awful.
posted by RobotHero at 2:27 PM on December 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


What I mean about Girl Power Susan is that what she suffers always and only makes her succeed. It's like an equation.

Yes! That's why Ursula Vernon's take works so much better for me - rather than exploring the political implications using Susan as a tool, it explores her emotional state and thus sheds light on the political implications. It's much more, well, elegant.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:29 PM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


I suppose I'd just rather read about a Susan who masters strange magic in obscurity and invades and conquers Narnia, transforming it into a Lovecraftian garden of rapturous madness.

So, Martin(a?) Chatwin.
posted by weston at 2:32 PM on December 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


byanyothername: You're stumbling upon one of the central (in my mind) arguments that happen about art, particularly narrative art. Is art's job to seek transcendence in its purest state, to aspire to heaven in a sense, or is it to shine a light on the reality of our everyday world? We're talking Romanticism versus Realism in a very pure sense, or Aristotelian versus Platonic if we want to go all the way back to the Greeks (and if we want to somewhat pervert what A&P were really going on about back then, but never mind that it's close enough for our purposes).

One of the things Ana Mardoll's reread of the series focuses on is the contradiction between how C. S. Lewis portrays the children's understandings of Narnia. At the start of Prince Caspian, they literally don't recall that Narnia existed at all, and even when they return — to the castle they lived in for decades, no less — they can't remember its existence whatsoever. It's suggested by Lewis that Narnia was remembered as a dream, and that this was the case because otherwise the Pevensies would have major trauma on account of a bunch of grown adults being shoved forcefully back into children's bodies without warning or consent. And then in Caspian they're snatched away again, again with no consent whatsoever.

So when Susan remarks, later on, that she finds it silly how her siblings still fixate on Narnia as if it is real, she's doing one of two things:

— Either she's acting out of her own altered experience of Narnia as a game that her siblings played when they were all pre-teens...
— ...or she's condescending towards Narnia as a way of coping with the decades of her life that were snatched away from her — decades which, even upon her return to Narnia, were taken from her because 1,300 years had passed and every person she'd ever known was dead.

So Susan is behaving the way that we all reasonably behave when our grown-up siblings start talking out-of-the-blue about that game we all played when we were children, or there is some serious cosmic horror shit going on here.

...buuut, C. S. Lewis doesn't care about that. Because Narnia is an allegory, and Aslan is Jesus, and the whole thing is one long morality play in which he grasps at notions of Beauty and Truth and Hope and Faith and all that jazz, and depending on your own outlook towards art/towards this particular work, you can either ignore all the weirdness and focus on the morality play stuff, or you can be pissed off at how poorly he treated one of his main characters — a character who many of his readers strongly sympathized with.

This is a duality that exists with no "right" interpretation of it. I dislike Narnia, yet I love the world of Harry Potter, and Eliezer Yudkowsky's "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality" always struck me as a petty and mean interpretation of a world in which the mechanics of magic mattered much less than the characters, the places, the struggles. But I love all that because I think that Rowling did an excellent job of telling her story, and of placing moral quandaries into her story, whereas I think that Lewis did a fucking awful job of it in Narnia. And I think that a part of the reason he wrote as poorly as he did is because he was so comfortable with those abstractions, with the beauty of those higher concepts, and because that allowed him to comfortably disregard the actual story and setting of his world in a way that turned me off even when I was young and far from feminist.

I'm not bringing this up to tell you that you're wrong, but I do think that there's more going on here than your interpretation of this acknowledges, and I think you're being unfair to Susan as a character even in the original Lewis portrayal. This fiction is a response, not only to Susan, but to Lewis himself, and if it's overtly politicized compared to Ursula Vernon's also-excellent story, it's because it's a fuck you, in part, to Lewis's stated notion that Susan's interest in nylons and lipstick suddenly makes her unworthy of heaven. And it envisions a life in which Susan embraces those interests and becomes even more regal than she was as Lewis's elder queen.
posted by Rory Marinich at 2:33 PM on December 12, 2013 [16 favorites]


Oh, and I did read these books to my kiddo despite having thought about a lot of the problems, because they are interesting adventure tales, and have funny bits and talking animals and all. And he liked that. I actually skipped the line "War is ugly when women fight," because fuck you Lewis. I also skipped some other things about the Calormenes (mostly descriptions of how dark skinned they were) because who cares? The story worked fine without all that.

He was disappointed to find out that you never meet the Emperor Over the Sea, and thoroughly unimpressed when I finally admitted it was God. He wasn't sure how he felt about The Last Battle. I think The Magician's Nephew ended up being the favorite for both of us; it's much lighter and more unpredictable than many of the others, maybe because you get two wholly new characters as protagonists.
posted by emjaybee at 2:36 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yes, Frowner, exactly! I think I do want more Wounded Romantic Female Heros, but in a genuine way: someone who is damaged, down and out, who nonetheless achieves autonomy and meaning and conquers...and deals with the consequences. So, Lenie Clarke, I guess.
Martin(a?) Chatwin.
Haha, yes. And Lenie Clarke.

Rory, thanks! It sounds like Lewis' own position regarding, let's frame it as Beauty vs. Necessity--the life of imagination versus the life you have to actually live--is as confused as I am, looking at it from the outside in.
posted by byanyothername at 2:40 PM on December 12, 2013


Ages ago in a graduate class in sociolinguistics and gender I did a paper that was basically a close reading of gendered dynamics in the Narnia books, particularly Aslan's interactions with the children. If you'd like to look at a beginning grad student's exhaustive take on this, it's here. My conclusion was:

In spite of their manifold achievements, the girls in Narnia are rebuked, ignored, and belittled
far more than the boys, who are forgiven, answered and uplifted. Even the most traditional
reading of the Bible can scarcely justify the inequitable way Aslan treats Lucy and Susan.


I loved the Narnia books as a kid, and Lewis's thinking was a major influence on me, but the gender stuff really is troubling.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 2:42 PM on December 12, 2013 [23 favorites]


"For Susan, he just doesn't understand women well enough to depict that convincingly, and that -- rather than simple condemnation of sexuality -- is his failing. He's uncharitable to Susan, and he doesn't like her, but he doesn't put her in the stocks as a strumpet."

But the details he chooses are pretty much icons of female sexuality, especially as they emerged in early 20th century England. There are plenty of other ways to depict vain frivolity that don't have the sexual subtext — Susan was too interested in hats and dresses, or acting in plays, or whatever.

It's weird to see the insistence on Narnia as allegory while denying the obvious, primary symbolism of these details which are the only defining marks post-pubescent Susan gets.
posted by klangklangston at 2:48 PM on December 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


In Fred Clarke's excellent deconstructions of Left Behind over at Slacktivist, one thing that comes up in the conversation is "Meta Characters." Characters who are being described in a particular way by the author but that you, as a reader, can't help imagining in a different, more satisfactory way.

In Left Behind, there is Hattie (the fallen woman) and Chloe (the virtuous daughter/wife) who are treated so meanly and stupidly by the narrative that the commenters (and Fred himself) have sort of constructed alternate versions of them; whenever there's a spot in the narrative where those characters' words or actions could be interpreted as pushing back against the narrative, the reader imagines that they do. The readers have emotionally adopted the abused characters and want better things for them. And this is pretty much the same thing.

I did the same with Eowyn, speaking of her when I read LoTR as a kid. In my version of the story, she ruled her father's kingdom, married someone much better than Aragorn, and had many badass daughters.
posted by emjaybee at 2:50 PM on December 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


The one that hurt me more was the ending of the The Dark Is Rising sequence, the stuff that happens at the end of Silver On The Tree. That was far worse in my eyes.

Susan Cooper is the real-world answer to the question "What happens when Susan Pevensie grows up?"
posted by Sparx at 3:06 PM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is an awesome post.
posted by JHarris at 3:20 PM on December 12, 2013


You should all go read this.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:21 PM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


I am Susan, in more ways than one, and found the FPP especially moving. Thank you.

In response to this: Susan is a Wounded Romantic Hero who has a sad past and Loss and Tragedy, but who isn't depicted as damaged the way a person who really had Loss and Tragedy would be - she just turns into Girl Power Susan and Does Everything Right

I'm sorry, but no. I was widowed at 33. What happened to me was shitty, and was definitely Loss and Tragedy, but I am in no way damaged. But society kept telling me I should be, so it took me a hella long time to realize that I wasn't, and maybe society is for telling me I should be.

The reason we get Wounded Male Romantic Heroes is because they are expected to succeed. We are trained to feel comfortable rooting for them. We don't get Wounded Female Romantic Heroes because the 'hero' part doesn't fit. She wasn't damaged enough! She didn't mourn enough!

I suggest this as a little extra-curricular reading on how society expects men and women to handle Loss and Tragedy differently. (Probably previously on the blue somewhere.)
posted by susiswimmer at 3:23 PM on December 12, 2013 [17 favorites]


I am a great Lewis fan and feel that I owe him a lot for what I have learned from his work, but I think it is helpful to deconstruct Narnia and Susan in particular. Partly because it helps to clarify what exactly is of true interest in this story.

Lewis was obviously a man of his time when it came to his social attitudes, and had difficulty with women and was conflicted about them (no-one has mentioned his relationship with Mrs Moore, but it is worth a thought). It's a fair call that the dismissal of Susan is couched in unpleasant terms. But I actually think that if Lewis were to read the linked article he would have said that the kind life it envisions for Susan is partly what he was rejecting with the shorthand about lipstick, etc.

The 'point' of Narnia as a whole is linked to Lewis's experiences of 'sehnsucht', the profound feeling that each experience, no matter how fulfilling, has a deficit at it's core that leads to a longing for a deeper encounter with reality/God in a way that (to borrow a phrase from The Last Battle) is 'further up and further in'. That feeling is the source of the enchantment of fantasy stories, including Narnia. The wardrobe that opens onto a whole new world is the iconic symbol of this.

It's perfectly valid (and I'm sure therapeutic for many) to imagine Susan going on to the kind of fulfilling and active life that would counter the sexist put-down about her adolescent silliness and concern with makeup. But it is still a life that is entirely immanent, self-contained and satisfied with each experience. That is not what Narnia is about, and if that was what Susan wanted then she was right to deny Narnia.

I think the reason why people want to defend Lewis here is because like me they might have experienced 'sehnsucht' through the Narnia stories despite their flaws. Susan's 'lipstick, nylons and invitations' are a (unfortunate) shorthand for the denial of that experience.
posted by azb at 3:26 PM on December 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


The reason we get Wounded Male Romantic Heroes is because they are expected to succeed. We are trained to feel comfortable rooting for them. We don't get Wounded Female Romantic Heroes because the 'hero' part doesn't fit. She wasn't damaged enough! She didn't mourn enough!

I absolutely see where you're coming from and agree that it's a shit unfair dichotomy, but I also feel there's a little more to it than this. Certainly there's a vast empty space where Wounded Female Romantic Heroes ought to be, populated with Wounded Romantic Male Heroes and their associate Wounded Romantic Male narratives, but at the same time this Susan is a badly-written example of the former.

Her story is entirely reactive to other people: her parents' wish for her not to go into nursing, the rather twee approach to Susan's feminism (playing pool; providing birth control; numinous bisexuality; 'weaponized femininity' which I'm a big proponent of but at the same time is very limply and easily dragged out here), American Freedom Rider anti-racism (along with the Vietnam mention later, again placing the story very oddly and kind of joltingly as an American Dream narrative) and never once evincing evidence of a personality.

I mean, this story is quite blatantly a Susan Pevensie hero fantasy and shouldn't be critiqued on the grounds that those are bad by default, but its difficulty is that it comes off as weirdly prosy and easy, giving an unsatisfying triumphal march for Susan that is more a weak kazoo blart.
posted by monster truck weekend at 3:46 PM on December 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Lewis's stated notion that Susan's interest in nylons and lipstick suddenly makes her unworthy of heaven.

There's a few things that strike me as incorrect about this summary.

The first is that it's wrong to say Lewis states she's unworthy (though I suspect if you pressed a Christian theologian like Lewis, he would say that she is, because in most Christian theologies nobody is worthy). What the text says is that the interest in nylons and invitations simply displaces the interest in Narnia.

Saying this makes her "unworthy" would be like saying she's unworthy of an old SO because she broke up and chose a new one -- you might make value judgments about such a choice (and making such value judgments might say as much about you as it does Susan), but unworth-ness doesn't seem to be the relevant concept. Interest and choice are.

The second one is that reading Narnia as heaven seems odd to me. If it is heaven, it's massively different from most 20th century Christian conceptions I'm familiar with ... not a lot of lazing angelically about or enthusiastic praising and such. Instead it seems to be the country of adventure and engagement with the fantastic and the archetypical. Rather than a final paradise, Narnia appears to be more or less an analogy for the experience of faith, specifically a very myth-as-experience driven faith much like Lewis's own.
posted by weston at 3:50 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry, but no. I was widowed at 33. What happened to me was shitty, and was definitely Loss and Tragedy, but I am in no way damaged. But society kept telling me I should be, so it took me a hella long time to realize that I wasn't, and maybe society is for telling me I should be.

I'm very sorry that something so terrible happened to you.

I wasn't describing real people who have had real tragedies happen to them, particularly. I was actually thinking of, er, the Stargate television programs - where people have just farcically long lists of awful things happen and yet it's all in the service of making them interesting "wounded" characters - like, you are tortured to death multiple times, you lose dear friends in horrible ways, you're bodily invaded multiple times and a bunch more stuff happens - and you soldier on with a brave smile and a tear in your eye and no one ever descends into psychosis, depression, etc. The Romantic Wounded Hero is fictional character - attractive for the sort of silly reason that their suffering makes them interesting but never messes them up. Their suffering is decorative, just like if they had a cool tattoo.

So Susan was basically a child soldier, lost ten or twenty years of experience and all her friends/family from that, had all her siblings die totally unexpectedly, witnessed the murder of Aslan and probably a bunch of other stuff I'm not thinking of...and she just soldiers on being the Very Best Embodiment of 2013 Variety-Left Values, never doing anything awful or reprehensible, somehow being a 2013 person in 1960 who is totally unaffected by the racism of her upbringing (and experience in Narnia/Calormen), etc.
posted by Frowner at 3:56 PM on December 12, 2013 [15 favorites]


I did the same with Eowyn, speaking of her when I read LoTR as a kid. In my version of the story, she ruled her father's kingdom, married someone much better than Aragorn, and had many badass daughters.

I think she did marry someone better than Aragorn, or at least more her speed.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 3:58 PM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


She married Faramir. That is the real actual version.
posted by elizardbits at 4:06 PM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


weston: "The second one is that reading Narnia as heaven seems odd to me. If it is heaven, it's massively different from most 20th century Christian conceptions I'm familiar with."

In The Last Battle at the end the "Friends of Narnia" who haven't rejected Narnia (All of them but Susan) are accepted into "Aslan's Country", it is made quite clear that "Aslan's Country" is the same as the Christian Heaven. When the Pevenise's parents die the afterlife for them is the same as "Aslan's Country", the book really is very clear on this point.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 4:07 PM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Monster Truck Weekend: Does it help if we clarify that the blog post in the FPP is not the story itself, and the author never claims that it is? (The author says "I want to read," not "I have written".)

Look at it as the wish list of things that could have happened, the highlight reel. No character development is expected, and none is claimed. But that doesn't mean that the stories of Susan shouldn't be written.

As for "only reactive", that may be a lens problem again. The text "until she finally storms out against screaming parents’ wishes and volunteers as a nurse on the front" says absolutely nothing about why Susan became a nurse. It certainly doesn't say that she did it because of her parents contrary wishes. That is a gloss that is coming from the reader's own lens. Gender-flip the phrase and ask yourself if it reads the same.
posted by susiswimmer at 4:22 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


The condemnation of Susan in Narnia comes in one single passage, as quoted upthread here. What I have always found interesting about this is that it's not actually the narrator speaking: it's mostly people who don't know her. Polly, Eustace, and Jill were never in Narnia with Susan, and likely have little or no understanding of what she thinks or feels or means.

So one of the ways I deal with The Problem of Susan is by rejecting the idea she is condemned at all. Susan isn't a Friend of Narnia anymore, according to Peter. What does that mean, if the Pevensies were told by Aslan himself to stop focusing on Narnia, and instead look for him (God) in their own world? It could mean Susan is living in England, doing the work she was meant to do, and not wasting her time digging up boxes in Diggory's former backyard.

It might also mean that Susan has the hardest task, that of living on in this world after all her family was taken away--and that Aslan (presumably) thought she was strong enough to handle that. It's possible to read what Lewis wrote, see the subtext, reject that, and then reread it the way you want: it's what fans do all the time with other texts, after all.

You can find a few other visions here here here and here and here...
posted by suelac at 4:32 PM on December 12, 2013 [12 favorites]


Susan as a Christian bodhisattva?
posted by edgeways at 4:37 PM on December 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Look at it as the wish list of things that could have happened, the highlight reel. No character development is expected, and none is claimed. But that doesn't mean that the stories of Susan shouldn't be written.

There's a Tumblr culture out there, though, of creating stories out of these wish lists: just as you can now find (and pass along!) perfectly serviceable story through a series of tags on an image, I don't see any reason that we can't take this as what it is -- a story. It's got an unusual format, but it's part of an accepted way to present a narrative. The framework of "What if..." doesn't divorce it from a story just due to the presence of a meta-reminder that this is someone's "I want" desire.

So knowing that, on Tumblr, personal meta is v. often conflated with narrative, I think one can argue that this is a story.

It certainly doesn't say that she did it because of her parents contrary wishes. [...] Gender-flip the phrase and ask yourself if it reads the same.

Aw, I think this is a little unfair. There's reading from a lens, and then there's emphases of language. For one thing, simply looking at the construction Susan is put as sympathetic and the parents unsympathetic ("screaming"), Susan as acting contrary to this ("storming"), and the essential nature of the story favouring Susan places her as in the right and her parents as in the wrong, though as you've said the "highlight reel" is such that we don't go too deeply into it. However, doing a gender-flip doesn't really change the essential message here. Let's assume it's Peter, not Susan. Until he finally storms out against screaming parents' wishes is just as pat. His parents are screaming and he leaves angry.

But that doesn't mean that the stories of Susan shouldn't be written.

I'd love the stories of Susan to be written! Frankly, I'd personally love to see the one Frowner hints at: basically a child soldier, lost ten or twenty years of experience and all her friends/family from that, had all her siblings die totally unexpectedly, witnessed the murder of Aslan [...] affected by the racism of her upbringing (and experience in Narnia/Calormen). And I don't think that's coming from the lens of wanting Romantic Tragic Female Heroes to suffer more, or be more villainous, than their male counterparts. It comes from the lens that there is too much onus placed on female protagonists to do everything correct the first time, to face adversity by always doing the morally right thing, and to always do anti-sexism and anti-racism right and be a moral bastion rather than someone who has to struggle to the right conclusion.

I do agree that lenses are probably present here for writer and reader both. (For instance, if you're going to highlight-reel a Susan who has queer experiences, that's awesome and I want that story yesterday, but don't include it in the laundry list of stuff she's done as a way of vouchsafing her progressiveness.)
posted by monster truck weekend at 4:49 PM on December 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


I thought Faramir was more interesting than Aragorn in the book. In the movie he didn't fare so well, but was still pretty cool.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:51 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


So Susan was basically a child soldier...

Having a horrible set of experiences are sometimes exactly what leads someone to embrace progressive causes.

And while I agree that it is reductionist for suffering to be merely decorative, I think it equally reductionist to say that someone (whether real or fictional) with a whole slate of bad experiences has to break. In an ideal world, people should be permitted to break, and then equally permitted to heal and no longer be labelled as broken. Ideal fiction would provide (non gendered) examples of both.
posted by susiswimmer at 4:56 PM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


"Oh Aslan! Aslan! Dear Aslan! Suppose we have left behind all those things – nylons and lipstick and invitations and Susan herself. Suppose we have. Then all we can say is that, in that case, the left-behind things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this reverse-onion of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes us as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies wanting what we can't have, if you’re right. But three babies playing a game can remember a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why we’re going to stand by the play world. We're on Susan’s side because there there's a Susan to share it with. Better to die now as her sibling than to reign without her further up in Heaven."
posted by comealongpole at 4:56 PM on December 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


Nearamir, Faramir,
Wherever you areamir...
posted by orrnyereg at 4:56 PM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Monster truck weekend- beautiful post, thank you. I heartily agree on so many points, and you make them well.

I still twinge a little bit at Susan storming out vs. Peter storming out.
I think a reader may be more inclined to sympathize with the screaming parents in Susan's case, because the standard assumption is that they know what is best for her. And that a reader would be more inclined to sympathize with Peter in the gender- swap case, because the assumption there is that he is capable of knowing what is best for himself. (Edited for missing word.)
posted by susiswimmer at 5:20 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Susan and Lucy were queens, and they ruled well and proudly.
They honored their land and their lord, rang the bells long and loudly.
They never once asked to return to their lives
To be children and chattel and mothers and wives,
But the land cast them out in a lesson that only one learned;
And one queen said 'I am not a toy', and she never returned.
   -- Seannan McGuire, "Wicked Girls"
posted by sourcequench at 5:26 PM on December 12, 2013 [40 favorites]


I think it's probably time to give Lev Grossman's books a re-read. They're my favorite books about Narnia.
posted by Justinian at 5:33 PM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


I've had the same set of Narnia books since elementary school, but I've only read The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe - I angrily quit reading at the beginning of the second book because of the fact that Susan chose not to go to Narnia because she was only interested in lipstick and clothes (or something similar). I was upset because I was rather tomboyish when I was young and thought that was a ridiculous reason to not go on adventures.

Later I learned of the heavy Christan undertones, so I just never had the desire to try to finish the series.

The story and this thread makes me want to go back and try again though.
posted by littlesq at 5:40 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Susan Cooper is the real-world answer to the question "What happens when Susan Pevensie grows up?"

Susan Cooper is the World's Worst Dungeon Master.

DM: HERE IS THE PLOT: YOU WILL FIND ITEMS 1 THROUGH 12 (INCLUSIVE) AND SAVE THE WORLD.

Players: We found items 1 through 12!

DM: YOU SAVED WORLD CONGRATULATIONS
posted by Sebmojo at 6:54 PM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


(I loved the books when I was growing up, but they suffer really badly from Plot Coupon syndrome)
posted by Sebmojo at 6:57 PM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


I cannot enjoy His Dark Materials. Pullman has a screed, which is even worse than a sermon to raise kids on. Just like some of the Narnia books, the characters do things that they wouldn't naturally do, but of course, the author thinks someone should say that or someone should do that and we have a plot or well not really, but have to get to the end. By the final book, it was painful to get through an author who had such blatant disregard to his own characters.

I mean, I know that C. S. Lewis' ideology is off-putting for some and his writing is very hit or miss, but when he is on, he's on, and there's a sense of wonder and magic to it. Certainly not an unreserved approval, but something.

“Aren’t you a star any longer?” asked Lucy.

“I am a star at rest, my daughter,” answered Ramandu. “When I set for the last time, decrepit and old beyond all that you can reckon, I was carried to this island. I am not so old now as I was then. Every morning a bird brings me a fire-berry from the valleys in the Sun, and each fire-berry takes away a little of my age. And when I have become as young as the child that was born yesterday, then I shall take my rising again (for we are at earth’s eastern rim) and once more tread the great dance.”

“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”

“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of."


Damn if there isn't something there.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 7:04 PM on December 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


Yeah, the His Dark Materials trilogy is the series Pullman thought Lewis wrote: a thinly-veiled allegorical screed. What Lewis actually wrote was a series of novels. Pullman doesn't seem to understand the difference.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 7:21 PM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


While I am no particular fan of _His Dark Materials_, at least after the first book, _The Last Battle_ is as much a thinly veiled allegory as anything Pullman wrote -- look at the scene with the dwarfs in the stable, for starters. It has moments of beauty such as description of the death of Narnia but so does HDM. And there are some rather nasty clunky bits of the same through most of the rest of the books.
posted by tavella at 7:42 PM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


What front? WWII would have been over by the time Susan was at all old enough to volunteer as a nurse. It happened when the Pevensie children were young — that's why they were sent to live with the Professor, because London was being bombed.

I think the answer is obvious, really (or maybe it's just the version of What Happened to Susan that I want to read). Susan Pevensie never returned to Narnia because she was too busy time-traveling with the Doctor. The Doctor, for his part, quite enjoyed, for a change, having a companion who, in addition to being extremely capable, seemed quite unusually comfortable with notions like 'other worlds' and 'time travel'.
posted by mstokes650 at 8:22 PM on December 12, 2013 [16 favorites]


I don't agree about Pullman writing a screed at all. There's a lot of sehnsucht, if you like, in a world where your soul takes shape and walks beside you, and there is a knife that slices through reality (and creates invisible vampiric winds) and sentient Dust and a little girl who does her own Harrowing of Hell. And Hell is a place where your death is a visible being and sits beside you. Lyra's parents are beautiful and evil and powerful and terrible. She loves them and has to betray them. She finds her soulmate and must give him up forever to save the world(s).

I think even Lewis would have been seduced by all of that, plus the polar bear warriors, the alethiometer, the marsh gypsies, all of it. It's a beautifully realized world. Ironically, it is, when you think about the role of Dust especially, one of the most religious books I've ever read.
posted by emjaybee at 8:43 PM on December 12, 2013 [10 favorites]


This isn't the only version of Susan's future I wanted to read, but I liked it a lot for what it was. And I don't care that it doesn't approach Lewis' theology with sufficient understanding and respect. I'm an atheist and I'm perfectly happy telling him to take his approach to theology where the signifiers of femininity are flaws that exile you from God's country and shove it. It may be an easy "you go, girl" future for her, but there's nothing wrong with wanting a character the fictional universe shat on to have a "you go, girl" future.

And I'm really not sorry I missed the Space Trilogy as assigned reading in high school now.
posted by immlass at 8:57 PM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


In many discussions of Susan, and this one is no different, there's this tendency to impute something to Lewis' intent that he didn't actually say. Lewis never tells us that Susan is denied heaven. Only that she can't enter heaven through the Narnian door. The door of own world into heaven is still open to her. We don't end the series with Susan climbing on the bus back to hell, Susan is still alive and her fate is up to her. Lewis never says she's damned, nor even worthy of damnation: she's described as silly, not as wicked.

That's part of why I don't think she's being slut-shamed. If that's what was meant, I think Lewis would have been harsher. I'm not blind to the notion that "lipstick, nylons and invitations" can code for "sexuality." But I think it more likely that he meant it simply as "she cares now about being pretty and popular and going to parties." Her child's faith is gone in an air of mock sophistication.

But, although I don't think Lewis is going to consign her to hell for shallowness or silliness, that leaves me in the awkward position of supposing that, in Lewis' world, perhaps God felt that killing her whole family might be just the thing to knock that out of her.
posted by tyllwin at 9:08 PM on December 12, 2013


Then all we can say is that, in that case, the left-behind things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this reverse-onion of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes us as a pretty poor one.

As comealongpole's clever parody of a scene from The Silver Chair reminds me, Lewis's treatment of Susan, while it got all messed up with the sexist attitudes he had at that point in his life1, was primarily an example of the themes in his work that (1) denigrating fantasy literature out of a fear of appearing childish is stupid, and (2) that the immediacy of the natural world to our senses is an inadequate reason for rejecting the existence of the supernatural.

Susan losing sight of Narnia was, I think, to him just an example of the Green Lady's argument to Puddleglum or the dwarves refusing to be "taken in" or this passage from the Screwtape Letters:

I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man's head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of "real life" (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all "that sort of thing" just couldn't be true.


1Please read Till We Have Faces to see how much his relationship with Joy Davidson changed him, and because it is Lewis's best work of fiction.
posted by straight at 9:09 PM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm surprised that nobody's done an urban fantasy based around Susan and Narnia. Exiled from Aslan's grace, furious at having been used as a child soldier in a proxy war, she's decided that this will never happen to another child. So she hunts down portals and seals then with her blood, leaving a trail of dead fauns and dwarves, and traumatized children behind her. She's a queen with a shotgun, and she won't take any shit from some fantastical patriarch.
posted by happyroach at 9:17 PM on December 12, 2013 [32 favorites]


Other girls fight it, believing that if only they could establish themselves as the correct sort of girl, they'll be granted admission to the boys' team.

Well, no. And I find this broad brush-painting of women who reject certain elements of femininity as trivial or shallow to be insulting. I didn't want to be on the "boys' team." I just didn't want to waste my time on things that by my early teen years I could see were mainly tricks to get me to buy things by making me massively insecure about my appearance.

Women can, in fact, disregard "girly" things without being less feminine. And attributing women's interests to wanting to either be on one team or the other just reinforces the idea that all we care about is pleasing some broad social group waiting to give us a pass or fail based on our gender conformity.
posted by daisystomper at 10:33 PM on December 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


Damn if there isn't something there.

Bn our world, a star really is a mass of "flaming" gas. It doesn't have any being apart from warping spacetime and fusing matter.

I guess we all respond to things that affect us more than things that don't, but it was [what people told me of or read to me about] Lewis's treatment of Eustace that turned me off reading any of the Narnia books more than anything else.

I was always a pretty serious-minded kid and more than a bit of a knowitall, often more comfortable hanging around with adults than with kids my own age. But you know what? That was actually pretty okay, and I wasn't some horrible thing who was a torment to all around me and that deserved to be flayed alive.

Then I went through Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, which were good enough, until I got to That Hideous Strength and found out that social science is Satanic. Guess I chose the wrong career path.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:17 PM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


That should start "But in..."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:27 PM on December 12, 2013


Lewis never tells us that Susan is denied heaven. Only that she can't enter heaven through the Narnian door.

He gets a little weirder, but perhaps makes his point more clearly, in his letters. "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 is plenty of time for her to mend, and perhaps she will get to Aslan's country in the end--in her own way." But who would write that story? "I could not write that story myself. Not that I have no hope of Susan's ever getting to Aslan's country, but because I have a feeling that the story of her journey would be longer and more like a grown-up novel than I wanted to write."

(emphasis mine)
posted by mittens at 3:58 AM on December 13, 2013 [11 favorites]


Very late into the thread but:
You might as well criticise a young man of that era for wearing trousers and hats and going to job interviews as criticise a young woman for wearing lipstick and nylons and accepting invitations.
posted by glasseyes at 4:04 AM on December 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


But they're talking about Susan being focused on a very specific moment in time - they're referring not to her growing into a woman or being sexual, but that she is focused on externals, and being a very narrow specific age of a young woman, a sort of extended young adulthood, and refusing both her past, Narnia, and her future. In Narnia previously when they had all grown into adulthood, Susan's beauty and grace was specifically mentioned, that she had suitors and was renowned for her queenly handling of them - it's this specific shallow and transient-yet-frozen adulthood that she's caught in, material and empty that keeps her out of Narnia at this point.

And Jadis is clearly a murderous monster. There are far better female archetypes, even wicked ones, but Jadis is driven by both power and a desire for nothing to change, to always be eternal/young (the apples), to always be powerful and to never risk anything. She isn't a powerful and independent role model, she's a fear-driven murderer.

CS Lewis has plenty of gender and racial and plotting and characterization and plain writing problems, but the "Susan Problem" of lipsticks and nylon isn't simple sexism.
posted by viggorlijah at 4:05 AM on December 13, 2013


Also, you should all read the National Service series about the Pevensies afterwards. I have a soft spot for anything referring to the Malayan Emergency.
posted by viggorlijah at 4:08 AM on December 13, 2013


I can't imagine reading His Dark Materials and walking away thinking it was a screed, or anything other than an outright gleaming masterpiece. I am a huge fan of Pullman for reasons that have nothing to do with HDM — his Sally Lockhart series is amazing — but HDM is far and away the best thing he ever wrote, and both its world and its plot are absolutely goddamn killer. Also, the notion that it's an antireligious screed should go out the window the second the man who's been sold to you all book as the atheist badass hero up and MURDERS A KID in his attempt to transcend up to heaven and give God a thrashing.

And it's not just a random kid, either. It's the boy who Lyra's run away from home to try and save, from (she assumes) the fanatic Christian church that's trying to neuter him, and once she gets him and runs away pretty much everybody thinks that yup, that Lord Asriel will no what to do! That he's the estranged husband of the most fanatic Christian inquisitor makes him even more clearly the Good Guy, except—wup, Roger's gone missing, and it's because Asriel needs a sacrifice of his own. Lyra even gets a chance to save him and she fails at like the last possible moment, and it is goddamn heartbreaking, and it leaves the story with the moral having to do less about Christianity or religion than it does with dogma itself, specifically with the notion that you shouldn't just assume that people older and more grown-up than you have the world entirely figured out because they're going to let you down. Which takes us into The Subtle Knife and its world of children who never quite get older, and it's utterly haunting in its own ways.

To focus on religion is to miss the thing that Pullman's most interested in, which is Authority (literally how he refers to God in the series). In particular, he has an interest with the notion that there is no great authority that you can appeal to, and that anybody who claims otherwise is lying or simply mislead. This gives rise to some fantastic villains, and in HDM the Church is one of the main providers, but what drives Pullman in all his literature is the notion that if no central authority exists, then we must provide authority for ourselves. And this is a lengthy, convoluted process that comes to define us all as individuals, which is why so many of his stories deal with the changes of characters over time—once-stable fixtures in your life become unstable, chaotic patterns resolve themselves, and so on, and the results are usually uplifting and tragic all at once.

Asriel and his wife, Ms. Coulter, take the role of ambiguous sources of authority. At first, one is explicitly good and the other is evil, but each quickly shows cracks in their facades, as Coulter betrays her religion for purely selfish reasons and Asriel reveals himself to be, well, a great leader of heavenly forces, but a fucking awful human being. Meanwhile many of the central characters are religious themselves, in a variety of ways, and Pullman opens the notion that, beyond dogma, religion does offer a certain unique understanding of the world that can be hard to find elsewhere, which is why the series ends with Lyra declaring an intent to rebuild heaven as a more open and hint reflection of the world below—a republic rather than a kingdom, as she puts it. A place where the individuals create a collective authority, rather than obeying a single central source.

It's worth pointing out precisely which members of the church Pullman presents as villainous. They are, one and all, the members who are obsessed with innocence and immaturity. The final conflict of the series rests, not with the overthrowing of the Authority, but with the priest who's been selected to murder Mary Malone, before she commits the crime of telling two children her story about kissing a boy at a party. Malone is cast as the "serpent"—she will tempt Lyra and Will into knowledge, and forsake the illusory garden of Eden that the Church thinks they'll get to remain in otherwise. Pullman shows us, in The Subtle Knife, what such a world would look like, and it's a deliciously horrifying one. Ultimately, Lyra and Will grow up, not merely sexually but in their resolve to do what is right within their respective worlds, as difficult and exhausting and frustrating as that might ultimately be.

You want sehnsucht? Look no further than the two chapters wherein Lyra and Will fall in love, after Mary Malone's story, and then are told that they have to separate. It's such a small act, compared the horrors of the other books, but it is so goddamned devastating. And the reason it's as heartbreaking as it is is that, unlike what y'all snarkers are claiming, Pullman has a wonderfully lyric way with language, and moreover he understands children in the way that Rowling and Wynne Jones do and Lewis clearly does not. He describes the moments leading up to the end so beautifully that I haven't read the series in a couple years on account of that ending part making me bawl, like rolling on floor curled up in a ball bawl. It's killer because it rejects the ultimate illusion that Pullman could have ended the series on, if he were a lesser writer: that love itself is the ultimate authority, that you can forsake everything for love and somehow it will be enough. It won't be. So Pullman ends on his characters losing something that it took them three books to discover and only had for a couple of pages, and it's over so fast, and he uses that to make a whiplash that feels nearly as wrenching as the real thing, when you and somebody else discover that for all your love, for all your need and affection, there is something between you both and it might as well be that you live in separate worlds. SEE WHAT I DID THERE

It's my favorite young adult bildungsroman, hands down. I like Harry Potter better as a character-driven story, I like Diana Wynne Jones' Fire and Hemlock better as a "somehow encapsulates deep truths about the universe without seemingly trying to", but as far as actual stories about children becoming adults go, His Dark Materials is a masterpiece that struck me more deeply as a kid than just about anything, and when I return to it I find that it's pretty much exactly as good as I thought it was.

If it's an anti-Narnia, then the battleline it draws is not God versus atheism, it's authority figure who's right no matter what versus every authority figure being a lie that we have to work our way past believing. To the extent that I am religious, Pullman's model strikes me as far more accurate to the God I was raised to believe in as a child (though I don't call that God anymore): God is so mysterious and beyond the human scale that we cannot possibly understand it, and anybody who tries to speak with the voice of God is an imposter. I'm reminded here of the interpretation of the story of Job which holds that when God was revealed to Job, Job's response wasn't to cower or to proclaim his unworthiness—it was to judge God for God's own failings. Here, I see you with my own eyes, and if this is what mankind was modeled after, then I weep for mankind. And then God disappears all the way up until he takes the form of Jesus Christ, so he can understand man as Man, rather than from his lofty seat up high.
posted by Rory Marinich at 5:39 AM on December 13, 2013 [31 favorites]


. In Narnia previously when they had all grown into adulthood, Susan's beauty and grace was specifically mentioned, that she had suitors and was renowned for her queenly handling of them - it's this specific shallow and transient-yet-frozen adulthood that she's caught in, material and empty that keeps her out of Narnia at this point.

Yes, but I think here is the interesting piece where it is about sexuality after all.

In Narnia, Susan had "suitors and was renowned for her queenly handling of them" - which, since she never married, means "not accepting any of them" and I imagine a goodly bit of "keeping them all at bay." Because if Susan and Lucy are not to be unfeminine and manlike, there must be some instance of their desirability and attractiveness - they are queens and all, but thank heaven, they're not butch or anything like that! Men want them! But of course, they're good virginal queens, so they never say yes, which leads to sex or anything! They are chased and hold off!

But Susan, real Susan, Susan who has been thirty and is now a teenager - and imagine how awful being a teenager was, and now imagine you at thirty were transplanted into being a teenager again - is expected to do this. To wait. To fend off love and affection and marriage when she has been fifteen years waiting for it already. And so she chases, rather than is chased - presents an active sexuality rather than passive. And that, that, I think, is the damning factor that makes Lewis condemn her as silly and frivolous.
posted by corb at 7:01 AM on December 13, 2013 [15 favorites]


You can read sex into that if you like. You can read sex into anything.

I just came in to state the obvious about lipstick. (I say it's obvious, but it's actually something I never really knew because no one had said it out loud to me and I feel kind of foolish for how long I lived as an adult not knowing it.)

Our lips turn a deeper red when we're turned on. That's why lipstick. It's not because makeup is just pretty, or it's nice to see that a woman has put effort into her looks. Lipstick mimics sexual readiness and availability. That's why it was so scandalous to wear it in earlier decades.

It took falling in love with someone who would call it the instant I was turned on, based on seeing my lips turn redder, for me to understand the full implications of lipstick.
posted by vitabellosi at 7:57 AM on December 13, 2013 [10 favorites]


Lipstick mimics sexual readiness and availability. That's why it was so scandalous to wear it in earlier decades.

But the point of wearing lipstick is kind of that your lips aren't actually that red, no? So it's not a sign that you're sexually aroused, it's a sign that you're going out of your way to pretend to be sexually aroused, for other reasons of your own that have nothing to do with sexual desire (vanity, or wanting to be courted for status/money/whatever reasons). Rightly or wrongly, I feel like it's the element of feigning or putting-on that carries the opprobrium in early-20-c. thinking, not necessarily the sexuality itself. For that matter, rouge was just as scandalous as lipstick during Victorian times, and (while flushing is a sex response too), the practice of rouging, in novels at least, seems to be read as all about simulating innocence (virginal blushes), not experience.

The three things Susan gets dinged for-- interest in lipstick, nylons, and invitations-- just seem so clearly to be standard tropes of vanity and worldliness that it's hard for me to see how anyone could possibly read this as (centrally) about female sexuality. All three are part of the same world of social climbing, conspicuous consumption, self-display, preening, etc.-- there's nothing that authentically indicates interest in coupling with another person, they're only things you buy or receive to signal status or to generate desire on the part of others. It's not like Lucy says her sister is only interested in boys these days, or only interested in dancing at jazz clubs. And Polly's response specifically comments on the frivolity and arrested-development quality of those interests: Susan's fault is not that she goes all the way, way too soon, but that she "race[s] on to the silliest [n.b. not wickedest!] time of one's life as quick as she can and then stop[s] there as long as she can."
posted by Bardolph at 9:15 AM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


The point you seem to be missing, Bardolph, is that women's sexuality is framed as vanity. There's nothing vain about self-display -- it's part of our human dance. Edmund is not decried for his thick lush beard, which is absolutely as much a masculine self-display as lipstick is feminine (and probably required as much daily tending as any female makeup ritual.) In fact, it is presented as making him more kingly. Only *women* displaying the outward signs of sexual maturity and interest find themselves barred from heaven for it.
posted by tavella at 9:22 AM on December 13, 2013 [18 favorites]


The three things Susan gets dinged for-- interest in lipstick, nylons, and invitations-- just seem so clearly to be standard tropes of vanity and worldliness that it's hard for me to see how anyone could possibly read this as (centrally) about female sexuality.

Because isn't it interesting that, if Susan were male, and interested in the typical trappings of grownup masculinity (cars, politics, and whiskey, let's say), those WOULDN'T be "standard tropes of vanity and worldliness".

Whereas you can't really pull comparable list for women without saying all sorts of awful judgy things about the sorts of things young women get up to.

That's the whole point.
posted by Sara C. at 9:29 AM on December 13, 2013 [18 favorites]


Wait, if Susan had been a boy, and gone on to be interested in cars, politics and whiskey, wouldn't that have meant she was no longer a friend of Narnia? Wouldn't she have been too interested in grown-up/mundane things then?
posted by mittens at 9:35 AM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


It is, of course, impossible to imagine a book other than the one the author wrote, but given what Lewis says in Screwtape, it's entirely possible to imagine a character being written off for being "interested in nothing now-a-days except newspapers and bus schedules and gentleman's clubs."
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:37 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Because isn't it interesting that, if Susan were male, and interested in the typical trappings of grownup masculinity (cars, politics, and whiskey, let's say), those WOULDN'T be "standard tropes of vanity and worldliness".

Actually (and weirdly enough, given the choice of examples), those types of male display are central to the characterization of Dick Devine/Lord Feverstone, one of the key villains in Lewis's sci-fi trilogy-- he has a flashy car ("The upholstery was of such quality that one felt it ought to be good to eat"), drives it fast in a "masculine" way ("what fine, male energy... revealed itself in the very gestures with which Feverstone settled himself at the wheel"), smokes hard, is a connoisseur of brandy and drinks very hard, name-drops, deploys fashionable slang to great effect, and is generally described as a "flashy" person whose masculine flashiness is central to his moral bankruptcy. And Mark, the protagonist of the last novel is shown drinking more to try to impress Feverstone and others. Maybe it was the inner geek coming out, but Lewis was no friend to social display, either in men or in women.
posted by Bardolph at 9:40 AM on December 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Maybe my problem here is that I'd much rather live in Oscar Wilde's world than C.S. Lewis'.
posted by Sara C. at 9:53 AM on December 13, 2013 [6 favorites]




You don't have to wonder too much what happened to him, we know most of it. His dog died, his mother died, he had a crazy headmaster, WWI freaked him out and he recommitted to atheism, then became an academic and Tolkien and Dyson dragged him back into Christianity. An intellectual, he couldn't stop thinking about it and writing about it and so you have his many fiction and nonfiction books. Sure that's an oversimplification but if you want to better understand what he thought about Christianity you just have to read his stuff.
-- Wretch729
No, I mean, I know that - I actually have read a lot of CS Lewis, although I admit I haven't read the non-fiction since college. But there's just something really kinked in his work, kinked like Card is kinked, that makes me wonder about early sexual experiences, early eroticized experiences (beatings at school, for example - those seem to have messed with a variety of men of his generation), the actual honest lived experience of times when he felt feminized or abject. Obviously, this stuff is pretty much unknowable at this point - but that's not to say that there's nothing to be known.
-- Frowner

You're right that there's a lot to be known, but wrong that it's unknowable. When C. S. Lewis was 16, he met Arthur Greeves, who was his best friend (after his brother). They corresponded for literally the rest of Lewis's life. Obviously the early letters cover appalling boarding school experiences, in addition to other topics generally of interest to teenage boys, including sex and kink. (Also, Greeves was gay and Lewis was pretty cool with it.) Their correspondence makes up a 600-page book, and while many were still omitted, it wasn't on grounds of raciness.

In short, we know way more about Lewis's sexual tastes during his early years than we do about most of his contemporaries. Long story short, he nicknamed himself Philomastix, and there's a reason the modern Christian conservatives who want to claim him don't go there.
posted by booksandlibretti at 10:45 AM on December 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


You're right that there's a lot to be known, but wrong that it's unknowable. When C. S. Lewis was 16, he met Arthur Greeves, who was his best friend (after his brother). They corresponded for literally the rest of Lewis's life. Obviously the early letters cover appalling boarding school experiences, in addition to other topics generally of interest to teenage boys, including sex and kink. (Also, Greeves was gay and Lewis was pretty cool with it.) Their correspondence makes up a 600-page book, and while many were still omitted, it wasn't on grounds of raciness.

Now isn't that interesting. I didn't even think to look, since I foolishly assumed that someone who is so routinely held up as such a moral and folksy person (Orwell points out that the slang he was using in his forties radio broadcasts [and of course all the cod-Edwardian of the Narnia books] was intensely dated and an affectation used to create this persona) wouldn't have 600 pages of potentially embarrassing correspondence out there for the world to see. My goodness. Well, scratch a conservative and find a....philomastix, a term I don't think I should google from work.
posted by Frowner at 11:04 AM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Google says it means "whip lover." From reading Roald Dahl's descriptions of boarding school, I can see the connection.
posted by Dip Flash at 11:11 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Biology
Females of Philomastix spp. pierce the leaf from above and place the egg on the underside of the leaf (Macdonald & Ohmart 1993). All species of this genus exhibit maternal care.


See? This goes straight to the 'radiant brood mare' point above.
posted by mittens at 11:14 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's also a species of sawfly, interestingly.
posted by Dip Flash at 11:15 AM on December 13, 2013


To return to this flagrantly sexual lipstick. My mother, 16 at the end of the war, was not dressed to go out unless she had lipstick on. There are no photographs of her taken outside of the house, nor of her mother, aunts, sisters, aquaintances and friends, in which she is not wearing lipstick. To her, going down the shops without a bit of lippy on would be the equivalent of me going to Tescos in my pyjamas.

Which led me to daydream about what possible model of womanhood you have if you genuinely, in the 1940's, feel lipstick is a bit of an unfortunate thing. And I think it's a model where older girls are let out of the schoolroom for about a year, during which they have to ostensibly bear the mark of a virgin (which was having your long hair dressed loosely, over your shoulders) and behave accordingly, before being safely engaged or married off by their families before the year is out. Then the girls can put their hair up, but no need for any lipstick-related activity because, well, they're off the market. It's an archaic and fustian model, and it was pretty hypocritical in Victorian/Edwardian times - few images as sexy, or as perved-upon, as those innocent long-haired black-stockinged girls.

Nice comment about Pullman, Rory Marinich. Frowner, I love how you picked away at Lewis's rather dodgy taste for the abject, looks like you're onto something. I knew there was a reason Perelandra pinged the teenage me!
posted by glasseyes at 2:22 PM on December 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


Can we not agree that the Narnia books would have been better if it was Peter who was no longer interested in a fantasy land with fauns and satyrs because he had discovered an interest in nylons and lipstick?
posted by mikeh at 2:24 PM on December 13, 2013 [20 favorites]


So I'm reading Ana's entire read-through of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe because I'm on a long bus ride to Philadelphia, and one thing she comes back to again and again is how none of its characters have agency, basically, except for Aslan. All the animals are like "let's wait for Aslan!" and every time one sibling thinks about doing something other than wait for Aslan the rest of the kids all chide them. That reinforces what I said about authority being both Lewis's and Pullman's bugbear considerably. And now I want to do a readthrough of His Dark Materials based on this which looks at all the specific ways in which authority is rejected.
posted by Rory Marinich at 4:24 PM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


Long story short, he nicknamed himself Philomastix, and there's a reason the modern Christian conservatives who want to claim him don't go there.

"Great Scott!" said Eustace. "Well I'm--jiggered. I was jolly angry with you a moment ago, and I still think it was mean of you to sneak off without the rest of us: but I must admit--well, I mean to say--well it was a perfectly gorgeous thing to do. If she was a boy she'd have to be knighted, wouldn't she, Sire?"

"If she was a boy," said Tirian, "she'd be whipped for disobeying orders." And in the dark no one could see whether he said this with a frown or a smile.

(The Last Battle, Chapter 6)
posted by mittens at 4:58 PM on December 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


What's a little troubling about the idea of only Aslan having agency, is the timing of the kids' final arrival to Narnia. They didn't come early in the book, when it would've been very convenient and could have saved everyone a great deal of trouble and bloodshed; they were not brought over until needed for the banishment of Tash.

If they had been brought over an hour, a day, a year before, would they have avoided being killed by the train? I know their deaths are, in the context of the books' mythology, a good thing, a free trip to the Aslan Theme Park in the sky. But to have the happily-ever-after be contingent on death in the real world, perfectly timed to function as Aslan's hand in Narnia, implies that Aslan has a hand in their dying as well. And there is something frightening about that, like the bomber who is fine with you being a casualty, because God will sort you out. (Remembering how, in Mere Christianity, Lewis refers to God as the 'supreme terror.')

I don't want to read too much into that, because I know the stories are really too weak to take too many variant readings (although I've enjoyed the readings this thread has brought up!)...but given this, Susan's conceit and lipstick actually saved her from being murdered by Aslan. Lewis may not have wanted to write Susan's future life, but at least he gave her a shot at having one.
posted by mittens at 5:38 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I have a lot of trouble with TLB, because it basically reveals that Lewis didn't think of Narnia as a real place. I mean, of course he didn't because he created it, but what I mean is that it's only a place inasmuch as it functions for the edification and religious training of the Pevensies and company.

Which is a problem because I think the Narnia stories continue to be so popular because Lewis did such a good job describing Narnia and its people. We want there to be a Narnia, and an Archenland and Galma and Lone Islands and Calormen (although without the icky racism).

And Lewis' casual destruction of that entire world in the furtherance of showing that death isn't really the end (I assume) just feels like a betrayal. Not just of the characters and world he created, but of the reader, who invested a lot of emotion and imagination in that world.

That brings us back to Susan, because I suspect he felt he had to have someone not make it to Heaven, and the Dwarfs weren't powerful enough characters. So he picked Susan, again not realizing the power that such a decision would have on the readers. (OTOH, I'm not sure who else he might have picked: Lucy is the beloved of Aslan; Edmund has been redeemed already; and Peter is the golden king. In that light, Susan is the obvious choice...)
posted by suelac at 6:18 PM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


Which is a problem because I think the Narnia stories continue to be so popular because Lewis did such a good job describing Narnia and its people.

In The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis produced a much better book than he intended to write. Like many novelists who make that mistake, he spent decades desperately trying to correct it.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 7:10 PM on December 13, 2013 [11 favorites]


implies that Aslan has a hand in their dying as well

Yes and no. Lewis wasn't a Calvinist. Far from it; in most of his books he underlines the importance of the individual's choice to accept or reject God. (This is most clearly presented in The Great Divorce-- which is also relevant to the problem of Susan, as it's a series of vignettes of people choosing things in place of God, precisely what Susan is accused of.) But he also depicts God using calamitous events for his own purposes.

And this isn't his invention; it's orthodox Christian theology. Death is a quandary if you believe in a good God; either he causes it (which makes him seem at least implicit), or something else does (which makes him seem less in control). If you want to see how Lewis deals with the problem without allegory, see The Problem of Pain; or on a personal level, A Grief Observed.

The idea of waiting for Aslan is presumably a metaphor for having faith in God... in Prince Caspian it's rather clumsily done, as it seems cruel or whimsical of Aslan not to show himself to all the children. Though maybe he's just trying to make a point about humility, in that the one closest to Aslan is the youngest, the least likely on a worldly level to have valuable advice. Again, Lewis wasn't a Calvinist, and he does show the kids making decisions-- e.g. Peter's decision to issue a challenge to Miraz, which certainly wasn't dictated by Aslan.

As for the destruction of Narnia, it's certainly a weird theme for a fantasy, but again it's mostly straight Christian theology, which does say that our Earth is temporary and will be destroyed and remade. There's not actually many writers who've presented an attractive picture of Heaven; Lewis did better than most. (The standard vision of eternal choir practice is singularly unsuccessful.)
posted by zompist at 8:03 PM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


To return to this flagrantly sexual lipstick. My mother, 16 at the end of the war, was not dressed to go out unless she had lipstick on. There are no photographs of her taken outside of the house, nor of her mother, aunts, sisters, aquaintances and friends, in which she is not wearing lipstick.

But might not someone like your mother have spoken disparagingly (and perhaps unjustly) of certain girls who seemed to be only interested in how her lipstick looked? You make it sound like such an everyday thing that a girl would have to behave pretty weirdly to be known as having an "interest" in lipstick.
posted by straight at 8:06 PM on December 13, 2013


It was an everyday thing in the late 40's, I would say generally in Britain. But what do I know? There's bound to have been places where that wasn't true, and isn't true today. Scottish Calvinists, maybe. Those islands where you can't use the ferry on Sunday. Or the Plymouth Brethren. Not mainstream though.

But might not someone like your mother have spoken disparagingly (and perhaps unjustly) of certain girls who seemed to be only interested in how her lipstick looked?

Nah. My mum was a fat clever feminist working class girl with many, many insecurities and painful triggers. She would have worshipped the confident pretty flirty girls, especially if they were even half intelligent.

She didn't think much of men, either: seen too many close-up feet of clay. But she was able to see a lot of good in my dad since he wasn't English.

Sorry, I'm off-topic. But just think: most kids left school at 16 and went into work. They'd be living at home, but have their own money in their pockets and enjoying a bit of freedom, revelling in being young adults. It's like the opposite of C S Lewis's outdated nostalgia for some kind of state of innocence. Who'd be worried about a bit of lipstick? The more adult markers the better for young people at that time, added to the exhilaration and optimism of life after the war.

Also, the religion in my mother's background is C of E, which doesn't have a lot of moralising in it: apart from a bit of ceremony, in some circumstances it's almost the same as having no religion at all.
posted by glasseyes at 4:53 PM on December 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


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