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.

The Journey from Platform Nine and Three Quarters: Practical Magic

harry-potter-platform

Well, this is the last stop, but the journey can still go on.

As I have said in my previous posts, Harry Potter made a reader out of me. But if you are like me, you were probably left wondering what to do after you completed the series, especially if Harry made your children or your students readers. As an educator, here are three helpful tips on how make the most out of your Harry Potter perusal with your children, your students, or with fellow bookworms.

Tip One: Explore New Genres

When I said new genres . .  .
When I said new genres . . .

One interesting thing about the Harry Potter series is its genre. Obviously, the series falls under children’s fantasy, but Rowling uses a cauldron full of genres to create her characters, plot, and world. John Granger, the HogwartsProfessor, has written several books and keeps a website on the cultural influence of Harry Potter. One of his books is Harry Potter’s Bookshelf, a must read for any Potter fan. In this book, Granger breaks down the numerous authors, motifs, and genres that impact Rowling’s series. Examples of influences include Jane Austen’s use of misdirection, the Dickensian orphan, and the detective novel. Basically, if you loved the series, grab Granger’s book and see what other stories exist to satisfy your now whetted appetite for reading. As a school project idea, have your students read one of the “influences” referred to by Granger, and have them report on the story and how that story might have influenced Rowling. Hopefully, you will see your students open up to the vast world of literature beyond the gates of Hogwarts while still connecting to their favorite boy wizard.

Tip Two: Write a Story

Once upon a time at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry . . .
Once upon a time at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry . . .

Probably just a popular as the Harry Potter series itself is the fan fiction. Here fans of the series get a chance to write their own Hogwarts adventures using the characters they love so much. Fan fiction is an excellent idea to introduce children and students to creative writing. With fan fiction, readers already know the basic character and plot structure of the novels to serve as a springboard, but they get to expand the universe on their own. (I’m thinking about writing a story based on Starbuck and Leoben Conoy’s relationship in Battlestar Galactica and give their story the proper closure it deserves.) You could have your students create a story about Seamus Finnegan’s adventures in pyrotechnics, chronicle Luna Lovegood’s first four years at Hogwarts, or report Hagrid’s numerous attempts to woo Madame Maxine. I mean, the crazy antics of the Marauders and the Weasley Twins are enough to go on. Have your students read their stories to class, and you can always have them post it online. This strategy allows them to explore a new craft with the characters from the series.

Tip Three: Learn about Literary Criticism

What I have to do to my students sometimes . . . and what my professors probably thought of me.
Don’t you just love teachers?

When I entered grad school, I was wary of literary criticism. Now, I believe it’s a useful tool if handed correctly. The problem with some theories is they tend to be more about an agenda, and they write off good works of literature because they do not fit their standards (I’m looking at you Marxist, feminist, and post-colonial theories). However, even these theories can help us by providing a framework for our criticism and definitions for terms we need to know. Because of its cultural impact, the Harry Potter series has been examined by almost every possible theory out there. A good place to start is Harry Potter and Philosophy (covers first five books), The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy (covers all books), Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter, and Harry Potter and the Ivory Tower. As a teaching idea, assign each student a literary theory and have him or her reread one of the books with that framework. However, be warned: literary theory sometimes goes over the heads of experts sometimes, so don’t be discouraged if your students do not “get it.” If anything, you are showing them how the literary world of Harry coincides with our own and how literary theory will teach them something new and delightful about the series. 

I hope these new tips give you an idea about what to do with the series after completion. If anything, you could always reread the novels. . . .

The Journey from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters: Choices and Abilities

I don’t know about you, but I just love quotes. One of the joys I get from reading is finding the line in the entire book that sums up the theme, plot, character development, or moral tone.

The best wisdom in the world comes from good teachers.
The best wisdom in the world comes from good teachers.

In the second book of the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore tells Harry, “It is our choices, . . . that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” I really enjoy this line, and I think this probably one of the most important quotes in the series. Although I believe our desires and our intentions probably best show us for who we are, the ultimate measure of our hearts is our choices and actions. And Harry illustrates this maxim in the series. 

However, Harry does not always make the best choices. He breaks rules and lies to his teachers, many of whom wink at Harry’s flagrant defiance of school order. Indeed, Dumbledore utters the above quote after reminding the young wizard of the latter’s deliberate, though noble, disregard for school rules, an offense deserving expulsion. Instead, the headmaster rewards the boy rather than punish him. This seeming blind-eye toward law and order is one of the two reasons why some conservative critics seem to hate the series. To them, it is as if the presence of magic is bad enough, but Harry totally ignores the legal structure of his institution and society without proper punishment, even if he has to break rules to rescue the school or his friends. Such a philosophy is dangerous for child readers, and therefore the books should be banned.

Yes, I admit that Harry breaks rules without any regard for authority; his penchant for disobedience and lying bothers me. But he does eventually get into trouble and is subsequently punished, sometimes with repentance and remorse on Harry’s part. More importantly, the books address a hard question that even many conservatives find difficult to answer: should we obey authority when it violates our conscience and values?

Throughout the series, Harry many times breaks rules because because the school or his friends are in danger. Essentially, he cares more for the lives of his classmates and friends to risk expulsion and death to save them. In the first book, he tells his friends that he would rather be expelled than allow Voldemort retrieve the Philosopher’s Stone. In the second book, he rescues Ginny from the Heir of Slytherin under the same premonitions. And he almost dies in both attempts. This trend continues throughout the series, and Harry finally as to make his most difficult decision at the end of book seven.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. tells his audience of clergymen that he is in prison because he conducted an illegal demonstration against laws he believed to be unjust. Yet, King never admits that he does not deserve his incarceration. In fact, he welcomes it, stating he felt compelled to break unjust laws even if doing so would lead to his imprisonment. Now, Hogwart’s school rules are not unjust, but Harry clearly understands the consequences of his actions if he violates them. He, like King, feels compelled to break rules because a higher value at risk—the integrity of his school and the lives of his friends. However, his acknowledgment of the consequences themselves reveal his moral compass and his consideration of the importance of rules.

It’s amazing how a simple hat led to such an identity crisis.

So, the books actually accomplish a difficult balancing act: they illustrate the importance of upholding and obeying law and order and show us that we might one day have to, in the words of Dumbledore again, “make a choice between what is right and what is easy.” Harry knows the difference, and he asks the Sorting Hat not to place him in Slytherin House. Salazar Slytherin and Tom Riddle would have broken rules for their own gain, and many students in Slytherin, including Draco Malfoy, would walk over anyone to achieve their ends. But Harry embraces “bravery and friendship” (Another quote! This time from Hermione!) and acknowledges the consequences of his choices. His decision to refuse the Hat’s recommendation shows us more about his character than his ability in magic could ever tell us. 

The Journey from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters: Just a Little Bit of Magic

 -- How I feel about writing pretty much every day.
How I feel about writing pretty much every day.

Someone once told me if you have nowhere to go when you write, just tell your story.

So here’s mine. 

I finally checked my student inbox for the first time since I graduated almost one month ago. One of the emails referred to my master’s thesis and the number of downloads it has received since publishing. I’m not sure what a good average looks like but I was pleased at the number of downloads so far. I guess this is what happens when you write your thesis on Harry Potter.

Here at Lantern Hollow Press, many of the staff have areas of “expertise” to help you, our readers, navigate the nuances of fantasy, science fiction, and literature. I was not really sure of my area until Rachel reminded me of my recently-earned degree and my love for children’s literature and education. In fact, my topic of Harry Potter came from this love of children’s literature. Of course, this decision to commit one year’s research and writing on this topic must have started somewhere, and this month I will tell my story, my journey from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters.

I read the first four books during the fall of 2002. I grew up in overly conservative Christian circles and heard the sermons and messages of the evils of Pokemon, Star Trek, and Harry Potter. In the summer of 2002, I watched the first film with my father, a person also reluctant to read the series, though I feel like my father’s reluctance stemmed from artistic skepticism rather than religious. After the film, my father and I had several discussions about what we saw that was anti-Christian or evil about the series: nothing. Though my father pointed out Harry’s penchant for lying and breaking rules (a topic I will address in a later post), we found absolutely nothing wrong with the film and wondered if the books were the same.

Months later, a family friend gave the first four books to me and my father to read, singing nothing but praises for the books (and he was a very conservative man). I went into the series nervous about the contents. What would I find? Were the sermons true? Is there evil, demonic witchcraft in the series? Does it openly mock God? What did the movie leave out?

 -- "Hey, Hermione, have you read this book? It's great!"
“Hey, have you read this book? It’s great!”

I read the first book in a day.

I. Loved. It. 

Again, I came to the same conclusion about the book as I had done the movie: nothing, absolutely nothing was wrong, evil, demonic anti-Christian, and anti-God about this series. Instead of atheistic or occultist philosophy, I discovered that Harry and his friends loved each other and sacrificed for each other. As mentioned above, some of the characters are morally ambiguous, but there is a clear distinction between good and evil. 

I devoured the others shortly after reading the first book. I was hooked, obsessed. I took the third book to my church’s revival survives and hid it in my Bible case. I brought the fourth book to my relatives’ 50th wedding anniversary, hiding it under a table until my father made me put it away and actually talk to people. I relished the magic, mystery, and adventure of the series. It, like so many other people, had made me an avid reader. . . of children’s literature.

To tell you the truth, I hate to read. I am easily distracted, and I find no pleasure in sitting still. (Ironically, I love to watch, study, and critique films–probably my true area of expertise.) Yet, children’s books hold me, and it all started with Harry Potter. Whether or not they are fantasy, children’s books enchant me. I care for the characters, their lives, and their wants and desires. Their protagonists are no different than you or I–they’re only smaller and probably experiencing their struggles for the first time in their lives. And to me, they all really have a little bit of magic in them.

Reading: Just a bit of magic
Reading: Just a little bit of magic