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

 

The Christmas Story: The King is on the Move

Merry Christmas to everyone from us at Lantern Hollow Press!

Today is a day of traditions in which each of us with our families and friends celebrate this day in whatever way we love most.  In my experience, Christmas is the cheeriest of holidays, and the undercurrent of joy (be it from the presents or, one hopes, from a much deeper source) lends such a lovely atmosphere to the festivities.

I’m a huge fan of traditions.  The familiarity and camaraderie of taking part in a family tradition is part of what makes the holiday so special.  My family normally enjoys a spread of specially made Christmas cookies on Christmas Eve while traditional carols play.  We often watch a Christmas movie or two before going to bed.  Most people seem to have a favorite Christmas film or book.  Often it’s a funny one; sometimes it’s a sweet one; other times it’s a solemn one.  My family swings pretty far in both directions.  We might watch The Grinch or we might watch The Nativity.  It depends on the mood, really.  My friend and I have a tradition of watching the strange and fantastic Hogfather, which involves Death taking over for the Santa figure when he goes missing.  It’s… much more festive than it sounds.

I have to say, though, that my favorite Christmas story and film of late has been The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Perhaps this is somewhat unconventional.  To me, though, it is the perfect Christmas book and movie, and not just because of my slightly obsessive fixation with the idea of finding a magical land in the back of my wardrobe (although I haven’t given up on that just yet).

winter lamp post narniaAnyone who has read the book or seen the film knows that there are some obvious associations with Christmas that can be made in this story. The children stumble through a wardrobe’s back into a winter wonderland.  Later on in the story, they meet Father Christmas himself and receive gifts.  It has a Christmasy feeling to it for a good portion of the story. As the story goes on, though, the snow melts, the lion appears, and we see an enactment of the Easter story.  So is this more a Christmas story or an Easter one?

As far as I am concerned, they are the same story.  The Advent heralds the arrival of Christ, our Saviour.  His coming is defined not just as the Incarnation of God in Man, but as a mission of salvation.  The Easter story is tied to the Advent and when we celebrate Christmas, we are celebrating them both.

And so, to me, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the perfect Christmas story.  It reflects Christ’s coming in its entirety, the celebration of His arrival along with the powerful and ultimate sacrifice that He makes on our behalf.  It is all wrapped into one great tale.

aslan narnia snow winter
Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.

When we celebrate Christmas, we are often struck by the profound mystery of Christ born as an infant.  An infinite God is contained in the most helpless of human forms.  This is something that Lewis’s first Narnia book lacks.  Aslan comes as a great and majestic lion, fully grown, a mighty and terrifying presence ready for battle against the enemy.  This is not the babe in the manger that we so often see in nativity scenes.

Despite this, or even because of it, Aslan is still a powerful representation of the coming of Christ because the great lion represents the drama and awe of the Incarnation rather than its literal enactment. We see in the lion what the Advent means: the King has come. Just as Christ’s coming was prophesied for centuries, when whispers of Aslan’s arrival begin to spread, there is a breathless tremble of fear and joy.  His return heralds salvation. He comes to ransom a captive nation who longingly awaits his arrival.

This is so wonderfully carried out in Lewis’s book through the imagery of winter’s spell breaking before the lion.  Aslan is on the move.  The world itself is reborn before him in a beautiful portrayal of redemption.  His presence has a massive impact from the moment that he comes.  This reflects the infinitely more lovely and awesome arrival of Christ, even as an infant, and what that means for our fallen world.  Nothing less than a heavenly choir celebrated His coming and while His surroundings were lowly and simple, there is nothing simple or lowly about the Incarnate Word moving within time and space.  G.K. Chesterton’s poem Gloria in Profundis focuses on this mighty “fall” of God to earth, how He lowers Himself and through that lowering, demonstrates His power all the more.

There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land

stock-footage-seamless-loop-features-the-bethlehem-christmas-nativity-star-with-hundreds-of-twinkling-stars-in-aAt Bethlehem, the angels sang “good will to those on whom His favor rests.”  We who love Christ know that while He is not “safe”, He is “good,” and so if we are on His side, His coming is not a source of terror, but awe.  His enemies have no such comfort.  They know that the Lion is neither safe nor tame and His coming is something to fear. The lion Aslan so effectively represents what Christ’s coming means because he is shown as someone to be both feared and loved.  He is so utterly gentle and loving toward the children, even Edmund (or perhaps especially Edmund), but it is impossible to forget that this is a lion and a king and even the White Witch trembled before him.

When Aslan moved, the children in Narnia saw snow melting and flowers blooming; the witch saw her impending destruction.

When Christ was born, the shepherds heard angels sing and a baby cry; the devil heard a lion’s roar.

Sometimes we forget how unbearably awesome this story is that we are celebrating at Christmas.  Lucy says in The Last Battle that “a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.” How do we even begin to comprehend this?  This is a story worth telling a thousand times over in a thousand different ways, a story of evil and hopelessness and the quiet and glorious coming of light, a story in which a hero’s sacrifice saves millions.  As ever-aspiring subcreators, we try to tell this story over and over again without ever coming close to doing it justice.  C.S. Lewis’s retelling is a fantasy and it is not meant to be a straightforward allegory, but it captures the essence of what makes the Advent extraordinary — the coming of a King, who is limitless in being and might, into the lowliest and most limiting of circumstances in order to fight a battle for us that we could never hope to win.  And win, He did.

Glory to God in the Lowest
The spout of the stars in spate-
Where thunderbolt thinks to be slowest
And the lightning fears to be late:
As men dive for sunken gem
Pursuing, we hunt and hound it,
The fallen star has found it
In the cavern of Bethlehem.

~ G.K. Chesterton

Sprintummer: How Much We Rely on The Shake of His Mane

Springtime in Virginia!
Springtime in Virginia!

Virginia has endured some incredible, bizarre, and unpredictable weather over the last couple of months.  I have dubbed it The Year of the Sprintummer.  Just as the last of the cold, wet stuff had seeped into the cool earth and the trees had begun to unfurl the first timid buds, the clouds discovered that they had previously unnoticed reservoirs of ice and snow yet to dump on us; the winds, which were becoming almost zephyrous devolved once again into arctic blasts; and the wretched flora (as well as a few unfortunate Virginians like myself) became crystallized in the onslaught.

Long-suffering, we walk shivering in snow or sleet or freezing winds and think that we cannot even remember what this magical thing called warm feels like.  And then, somewhere between a chilly sunset and a gentle sunrise, the weather has changed.  Suddenly, it is warm.  No, it is hot and we are buying ice creams and frolicking in meadows wearing sandals and listening to birds singing and frogs chirring and flowers blossoming.  Yes, you can practically hear the flowers shaking off the cold and spreading their petals once more.

And then you hear them start to wilt as the blazing heat threatens to finish what last week’s chill began.  Flowers can never catch a break.

Sprintummer: when summer and winter engage in a war for supremacy in the middle of spring.

And all we wanted was to be able to go outside without mittens.

flowers in the woodsI think the most frustrating thing about this confusing season is that we are missing the magic of spring.  There is something supremely and subtly dramatic in the casting off of winter and the coming of the new season.  It isn’t supposed to happen all at once and skip straight to summer.  Winter is not supposed to regain its hold all of a sudden.  The perfect spring is a slow progression of cold to cool to mild to warm.  It is a beautiful shift from whites and grays to greens and violets and yellows and pinks.flowering tree old building

What we really want is to see the world resurrect in slow motion, a little bit more every time we wake up, until it has become truly alive again.  The profound change from death to life has been translated into many myths.  Unfortunate Persephone’s forced marriage with Hades sends her down into “death” and back into “life” in an eternal cycle that manifests in the changing of the seasons.

But the more appropriate story, of course, is the coming of Aslan:

Wrong will be right, when Aslan shows his might,

At the sounds of his roar, sorrows will be no more

When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death

And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again. (The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe)

springtime in paris
Springtime in Paris

I suppose in Narnia, after that hundred year winter, they deserved the speedily delivered spring.  But it was spring, not summer, not Sprintummer.  It was spring.  We look at the world being renewed and we see life after death: the bare bones of “dead” trees become verdant and green and the hard, brown earth erupts with colors.  If you live somewhere with four seasons, perhaps you share this sense that spring is special.  It promises relief, beauty, and pleasure.

It also represents the end of a very great and dreadful Winter two thousand years ago;  and it promises us a final, glorious spring when the Lion will move with infinite power and shake His mane once more on the winter of this world.

So, in conclusion, there is something seriously wrong with this whole Sprintummer thing.  Aslan would not approve.

Vienna in the spring
Vienna in the spring

Meditations with C. S. Lewis: Owning up to who I am

C. S. Lewis, best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was also one of the most profound thinkers of twentieth century Christianity.  Along with J. R. R. Tolkien, he has inspired millions of people, include all of the authors at Lantern Hollow Press.  On Sundays we would like to take a moment to offer up a little Lewis for your consideration.

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“Oh–oh–oh!” sobbed Mr. Tumnus, I’m crying because I’m such a bad Faun.”

“I don’t think you’re a bad Faun at all,” said Lucy.  I think you are a very good Faun.  You are the nicest Faun I’ve ever met.”

“Oh–oh–you wouldn’t say that if you knew,” replied Mr. Tumnus between his sobs.  No I’m a bad Faun.  I don’t suppose there was ever a worse Faun since the beginning of the world.”

–The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

I don’t know if you’ve ever read this passage and really given thought to how out of place the very idea of it is in today’s popular culture.  Mr. Tumnus has just run flat into the reality of who he is and the moral implications of what he was at that moment trying to do to Lucy.  Why do I call it “out of place”? For the simple reason that Tumnus was willing to grasp the full meaning of his actions, and let himself be affected by them.  He was willing to take responsibility for what he had done and admit he was wrong. That is becoming a rare thing in a world where we are more inclined to coddle sin and explain it away than to own up to it.

Perhaps it is because I’ve spent the last ten years of my life wrapped up in higher education that this seems to be especially evident to me.  I’ve been dealing with the generation (not so far removed from my own) where “everyone gets a trophy” and the idea of “promoting self-esteem” was paramount in school.  Since I began teaching in the summer of 2001, I’ve seen a notable change in the attitudes of students, and I think that change is but a reflection of a much larger societal trend:  It’s never “my” fault!    The problem is that self-esteem, at least as defined by our culture, rarely survives its first real encounter with truth.

People today seem loathe to admit that anything bad that happens to them could ever be of their own doing.  To a large extent, that tendency has been around for a very long time; dogs have been eating homework for many years now.  What seems to be different now  is that society as a whole previously condemned the idea and part of the educational process was designed to press those sorts of sentiments out of students.  In the last few decades, the system as a whole seems not only to accept that behavior but to promote it.

This is one reason why Christianity is facing increasing opposition in a culture where no one can ever suggest that anyone else is ever wrong about anything.  The central point underlying the idea of the crucifixion and resurrection is that human beings are, in fact, mortally flawed and therefore in need of salvation.  In fact, many of us are patently evil.  I must be brought to the point where I can admit that there is something wrong with me before Christ’s sacrifice can actually be appreciated.  Before then, it simply makes no sense.*

Our inability to admit error is sad, and not only in a spiritual sense, because all education truly begins with the admission of weakness and ignorance.  I seek out education because there is something that I do not know–some of the answers I think I already have might be disproved by the introduction of new information.  If I don’t think that is so, why should I make an effort to learn anything at all?  That is one reason why, for so many students in all stages of education, the process has become pointless and trite.  It is something to resent, since it distracts them from more important things.  After all, it is impossible to teach a customer, once the customer realizes that he/she is always right!

And that brings us back to the very inspiring–and frightening–example of Mr. Tumnus.  He reacted as only an honest Faun could to what he realized he had become.  While he may have seemed weak to some today, it takes a very powerful personality to realize the depth of his own depravity and ignorance and not turn away from it in denial.  We must do the same, even if it hurts, and encourage others to follow us.  We may not like what we see in the short run, but it is our only hope if we wish to avoid falling prey to laughable delusions of self-grandeur.

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*I would argue, though, that many of the vociferous denials we see in popular culture of the idea of sin really mask a deeper psychosis.  People are innately conscious of their sins, and they feel weight of them.  I know I do mine.  That is why we are so quick to denounce them and the people who remind us of their reality.  If we ignore them, perhaps they will go away!

Click here for the entire run of “Meditations with C. S. Lewis” so far.

Following C.S. Lewis’s Footsteps in Belfast

As one of the sad Americans at the Uni of Edinburgh unable to return home for the holidays, I was invited to spend the week before Christmas in Northern Ireland with a friend and her family.  This fortunate friend had the great privilege of driving me around the countryside and into Belfast so that I could go a bit camera crazy as I saw the sites.  I had a glorious time.  I can only hope the friend was not completely exhausted in the process.

As much as I love castles, one of my chief desires in seeing Northern Ireland was to hunt down some of the places that are related to our dear old friend C.S. Lewis.  There are quite a few, though they are not well advertised, promoted, or easy to find.

My intrepid friend and I found every single one we set out to discover.  I know.  We are amazing explorers.

If you want to know what Lewis-related wonders Belfast has to offer, here are the places we found:

Little Lea:

Lewis grew up in a house called Little Lea in a neighborhood near Belfast.  This is where he first began to test the outer bounds of imagination and create new worlds.  The house is still there, and is lived in – a private residence.  This, unfortunately, means, that it cannot be visited.  Isn’t it wonderful to think of living in the house where Lewis lived?

Campbell College and the Lamp Post:

For a brief period in 1910, Lewis attended a school called Campbell College, not far from Little Lea. He left due to an illness.  In this impressive school’s drive, there is a certain gas lamp post.  The college claims that this is the lamp post that Lewis drew his inspiration from for the first Narnia book.  However, there is another that I did not see in Crawfordsburn Park that might have been the inspiration.

The Searcher:

While it’s a relatively new monument to Lewis, and not in any sort of location relevant to him, I still enjoyed looking at the statue of The Searcher.  This sculpture features Digory Kirke peering into the wardrobe.  On the back of the wardrobe is the head of a lion and a letter that Lewis wrote to a young girl named Anne Jenkins explaining the death and resurrection of Aslan, tying it directly to Christ.  Interesting fact: Anne Jenkins, all grown up, attended the unveiling of the sculpture, which was completed in time for the centenary celebration of Lewis’s birth in 1998.

It was a good day in Belfast leading up to Christmas, but my search for Lewis-related sites in Northern Ireland wasn’t finished.  The following day, I went and saw another.  But that will be for tomorrow’s postt.

The lamp post on the drive to Campbell College. It's very old and a bit sad looking. If only they would light it up again.