Susan Pevensie’s fate in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle has been criticized for being sexist. Do you think it’s sexist or is Lewis trying to do or say something else?

[Obviously, there will be SPOILERS for the final book of the Chronicles of Narnia, and by extension for some of the previous volumes.]

lewis-last-battleThe scene in question comes at the end of Chapter Twelve of Lewis’ Last Battle. Our heroes—Tirian the last King of Narnia, the Earth-children Jill and Eustace, and a few loyal friends—come unexpectedly face-to-face with the most legendary visitors to Narnia: Diggory and Polly, who witnessed Narnia’s creation in The Magician’s Nephew, and the original Pevensie children from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—minus the oldest sister, Susan. Aslan had told them all at the end of previous adventures that they would never again come into Narnia, for they had grown too old. The reason for their apparent return is revealed in later chapters, but at the moment they are merely glad to be back. But Tirian immediately has a question for High King Peter:

“If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”

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

“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly, “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that way. 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.”

So what’s actually happening here? What’s the big deal about Susan being absent when her siblings are present? For one, the heroes are not actually in the Narnia they had known, but rather are in the perfect, Real Narnia that is but a province in Aslan’s country—that is, Heaven. Peter, Edmund, and Lucy have died in their (“our”) world and gone to Heaven, but Susan isn’t with them. Why not? Well, for one, she hasn’t died yet—the others died in a train crash, but Susan wasn’t with them. Dying on earth is usually a prerequisite for passing to the afterlife. For another, she wouldn’t have been with them anyway because she has wholly rejected Narnia and all it stands for. This is where some people start having issues. But first, let’s glean some information about Susan from the scene.

Observations about Susan’s choices from the scene in question

  1. susanpevensieShe denies her own character growth. Susan is a major player in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, not to mention having actually reigned as a Queen of Narnia for some ten years or so. She was known as the Gentle, an epithet not likely to be awarded to someone who is cold and disinterested in her subjects. Yet despite her old love of Narnia, and her years of caring dutifully for it, Susan now treats it all as a made-up game. It’s a very serious thing when someone denies the reality of their own history. In this case, Susan also rejects the lessons and character growth she had once obtained from those experiences.
  2. She talks down to her relatives who try earnestly to remind her of the truth. It’s not enough that she insists her own real history wasn’t real, she also insists that her brothers, sister, and cousin didn’t have the experiences they claim. She talks down to them about their “funny games.” Have you ever tried to remind someone of something very serious from your shared history, only to have them deny that it ever happened or make it out to be something silly and unimportant? It’s the mark of a person in self-denial.
  3. susan-pevensie-bbcShe seeks her sense of self-worth in superficial things. In Narnia she became a woman of power, beauty, and wisdom. She proved worthy of all of these, and was loved and praised by both her subjects and her equals. She knew how to love, to trust, and to not be superficial. But confined to England, she regresses and throws all that away. She distances herself from her family and from her former glory and wisdom. And once she denies that Aslan and Narnia exist, she must also deny what Aslan gave her: womanhood of the highest form. She threw it out, but still feels the ache in her soul, and she scrounges around trying to fill that hole with all the wrong things. There’s nothing inherently wrong with nylons, lipstick, and invitations (to parties, one presumes), but nobody would say that it’s healthy to seek one’s sense of self-worth in those things. Susan has forgotten that there are more important things in life.

Now to the criticisms some have of Lewis’ handling of Susan here. Frankly, I’ve always been a bit shocked that such a controversy even exists. Even as a kid, the above observations were readily apparent to me, and clearly served as a warning to all readers, not just young women. But some critics think otherwise. It’s been suggested that Lewis is punishing Susan for being a strong woman seeking to enjoy her sexuality, who only rejects blind faith and is beginning to think for herself. Essays have been written attacking Lewis for this. Famous authors such as J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, and Neil Gaiman have expressed this idea. Even thinking about the controversy makes me mad, because it all completely ignores the text. You can read the “offending” passage above for yourself. I explained what it means in context — please read the whole series for yourself and see if I’ve represented it fairly! I still have not heard a single argument to convince me that the character of Susan is somehow being unfairly or misogynistically treated by her author C.S. Lewis. There’s simply no evidence for the criticisms, which nearly always immediately leave textual analysis in favor of character assassination (of Lewis) and sometimes a political agenda. The criticisms seem to come out of wilful, even malicious, ignorance.

lucy-pecensie-2008
Queen Lucy the Valiant

Lewis a sexist? For mourning Susan’s loss of wisdom and strength that she once had? For showing her little sister as continuing in wisdom, her little sister who in Narnia has the epithet of “the Valiant”? Throughout the entire series, Lewis’ female characters are realistically human in every way that the males are. They are strong as often as the males, and weak as often. Wise as often, and foolish as often. They may not be portrayed as the same as males, but why should they? If men and women were quite the same we would not be having this discussion. But Lewis portrays men and women as God made them: as equal in value. As real people, not political agendas.

Remember that it’s not just her young relatives (and Jill) who criticize her choices, but also Polly, who by this time is an old woman full of years and wisdom. Old Polly deduces that Susan has lost her sense of proportion. She’s in danger of wasting her life, judging herself by society’s standards of beauty and popularity rather than the absolute standards of truth, honesty, and love.

How could Susan, in this state, return to Narnia? Even if she had died in the train crash with her siblings and parents, she could not be forced into a realm she denies completely. Aslan can’t claim her as a faithful servant if she rejects him as king.

susan-pevensie-anna-popplewell

This has always seemed a sage warning to me. Clearly it’s a warning for all people, not just young women. Any of us can forget what’s most important in life and seek our self-worth and meaning in unworthy things. Rather than nylons, lipstick, and social invitations, perhaps our weakness is for nice cars, or attractive romantic partners, or being thought cool. Or maybe we put too much importance in watching movies, playing games, or getting Internet fame. Or maybe we even place books, philosophy, and blogging higher than hard work, loving others, and serving God.

Lewis’ message is that we should all look at Susan, see ourselves, and shuddering turn from folly to wisdom. Unfortunately, I think some readers, male and female, have indeed seen themselves in her, but have reacted by angrily trying to defend their current lifestyles rather than trying to find and confront their own follies.

But there is hope for Susan, even as the Christian gospel gives hope to all humanity! Even by The Last Battle’s glorious end, all those from our world who are in Aslan’s Heaven are only those who have died in our world already. Susan has not yet died. And while she lives, there is hope for her to return to her first love: the spiritual truth and love of Aslan (Jesus). Consider how in one fell moment she has lost her entire family! A tragedy like this will force her to confront the deeper things in life she has been running from: sorrow, pain, love, and memory. The walls she has constructed to keep out her family and the greater truths of life may be broken down. If she lets herself be broken by this terrible loss, she may yet be remade into her better, stronger self.

There is hope that Susan might once again return to Narnia and her family, the Real and Heavenly versions, this time as a woman grown-up in truth, ready for an eternal reward! It is a hope available to all of us, men, women, and children, who yet live upon the earth.

Continuing with Classic Remarks, Question 6 asks “Which March sister from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is your favorite and why? Do you agree with the way their lives played out?” Once again I must bow out, as I’m not familiar enough with the story or the women of that famous book. One day I hope to rectify that oversight. But for now I will pass over to Question 7. Next on Classic Remarks, I will discuss:

Is Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew misogynistic? Should we continue to stage it?

21 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Is Susan’s fate in C.S. Lewis “The Last Battle” sexist?

  1. I personally think Susan was the most expendable of the four children which is why Lewis chose her for his example. Peter is of course High King so he has to stay. Lucy discovered Narnia and played the largest role. Edmund had his dark night of the soul and learned his lesson, so that left Susan and being the most grown up after Peter, she is the obvious choice. It’s a hard statement that she doesn’t go to Narnia, but it’s perfect for Lewis’ message.

    That said, if there is sexism in the books it is because of the way Lilith has been treated in mythology/Jewish folklore and that Jadis is said to be her descendant. Why a female and not a male primary villain?

    I admit to being heavily influenced by Lewis’ Jadis. I just published Lilith’s Love: The Children of Arthur, Book Four in which Lilith battles the descendants of King Arthur – I tried to rewrite her story and redeem her.

    Keep up the great posts!

    Tyler Tichelaar

    1. Great to hear from you again, Tyler! You’ve a fair point about Susan being the most “expendable” of the children for when the author felt he needed to make a point about some good people falling away from the good path. We certainly couldn’t see that happening with Lucy or Edmund after all they’ve gone through, and Peter the High King also is unlikely for the role. Still, I don’t think Lewis was quite so cynical about it — I think he cared about all his main characters, even Susan. Her fall from grace is sad, but not an unbelievable event.

      I still don’t buy an argument that there is sexism regarding Susan or Jadis. Why not a female villain? Are women supernaturally pure, incapable of evil? Nonsense, of course. Every type of human can be a villain or a hero in a story. Just because an author has to choose some specification for a character does not mean they are denying that such a person could be anything else. Besides, most villains in stories tend to be men, don’t they?

      There does seem to be a bit of the image of Lilith in Jadis, but only a bit. We know Lewis was a devotee of George MacDonald, who wrote a masterpiece novel about Lilith (which I reviewed here some years back), so he may have been influenced by that story. Still, I couldn’t find a reference for Jadis being descended from Lilith — do you know which book and chapter that’s in?

      Congratulations on the new book! I’ll have to look that one up.

      1. Hi David, The Lilith reference is in Chapter 8 of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when Mr. Beaver tells the children about Jadis being a descendant of Lilith.

        Yes, of course we can have female villains without it being sexist, and I suppose Lewis did not intend to be sexist, but Lilith herself is a character who reflects sexism since she was dumped by Adam as his first wife because she refused to let him be dominant – I think Lilith was a feminist and punished for it. I have read MacDonald’s novel although I can’t say I thought it all that great. It’s possible though that Lewis was influenced by it, or he simply knew about Lilith from studying the Bible and its background.

        If you’re interested in reviewing one of my books, I’d be happy to mail you one, but Lilith’s Love is the fourth in the series so it might make sense to start with the first one, Arthur’s Legacy.

        Happy Holidays to you.

        By the way, Jo is my favorite of the Little Women, probably because I’m a male reader and she’s the most boyish and wants to be a writer. Although Alcott basically gave all four sisters equal time, Jo is the center figure ultimately and pretty much everyone’s favorite.

        1. I checked your books an Amazon and many look quite interesting! I don’t have time to get to them now, but I’ll let you know when I can. Always happy to know an author, especially one who shares many of my interests!

          Jo is definitely the one I’m semi-familiar with even without reading the book. I’ll really have to read Little Women eventually. So many books…

    2. Gothic, your book sounds interesting. Congrats on publishing it.

      Lewis does have male villains in his other novels. I am thinking of Orual’s abusive father in ‘Til We Have Faces, not to mention Tash, Uncle Andrew, Miraz, Rabadash, and the Tisroc. There is also Frost in That Hideous Strength and Weston in the first two books of the Space Trilogy.

      He does have a few female villains who are especially physically repellent, like Fairy Hardcastle and Ungit, the devouring mother. But I don’t think Jadis is this type. She is dangerous precisely because of her natural gifts … strength, determination, magic, seven feet tall and dazzlingly beautiful. And stunningly proud and cold-hearted, because she comes from a long line of ruthless tyrants.

      I sort of see her as the temptation to pride that every woman faces. This is what we, in our pride, would love to be if we had the natural gifts that Jadis does. In her we see how going down that road would make us evil.

      Perhaps this is what Lilith represents too, but I know nothing about Lilith folklore so can’t say.

  2. It’s always been remarkable to me that the authors you mention can so carelessly pull one textual moment out of context. These are people who know how to read, after all, and know that this isn’t how criticism works. It’s rather unfortunate that the seeming specificity of Susan’s sins (lipstick, nylons, and invitations) have distracted readers from the overall message when it’s clear that, as you mention, her failing isn’t meant to be specifically located in those things at all.

    I think it’s also worth noting that the criticism of the lipstick, nylons, and invitations isn’t coming from C. S. Lewis but from Jill. There’s a difference between a young female character criticizing things she personally finds silly (maybe she’s at an age where she feels the need to distance herself from “girly girls.” or maybe she thinks social gatherings are uncomfortable and dumb, or maybe she resents Susan’s social life because it leaves Susan less time for her–we don’t know!) and the author making the same statement. A character saying something doesn’t meant the character represents the views of the author–another prime rule of criticism the critics somehow ignore when it comes to this passage.

    1. True in general, although it does rather sound as if Jill & Co.’s criticisms echo Lewis’ voice. They are expressed a bit harshly, though, and perhaps more harshly than Lewis himself would about a real person. It makes sense, though — each of the characters who speaks against Susan does so as if they had felt belittled and disrespected by her after her change. Understandable considering how dismissively she started treating one of the most important things in their lives, which she too had once felt hugely important.

      1. I definitely think the criticism of Susan is coming from Susan himself, but I wonder if a grown man like Lewis would be likely to frame he problem himself as “lipsticks and nylons” when he’s able to articulate the problem much more clearly as Susan chasing material or worldly things that manifest, for her, as lipstick and nylons. I certainly see the example as something Lewis would add into his nonfiction works since he’s a master at providing concrete examples. However, he himself would add nuance that the voice of Jill lacks. The other characters as well as the other books add this nuance, of course, but Jill’s lines are so powerful standing on their own like that they critics just seem to latch onto them. And I do think we need to remember that Jill the character might not be able to articulate the problem as well as Lewis the author is. So I guess we are basically in agreement, but I didn’t express myself so well the first time.

        Interestingly, I had a professor who once explained that theorists usually don’t offer concrete examples because that makes it much easier for critics to argue against them. And that seems true here. If we just knew Susan didn’t believe in Narnia anymore but not that she’d replaced it with makeup and social invitations, the reaction to her characterization in The Last Battle would probably be less unkind.

        1. Excellent points. Jill definitely isn’t considering Susan with the nuance and understanding that Lewis himself would. And your other point is likely right on: that the outcry would be less if Lewis hadn’t specified what she’d replaced Narnia with. There’d still be an outcry from some (i.e. from those for whom “belief” is more a subjective opinion and not a life-or-death issue, as it really is regarding spiritual truth). But many people choose to focus in on those three casually-expressed examples to the exclusion of the actual attitude shift they represent.

          1. You seriously would contend that Christians who dislike fall of Susan are lacking in faith? Or defend their lifestyle?

            You’ve made this accusation twice. Are you really willing to go so far?

            1. Where have I made any such statement? I don’t see it in the post itself, nor in the comments you are replying to. Nor in any other comments on this post.

              I certainly don’t accuse Christians who dislike the “fall of Susan”, or anything about Narnia, as lacking in faith. Literary tastes do not determine spiritual salvation, thank God! I’m not sure how I’d go about making such a connection anyway. My concern in this post has been Lewis’ purpose for the character of Susan, and what he might have wanted readers to take away from that. Would you perhaps like to comment on Lewis’ text itself?

  3. I’ve come across this article by pure chance and enjoyed it very much. I quite agree with you, too. Sometimse I think that Susan is the most tragic character in the story – non only she loses her entire family, she has nothing to console herself with in this loss (having rejected what could have become the source of consolation).

    1. She is left terrifyingly alone, it’s true. Just as Polly, Lucy, and Edmund are complaining about her focus on shallow things, she’s had her life turned upside down and the shallowness of “nylons, lipstick, and invitations” revealed to her. We can hope that she would find her comfort in the Aslan of her world — Jesus — but she’ll have a difficult time, certainly.

  4. Hmm. I do agree with everything you say in this article, but with some qualifiers.

    I could be wrong, but I don’t think Lewis liked the character of Susan very much. Throughout the entire series, she tends to be bossy to Lucy and is the “pretty one.” We are meant to identify with Lucy, who is not the “pretty one.” Lucy (and almost all the other female characters) is a bit of a tomboy (e.g. Jill is a Girl Guide). Susan is the only female character who is not interested in tomboyish pursuits. It is clear that Lewis has sympathy with the former and a comparative lack of understanding for, and possibly even scorn for, the latter.

    In The Horse and His Boy, Susan’s interest in men gets the entire country in trouble. She can’t see past Rabadash’s good looks and bravery to realize that he is a scoundrel until she is seriously considering his marriage proposal, bringing the two countries to the brink of war.

    I was a little girl who wanted to be a boy. Failing that, I wanted to be like Lucy, “as good as a boy” in battle. So Lewis’s seeming scorn for Susan and her interests resonated with me. When I read the scene in The Last Battle, I felt nothing but scorn for Susan and her silly teenaged pursuits. I already had a horror of a becoming a silly, shallow teenaged girl, which meant I resisted learning to dress well, do my hair, put on makeup, or flirt (which is a skill all teens need to learn socially). My method for attracting boys was to try to impress them with my bravery, skill, or brains. (It didn’t go well. I wasn’t actually brave or athletic, and I came across as a know-it-all.) So, reading this passage confirmed and re-enforced my “I don’t want to be a typical woman” value system, which I now see was a form of hatred for womanhood itself.

    I do NOT believe that Lewis was a sexist, but I do think that he did not “get” the average woman very well. I love his book ‘Til We Have Faces. That book beautifully illustrates both of these features. The narrator (and indeed, all the main characters) are female. The narrator, Orual, is an exceptionally ugly girl, which creates instant sympathy from readers. Lewis does a great job writing her. So, clearly, he is not sexist.

    But he only does a good job writing a certain kind of woman. Orual is a tomboy. Her sister, Redival, with whom we do not identify for most of the book, is a pretty girl who learns early how to attract men, and she rejects everything that Orual and her beloved tutor Fox stand for. She is not interested in the life of the mind, only in chasing boys. Later, when Orual meets up with Redival again, all Redival can talk about is “her children,” which Orual clearly finds boring.

    One writer can’t do everything. Lewis does many, many things sooo well, but he does not do a good job of providing an model of true femininity that is attractive to girls.

    1. Excellent points! Thank you for such a considered response. I would just say that I do think Lucy is an excellent mode of true femininity, as true femininity does not lie in such things as being pretty, wearing makeup, or flirting. In fact, while I always liked Lucy, it wasn’t really until I read this post by one one of the ladies at the Egotists’ Club that my admiration for her shot through the roof: https://egotistsclub.wordpress.com/2011/05/16/book-meme-mels-day-sixteen/#comments

      1. Of course there are many components to true femininity, and Lucy displays many of them. She was the character I identified most with and is still my favorite.

        That said. A defining feature of true femininity is motherhood, or the potential for motherhood. This is what I think Lewis (and, most people in our culture) don’t “get.”

        Most girls start out fairly adventurous and tomboyish when we are small. Then, as we start to grow up, most of us start to get more interested in looking pretty. Hair makeup, etc., are not the source of femininity, but they are part of a process that, as we grow, leads naturally to marriage and children. Women are designed to be mothers. When we are little girls, we pursue this by playing with dolls. As teens, we pursue it by becoming interested in makeup, boys, and all those other things that are so despised. It might seem shallow, but actually it’s part of a process of knowing ourselves as marriageable women and, ultimately, lovely and competent wives and mothers. We then get married and become mothers, which leads to us getting fatter and talking about our children a lot (both of which happen to Redival, much to Orual’s disgust).

        That’s why it is a bit disturbing to me that Susan’s rejection of Narnia comes in concert with her showing signs of growing up. Lucy doesn’t live to grow up, and she’s wonderful. I don’t think this is fatal to the series, but I think it shows an incomplete understanding of godly womanhood, which is best expressed in a grown woman, not a little girl.

        This is a huge problem in our wider culture. Female heroes of adventure stories almost always become heroes by being bold, good at fighting, etc. All those virtues are the kind that motherhood either puts a stop to or greatly hampers us from displaying. Given that most women become mothers and it generally becomes the great task of our lives, it’s hard to say that virtues like being “as good as a boy” in battle are characteristically feminine ones. They are strengths that all people can display, but that are characteristically masculine. On this value system, a “good” female character (like Lucy) is one who is displaying mostly masculine virtues. Meanwhile nobody is showing characteristic feminine virtues (except perhaps Mother Dimble in That Hideous Strength).

        I’ll get off my soapbox. For more on this, see my post “The Same Is A Lousy Definition of Equal … Especially Between the Sexes.”

        1. I strongly suspect Lewis would agree with a lot of what you’ve said. While I have never found problems in his depictions of females, it is undoubtedly very limited. I don’t think he understood women greatly, and I think he would admit it. His mother died when he was about 10, and I gather he did not know many girls or women throughout his life; his wife Joy came in very late in his life. So yeah, I think you’re right about his limited understanding. I think it comes from limited experience, and he stuck to portraying the sort of woman he either knew better or felt he could relate to more. That’s my feeling, but I am not a Lewis scholar proper. We should ask Brenton Dickieson (https://apilgriminnarnia.com/), a very well-read Lewis scholar, or one of the scholars of the Inklings, like Verlyn Flieger.

          You’ve elucidated a major problem with cultural ideas about both womanhood and manhood. I don’t have time to address it now but I agree.

          1. You are right. Lewis was a bachelor scholar most of his life. He did live with an older woman for many years, but he never had the experience of marrying a young wife and raising a family. That is huge. Also, he had no sisters, and he went to an all-boy boarding school. So, he has far more excuse for his blind spot than many people do (including many “feminists,” who ironically share the same blind spot with respect to motherhood). Actually, given his childhood experiences it is pretty impressive the number and variety of little girls that he includes as major characters.

            Also, he did try to include positive examples of older, motherly female figures, especially in book 3 of the space trilogy.

            Like I said, one author can’t be everything.

            Good talk.

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