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.


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?

Classic Remarks 3: Is “Romeo and Juliet” a tragic love story or ironic comedy?


Is Romeo and Juliet a tragic love story or an ironic comedy? Should we take the play seriously when its protagonists are so young?

Having not the time to read the play again and do the sort of long, hard analysis I used to struggle over in college, I beg you to accept my quick thoughts on this matter, jotted down in the subjective and haphazard way that memory brings them to me.

I have always taken Romeo and Juliet as a tragic love story, sharpened and livened with both comedy and abundant irony. I do not view it primarily as an ironic comedy. That is, I do believe we are meant to take the story seriously.

The tragedy is certainly very serious, ending as it does in several unnecessary deaths and provoking enough sober reflection as to end a long and bitter feud between two callous and political families. And the love story is deadly serious to the lovers, whatever we may think of their immaturity and age. Indeed, their immaturity and age are what allows them to act so single-mindedly on their passions, for better and for worse. The better leads them to forsake the hateful feud between their families; the worse leads them to have too little thought for the consequences of their actions, leading to the deaths of some of their friends, and eventually of themselves.

Of course they make many foolish decisions! I don’t even like Romeo; I think he’s a wishy-washy fool who’s in love with love itself moreso than Juliet—why, he barely knows anything about her! About who she really is as a person, that is. At the play’s beginning he’s moaning over—who was it?—Rosalind…Rosaline. Again, some girl he hasn’t even met properly, yet has become so infatuated with as to declare:

One fairer than my love! the all-seeing sun
Ne’er saw her match since first the world begun.

As he says this, he agrees to go to a party where, his cousin Benvolio assures him, he will finally meet Rosaline. Instead he meets Juliet, promptly forgets the Rosaline who had so recently been the goddess of “the devout religion of [his] eye,” and acts even more over-the-moon about her. Oh yes, it’s all very ironic, and a bit comedic too. But intemperate and unwise as he is, I believe his emotions are real, powerful, and unfeigned.

For while Shakespeare is aware of the irony and comedy, and at times allows characters to comment on them, he doesn’t really play the story for either of these. He plays the love story straight, I think. The lovers’ gorgeous odes to each other are not interrupted by jokes, or gags, or anything that might rob the sentiments of their power. Their words themselves reach the highest planes of beauty and elegance, so richly filled and precisely crafted that instead of falling into the bog of ridiculous exaggerations they enter the English language as paradigmatic expressions of romantic adoration. I think Shakespeare takes words too seriously that he would waste his best expressions of genuine emotions on characters who aren’t really feeling said emotions.

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It is my lady, O, it is my love!
O, that she knew she were!

The next question on the list asks: Which of Toni Morrison’s books is your favorite or affected you the most, and why? But since I have not read any of Morrison’s books, I cannot answer it. Nor can I think of a way to fudge it as I did with Jane Eyre. So forgive me as I skip it and go to the next one, which…oh my. This is a serious one. One that definitely provokes passionate arguments online. Next time on Classic Remarks, I will address:

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?

Quotations obtained from http://shakespeare.mit.edu/romeo_juliet/full.html

Classic Remarks 2: Does Jane Austen belong in the literary canon?


Some argue Jane Austen writes “fluff” and others argue she belongs in the canon because she writes witty social commentary.  Do you think Austen belongs in the canon? Why or why not?

Some people are bozos whose literary ears are clogged with the fluff of snobbishness (as opposed to the stuff of flobbishness, which I thought I made up for this pun but can actually mean something about the nature of spit. Google “to flob.”). Jane Austen isn’t quite a personal favorite yet but she is indisputably a worthy member of the world’s literary canon.

emmatitlepageMy experience is a bit limited, I admit. I read Emma once and have frequently seen bits of Austen films, mostly 2005’s Pride and Prejudice. My mother and sister are major Austen fans, and I’ve discussed the stories with them extensively. A most trusted and literate friend read every one of her novels for a college course and has also discussed them with me. The books themselves made him a committed Austen fan. Thus I feel confident in what I assert.

Austen seems to achieve with near perfection just about everything she sets out to achieve in her stories. The country gentlemen and ladies of her England are not larger than life, they are alive. They are not heroes or heroines, but fallen children of God in which both their sin and His grace are revealed. And these revelations come not through melodrama, nor thrilling adventure, nor the many contrivances which seed most of literature both low and high. They come through men and women interacting as men and women really do, and no less real for living in words rather than flesh. Her characters are fictional, but not false.

The question of reliable or unreliable narrators is irrelevant with her, because you can always rely on her women to describe the world exactly as they see it, and can always be sure that they are missing much. In following these women’s inner journies, the reader in turn learns how much he is likely misunderstanding about the people around him. Journeying together, the reader and protagonist’s eyes are jointly opened to the depth and mysteries that each human being holds within them, no matter how they appear outwardly.

Depth, mysteries, and also foolishness. Delve deeply enough and some amount of foolishness will be found in everyone. I think Austen understands that, as perhaps very few authors do. She also understands that acknowledging this foolishness is a way towards humility, good nature, and wisdom.

Austen is often funny—so much that it has been common for her novels to be called comedies—but she does not write jokes, gags, or any of the exaggeration which is normally associated with funny stories. Rather, we laugh as we truly see ourselves revealed in her characters. Such as when Emma gets so fed up with a busybody woman (whose natterings have also exasperated us the readers) that she finally puts her down wittily—we laugh, and then soon feel guilty as we realize how cruel it was for Emma to do that. We’re grateful that she has as wise and honest a friend as Mr. Knightley to call her out, and become grateful for our own friends who have done the same for us at various times.

There are gentler laughters throughout Austen’s books as well, but all come from careful observations of the follies and foibles of real persons. Every exaggeration a character makes is also one that has been made either by ourselves or people we know. Their every mistake and every triumph are relatable. The art of accurately describing people can claim Jane Austen as one of its finest practitioners.

Austen’s one break from reality is how all major issues are satisfactorily resolved by the book’s end, but that is a concession to fiction that elevates her stories from mere observation of human nature to truth-bearing tales with the power to affect peoples’ lives. I wish more exalted novelists would make such a concession.

In leaving, I encourage you to peruse this collection of what Austen’s peers in the literary canon have said about her. If they believe her one of the most deserving of their ranks, what fool could object?

C.S. Lewis:

These are the concepts by which Jane Austen grasps the world. … All is hard, clear, definable; by some modern standards, even naively so. The hardness is, of course, for oneself, not for one’s neighbors. … Contrasted with the world of modern fiction, Jane Austen’s is at once less soft and less cruel.

Sir Walter Scott:

That young Lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with.

G.K. Chesterton:

I fancy that Jane Austen was stronger, sharper and shrewder than Charlotte Bronte; I am quite sure that she was stronger, sharper and shrewder than George Eliot. She could do one thing neither of them could do: she could coolly and sensibly describe a man.

Next up:

Is Romeo and Juliet a tragic love story or an ironic comedy? Should we take the play seriously when its protagonists are so young?

Classic Remarks 1: Is “Jane Eyre”’s Rochester an attractive brooder or dangerous manipulator?


Is Jane Eyre’s Rochester an attractive and brooding love interest, or dangerously manipulative?

Right. So I’ve never read anything by Charlotte Brontë. Krysta gives her answer here, no doubt intelligent, truthful, eloquent, and informed by the book. My answer will be (mis?)informed by Google Image Search.

rochesterHmm. Dark mane of slightly greasy hair that sometimes falls almost to the collar. Long sideburns, sometimes slicing sinisterly along the jaw, sometimes of a thin cowardly sort that tries to sneak under the squarish chin like a saddle-strap that might at any moment let its rider fall from the horse. Thick brow frequently furrowed. Darting, suspicious eyes. Mouth either scornful or disdainful. Nose very firm in its nosiness (whatever that means).

edward_rochesterDon’t think I like him. It’s the facial hair that disappoints, really. No strength, no honesty to it. Everything else is alright, I suppose. In many of these pictures he could use a good trip to the barber, but in some he’s cleaned up fine. But those sideburns. Man, either wear them boldly like a declarative statement, or don’t wear them at all! These are sideburns that want you to think well of them without actually doing the job of properly framing the face in an attractive, manly way. I call that dangerously manipulative.

d51087dd967e3f83f429223e38334613But wait! Timothy Dalton did away with the sideburns for his turn as Rochester. Here his face declares itself openly and without adornment. That’s honesty for you! His posture is a bit elitist, perhaps, but at least his hair is appropriately groomed, and apparently washed. Mouth not overtly disdainful.

Very well, I think I’ve reached my conclusion.

Jane Eyre’s Rochester is dangerously manipulative. Except when played by Timothy Dalton, when we can assume he’s probably a fine chap who can safely be considered an attractive and brooding love interest by the ladies, if they so choose.

So, my attractive and brooding readers, what do you think of Jane Eyre‘s Rochester, either his character or his lack of strong facial hair?

Next up:

Some argue Jane Austen writes “fluff” and others argue she belongs in the canon because she writes witty social commentary.  Do you think Austen belongs in the canon? Why or why not?

Book Review: Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson

High entertainment for lovers of fantasy. Especially if you’re the kind who likes to play as a rogue or mage-thief in RPGs.


Mistborn
a.k.a. Mistborn: The Final Empire
Series: Functions as a standalone, but is followed by The Well of Ascension and The Hero of Ages. This Mistborn Original Trilogy is itself followed by another series in the same universe, called the Wax and Wayne Series.
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Pages: 643
Published: 2006, Tor Books
Spoiler-free Synopsis: Teenaged thief Vin falls in with a crew of rogues, and learns that she, like their dashing leader Kelsier, is a Mistborn, a person born with a rare ability to magically manipulate metals (Say that 5x fast!). Using a variety of magical and criminal skills, the crew plans a rebellion against the Lord Ruler, a tyrant of immense and mysterious power who has ruled for a thousand years and just might be immortal.
Reason for Beginning: Accolades online gave the impression that it was a fresh, creative twist on high fantasy. Plus, I liked the title and cover art.
Reason for Finishing: Excellent, page-turning writing. Plot and characters both kept me invested, while the pacing kept me up late reading many nights.
Story Re-readability: Moderate. I’m more immediately interested in pursuing the next book in the series, and perhaps other titles by Sanderson. It has enough depth to reward at least a second reread, and the Thrilling Adventure and Intrique quotients should be high enough to counteract any restlessness from knowing the story’s conclusion in advance.
Prose Style: Sanderson’s style is approachable and direct, keeping the story focused and the characters lively. He successfully engages with some fairly serious themes without getting ponderous or preachy. In prose, there is a definite preference for directness, sometimes at the expense of beauty of phrase, but that seems the right side to err on for this story.

Recommendation: High entertainment for lovers of fantasy. Especially if you’re the kind who likes to play as a rogue or mage-thief in RPGs.

Key Thoughts

Billowing cloaks. Misty streets. Shadowy figures watching from rooftop perches, working to protect an intimidated populace from evil, corrupt forces. Whispered plans in secret hideouts. Unraveling conspiracies rooted in ancient legends. Warm banter between comrades who have mischief in their eyes, noble intentions in their hearts. A bit of magic. Romance, dancing and more magic.

I’ve always loved these imaginative elements, especially running together in the same story. This very blog is named for one of my earliest characters, the elusive, noble Twilight’s Warden, whose stories have had all of them in some form or another. Reading Mistborn is almost like experiencing my childhood daydreams sifted through someone else’s mind. The base elements of my own daydreams are here, but the forms they take are new and exciting to me. I think you’ll enjoy them too.

The hook of Mistborn is the new magic system Sanderson developed, called Allomancy. Characters who are born with this power can manipulate metals in specific ways. They ingest metals in powder form and use their power to “burn” the metal reserves in their stomach. For example, burning iron and focusing on a metal object Pulls it towards you, while burning steel Pushes it away. But Push against something heavier than your own body, say a metal door, and you will be the one Pushed back! It’s a tight, exciting system, with clear rules to define the powers and their limitations, while still allowing room for creative results and surprising, but logical, discoveries.

If Allomancy is the hook to set the book apart, the beating heart is still the characters and their fun, heartfelt interactions. The world they live in, the Final Empire, may be a depressing place, full of ash and haze, and drained of vivid colors, but Kelsier and his crew of rogues laugh, banter, and dream big in spite of it all. One of Sanderson’s themes is that of friendship and trust, a lesson that our heroine Vin struggles to learn. As an orphan of the slave class, raised on the streets as a thief, she’s been taught her whole life not to trust anyone, not even the criminals who take her in and work with her. It’s a shock when she realizes that Kelsier is actually friends with his “Merry Men”; they genuinely like and trust each other, and want to include her in what passes for a family. To Sanderson’s credit, he doesn’t gloss over this by making it an easy transition for Vin. A teenager who has only known betrayal, disappointment, and selfishness from those supposed to be close to her isn’t easily going to learn how to trust. She struggles with it the entire book. It’s an affecting, compassionate portrayal, and I was glad that as she began to put these new virtues into practice, she also was able to teach Kelsier and his friends a thing or two. Nobody’s perfect, everyone can learn something from each other.

Mistborn manages the deft trick of being an action-packed, character-focused epic. It takes great joy in some classic fantasy tropes, while carefully overturning others. The magic is integral to the setting and story, and provides avenues for the characters to learn more about themselves. While it doesn’t strive for the sort of high poetry or mythopoeia that much other high fantasy does, it presents a compelling story in an entertaining, substantial package, without any real flaws to speak of. It also has a number of twists and secrets that I haven’t even hinted at here, but that worked very well for me. I enjoyed it a lot, and I think most readers will too.

Beren and Lúthien, a centenary publication — John Garth


In a wood filled with a cloud of white flowers, a soldier walked in the spring of 1917 with his wife, and she sang and danced for him. To that battle-worn lieutenant, J R R Tolkien, Edith’s dance was an unforgettable glimpse of unearthly joy in the midst of sorrow and horror. It inspired the story he saw […]

via Beren and Lúthien, a centenary publication — John Garth

A new Tolkien book is always exciting! Granted, this sounds like it might not have any new material that isn’t already published in other books. But still, the story of Beren and Luthien is one of my absolute favorites, and I welcome the chance to read even many variations of it in its own book, accompanied by the lovely art of Alan Lee.

Also, as a little heads-up for you guys, I’m preparing another book review of a more recent (well, no more than 10 years old…) fantasy novel, so look out for that in the next week or so. Happy reading!

Once more into the breach, for fandom’s sake!


The morning of truth arrives. I’m off to see The Desolation of Smaug.

I’m not quite sure what to do with my expectations. On the one hand, An Unexpected Journey set them very, very low. And reviews from some friends and others confirm this. On the other hand, I now know not to expect anything remotely faithful to Tolkien, and still have good reason to expect Lee Pace’s Thranduil to be amazing. Some other reviews have indicated that the pacing — one of the first film’s major flaws — is much sharper this time around, and that the action and drama are more effective. These give me hope for an enjoyable experience, if one that is divorced from my book experience.

Or maybe the purist in me will get all mad regardless of what I already know. We shall see, my friends, we shall see.