The Problem with Susan

Pleading the case of innocence, lipstick, and the "damned" Queen of Narnia

A/N: Please understand that the following essay is a collection of my thoughts based on research of Susan and her role in Narnia. I have taken a strictly canonical view of the books, and have not brought in any Christian views or opinions on spirituality (other than the spiritual connection between Aslan and the other characters). I feel that for the purposes of this essay, relating Susan's part of the story with any religious views of redemption and faith is a different conversation.

I will never forget reading the end of The Last Battle. I was nine years old. After borrowing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe from the library, I immediately begged my parents to buy me the entire set. I eagerly devoured each volume, even the strange story of the last book. But then I read those words which would confuse me for years and years to come: "Our sister Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia" (TLB, p. 134).

I can remember how my heart sank, how my eyes grew wide, and how I cried for her. When I was a child, Susan was my favorite character in the series. I identified the most with her. I am the oldest in my family, and used to mothering my younger siblings. I was a "girly girl", and loved the idea of the beautiful queen sought by all of the handsome princes and kings. Her journey to and escape from Tashbaan was thrilling and exciting. Susan was much more like me than her more tomboyish sister Lucy.

But how could this happen? How could Susan just turn her back on them? How could they just leave her behind? I did not accept the idea that she forgot. How could anyone just forget being the queen of anything? I was hurt, and avoided rereading TLB again for a very long time. I packed the series away in a box when I moved away to college, and was happily surprised to find the same box set from so long ago when I moved into my first apartment with my husband years later. (I still have that same set—with the yellow covers!)

I reread the series. This was years before the movie was made, so I knew very few people who had actually read all of the books. And once again, I was stymied by Susan's fate, and no one with whom to discuss the disaster. Convinced that she had been kicked out of Narnia by an unforgiving Aslan, I started researching what I could find out about her, and read a lot of opinions and criticism of the way it ended.

I couldn't find an answer that satisfied me. I wrote Beginning to Forget, my own fanfic piece, to try to give myself an answer. Then I realized what I was doing was all wrong: I was asking the wrong question. I cannot ask why she started to favor nylons and lipstick and invitations over Narnia. No one will know! No one can say for sure if she forgot all about it, or if she just pretended, or if she was hurt or angry or just silly and stupid. That is left up to the individual to decide, and a great topic to explore by writers.

The question I should be asking is how. How did it happen that she was not there, to go further up and further in with the rest? The answer is easy: she was not on the train, or on the platform. She was not in the train accident. Once I realized the simplicity of this answer, a lot of the hurt feelings and anger were gone. Susan was not banished from Narnia as some sort of punishment. She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time (or the right place, depending on how you look at it). Of course, if she had remained a Friend of Narnia like the others, she would have been on that platform, waiting with Lucy. But their parents were there, and they were never a part of Narnia. Neither were the other victims. Aslan used the accident to bring them to Narnia. He did not cause it.

There are many critics out there who still say that Susan was damned for reaching puberty (Phillip Pullman the most well-known), and that the "nylons and lipstick and invitations" line is a metaphor for her sexuality. But I do not buy that at all. Why would she be punished for something that is a part of life? People do not choose to go through puberty and become adults. Can anyone say that Peter was still a child in TLB? Or Edmund? You could infer that Susan ran around with lots of different men, but that would still only be an assumption. Besides, wasn't Susan even more sexualized in The Horse and His Boy? She had been seduced by a charismatic, handsome, and powerful prince, and was about to marry him. She was so blinded by her infatuation that she did not realize until the last minute what a heartless and pompous jerk he was, something that everyone else could see right away.

If Susan wasn't punished then for her overactive hormones, why would she be punished for them now? To me, the problem is not with her sexuality, but with her priorities. In this case, I am talking about her occupation with superficial things, instead of what was really important. Susan was too tied to the world. If Susan was too busy with lipstick and invitations, then she could not have been spending much time with her family. Note how Lewis describes it: "'Oh Susan!' said Jill, 'she's interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations.'" (TLB, p. 135, italics mine) Their closeness, for whatever it was worth, must have been long gone. Digory, Polly, Peter, Edmund, and Lucy had all stayed connected to each other and to Narnia because that was what was important to them. They had no regrets or sadness leaving England or their lives behind, because nothing was tying them there.

Imagine Susan's reaction—she would have been worried about breaking her date with this one, or not making that one's party! She focused on making herself beautiful and popular, part of being that "silly age" that Polly describes. Aslan told them to seek him in their own world, and she did not. But Aslan did not punish her for it. He doesn't even mention her in TLB! Aslan is dangerous and terrible, but we know he is good. He is not vengeful. Susan has made her choice. Her choice is, to us, the wrong one.

I now have to ask: could it be that we are wrong?

We knew already that Susan was disconnected from Narnia. The others had very deep relationships with Aslan, which is the whole reason for them wanting to return at all ("It isn't Narnia, you know," sobbed Lucy to Aslan. "It's you. We shan't meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?" Voyage of the Dawn Treader, p. 214). But did that hold true for Susan? She is the only one of the Pevensies (or Eustace and Jill, for that matter) to never have a one-on-one scene with Aslan. Based on what Lewis showed us, she may have a different connection to him than the others. Her behavior in Prince Caspian tells a lot about her. She is the last to see Aslan. When she does see him, Aslan tells her (and us) that she "listened to fears" (PC, p. 148). Did she listen to her fears again after the end of PC? He forgave her then. Or was denying Aslan in the end the only way she could "punish" him for not allowing her to return? When they first arrive on the beach, Susan is ready for an adventure, and they imagine what it will be like when the others find out they have returned. But when she finds the chess piece, the realization that everyone they knew is dead and gone becomes a reality. Narnia becomes a burden. It seems as though if she cannot have it under her terms, then she does not want it at all. And only Peter has anything to say about the conversation he and Susan have with the Lion.

As I read more and more about what others have to say about Susan, the general consensus is that life after the train accident was terrible. But was it? No one can really say. Losing your entire family in one stroke is an unimaginable thing for anyone to bear. But is it possible that there was also some relief that she did not ever have to think about Narnia again? I can relate. When a loved one who is terminally ill finally passes, there is pain and grief, but also relief that the suffering is over and that life can go on once again. For Susan, the constant reminders of what she had lost were finally gone. Should we condemn her for that?

With the others gone, she would never have to taste the bitterness that was present throughout PC. Lewis called her the "Gentle", and I always felt she was much more than that. But perhaps she was not. Maybe Susan was just much weaker than the others. She allowed herself to give in to temptation. The others went back to Narnia because they stayed true in their hearts, and never forgot why they were there. But when I think of Susan as a sympathetic character, I see that remaining true was just too hard for her. She used lipstick and invitations to fill the part that was, in her mind, gone forever. As readers and writers, we imagine that giving up Narnia would be the hardest thing of all. Perhaps it wasn't that hard for Susan—it may have even been a release, and persuading herself that it never happened was the way to save herself. Many of us think that we would have never given up on Aslan or Narnia, no matter how difficult it was. However, if any of us switched places with Susan, we might find ourselves taking the easier road.

Susan took her own path. The others do not understand her choices, and Polly and Jill seemed disgusted by it. I think that they never saw that her choices could lead back to Aslan and Narnia, just by a different road. Of the eight people who went to Narnia, seven took the shorter but more difficult way back. One took the easier, but longer way. Thinking of it this way, perhaps the others should have been more patient and understanding with her.

And now I must go back to that first truth—Susan did not return with them because she was not in the accident. Maybe they were the reason for her not being on that platform with them—she chose her own way, and because it was not the same as theirs, they rejected her. Susan is often portrayed in fan fiction as a shrew, angry at her siblings, and haughtily denying Narnia, only to finally repent when she loses everything. But what if Susan was simply filled with sadness and the only way to escape was to push those memories aside? Her character changes in this light. The rejection by her loved ones must have come as a heavy blow, with the final stroke knowing that she lost them in the end because of Narnia, the very source of her grief.

What happens to Susan afterwards? There is hope. Lewis told a young fan in a letter that he would like to think that she finds her way back one day. I believe this to be true. When you look at the dedication in LWW, Lewis tells his goddaughter Lucy Barfield that she's too old to enjoy fairytales, but that one day she'll be old enough to read it again. I think that Susan is the same way. She is too old for Narnia now, but one day, she'll be old enough to want it again. Susan will grow out of her fondness for nylons and lipstick and invitations, and want family and peace and happiness. When that happens, she just might start checking wardrobes again.

In the end, I do not feel that Susan is damned, punished for growing up and thrown out of Narnia by Aslan. He said, once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen. We all believe this must be true. And I hope that fan fiction writers will consider Susan as simply misunderstood, by her family and by us fans, and not as someone who made a bad choice and must suffer the consequences. Her choice may have been different, but it may not have been wrong.