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?

Book Meme 2012 Week 3: Magnificent Villainy


Topic: Which literary villain is the best?

 Even acknowledging the great diversity of ways a villain can be a good character, and the difficulty of finding a paragon of one such Way that can be judged higher than those of other Ways, the shortlist for this topic was easy to compile. The reason is simple: the best villains embody something that we instinctively realize as something we are Against, and thus the most powerfully-written or conceptualized baddies will become reference points for other evils we encounter, both in literature and real life. They are Memorable.

But different kinds of villain are Memorable for different reasons. The Golden Bookwyrm lays out three main criteria: slimeballness, cunning, and malicious intent. For Jubilare and Terpsichore, the best villains are the ones that are preeminently effective; perhaps so much that even after their defeat they retain a nightmarish power to influence people and invade a readers’ dreams. For Thalia and EmilyKazakh, the villain may not even think of himself or herself as evil, and may even masquerade as a member of the “good guy” team. For Urania, the best villain must be uniquely integral to the story’s plot and atmosphere; if you replaced him with another personality, the story would be fundamentally altered.

All these are common and excellent factors for making a villain great, but I think the most important is the one Urania mentioned – it must be impossible to imagine the story without them!

That doesn’t narrow my shortlist at all, though. I initially thought of Emperor Brandin, from Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, who is magnificently complex and terrifying, precisely because his evil does not prevent him from being wise and genuinely caring for his people. One of the scariest parts of the story is when our heroes realize that the conquered citizenry are beginning to love the brutal tyrant, and may not support a heroic rebellion, instead letting Brandin get away with a grievous psychological war crime. His charisma, both in the book and as it extends to the reader, is considerable. But he is not quite archetypal enough for this post.

Then I thought of Long John Silver from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (a review of which has been in the works for a few months now…*guilty cough*), whose literary greatness is proven by his continued popularity, but whose main weakness in this category is that he ends the story rather humiliated and ineffective, and wouldn’t stand much of a chance against any of the other villainous candidates. Not enough to stop him from being near the top of my list, but enough to give me an excuse for passing him over just now.

In fact, I nearly had to just copy Urania’s post, for when she chose Captain Hook, it seemed so blindingly obvious that for awhile I could contemplate no other choice. Dastardly villainous and always entertaining, Hook truly is an archetypal figure from children’s nightmares, who is perfectly suited to his story. After all, what would the world be like without Captain Hook?

Indeed, my final choice is one I consider to be Captain Hook’s equal in Magnificent Villainy. She haunts you and the protagonists long after her initial defeat, she can use subtle manipulation and brute force equally well, and she nearly wins by charisma alone. Yet what wins her this topic for me is how well she represents the nature and end of Sin.

She’s the White Witch from Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.

What else can I say about the White Witch, the self-proclaimed Queen of Narnia? She’ll wrap you in furs, serve you hot chocolate, and persuade you to betray your family to their deaths. She’ll nearly turn you to stone if you forget to call her “Your Majesty,” unless you have something she wants and don’t yet suspect her, whence she will abruptly act in a convincing manner both motherly and seductive – a disturbing combination when you realize it, but the danger is that many, like poor Edmund, don’t realize it until it’s too late. She even drove Father Christmas out of the world! Now that’s evil for you, folks.

Oh, and she also destroyed her entire homeworld by the uttering of a Deplorable Word, out of mere hatred for her sister. She would rather be queen of a murdered planet than live without power over others.

Her archetypal power comes from how well she embodies the nature of sin. Not only is it corrosive, hateful, and greedy, but it’s lonely, conniving, and desirous of appearing good. The White Witch looks attractive: her face is beautiful, her clothes stylish, her manner sometimes quite flattering and understanding. Her determination and strong charisma can be deceptively appealing even while you’re aware that she’s cold and cruel to her core. Yet one would be a fool to take her at her word, or to let themselves near her at all. She loves nothing, not even herself. She tries to salve her hatred with rebellion against everything good, against everything Aslan created. She wants to possess what she herself could not create.

Yet for all her rebellion and power, she is still bound by heavenly laws. She takes Aslan’s life in exchange for Edmund’s, but cannot prevent this from leading to Edmund’s salvation and Aslan’s resurrection. For all evil is but a cringing, pathetic thing in the light of the holy God. The White Witch, for however “cool” she seems when we read the books or watch the exciting movie adaptations, is really a desperate, dying, disgusting creature, incapable of anything good. She has lost from the beginning. It was written in the Deeper Magic by Emperor-Over-the-Sea Himself.

Book Meme Day 16: My Favorite Female Character


Returning to my two ways of defining favorite from Day 15, I find it difficult to think of female characters who would be strong favorites in either category. Not to say I haven’t read about many extraordinary, admirable, and attractive women in fiction, but simply that most of the characters that seem to get most of the author’s attention in my books seem to be male. I can think of many good female characters, but few that I got to know well enough to be considered a favorite. Even worse, many of these few are from books I have not read in years, meaning I rely on memories of memories in order to evaluate them. Still, who are the candidates?

I nearly chose Eilonwy, from The Prydain Chronicles of Lloyd Alexander. She is the best of the fiery redheads, pairing ravishing beauty with a tomboyish attitude, and she loves the sweetness in Taran, the poor pigherder who is too often frightened and confused by her wild temper and easily-offended pride. Eilonwy is endearing and hilarious, but I did not choose her.

I briefly contemplated Polgara from The Belgariad by David and Leigh Eddings. She is gorgeous for her 3000-some years, one of the most powerful sorceresses around, wants mostly a happy home life as a wife and mother but will literally eradicate anyone who harms those she loves, has some very strict morals, is a romantic for the big things and pragmatic for the little things, and is prone to destroying castle towers if you sneak out on a certain-death quest without her. Her wit, good humor, and motherly love are what make her so great, but still, I can’t say she speaks to me personally as a character.

Then there is Lúthien, who would win handily if she was given a detailed enough treatment by Tolkien. If.

I would have gone with one of these women had it not been for Melpomene’s Day 16 post, which came out early today. Her choice seems so clear upon reflection, and is argued persuasively enough, that I fear I can do little more than sign my name below hers, in agreement. I can’t add anything, at this point.

So. My choice for favorite (which includes most admirable) female character in fiction, at this point, is…

Lucy Pevensie, from The Chronicles of Narnia.

My reasons are the same as Melpomene’s. Read them here.