Opposition is true friendship, and on no subject are Kit and hapax more opposed than C.S. Lewis. Loved and hated, uplifting or corrupt depending on who you talk to, Lewis is a writer who is, if nothing else, always provokes strong feelings in his readers.
Here's how we come at Narnia:
hapax: I've always been fond of reading C.S. Lewis, although Narnia wasn't my first exposure to his works. I think that might have been The Screwtape Letters, or possibly Miracles (you have to understand, I was bored with Sunday School by the age of seven, so I used to wander out and sit in the church library and read). Lewis appealed to me principally because he had a knack of expressing complicated abstract ideas with clear and concrete images. Some were notably more successful than others; I was early impressed by his comparison of the Trinity to "personality cubed", for example, but his notorious "Trilemma" never struck me as persuasive or even particularly logical.
As I grew older, and more sensitive to his many many blind spots and prejudices (although the sexism irked me even as a young child), I came to think of him less as a reliable teacher than an entertaining and sympathetic fellow-traveller, who has interesting and amazing observations about the landscape, and some intriguing thoughts about the destination, but who is horribly unreliable about the roadblocks and detours. By this point, I read Lewis as much to challenge my instinctive agreement with many of his positions as to enlighten me about things I don't yet understand.
As far as Narnia goes, I probably read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and all the rest by the age of ten or so; they were undoubtedly considered perfect gifts for a solemn child with a "weird obsession" (in my family's perspective) with religion. I liked them well enough to re-read them several times, and don't ever recall not reading them as analogies for Christian doctrines. I was very well read (for an elementary school student) in world mythologies and religious traditions, and comfortable with allegorical story telling (I think I made up my own elaborate allegorical world at about the same time) so I never felt "deceived" or "preached at", the way many others report their experience.
But they were never my favorite stories, not even of Lewis's. I don't much care for "portal" fantasies (like Mary Poppins, I don't think that respectable persons ought to be popping in and out of chalk pavement pictures), so it's no surprise that the one I re-read most frequently was The Horse and His Boy; but the character I identified with most was Eustace. And that's related to one of the characteristics in Lewis's writing that I liked best: a clear-eyed, compassionate portrayal of a certain set of … well, "sins", for a want of a better word, that neither excused them nor denied the damage they did to self and others, yet still loving and hopeful of the long, frequently difficult, process of change. Indeed, I rather liked that about all the "real world" characters in the Narnia stories; while they were certainly changed by their encounters with Aslan and Narnia, they were also recognizably themselves, faults and all.
But honestly, I never cared much for the characters, or the story, or the world. What I returned to Narnia for, and took back with me, was a large number of powerful images and set-scenes: Edmund in the snow, stubbornly trudging towards the castle of the Witch. The feast at the end of Prince Caspian. Eustace turning into a dragon, and agonizing return to humanity. The horror of the Island of Dreams. Getting lost in the blizzard outside Harfang, and the stench of "burnt Marsh-wiggle" during Puddleglum's triumphant defiance. The tunnel between Polly's and Digory's attics, and the horrid sweetness of the bell that awakened Jadis in Charn. The poor imprisoned Dwarfs after the Last Battle, and Time squeezing the dying sun like a rotted fruit between his fingers.
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Kit: I read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as a child, mostly because my school took the class to a stage performance of it. I liked it well enough, but when I tried others in the series I just couldn't get on with them. At nine years old I couldn't quite articulate why, but there seemed to be a sense of unfairness in them; the characters kept getting into trouble for breaking rules that hadn't been explained, for instance, and not realising that Aslan was supposed to be a religious figure, I reacted to him as a character and found him self-satisfied and boastful, full of his own importance for no good reason that I could see. As a heterosexual little girl I did have an impression of virility from how he's described, but I didn't like him, which is of course a big stumbling block when reading the Narnia series, so I didn't bother with the series and went back to Dick King-Smith and the Ramona books.
As an adult, it's hard to describe the visceral anger Lewis provokes in me, and certainly it's hard to describe it without sounding so intemperate that my credibility looks doubtful. The best way I can describe it is to say that I react to Lewis the way many people react to Ayn Rand: I find him an aggressively bullying narrative voice as well as a lazy writer, and there's just a sense of hatred in his work that I cannot consider calmly. It isn't just that it was people like me he was bashing - female, feminist, left-wing on the grand scale, vegetarian, non-smoking and non-drinking on the petty scale (and my, does Lewis strike me as petty) - but that his whole aspect seems to me at once vicious and preening; I truly find him the most loathsome popular author I've ever encountered. I don't intend to ban my son from reading him, but I take him seriously enough that I do mean to make a point of reading E. Nesbit, J.K. Rowling, Diana Wynne Jones and whatever other fantasy classics for children my much-more-expert husband suggests before Lewis comes his way, so that if he feels a sense of passionate wonder at his first experience of imaginative fiction, it won't be Lewis he imprints on.
Of course, with this attitude it would probably serve me right if my son grew up to be a Lewis devotee. But the fact remains that of all the authors in the world, Lewis is pretty much the only one I even have this worry about.
'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 age. 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.'
'Well, don't let's talk about that now,' said Peter. 'Look! Here are lovely fruit trees. Let us taste them.' †
This short scene (and that's literally all there is on the subject) is referred to as 'the Problem of Susan' because of a Neil Gaiman short story of the same name. The story begins as an elderly female professor, 'Professor Hastings', dreams an apparently recurring nightmare the of mutilated corpses of fantastical creatures, followed by a lion and a witch apparently arguing inaudibly. She then wakes, and goes through an interview with a young woman called Greta Campion about classic children's literature. In it, Professor Hastings describes losing her family in a train crash and having to identify their damaged bodies, and remarks that Lewis's Susan must have undergone a similar ordeal, and that 'a god who would punish me for liking nylons and parties by making me walk through that school dining room, with the flies, to identify Ed, well ... he's enjoying himself a bit too much, isn't he? Like a cat, getting the last ounce of enjoyment out of a mouse.' The interview ends, and we see another dream of the professor's - or possibly a dying vision - in which God laments that Mary Poppins is absent from Heaven, remarking that He 'didn't create her. She's Mary Poppins.' Meanwhile Greta sleeps, and dreams that a lion eats her except her head, then makes love to the witch in her sight , then eats her head and destroys her; she lies awake imagining death coming in the night 'like a lion'.
We plan to enjoy a friendly disagreement about Lewis. So, to begin, hapax: what's your reaction to the story, and to the so-called 'Problem of Susan' in general?
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hapax: I liked Gaiman's story, as much as I like all his writings; it's clever and beautifully crafted and creepy in a way that insinuates into my waking dreams. But - for me - it has nothing in particular to say to Narnia and Lewis, because I don't see it as either engaging with the text that Lewis wrote or the meta-story that I read into it, both as a child and as an adult.
Of course, I've never really seen the so-called "Problem of Susan". The "Problem of Edmund", sure; his whole story arc in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe raises interesting (and possibly insoluble) questions about free will, sin, grace, and redemption that Christian thinkers have struggled with for over two thousand years.
But Susan? From an in-story perspective, we simply have no idea of her fate. Lewis in his letters refused to commit to a definitive conclusion. All we know is that she is "no longer a friend of Narnia" (the context seems to imply membership in an organized group, not a general disposition) and that some of the other members ascribe it to a shallowness and silliness in her character; and as the text we have closes, she is not currently in "Aslan's country" (either the Narnian or English version) with her deceased family.
I was astonished to discover, as an adult, that a great many people seem to deduce from these facts that she was somehow punished, or even worse, damned. From my point of view, she was the LUCKY one -- the one who got to experience human life, with all its joys and sorrows, to a degree that the rest of her siblings never would - and this was apparently the result of her own choice, to value the "real world" over the Narnian ideal. The apparent sexist reasoning behind her choice didn't bother me at all from an in-story perspective, for reasons I'm sure you'll ask me to expand on. <g>
However, I must confess that it's pretty hard for me to read The Last Battle from "inside" at all. It's definitely the weakest of all the books from a story perspective, because Lewis seems to have abandoned entirely such minor issues as characterization, world-building, plot, and the rest, all to hammer home a series of doctrinal points.
And so "Susan" in this story doesn't bear much relationship to the "Susan" of the first two (although there are hints in those books that seem to point to this outcome, I don't really think Lewis had them in mind when they were written.) To be blunt, Susan in
The Last Battle serves merely as the dogmatic counter-point to Emeth, the Calormene soldier whom Aslan accepts; she is the Designated Apostate to his Righteous Pagan.
Lewis's didactic needs demand that both such types appear; they both function as a sort of a warning to the reader, that it is impossible for any human judge to truly know who belongs to "Aslan's Country", the Kingdom of Heaven, and that membership in the True Church doesn't necessarily correspond the human labels. Therefore, we must neither grow complacent in our status as "Christians", nor be too quick to reject the "Other" as condemned.
Why was Susan cast in this role (or under the bus, as some would argue)? Well, there really wasn't anyone else to take it. Everyone else (except Eustace and Jill) had their own archetypical role to play in this scene, which unfortunately constrained their own personalities as believable characters quite as badly as poor Susan. And yes, I think it was lazy writing on Lewis's part - and quite probably ingrained sexism - to present it the way that he did, which certainly allowed for all sorts of distressing interpretations. But I don't think that they are at all necessary, or even the most consistent with the series or Lewis's own thought.
And that's probably given you more than enough material to respond!
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Kit: I'm very much of the camp that does think Susan is damned. On the other hand, the 'Problem of Susan' is not, for me, the biggest problem in the text.
I gather that Lewis said the odd thing in his correspondence to suggest that Susan might have found her way back to Narnia another way, but whether he meant it or was just obfuscating, I find it contradictory to the whole tone of The Last Battle.
Narnia is not a world with rigid logic to it; a reader preoccupied with 'worldbuilding' will find plenty to question. That's not something I personally have a problem with: Narnia's function is to be a kind of hyper-real dream, and it often works on dream logic - which is a legitimate fictional strategy. On the other hand, one of the few consistent points is that time flows differently in Narnia from how it flows in 'Shadowlands' (that is, our reality), and it almost always flows faster. It's like Tír na nÓg‡ in reverse: decades in Narnia are only a few minutes in reality. Now, I partly attribute this to Lewis's love of cosiness and convenience, and partly to his desire to make it as applicable an analogy to religious experience as possible, because it means the characters can return to reality with no consequences or disruption, but whyever it's the case, time in Narnia flows fast.
So if he had wanted to show Susan's entry to Narnia as delayed rather than lost, there would have been no reason why he couldn't have written, for instance, an elderly Susan running over the hills to meet them. If she loses her connection to this spirit world and then finds it again, we'd expect to see her there. And that's not just a practical issue: more importantly in such a dream-logic series of books, it's a thematic one.
Lewis or others may argue that Susan will find her way back to Narnia by some other route later, but aesthetically it's hard to feel that this could happen. Everybody else is there, so even if we imagine they were all on the crashing train except her - which seems oddly convenient - in terms of theme and mood, it's a final reunion. Likewise, Narnia is shutting down; everyone is going 'further up and further in' and leaving the old Narnia behind. Everything is ending ... so a character's absence from this shut-down feels permanent. The fact that everybody is going further up and further in feels thematically like the Narnia Susan could enter is closing its doors, and the different movements of time in the different realities feel as if the Narnian eternity would have encompassed Susan's mortal span if she were ever going to return.
So I think that when people say that he damns Susan ... he may have said the odd thing outside the book to suggest otherwise, but in terms of the emotional impression and thematic tone he strikes, it's hard to feel that her exclusion is anything other than eternal. And since so much of the book is about the primacy of feeling, he's pretty much set things up for that impression to be convincing.
I suppose you could argue that Narnia is only one form of heaven and she may come to heaven an entirely different way, but that really strains against Lewis's dogmatism in the rest of the series: Narnia is so thoroughly the measure of faith and virtue, even to the point where a (let's be honest here) Muslim can get into heaven by accepting it ... well, frankly suggesting she may get in another way sounds pretty much like Lewis saying, 'Look, if you don't like it, go make up your own ending and leave me alone.' I simply don't buy that exclusion from Narnia isn't exclusion from Heaven: Lewis pushes Narnia too hard, and it too bloody-minded about people who differ from him even to the extent of preferring a different diet (vegetarianism is a ghastly aberration). Differing from him about what kind of Heaven they'd like, when they aren't even allowed to like a different way of getting their protein? It doesn't fit. Even his characters aren't very different from one another: all his goodies have the same hearty good-egg pluck and they're not very distinguished from one another - as witness, for instance, the way Eustace talks to Edmund after his conversion, and immediately takes on the same public school man-to-man tone when conversing with him. Lewis doesn't rejoice in difference, he rejoices in conformity.
And while I see your point about it being thematically necessary to have an apostate ... well, there we actually get on to an issue that troubles me more than the fate of a single character, and which I think may explain why Susan is such a stone in many people's shoes.
One of the things about Lewis that truly repels me is his air of - well, I usually call it 'chuckling sadism'. He liked to contemplate certain religious issues, and one of the things he returned to over and over, with a certain relish, was the theme of punishment. Characters are set up for correction constantly in the Narnia series, and the offences that draw these punishments often seem unfair - refusing to step back from the edge of a cliff, ringing a bell when there's no clear reason not to, offences that seem deeply contrived. Which gives me the strong sense that punishing his characters is something that interests him, Lewis, to the point where he'll force misbehaviours on them without much justification so as to allow him to get to where he really wants to go. And we can see this unfairness in lots of ways throughout the books: many people, for instance, think it harsh to judge Edmund so severely for his 'treachery' when he's explicitly acting under magical addiction and all you can really blame him for is 'taking sweets from a stranger'. Or Eustace, who's lambasted from the first sentence we meet him, and his crime mostly seems to be that he's absorbed the values of his parents (whose crime mostly seems to be that they're modern and left-wing): making him a know-it-all and a tease comes after listing what really seems to annoy Lewis, which is that he comes from a progressive family, and so feels like forcing vices onto him to justify a petty political hatred. Or ... well, I get a strong sense of set-up from Lewis's writing. It's an artistic fault - he wasn't a perfect novelist - but it's a revealing one, because it strikes me that he's eager to punish his characters and interested in how to do it. He likes to judge - the whole of The Screwtape Letters is about how to find reasons to damn someone; the dwarves' suspicion of Heaven gets a whole chapter and strikes me as deeply victim-blaming (reality contains many people who are afraid of being hurt twice, and to cast this as unsalvageable, you-have-only-yourself-to-blame folly is simply mean) - and he'll do it whenever he can.
So to my mind, the need for an apostate wouldn't necessarily be a sin in Lewis if he didn't seem to need every other kind of punishable sinner so constantly and so badly. And I think that Susan sticks in people's minds for that reason. He very seldom does it to a character we've been required to identify with - usually he loves punishing Them, and it's perhaps indicative that when he punishes Susan it happens off-stage, as if he didn't enjoy punishing Us quite so much and so saved his detailed punishments for the really satisfying targets - so it jumps to the attention of the 'constant reader' more forcefully. But the other thing is that of all his contrived punishments, it's the worst rendered: there's practically nothing in the whole series the supports it, and it feels very perfunctory. You know how somebody can trouble people for a long time with deniable micro-aggressions that no one quite knows how to challenge, and then they do something that's definitely wrong and everyone rounds on them with the force of long frustration? I suspect something similar is going on with the 'Problem of Susan': Lewis's meanness is usually better rationalised but can leave a nagging sense of discomfort, and here he gets clumsy enough to be called to account for it. Especially as a lot of his meannesses are expressed in ways you really need an academic approach to challenge - or at least to approach the books as constructed pieces of artifice rather than stories one participates in - but the exclusion of Susan is something that's done to a character rather than something implied, so it's easier to spot.
It's one of his clumsiest moments of sexism, of course - the 'silliest time' of a woman's life appears to be her peak sexual years, as the saved women emphasise that it's all right to be a child and it's all right to be middle-aged and motherly, but nothing in between (and you notice that it's 'motherly', not a mother? There are no mothers among the saved, presumably because one can't become a mother without passing through fertile young adulthood) - but again, it struck me as symptomatic of a deeper problem rather than a big shock. Why didn't the sexism bother you?
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hapax: Hmm. I don't think Lewis meant to show Susan's entry into Narnia as "delayed." I think the whole point is that
we don't know. It is equally dangerous to make assumptions about other people's "salvation" as it is about their "damnation." That, in every sense of the word, isn't any of my business. As Aslan said, "Nobody is ever told any story but their own."
Which leads me to comment on the way I read the Narnia books – particularly the later ones The Magician's Nephew and The Last Battle are the most characteristic of this point) – and moralistic / fabulistic literature in general (which includes pretty much everything Lewis wrote). These don't seem to me to be so much stories, with all the expected components of structured plot, consistent characterization, logical worldbuilding, as parables. And as such, I read them differently; to put it simply, they really are All About Me.
Permit me to make a short digression into medieval Biblical interpretation. (Lewis's specialty was medieval literature, so this isn't coming entirely out of nowhere.) The standard "fourfold sense" (first codified by Bede, but used from the time of the Church Fathers until, well, the present day) held that every unit of Scripture could be seen in four ways: the "literal" (or plain sense meaning), the "allegorical" (how the elements of the story point to and illuminate the larger story of God's interaction with humanity), the "tropological" or "moral" (how this story gives us guidance in living our daily lives), and "anagogical" or "eschatological" (how this story can be understood in terms of the ultimate end of history). While technically, each approach is valid to every passage, in practice it seems that certain passages work better with particular kinds of stories. And the fable / parable is especially suited to the tropological approach.
The important thing about reading stories in this way is that there is no "Other". Whether I'm reading about Aesop's fox or lion, the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son, Susan Pevensie or the Dwarves in the Stable, the parable doesn't permit me to picture Those Folks I Don't Like and say to myself, "See? I knew they were rotten scoundrels." Rather I am required to look in myself and say, "Hmm. How am I shallow, and too fond of ephemeral pleasures? In what ways do I close my eyes to the world around me? Am I Augustine, praying 'Lord, make me chaste, but not yet'? Am I denying my own experiences because they point me to uncomfortable conclusions?" When every character is a virtue or a vice (or a complicated bundle of associated traits), every character is also Me -- at least potentially. And when I contain such multitudes, how can I look upon the failings and triumphs of my fellows without compassion, pity, and shared rejoicing?
Which is why I don't get the same sense of vindictiveness that you do out of Lewis's writings. Where you read a mean-spirited delight in punishment, I read an honest and ruthless self-examination and self-exposure, and feel encouraged to engage in the same. It's perfectly possible that I am far too generous when I read Lewis this way, and his intentions were every bit as petty and abusive as you describe. And we've discussed before how I have seen in some of his books a great deal of fear – particularly where he senses himself most vulnerable and prone to failure – and a tendency to lash out in self-protection. If I feel pity rather than contempt, that's no credit to me; I'm not one of his victims (except in that I'm female, which I'll address below) and it's easy to be sympathetic to those whose faults we share.
But while I certainly won't claim that my way of approaching Narnia – particularly The Last Battle -- is "the correct one" (let alone "necessary"), it isn't in any way something forced or artificial, either. I don't read the text this way because of what I've learned about the history of hermeneutics; instead, that just gives me the language to talk about my interpretative scheme. I don't know if Lewis intended it to be read this way – I think he was a complicated man, with a constant internal battle between his reason and his emotions, his fears and his hopes, his pettiness and his generosity. But I know that even as a young child I read the story this way, have
always read the story this way, automatically and instinctively read the story this way – because that's the only way I could make
sense out of it. It's the same way that I found myself reading Aesop, the same way I read Exodus; because any other choice would have made the story
So in this tropological reading, what am I to take from the absence of Susan in the last chapters of the Narnia series (which, as I said, only makes thematic sense as the balance to the inclusion of Emeth) ? Well, although the major themes of this final section are meant to be reassuring and even joyful (death is not the end, everything works out for the best, no good thing is ever destroyed – not a bad message for a series that started out with characters escaping from the Blitz), I think that a minor counterpoint of uncertainty is necessary to keep from simplistic triumphalism. Perhaps the elderly Susan will swim up the waterfall someday. Perhaps she will choose to walk off into Aslan's shadow. Perhaps, as I speculated elsewhere, she will explore the "true" Bism, or allow her body to peacefully dissolve into the soil feeding the Woods Between the Worlds. The key is that I do not, cannot, know. It's not only that I can not, must not, make assumptions about who is "in" and "out" as far as Aslan's Country is concerned; I can't even be sure about myself. Certainty can lead only to arrogance or despair. The only way to find out whether I am truly a "friend of Narnia", is to walk through the stable door.
Wow, that's a lot, and I haven't even touched on the sexism part yet. Well, in many ways that's an easier topic. There's two ways I deal with it; one from outside the text, and one from inside.
From an outside, critical perspective, of course Lewis was sexist. My elementary school self recognized that, the same way she recognized that Kipling was racist, Heyer was anti-Semitic, and my paternal grandparents were embarrassing in every single way. And although I wouldn't have known it then (all dead writers were equally from "back then"), Lewis didn't have the excuse of being a "man of his times" – there were plenty of contemporary and earlier writers who wrote women as fully human.
But, well – how should I put this? Lewis's sexism annoyed me, but it didn't really bother me, because it was so much like my grandparents' prejudices. It was dumb. It was silly. It was over the top. Lewis writes about women like a man who had never met one. Later, when I grew up and read the misogynistic writings of monastic theologians, I would find exactly the same themes that are present in Lewis. Women are "bad" not because they are female, but because they are naturally deficient men; failed men. Women are "good" insofar as they aspire to "manliness" – rationality, self-control, healthy athleticism – as long as they remember that they'll never achieve more than being "as good as a boy."
But – and this is my good fortune, I suppose – this attitude seemed so self-evidently stupid, so entirely alien to anything that had to do with me or any Real Live (Female) People, that it was hard for me to take personally. I can certainly see why plenty of other people wouldn't find this blatant sexism so easy to shrug off. But it never angered me; just made me sigh and roll my eyes.
From an internal perspective, the other reason I am not bothered by the exclusion of Susan for what seem sexist reasons is that this interpretation is contradicted by the rest of the series. I'm not speaking here of the many strong and admirable women who appear in the series (mostly in secondary roles, true), in all ages and conditions: girls, teens, objects of romantic desire, young single woman, older single women, young brides, mothers of young children, mothers of adult children, old wives, queens and washerwomen… In fact, rather than "there being no mothers among the saved", every single female character (except Hwin the Mare) we see in the "grand reunion" scene was a wife and a mother. Stereotypically "female" behaviors -- cooking, sewing, fashion – and attributes – compassion, grace, beauty, elegance – are not elsewhere condemned in the book.
But more specifically, I find it difficult to take seriously the whole "Susan is damned for being frivolous and sexual" because of a particular favorite minor character, in my favorite book: Lasaraleen in The Horse and His Boy. Since this isn't a discussion about The Problem of Corin, I'll spare you my ruminations about narrative structure and themes in that book, but suffice it to say that you couldn't find a character more enthused about her culture's equivalent of "nylon and lipsticks and invitations" than Lasaraleen, and though Lewis (through Aravis, his viewpoint character for this section) strives his best to make her tiresome and silly; but he completely fails. Utterly. Lasaraleen is simply
likable; she is warm and caring and generous and full of life, and although terribly afraid, conquers her terror (and risks her life) to help Aravis achieve her own goals, even to a life Lasaraleen couldn't comprehend and utterly disapproved of. When we last see her, Aravis (as Lewis's mouthpiece) embraces her friend and says, "I'm sure you'll have a lovely life – though it wouldn't suit me."
Somewhere between The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle, at least two of Lewis's female characters seemed to forget that there were different ways of being a woman – and that was OKAY.
But this female reader didn't.
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Kit: I think we're seeing the fundamental difference between our approaches here: I do think the text is monstrous. That's actually a very good word for the impression it gives me.
I have to say that I don't buy the idea that we don't know what happens to Susan. In the hands of another writer, sure, but Lewis? Negative capability was his mortal enemy. And narratively speaking, I don't think it washes: 'Nobody is ever told any story but their own' simply isn't true in this case. It's not as if we have a single-perspective protagonist: the entire cast is present except for those explicitly excluded - 'Everyone you had ever heard of (if you knew the history of these countries) seemed to be there' - and even then, we see some of the exclusions - the Dwarves, for instances, whose 'story' is perfectly visible to the whole merry gang, and Aslan actually explains exactly what's going on when he says that 'Their prison is only in their own minds.' That flatly contradicts the assertion that nobody ever hears anybody else's story. When Lewis has a point he wants to make, he tells other people's stories with a free and heavy hand.
So if Lewis did assert that we simply don't know Susan's fate, all I can say is that I find this disingenuous. People do not go unpunished or unrewarded under his judging eye. False impressions are, in The Last Battle, being corrected left and right: when our heroes try to argue with the Dwarves, for instance, Aslan steps in and sets them straight. He only stays out of conversations where people are already correct - he doesn't intervene when Emeth tells his story, for instance, and if the characters are debating amongst themselves he leaves them to it as long as they reach the right conclusion - but if people are wrong and confused, up pops Aslan to get rid of any doubts. There's uncertainty as to exactly what the next 'further up and further in' will contain, but only as to detail - it's clear it's going to be better than the one before - and that's as much uncertainty as he allows. The characters' condemnation of Susan goes uncorrected, so I can only assume they are being left alone as they always are when they have reached the right conclusion amongst themselves.
I simply don't see it as judging himself: too many of his poison darts are heavily coded with political Otherness. Susan's sin is that she rejects childhood beliefs; what is the whole Narnia series but a bellowing of 'I believe!'? She rejects his values - and it's people who do it, and particularly with an air of intellectual confidence, that attract the greatest fury, and it's done in an explicitly feminine way. It's not just that she's an apostate: Susan is, in this part of the story, a scaled-down version of the Green Witch who calls his faith childish with a maddening tinkle of female laughter. And the satisfaction he takes in swinging at such women in a story he controls is positively unseemly.
And a lot of his hatreds are coded like that. Witches are the most powerful force of spiritual evil; the closest male equivalent we get is Uncle Andrew, one of whose distinguishing features is that he's 'silly in a very grown-up way', in Lewis's squirming euphemism, for admiring the fiery Jadis. Evil is almost always coded female or female-contaminated.
With Lasaraleen and "I'm sure you'll have a lovely life – though it wouldn't suit me." - I think it's interesting to look at the order of that sentence. Imagine it the other way around: 'It wouldn't suit me, but I'm sure you'll have a lovely life.' Me-but-You is a lot warmer than You-but-Me. I still hear a subtle condemnation in Aravis's farewell: Lasaraleen's life will be 'lovely', but that doesn't mean it'll be good or worthy, just enjoyable. And Aravis, going off on an adventure where she will encounter a higher truth, is too good for that. That's what we learn from the sentence: that Aravis is rising above the merely pleasurable because she has too much mettle, leaving behind Lasaraleen's lesser vision of life. It's not pluralism we're hearing here, it's hierarchy with a brief attempt at manners.
And it's not just femininity he swipes at. I remember as a child being put off by the opening flourish to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: 'There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.' Even as a child, I thought: 'You gave him that name, and you gave him whatever bad qualities you say he has; if you're mad at him, you're mad at him for being what you chose to make him. It's your fault, not his.' And as an adult, I saw this kind of thing: '[Eustace's parents] were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, non-smokers and tee-totallers ... [Eustace] liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators or of fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools' - in other words, he's chosen to personify socialism in a whole bundle of petty, 'latte libel' gripes. And then Eustace's school is blamed for being 'a "mixed" school; some people said it was not nearly so mixed as the minds of the people who ran it' - because it's an environment that takes a 'psychological' rather than a punitive approach to its pupils, with all sorts of ghastly straw-man consequences.
That's not All About Me, or All About Lewis. That's vicious and lazy right-wing parodies slipped into a supposed universal fable.
You can't walk through the stable door unless you believe in Narnia. And Narnia doesn't like the feminine, the progressive, the experimental, the non-cosy. I'm perfectly prepared to accept that an honest Christian like you would apply it to your own vices, but I really believe that's more to your credit than Lewis's. Lewis put in too many petty sneers at people whose 'sins' weren't vices Lewis possessed, but virtues that discomfited him. To put that in a children's book and call it a moral parable is disgusting.
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hapax: Yeah, I think we're rapidly reaching the point where we're going to have to simply agree to disagree.
I'd like to respond to a couple of your points, if I might. I don't think that it's at all true that the Narnia series equated "villainy" with "female" – besides Uncle Andrew, I immediately think of the tyrant Miraz and his (literally) backstabbing counselors, the cowardly slave-trading Gumpas, the oily murderous Tisroc and the vainglorious would-be rapist Rabadash, the greedy opportunist Shift and terrifyingly calculating "rationalist" Ginger – all male, providing memorably chilling portraits of evil that present (to me) in a way that is definitely "codedly male", and interestingly enough evil of "types" that predominate in much of Lewis's later works of (adult) fiction. The two witches you mention always seemed much more ambiguous to me, partially because they were powerful, independent women with few good options in a fantasy world created deliberately patriarchal – although THAT, I freely admit, is a classic case of my imposing my own experiences and prejudices in a manner clearly contrary to the intent of the text. (Although I can, I think, point to Lewis's very real [if ultimately failed] efforts to grapple with just that issue in Till We Have Faces.) But I'm having a tough time coming up with any justifications for the male villains I mentioned, either inside or outside the text.
I think the issue of whether or not Lewis's "poison darts" were aimed at the Other or at Self is probably our biggest disagreement, and fundamental to our very very different approaches to practically everything that Lewis wrote. It's true that we are given a fine display of those who are in Aslan's Country at a particular point in time, so we have a head count of the currently "saved" (to use your term; I don't think the theological meaning usually meant by Christians in general or Lewis in specific applies correctly to what's going on here). But that is one snapshot of eternity; if we had looked at that crowd a chapter earlier, none of the current cast would have been there. If we had looked three books earlier, more than half of those named wouldn't have been. The last words of the series are, after all, tell us emphatically that this "this was only the beginning of the real story." That hardly indicates any sense of closure, that there is no more access to the "further up and further in."
So when I said "we don't know other people's stories", I was thinking specifically of all the persons we don't see: Polly and Digory and Eustace and Jill all have parents, but we only see the older Pevensies. I don't think we can therefore conclude that the Plummers and the Kirkes and the Pooles and the Scrubbs are all irredeemably condemned (well, the last might well be, if it were up to Lewis; still, the first set of parents are almost certainly dead, so why didn't they show up in the heavenly England?) And all the Narnian creatures, who didn't enter on Aslan's right; all we know is that they ran off into his shadow. We might well imagine that they are damned, if we are so inclined (and you seem to think Lewis is); but he explicitly warns off any such speculations.
It's interesting that you bring up Eustace as an example of Lewis's vindictive pleasure at punishing "Others", because I'd see that character as evidence of the exact opposite. From such Lewis scholarship as I have read, and from his autobiographical comments (particularly in The Abolition of Man and Surprised by Joy), if there is any hint of an authorial self-insert in Narnia, it's Eustace. The opening jab at the name "Eustace Clarence Scrubbs" is almost always understood as a joke at the expense of his own much-loathed moniker, and the arrogant, materialistic, self-pitying, applause-seeking Eustace of the opening chapters is entirely consistent with Lewis's self-portrait of his own atheistic youth. Lewis's outsized hatred of "modern education" and all that he associates with it is, I agree, startlingly out-of-place in context (and frankly, not nearly as funny as he obviously thought it was); but it comes from his intimate, personal experience of one example of such trends, and his revulsion at (what he diagnosed as) the effects upon his character.
You might well counter that Lewis reserves a special vitriol for anything that reminds him a past he found shameful, and again I'd agree (although no doubt disagreeing about the unknowable and ultimately irrelevant question of his motivations), but projection is a very different failing from othering, even if both are quite definitely sins against his art.
But what makes Eustace interesting in this context (and, I'll confess, beloved by me) is that his conversion / salvation / "Narnification" / whathaveyou doesn't erase any of these aspects of his character. He is portrayed – and I'd argue, deliberately portrayed – as pretty much a complete prat to the end. In contrast to the (often unbearably) saintly Lucy (who, especially in The Last Battle is forced into the archetypical role of Mystical Innocent), Eustace remains a judgmental, whiny, bossy, overbearing know-it-all, and both child-Me and adult-Me identified with him down to his toenails. The "grace" that Aslan bestowed – through punishment and pain, yes, but more importantly through experiencing a different perspective in Narnia, especially by the examples of Drinian, and Caspian, and above all Reepicheep -- gave him a glimpse of an Ideal to which he could aspire. And he tried. Dear Lord, how he tried. He kept that vision stubbornly before him, and stumbled and staggered and crawled towards it, walking off cliffs and into trees and down holes, and he failed and he failed and he kept trying. And I think it was that sheer bloody-minded determination to be better than he was which was what I so desperately yearned for in myself, and that Lewis was trying to inspire in his readers, because that (in my reading, as always) was the very most that Lewis hoped for himself.
And that, I think is why Eustace took over as the main child protagonist of the (chronologically) last three books (it's interesting to me that Shasta and Digory manifest similar character arcs -- and, to bring this comment back to Susan [oh yeah, we were talking about Susan!] the last words given to all three of those characters is something relatively obnoxious and demonstrably wrong, one of the reasons I feel safe dismissing Eustace's evaluation of her character as definitive.) And that is also why, at the end of the series, he found himself, with all his faults and failures, in the idealized Narnia; that was the place, in the deepest part of himself, where he most desperately longed to be.
Because it's not true that "you can't walk through the stable door unless you believe in Narnia." If we take the stable door as a thinly-veiled metaphor for death (and it's hard to see it as anything else) everybody has to walk through that door: Kings and Queens, dwarves and unicorns, Narnians and Calormenes, English schoolchildren and Jack Lewis and me. What we find on the other side… well, that's where Lewis promises (or threatens) it depends upon where you've set your heart and how you've made your choices. We see those who have chosen Aslan, and what he represents. We see those who (we are told, reliably) have chosen their own fears, and the suffering that leads to (whether or not they can leave this prison is unclear; Aslan says that he "can't take them out", but there's no reason they can’t (as in The Great Divorce) choose on their own exit.) We see those who choose not-Aslan; their fate disappears in shadow. And we're told (not entirely reliably) that Susan has chosen not-Aslan, and set her heart on frivolous pleasures; where that leads, and whether that choice is final, we simply don't know. And Peter (now cast in his archetypical function of GateKeeper) refuses to tell us more.
And I guess I've never seen the "problem" in that. Susan, in a sense, defies the role the narrative tries to force her into. By the power of our ignorance, she retains her agency. And that, I guess, is what (for me) the Gaiman story takes away from her: what I'd call the Triumph of Susan.
And now I've apparently left the chair of commentary to climb into the pulpit. :-) Perhaps this would be a good point, Kit, to give you the final word, and bow out to leave the rest for interested commenters to hash out?
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Kit: Point taken, saying evil was always coded female was an overstatement. Lewis provokes me and I can get worked up into sweeping statements. But I stand by my basic point that supernatural evil, evil of spirit and self rather than evil of choice and action, is pretty female-coded.
With the witches, it's not so much that the characters are coded female, though they are; it's that their evil is coded female in a way that I don't think translates with the male ones. Shift is deceitful, but so is the Green Witch; Miraz and the lads are violent and autocratic, but so is Jadis: there's no vice the male characters have that female characters don't - and I'd argue there are few vices the male characters have that the witches don't have worse. On the other hand, the male baddies are first and foremost human (or an ape, in Shift's case): one could be a good or a bad man, a good or bad king, perhaps even a good or bad ape. (Though Lewis does like his species essentialism.)
Can one be a good witch in Lewis's world? Not on your nelly. The combination of power and femininity is portrayed as inherently evil. They're not bad people who could choose to be otherwise: the very word 'witch' implies evil selfhood. The captive knight's admiration for the Green Witch is explicitly presented as wrong-gendered: allowing a woman to 'boss' him is wrong just because she's a woman, before we ever meet her and find out what she's like. And that patronising, 'Bless you, aren't you funny?' laugh that Susan and the Green Witch both have? That's a very common stereotype of the infuriating female. I don't think we see the infuriating male so caricactured: the infuriating atheist, yes, but you can be a female atheist. It's their female style as much as their unNarnian behaviour that's frothed over. There are lots of ways to be a bad man, but bad femaleness is very female indeed.
Likewise, the evil women have no good counterparts. You can have an evil king, but you have good kings too. More broadly, you can have an evil adult man, but good ones as well. Where are the good women in their fertile years? Nowhere. Girl or biddy, those are the choices - and if you're a girl, you'd better try to be 'as good as a boy' while you're at it. There's a complete absence of balance which he does not inflict on the men.
And it's notable, too, that most of the bad men you list are also coded 'Other': they're just coded racially Other. So I'm not inclined to see them as evidence of broad-mindedness. They just have a different marker of inferiority. Lewis had more than one brand of lesserness he imposed on people, to be sure, but he was lavish with the feminine brand.
Basically, you have people, whether human or animal, who are good and bad. Then you have supernatural forces, who are absolutely evil or absolutely good, and it's their influence as much as their actions that are spiritually significant, and that influence is not just the power of persuasion or authority, but of magic. Which doesn't seem to be true of men. One may wish to stay out of Miraz's clutches, but one isn't corrupted utterly by his company. One may be put on the wrong path by listening to Shift, but only far enough to have one's good intentions misled, not to become depraved and bespelled like Edward or Rilian. And Shift himself has understandable if reprenhensible motivations: he wants plenty and power, and he wants them for himself: not admirable, but it makes sense on the same level as Miraz or Uncle Andrew or Rabadash. Selfishness and arrogance on a human scale, in other words, and led by a desire for worldly things. But the witches are motivated by a desire for spiritual power: they are the true spiritual antagonists to Aslan. Not as powerful, because that's not allowable in Lewis's cosmology, but the closest Aslan has to serious competition. Divine male, demonic female - both rendered with a vivid, highly gendered sensuality you see nowhere else in the stories.
That's what I mean when I say evil is coded female: the characters who come closest to embodying evil are female ones. And I find that significant. Perhaps Lewis wanted to impress upon us that demonic characters weren't as powerful as Aslan and felt that making them female was the best way to convey this. Or perhaps he simply lacked the vision to conceive of any way women might be powerful antagonists except by using magic (a conveniently nebulous way of making your power felt). But whatever the reason, the femininity of the witches is so highly wrought that I can't help feeling there's more to it than that, especially when there are no unequivocally good and potent women in their prime to counterbalance them. Femininity has been considered diabolical in Christian traditions before Lewis, and his work weighs more on that side of the scales.
As to Polly's and Digory's parents - I can't see that as persuasive, because they're hardly present in the rest of the book either - which means they're hardly characters at all. To make guesses about their eternal fate is basically straying into fan fiction, and if that's what it takes to make Lewis look fair, I don't think it's to his credit at all. The same applies to whatever may or may not be outside this 'snapshot of eternity'. To make it look decent, we have to make things up for ourselves. You intuit better things because you're a better person than him. I can only judge him on what he chose to write, and what he chose to write was mean.
You say Lewis blamed modern education for its effects on his character. Isn't that othering again - attributing faults of his own to external influences? Shifting the blame to his teachers rather than himself? And then making an effigy of it to pummel ... well, I know people who act that way towards their former incarnations. They're generally the people who've changed least in their fundamentals. Othering your former self - and the writing of pre-conversion Eustace is very crude - is a way of closing your eyes to your own nature. It's not honest. And when you say he reads as the same person post-conversion ... I just don't see it. He reads a pretty similar to everyone else, to my eyes anyway: Lewis wasn't much of a writer of character, and the good kids have only very slight variations amongst themselves. Any consistency in Eustace is pretty much cosmetic; it doesn't affect the plot that much, which is the real index of character.
But more than that ... well, just this. Maybe Lewis did intend Eustace to be a mockery of his former self, not of people he disagreed with - but in fiction, nobody's entitled to credit for what they intended. All the reader will react to is what's actually there on the page; if it needs a footnote about how it relates to your life and thought, and if it gives completely the opposite impression of what you intended without one, then it fails. Simple as that: if it gives the wrong impression without an explanation, then that is the impression you have created. If you wanted a different one, you should have gone back and rewritten it. And Eustace, with his non-fiction books and his non-smoking parents and his assonance-based poem (and for Lewis to have his heroes sneer at learning a poetic term while writing a book for children is just barbarous), reads as very heavily Othered. If you give Lewis credit for making Lasaraleen better than he intended (which I won't argue with, though as she's still in the 'harmless biddy' category it doesn't weigh much with me), then I'm holding him accountable for making Eustace more Other than he may have intended. Whether the hatred is aimed at other people or at a caricatured former self - and as I say, hating one's former self is a very low level when it comes to reformation - the impression is simply of hatred. That's what comes through. And since it's directed at a character whose main vice is that he's not a believer, and who is forgiven when he becomes one, that is simply intolerance he's preaching, whether he meant to or not. I'm not a Christian; I don't drink; I vote left-wing. That's me he's insulting, and people like me who want to make this world a better place and are willing to question authority to do it. He fails to do anything more than malign people with different and legitimate ideals from his spiteful little self, and writers are responsible for their - our - failures.
Maybe Lewis wanted to be better than he was. But I think he wanted to feel better than other people even more; I think he needed other people to be his shadow so he didn't have to look his own darkness full in the face. That's the nature of a bully. He needed inferiors to feel all right about himself - even down to condemning petty differences of lifestyle. He doesn't locate the stable door in a place that everyone has access to: he locates it in Narnia, where only those who share his pipe-and-slippers fairyland tastes can reach it.
And the idea that people can choose their own way out of their fears and doubts - well, there are two interpretations of that, one worse than the other. At best, it's simply disrespectful of difference: people don't see what he sees, and so they must be wilfully blind and somewhat ridiculous. Putting that in your parable is cheap and stupid. But to assume he speaks of those genuinely incapable of seeing past their own trauma - to call this a self-chosen fate is flat-out cruel. If your faith in happiness has been too badly wounded, no, you can't choose your own way out. That's what being traumatised means. It's like saying someone with a broken leg could dance away their troubles. It feels as if Lewis has found a way to justify dismissing people, and plumes himself on how tolerant that makes him while he argues that their pain is their own fault. To promote such preening coldness as moral wisdom is pure wickedness.
And if we're responsible for choosing to walk out of prisons of our own making, Lewis is responsible for walking out of his. He can't have it both ways. He nurtures and feeds his vices - his spite, his pettiness, his parochialism, his bigotry, his selfish preoccupation with his own comfort and cosiness of mind and body - and dresses them up in doctrine and fairytale. If we're responsible for lifting ourselves up, then he's responsible for that too. And he doesn't. Because he doesn't want to. He's more comfortable where he is.
I wouldn't at all question the honour of your reading, nor your right to like Lewis. But I do think it's telling that you keep referring to explanations that take place outside the text - what happens to characters whose fate we don't see, what Lewis may have intended, what Lewis may have struggled with in his own breast. And this probably comes down to natural sympathies: I'm likely to cut a different writer a certain amount of slack for their texts on the basis of off-page situations too. But Lewis's text spits in my eye at every opportunity, and also I don't think it's a particularly well-written series of stories, and whatever my own faults they're probably different from Lewis's. (I mentioned at the beginning that he reminded me of Ayn Rand, and Rand is an author I'm more inclined to judge with biographical forgiveness, much thought I abhor the effect her books have had on the world - and this is probably because there are aspects of her character that I can feel some sympathy with.) I suspect many of us have an author or two that we're inclined to forgive because there's something in them that we can relate to. But add it all up and Lewis never has been and never will be one of mine. All I can judge him for is the story he actually wrote - and whatever I might wish for the man himself, the story, I simply cannot forgive.
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Kit and hapax: ...And at this point, by mutual agreement, we shall shake hands and leave it there. In the interests of peace, we shall also stay out of the comment thread.
† From The Last Battle, contained in The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis, Harper Collins Publishers Ltd, London, 2004, copyright of The Last Battle 1956, p 741↩
‡ The text originally used the Tir na Nog form of the name. It has now be altered to reflect Irish usage.↩
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