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

Lewis’ message is that we should all look at Susan, see ourselves, and shuddering turn from folly to wisdom.

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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?

Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

10 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. 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.

  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.

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