Susan Pevensie: Always a Queen of Narnia?

This month LHP is highlighting some of our readers’ favorite previous posts from our authors.  We hope you enjoy them!

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Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a picture of Susan that ISN’T Anna Popplewell?

When we think of The Chronicles of Narnia, Susan is not, perhaps, the first character that comes to mind.  She is robust and relatively well developed, but she also seems to be more of a supporting character.  After all, it is Lucy who leads the children into Narnia and seems to form the strongest bond with Aslan.  Edmund is the traitor redeemed, and Peter becomes the High King.  Susan’s most unique aspect is also one of the most controversial points of The Chronicles:  She is the only one of the four Pevensie children to fall away and not make it into Aslan’s country at the end of The Last Battle.  This has upset a couple of generations of readers now, and it has led to charges of sexism against her creator, C. S. Lewis.  For many people, Susan’s fall is one of the worst points of the books; it bothers them enough that they can’t let it go.  Fortunately, there is much more to Susan and her situation than what her critics imply.

As early as Prince Caspian, we see hints of something happening to Su.  When Lucy sees Aslan, Susan knows in her heart of hearts that she is telling the truth.  She refuses to admit it, even to herself, and later feels horribly guilty about it.  At the end of the book, Susan and Peter are returned to our world where they are expected to grow up and apply all of the lessons learned in Narnia.  By the time we meet them again in The Last Battle, their paths have diverged dramatically.

When the group meets inside the stable, in Aslan’s country, Susan is notably absent.  When that fact is brought up, Susan is described as “no longer a friend of Narnia.”  Jill notes that she pays attention to “nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.  She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”  Su has even gone so far as to deny Narnia’s very existence:  “Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.”  As such, she isn’t on the train when the wreck occurs, and she isn’t granted entrance into Aslan’s country at that point. [1]

This subplot has provoked (and continues to provoke) howls of outrage.  J. K. Rowling made the comment to Time magazine that “There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that.” [2]  Phillip Pullman, who constructed an atheistic fantasy series that has been described as sort of the “anti-Narnia,” stated that,

In other words, Susan, like Cinderella, is undergoing a transition from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn’t approve of that. He didn’t like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up. Susan, who did want to grow up, and who might have been the most interesting character in the whole cycle if she’d been allowed to, is a Cinderella in a story where the Ugly Sisters win.[3]

I would argue that Rowling and Pullman have misrepresented Lewis’s point entirely.  In fact, they may well have done so for the simple reason that they “got” it all too well.  Lewis is making a comment so pointed that it has made millions of people uncomfortable, which is something we aren’t used to seeing in Narnia.  It seems to come out of the proverbial blue, and people simply react to it with hostility rather than really trying to understand it. [4]

What the book is trying to say is that sex and the emergence of femininity aren’t sufficient ends in and of themselves.  Su isn’t kept out of Narnia because she discovered sex, she is kept out because she idolized it to the point that all other things–including Aslan and Narnia itself–were placed in subjection to it.  Growing up became not simply a natural process of maturation, but rather a stylized, exclusive state of being that precluded everything else.  Worse, the idealized state of anything has no existence in reality. [5]  Susan was chasing moonshine, when the real world around her could offer her much more. Polly noted this when she remarked,

“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 the rest of her life trying to stay that age.  Her whole idea is to race to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”  [6]

Susan has not, in fact, grown up at all.  What she has done is take on an empty obsession, a false idealization of what being “grown-up” means, and that keeps her from experiencing life as a whole.  That obsession has led her away from Narnia, and not “lipstick” at all.  Lewis’s critics are mistaking a symptom for the disease.

None of this involves a denigration of women or  real, meaningful sex.  In fact, it is a very positive portrayal of a  broader, deeper form of femininity where the value of one’s soul isn’t determined by one’s social circle or sex appeal.  Those things have their places, but cannot be ends in and of themselves.

This is made doubly clear in Lewis’s depiction of Susan in The Horse and His Boy.  While far from perfect, she is shown to be completely confident in her own beauty and sexuality.  During the story, she is even considering marriage–which obviously implies an approval of sex.  So, it is clear that the Susan we see referenced in The Last Battle isn’t an inevitability; she could and in fact had taken another, better path before.

Very well, if I must. Not that she isn’t pretty cute…

Of course, much of that level of nuance is obviously lost on Lewis’s critics.  They simply see a criticism of modern conceptions of sex and maturity.  They assume that Lewis’s criticism must fit into a certain sort of mold and, if it doesn’t, they are determined to forcibly conform it to their strawman assumptions.

I think that is a normal, human reaction, by the way.  We all want to be told that “We’re OK.”  We all want to know that our wants, our desires are indeed good, right, and normal.   What Lewis is getting at is a philosophy that is directly antagonistic to modern definitions of feminism, especially its glorification of sex and female sexuality as an ultimate arbiter of meaning.  When that point is challenged, especially in a way that implies that there is something more, something greater, the reactions are naturally instinctual and visceral.  We don’t want to understand the details because, perhaps, the details may just prove us wrong. I can’t say I would necessarily respond differently were the tables turned on me– “There but for the grace of God go I!”

One final point:  Most of Lewis’s critics assign a finality to Susan’s position that simply isn’t justified.  Susan isn’t turned away at the door of the stable–she simply isn’t there when it was closed on Narnia.   There are other doors into Aslan’s country from many other worlds, including our own.  Susan did not die in the train wreck that sent the others into Aslan’s country.   As Lewis noted, “there is still plenty of time for her to mend, and perhaps she will get into Aslan’s country in the end–in her own way.” [7]

What’s more, since Lewis did not consider Narnia to be his own private domain–he regularly encouraged his younger correspondents to write Narnia stories of their own–perhaps the final word has yet to be written on Susan.  While I doubt the Lewis estate would tolerate the publication of such a story these days, perhaps someone who understands what really happened to Susan should write it nonetheless.  Lewis left the door open to Susan.  It is now up to our own imaginations–not his–to take her through it.

And so, “Further up and further in!”

 

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle, (New York:  Harper-trophy, 2004), 154.
[2] http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1083935,00.html
[3] http://www.crlamppost.org/darkside.htm
[4] Of course, applying Pullman’s own method to his own statements, I might ask why he himself is so biased against “ugly” women that he apparently objects to them “winning” on occasion.  In fact, I am quite disturbed by his use of bigoted visual stereotypes regarding facial structure and arbitrary gravitational measurement, when he should be celebrating the empowerment of a traditionally downtrodden and forgotten underclass.
[5] To illustrate this tendency, just think of Christmas Day (or some other event that you hold dear).  The time we are in never seems to be “as real” or “as perfect” as times past. Worse, our idealized memory often distracts us from our enjoyment of a perfectly good present.
[6] Lewis, The Last Battle, 2004.
[7]  Letter to Martin, 22 January 1957, Letters to Children, (New York:  Touchstone, 1995), 67.

https://lanternhollow.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/newrule5.gif?w=239&h=27&h=27

 

Listen Up, Readers! Emperor Palpatine and the Redemption of Milton

For the longest time, I could not stand to read two particular authors. Any time someone mentioned their names or quoted from them, I would shrug and roll my eyes. These writers are John Milton and C.S. Lewis.

The latter I couldn’t like on principle. I started disliking him in high school when I began reading the Harry Potter series, and a conservative Christian teacher recommended Lewis, not because he was a better writer than Rowling but because his Chronicles of Narnia are allegorical. Lewis wrote about the Christian story, don’t you see this? Later, I became tired of defending my love for children’s fantasy to Christians by using Lewis and Tolkien as the standards of good art that I gave up on these authors altogether. Other Christians have written wonderful works of literature. Why don’t we laud their merits? Writers like Augustine, Dante, Aquinas, Bunyan, Milton—

Oh, wait, Milton is the second guy I can’t stand. But I couldn’t like him on taste. I just never got into Milton. What’s so special about this guy? So, he wrote about the fall of man? Is this another Christian allegory or sermon masquerading as “good literature”? You could imagine my chagrin when I had to read Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost in grad school.

Then, I had to teach Milton to my high school students. I almost considered skipping him. But I had already neglected too many others, and my responsibility to these students dictated that I at least expose them to important authors, even if I did not like them.

We had excerpts of Paradise Lost in our textbook. A fellow teacher recommend my students read the selections aloud. I knew they would do better listening than trying to wade through the language, so I turned to YouTube for help.

And I found the greatest version of Paradise Lost ever. This rendition, slightly abridged in some places, was actually a BBC radio broadcast. The show had a main narrator and different actors to represent the characters. Oh, and Ian McDiarmid, the actor who plays the evil Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars fanchise, voices Satan. Very apt, no? I gained a new-found appreciation for Milton because of the experience. McDiarmid’s Satan was deliciously manipulative and appropriately conjured feelings a contempt and disgust for Milton’s main antagonist. The author’s genius with language also became more apparent as the narrator and actors read his epic with fluidity and clarity. My students also enjoyed the audio and stated they would not have understood the text if they had read it to themselves. I myself look forward to reading to the entire work in the future, if anything but to hear the slippery voice of McDiarmid.

Now, we’re studying The Screwtape Letters, and we are using audio. Joss Ackland is a enticing Screwtape. Most importantly, I have grown in my appreciation for Lewis. There are certainly aspects of Christianity and the war between Heaven and Hell for the souls of men that I have hereto never seen before. Now, I want to read — or listen — more, to add to my List of books works that not only broaden my love for literature but strengthen my faith. And I chuckle at the irony — to gain a new respect for two Christian authors I hated, all I did was listen to the devil.

Listen Up, Readers! That Little Voice Inside Your Head

O. B Hardison, Jr. in his article “On the Road Again with Recorded Books” regales his readers on his own experiences with audiobooks. Toward the beginning of the essay, he offers a few tips to readers about which books to listen to. One particular tip is noting the quality of the narrator:

“The narrators are usually pretty good, but there are rotten apples in every barrel. Also, people have different tastes in narrators. . . . It’s therefore a good idea to listen to a few minutes of any recorded book before putting it into the car. When you’re on the road with 250 miles before the next pit stop, you’re stuck with what you choose.”[1]

I couldn’t agree with Hardison more. Like a monotone lecture or overlong sermon can kill a class or church service, a poorly narrated audiobook can bludgeon an audio reading. Thus, stay away from recording labeled “free.” They have been recorded with voice creation software and tend to sound like Siri with a bad head cold.

Jim Dale
Jim Dale

The better books are professionally made and might cost you a little money (unless you get them from the library). The best narrator for any audiobook is Jim Dale. The British-born actor and comedian received wide acclaim and notoriety for his work on the Harry Potter audiobooks, released by Listening Library. Others might recognize him from the TV series Pushing Daisies. Anyone who has listened to these books or has watched the show know what I am talking about. Dale has a remarkable talent for voice characterizations. Though I didn’t imagine the voices he used for some of the characters when I read the series, he keeps the characters distinct and lively. The narrative stays well-paced and interesting. Dale never lets the story lull, and he creates excitement in his intonations during moments of suspense without sounding disingenuous. He certainly enriched my experience with both Harry Potter and audiobooks. As one of my classmates said once, if I had lived in a land of eternal darkness, I would take Jim Dale along to keep me company.

Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman

In addition to listening to Jim Dale, listening to two authors read their own books strengthened my love for literature and listening. If you have not heard Neil Gaiman read one of his books, you must listen to a copy right now! I started with The Graveyard Book, possibly one of favorite books. Next, I chose Coraline, another favorite. I have heard samplings of Neverwhere and Stardust, and just the brief experience has my ears itching to hear the rest. Gaiman’s amazing ability to write and narrate makes him a master storyteller. His narration has stuck in my mind and has influenced my writing. Not that I want Gaiman to read my stories, but listening to his stories has made me want to write stories that are best read aloud. I could use my students as guinea pigs into my endeavor, but I do not think I want to torture them with my feeble attempts at craftsmanship. I’ll let Gaiman be the master and I the amateur. It’s less stressful this way.

Madeleine l'Engle
Madeleine l’Engle

The second author is Madeleine L’Engle. I did not hear her read A Wrinkle in Time, but I have listened to read some of her other books and stories. L’Engle does not have the voice quality as Dale or Gaiman, but her stories are rich with vocabulary and scientific knowledge that L’Engle knows and tackles well. Further, L’Engle, like Gaiman, has the advantage of having written the stories she narrates. Thus, her narration and characterization are most original and familiar to her, and readers can know they are getting the best interpretation of the story. In fact, I have not heard too many authors reading their own works that I have not liked. Therefore, I can assuredly recommend selecting a work read by the author. I think the choice will not return unsatisfactory.

Narrators can certainly derail a audio experience. But like Hardison suggests, readers should find what fits their mood and taste. Like movie-goers would select a movie based on the actors or the director or the subject matter, so readers should look a little further into the book, the narrator, and perhaps the publishing company before listening. Once a reader has completed his listening experience, he can then add to The List of books that he can never seem to finish. But that’s okay. Maybe Jim Dale will narrate The List.

[1] Hardison, O. B. “On the Road Again with Recorded Books.” Washington Times Magazine, 1 Sept. 1986: M3-4.

Listen Up, Reader! Listening Is Receiving

It is a true universally acknowledged that a reader in possession of a book must be want of more books.

So says the Law of The List, the ever-growing selection of books we want to read but have no ability or hope to finish. One cannot simply pick up a copy of Jane Austen and have her appetite whetted for the whole canon, or find her curiosity picked into exploring other British authors of the nineteenth century. Suddenly, the reader finds herself with a budding List that will only expand with each book she reads. Hopeless? No, for most readers find joy in exploring stories though they know they can never get through them all. Daunting? Probably, unless you have a talent for speed reading.

I have no talent for speed reading. One of my chiefest impediments during my undergrad years was my inability to get things read in a timely manner. “You read so slowly,” a good friend would tease me. He could have most of his material completed before I even got through a quarter of my reading. But I process information slowly. I look at the words on a page, and it takes me longer to translate the words into a mental picture. It may take me an hour to read a small selection, but I have to read slowly to comprehend the material. So, I would find myself in a Catch-22: I could skim the reading and miss the meaning but get done faster, or I could take my time and receive the information but exhaust hours reading when I could be doing other things. And even a slow reading did not guarantee comprehension. Sometimes, I would read the text and still feel as lost as if I had scanned the selection. So, reading an entire chapter on the various methods of teaching English as a foreign language or perusing through Jane Eyre took me forever or left me puzzled and exhausted.

Speed Reading?
Speed Reading?

That’s one of the reasons I stuck to children’s literature. These books are amazing stories told in language I can easily access. I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in a day and the rest of the series in less than a month. My love for Harry Potter lead me to Tolkien, but I found his novels inaccessible. Years later, I turned to audiobooks to help me with enjoy Tolkien.

I never realized how amazing an author could be until someone else read him aloud. I had heard the Rob Inglis’s recording of The Lord of the Rings about four years ago, and I learned to appreciate Tolkien more because of the reader’s narration. I noticed Tolkien’s craftsmanship with description and characterization. I could actually picture Middle Earth’s sprawling country, high mountains, and dangerous forests. I fell in love with the characters, especially Sam Gamgee, Frodo’s bumbling but warm-hearted servant. I could imagine each one of them because of Inglis’s reading, though he tended to overlap the voices of the characters. Sometimes, I thought Gandalf was speaking, but it turned out to be Aragorn or Gimli. And did you know The Lord of the Rings was a musical? I noticed the songs before when I read the novels in high school, but Inglis actually put the songs to music, and I again gained a new-found appreciation for Tolkien’s talent for narrative and poetry.

audio_lotr_cd_bookontape_big

Recently, my high school seniors and I read The Hobbit for class. To get through the novel with some understanding, I purchased the audio recording of The Hobbit, also read by Inglis. Again, I listened with attention and walked away appreciating once again Tolkien’s gift for storytelling. I would play some parts of the story for class, and the students also found the audio helpful in imaging the scenes and capturing the dialogue. We would later listen to selections of BBC’s radio adaption of John Milton’s Paradise Lost and enjoyed readings of Romantic and Victorian authors. By listening to the selections, the students claimed they understood and enjoyed the works more than if they had read them normally.

For me, I still read but hearing a story helps me envision the content better. Listening doesn’t make reading any faster; it ensures I adequately comprehend the information. I wouldn’t be reading any faster than the narrator would anyway. But listening has made my exploration of my own List a little less daunting and more hopeful. And that is a truth I am willing to acknowledge.

bookheadphones
What audio recording helped inspire your love for literature or redeemed a book for you? Leave a comment and let me know!

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The Best of LHP – The Journey from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters: The Professors of Profundity

This post was previously published in June 2013. It was Part 3 in a series of posts on my journey through the Harry Potter series and the lessons the books have taught me.

Good morning, class

I have always enjoyed Rowling’s expansive world. She pulls from various myths, legends, and folktales to create her magical society. I have been thinking about the numerous authors that I have read after Harry Potter jump-started my affinity for reading children’s literature, and three authors stand out as writers who have had a personal impact on my own imagination. Basically, they have taught me everything I know….

Lloyd Alexander

BlackCauldron cvr

I read The Chronicles of Pyrdain at the suggestion of a friend. I completed the first book during February 2011 but was not able to continue the series until the following summer. I was not immediately hooked in the stories like I was Harry Potter, but Alexander is a craftsman of detail and diction, and his enchanting storytelling kept me wanting to continue the story of Taran and his companions. My favorite book of the series is The Black Cauldron, mainly because of its exploration of the conflict between personal glory and self-sacrifice. But what really enchanted me about Alexander is his use of Welsh mythology. From his books, I learned not to fear myth as inspiration, and I began to see the influence of myth on well-received authors like Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling.

Madeleine L’Engle

81IRUqMlS-L._SL1167_I read A Wrinkle in Time in April 2011. I think this book ranks as one of my all-time favorites, and I definitely will be writing more about this book in the future. L’Engle has a different approach to storytelling, as her language seems more accessible to children than Alexander. However, I loved how she combined fantasy, science, religion, and social issues into one mesmerizing story about a young girl who learns to love even if she is not loved back. As I read further works from L’Engle, I began to notice that she uses science frequently in her stories. One might say that science is a “mythology” to L’Engle, and she adapts various theories and statistics to move and shape her worlds.

I think I’m stumbling onto a theme here….

Neil Gaiman

Graveyard BookA conservative children’s literature teacher told me to read The Graveyard Book and see if I would hate it as much as she did. This teacher disliked anything fun (Rowling Gaiman) and stuck to “safe” books like Lewis, L’Engle, and Alexander. Well, reading the book had the opposite effect. It freaked me out a bit (definitely not a book for little eyes), but I could not stop thinking about the story, the characters, and the genius of Gaiman. Really, if you want some good storytelling, pick up an audio recording of Gaiman’s books (make sure it’s read by the author himself) and witness the wonder of his craft. When doing research for a presentation on Gaiman, I found this video about his thoughts on creating the book. It all began with him watching his two-year-old son ride his tricycle around a graveyard. He then began to think of a story with a similar structure to Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and he developed probably one of the most imaginative (and ghoulish) worlds I have ever read. However, Gaiman said he borrowed heavily from Norse, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mythology to create his universe. He said, however, you have to own the myth–make it yours.

Class Dismissed

Beauty and the Beast: my favorite fairy tale. Perhaps I'll do something with it in the future.
Beauty and the Beast: my favorite fairy tale. Perhaps I’ll do something with it in the future.

So, what did I learn from my favorite authors? First, for many of them, it all began with a picture: for Lewis, a faun carrying parcels and an umbrella through the snow; for Gaiman, watching his son play in a graveyard; for Rowling, a be-speckled boy appeared to her in a metro. Second, almost all of them use myth, or life experience, or observations of their world. Essentially, by taking myth and making it their own, they can create dazzling worlds to fix the characters and action. Thus, the stress of creating something original is gone. Just tell a story, even if it has been told before–only strive to improve it. If anything, you will at least see the mythology you have adopted mold and shape into something unique–something that is yours