(urth) OT: The Problem of Susan

Adam Stephanides adamsteph at earthlink.net
Fri Nov 5 14:27:31 PST 2004

I'll confess that when I started this topic I was being a bit of a
provocateur (though there's at least one person on the list who iirc shares
Gaiman's view), so I appreciate both Charles and Dan'l's thoughtful

Spoilers follow.

I see Gaiman as making two criticisms of the Narnia books. The first is that
Lewis casually consigned Susan, a major character in the series, to a cruel
ordeal (by which I'm referring to what would happen to her on Earth after
her family's death, rather than her eternal fate--see below), seemingly
without being aware that he had done so; or if he was aware, no trace of
this awareness appeared in the books. Hence Lewis here displayed a lack of
imagination and empathy. This criticism hadn't occurred to me before, but
now it seems obvious.

The second is that the books perpetuate views of men and women that are
psychologically damaging to both sexes. Gaiman doesn't make this criticism
explicitly; it's implicit in the reference to "the role of children's
fiction in creating the belief systems we adopt as adults" (398), and in
Greta's dream, in which the girls are eaten while the boys are transformed
into a "twisted thing" (401). Whether this criticism is true or fair, I
couldn't say without rereading the Narnia books, but it's a powerful image
at any rate.

Charles Reed wrote:

> Susan wasn't denied
> heaven because she liked lipstick and boys.  She was denied heaven
> because she turned her back on and denied the existence of the living
> God.

That interpretation is consistent with the theological allegory, and it may
be what Lewis intended, but it's not what the text says. None of the
characters say that her fault is to have denied Aslan, but Jill and Lady
Polly, who have the last words on the matter, do say that her fault is to be
interested in "'nothing ... except nylons and lipstick and invitations'"
(End of ch. 12, in THE LAST BATTLE). In any case, it's because Susan is too
interested in nylons and lipstick and invitations that she's turned her back
on Narnia.

Dan'l Danehy-Oakes wrote:

> it's currently fashionable to trash Lewis and especially the
> Narnia books,

Is it? I know Pullman ciriticized them prominently; I'm not aware of any
other prominent figures who have done so recently.

> and Gaiman is nothing if not fashionable.

Again, I hadn't particularly noticed this. He writes in popular genres, but
so does Wolfe (not that Gaiman is anywhere near Wolfe's level as a writer).
In any case, I think Gaiman's critique of Lewis here is too deeply felt to
be just an effort to be "fashionable."

> Susan is most emphatically _not_
> "denied Heaven." This is the "Pullman Heresy" that is, I think, at the
> heart of the trash-Lewis fad.

If I give all your brothers and sisters candy, and I don't give you any,
then I've denied you candy, even though I still have the option to give you
candy later.

> Susan is not damned; she simply doesn't die in the train crash. The
> books neither say _nor imply_ anything about her eternal fate, and
> in the one place that I know of where Lewis had anything to say
> about it - in a letter to a child - he was of the opinion that God kept
> her alive so that she could come back to Him by some other route.
> (That's from memory, so the wording is probably nowhere near
> CSL's.) 
> Like near-'bout eveyrthing else
> in Narnia, the "lipstick" bit is there for a polemic point - a point
> further driven in by the statement that Susan is "no longer a
> Friend of Narnia," that she regards Narnia as a "game we used
> to play." 

I, and I suspect most others who criticize Lewis, certainly "get" Lewis's
point. Our point is that as his exemplar of someone who had turned their
back on God, Lewis chose a girl whose "fault" is to be preoccupied with just
those things that most adolescent girls in his society were preoccupied
with. No doubt you'll retort that it was just by chance that his exemplar
was a girl, and has no larger significance; I'm not so sure.

> Heck, I'm just sort of wandering on here. The point is, that
> Gaiman bases his story on an interpretation of Susan's fate
> that I believe would be far from the intentions of Susan's
> creator.

Though Greta does use the word "damned" at one point, that's not what the
story turns on. It's the naive Greta who is preoccupied with Susan's eternal
fate; Gaiman himself places much more emphasis upon the cruelty of what
would happen to Susan on Earth.

> I'm sorry he didn't take Lewis's own beliefs into
> account in writing "The Problem of Susan,"

Actually he does incorporate Lewis's belief, though he may not have been
aware it was Lewis's: "She [Greta's English teacher] said that even though
Susan had refused Paradise then, she still had time while she lived to

 because there is
> a very real question about Susan's fate; a talented writer who
> wasn't kneejerkingly hostile to Christianity

Because Gaiman is hostile to the Narnia books, it doesn't follow that he's
hostile to Christianity as such, let alone kneejerkingly so.


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