Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Susan Pevensie, Feminist?

There's something about a truly, shockingly bad piece of writing that is almost inspiring, and this Ink Splotch piece trying to imagine the post-Narnia life of Susan Pevensie falls distinctly within that territory:
Can we talk about Susan’s fabulous adventures after Narnia? The ones where she wears nylons and elegant blouses when she wants to, and short skirts and bright lipstick when she wants to, and hiking boots and tough jeans and big men’s plaid shirts when she feels like backpacking out into the mountains and remembering what it was to be lost in a world full of terrific beauty— I know her siblings say she stops talking about it, that Susan walks away from the memories of Narnia, but I don’t think she ever really forgot.

I want to read about Susan finishing out boarding school as a grown queen reigning from a teenaged girl’s body. School bullies and peer pressure from children and teachers who treat you like you’re less than sentient wouldn’t have the same impact. C’mon, Susan of the Horn, Susan who bested the DLF at archery, and rode a lion, and won wars, sitting in a school uniform with her eyebrows rising higher and higher as some old goon at the front of the room slams his fist on the lectern.

Susan living through WW2, huddling with her siblings, a young adult (again), a fighting queen and champion marksman kept from the action, until she finally storms out against screaming parents’ wishes and volunteers as a nurse on the front. She keeps a knife or two hidden under her clothes because when it comes down to it, they called her Gentle, but sometimes loving means fighting for what you care for.

She’ll apply to a women’s college on the East Coast, because she fell in love with America when her parents took her there before the war. She goes in majoring in Literature (her ability to decipher High Diction in historical texts is uncanny), but checks out every book she can on history, philosophy, political science. She sneaks into the boys’ school across town and borrows their books too. She was once responsible for a kingdom, roads and taxes and widows and crops and war. She grew from child to woman with that mantle of duty wrapped around her shoulders. Now, tossed here on this mundane land, forever forbidden from her true kingdom, Susan finds that she can give up Narnia but she cannot give up that responsibility. She looks around and thinks I could do this better.

I want Susan sneaking out to drink at pubs with the girls, her friends giggling at the boys checking them out from across the way, until Susan walks over (with her nylons, with her lipstick, with her sovereignty written out in whatever language she damn well pleases) and beats them all at pool. Susan studying for tests and bemoaning Aristotle and trading a boy with freckles all over his nose shooting lessons so that he will teach her calculus. Susan kissing boys and writing home to Lucy and kissing girls and helping smuggle birth control to the ladies in her dorm because Susan Pevensie is a queen and she understands the right of a woman to rule over her own body.
Susan's briefly hinted-at after story has often presented a stumbling block, particularly for those hostile to Lewis's religious and moral beliefs, but this probably takes the cake as the worst take I've read. Susan the feminist power-girl who goes on to become an American liberal politics version of Forest Gump. In a perverse imitation of Lewis's tossing together of disparate mythologies, the author takes every trope and event of American progressive mythologizing about the mid twentieth century and crams them all into Susan's life.
She starts writing for the local paper under the pseudonym Frank Tumnus, because she wants to write about politics and social policy and be listened to, because the name would have made Edmund laugh.

She writes as Susan Pevensie, too, about nylons and lipstick, how to give a winning smiles and throw parties, because she knows there is a kind of power there and she respects it. She won wars with war sometimes, in Narnia, but sometimes she stopped them before they began.
...
Susan is a young woman in the 50s and 60s. Frank Tumnus has quite the following now. He’s written a few books, controversial, incendiary. Susan gets wrapped up in the civil rights movement, because of course she would. It’s not her first war. All the same, she almost misses the White Witch. Greed is a cleaner villain than senseless hate. She gets on the Freedom Rider bus, mails Mr. Tumnus articles back home whenever there’s a chance, those rare occasions they’re not locked up or immediately threatened. She is older now than she ever was in Narnia. Susan dreams about Telemarines killing fauns.

Time rolls on. Maybe she falls in love with a young activist or an old cynic. Maybe she doesn’t. Maybe Frank Tumnus, controversial in the moment, brilliant in retrospect, gets offered an honorary title from a prestigious university. She declines and publishes an editorial revealing her identity. Her paper fires her. Three others mail her job offers.

When Vietnam rolls around, she protests in the streets. Susan understands the costs of war. She has lived through not just the brutal wars of one life, but two.
Because, you know, everything's better if it's American. We wouldn't want the author to be forced to learn what the liberal orthodoxies of Britain were in order to place Susan there -- better to bring her here.

There are so many things wrong with all this. For starters, the author clearly hasn't read the books with any care. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe appears to take place during the Blitz, so probably during the summer of 1940. Susan's age is not given in the book, but internal evidence would suggest she's around 12. Lewis was no great stickler for continuity, and the war is not mentioned in future books, but at a minimum I think we can say there's no way that Susan could go off and be a nurse during World War Two, she'd be in her early teens.

And what's with this deep belief that one is only a "strong character" if there's a tinge of violence about one? The line "She keeps a knife or two hidden under her clothes because when it comes down to it, they called her Gentle, but sometimes loving means fighting for what you care for," is more distant from the realities of world wars than Lewis's kingdom of dryads and fauns. You want to show a real tough as nails nurse during World War Two? Have her explicitly conscious of the fact that for a woman where she is, bringing a weapon into play to defend herself could make a very bad situation even worse.

This is just another symptom of the underlying problem with the author's vision, however. She (I assume, somehow I'm having trouble finding an author attribution on the site) has constructed an entire fantasy around the idea of Susan as powerful. Susan misses the power of being queen, and this drives he to do all sorts of things because she's a woman who knows how to use power.

It strikes me how much this contradict's Lewis's own thinking about power and kingship/queenship as shown in the Narnia books. In The Horse and His Boy, when Shasta discovers that he is actually Prince Cor and will one day be king, his father King Lune tells him, "For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land."

The post-author see's Susan as having been a powerful and talented administrator, someone who made the trains run on time, and she sees Susan as wanting to wield that power again. Indeed, she sees Susan as, in a sense, the best of the lot of Narnia kids, because she imagines this central will to power (and ability for wielding it) in her character.

But for Lewis, leadership is sacrificial rather than self-aggrandizing. Indeed, the sort of "I'm powerful and I want to make things work my way because of that" attitude displayed by the post author is what Lewis portrays with the White Witch and with the Calormen rulers shown in Horse and His Boy, a style of wielding power that Lewis clearly means to spotlight as corrupting and destructive.

In this sense, she's got the message of Lewis's choice to have children brought into Narnia and made its kings and queens exactly backward. She imagines this is hugely empowering and Susan will find it hard to let go of being the power-wielding woman that she was in Narnia. Lewis doesn't see power-wielding as what a good ruler wants or does. That's why children are made kings and queens, not because they have the talent for being powerful rulers but because they won't be powerful rulers. They are put in charge, after all, by Aslan, Lewis's stand-in for Christ. They come to him like children, and although Lewis describes them growing into respected young kings and queens, their virtue as such is, I think, in Lewis's vision partly the humility of having come to their positions through being chosen, not through being the strongest or most able.

Susan's fall, which we see in its beginning stages in Prince Caspian, is her increasing desire to set herself up as superior to such things. Even being back in Narnia, the dismisses the possibility that Lucy could have been seeing Aslan, because she's becoming dismissive of things outside of or larger than herself. When in the Last Battle her siblings describe her falling away from Narnia entirely, it's in terms of her dismissing Narnia as something they used to imagine, something too big and unsettling and nonconformist to fit with the place that she's come to envision for herself in the "real world".

7 comments:

Brandon said...

When in the Last Battle her siblings describe her falling away from Narnia entirely, it's in terms of her dismissing Narnia as something they used to imagine, something too big and unsettling and nonconformist to fit with the place that she's come to envision for herself in the "real world".

I think this is right on the nose. Susan's problem was not that she found liberation, but that she found conformity. She began devoting her life to being part of an In Crowd, an Inner Circle -- a temptation Lewis himself knew quite well -- and gave up everything for it. She put away childish things -- but they were the wrong childish things, the ones that actually involved a free imagination.

I once wrote a poem about it; which, now that I look back at it, was inspired by a previous DarwinCatholic post.

Kristin said...

What really bothers me about this interpretation is how it completely ignores Susan's loss. Her entire family dies in one day, but that doesn't seem to affect her character at all; she's perfectly happy playing Activist Barbie and hitting all the high points of history because she wouldn't be "important" otherwise.

I think Susan would be very lonely and would do anything to be in an Inner Circle somewhere. She wouldn't do anything that would shock or scandalize her friends - including talking about Aslan or archery.

Caroline said...

This reminds me of how terribly the Prince Caspian movie misinterpreted the relationship between Caspian and Peter. The writers couldn't fathom that Peter would be willing to help Caspian obtain the throne, or that Caspian would respect Peter as the High King of old. Not the mention the awful scenes where Peter talks about how much he misses being a king in Narnia because of the power. Did these people actually read the books?

Nate Winchester said...

The post-author see's Susan as having been a powerful and talented administrator, someone who made the trains run on time, and she sees Susan as wanting to wield that power again. Indeed, she sees Susan as, in a sense, the best of the lot of Narnia kids, because she imagines this central will to power (and ability for wielding it) in her character.

What Caroline above said. Someone else (more erudite than me) has pointed out that the movies seem to miss the essential undertone of the Narnia books of how being a ruler means you are the "first servant" so to speak. In fact I'm willing to bet that the author of the quoted post has not read the books at all but merely seen the movies and read ABOUT the books (and how they ended) rather than the source itself. Ironically it's a very childish sense of power. ("Why do you want to be president?" "Because then people have to do what I say!") I think it also explains a lot about modern misconceptions of God as nobody nowadays can imagine being Supreme Ruler of everything, yet letting the world be very libertarian in its operation.

There was a blogger I read once that did a beautiful takedown of this whole "Lewis was against sex" meme, I'll have to see if I can dig it up again. (it's somewhere deep within the interwebs and my memory so this could take awhile)

rhinemouse said...

Nate, perhaps you're thinking of this essay by R. J. Anderson? (It's certainly the best thing that I've seen on the subject.)

What I found irritating about the Ink Splotch piece, perhaps even more so than its ideology, was that the "Susan" in it has absolutely nothing in common with how Susan is characterized in the books. I am actually a big fan of Susan. But the reason I love her is that I find her character in the books (especially Last Battle) to be really interesting and easy to empathize with. I love that she denies Narnia so she can fit in, because I have made that same sort of stupid decision so many times in my own life. Pretending that Susan doesn't have that conflict and then claiming to be a fan of her strikes me as amazingly pointless. It's like saying, "I love Edmund Pevensie so much! I'm going to pretend he never betrayed his siblings to the White Witch!"

Nate Winchester said...

Rhinemouse, while good, I finally found it. Or rather, the guy.
http://www.andrewrilstone.com/2005/11/lipstick-on-my-scholar.html

Andrew Rilstone has several essays on Lewis and that one is one of my favorites.

Gail Finke said...

Wow. Just wow...

I always thought that Susan wasn't lost forever, but that she got confused and would come back to believing in Narnia later. After all, she's the only one who didn't die, right? As a child I was mad that she didn't stay with what she knew was true, but then I could see that a lot of people got mixed up. Susan was a hopeful character in this regard.