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

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Susan Pevensie and the Real World's Magic

A while ago Melanie Bettinelli had a post which I've been thinking about ever since, about Susan Pevensie and her "exile" from Narnia. If there's one element more than anything else that can get a lot of modern readers riled about the Narnia books, it's what we hear about Susan's defection. The mention in The Last Battle is in fact very brief:
“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 site 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.”
This is often characterized by angry readers as "Lewis punishes Susan for growing up" or more specifically "Lewis punishes Susan for being interested in sex and boys".

The idea that Susan is either punished by the author or by Aslan is a bit odd, in that the account which Eustace, Jill, and Polly give of Susan is that Susan has lost all interest in them, not that she's been somehow cut off by them or by the divine or authorial powers in Narnia. It's also kind of interesting who mentions which issues with Susan. Eustace, the youngest of the boys, says that she treats their interest in Narnia as a childish game. Jill, the youngest girl (though she and Eustace must be nearing or in their teens by now) says that Susan is obsessed with being "grown-up". And Polly, who's an adult in perhaps her sixties sees Susan as being fixated on "the silliest time of one's life".

But as Melanie points out, going to Narnia (though not interest in it) is apparently something which in the world of the books one ages out of. At the end of Prince Caspian, Aslan takes Peter and Susan aside for a conversation which Peter describes thus:
"There were things he wanted to say to Su and me because we're not coming back to Narnia."

"Never?" cried Edmund and Lucy in dismay.

"Oh, you two are," answered Peter. "At least, from what he said, I'm pretty sure he means you to get back some day. But not Su and me. He says we're getting too old."

"Oh, Peter," said Lucy. "What awful bad luck. Can you bear it?"

"Well, I think I can," said Peter. "It's all rather different from what I thought. You'll understand when it comes your last time."
Edmund and Lucy reach this same point in regards to Narnia at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
"Please, Aslan," said Lucy. "Before we go, will you tell us when we can come back to Narnia again? Please. And oh, do, do, do make it soon."

"Dearest," said Aslan very gently, "you and your brother will never come back to Narnia."

"Oh, Aslan!" said Edmund and Lucy both together in despairing voices.

"You are too old, children," said Aslan, "and you must begin to come close to your own world now."

"It isn't Narnia, you know," sobbed Lucy. "It's you. We shan't meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?"

"But you shall meet me, dear one," said Aslan.

"Are-- are you there too, Sir?" said Edmund.

"I am," said Aslan. "But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there."
I'd remembered well Aslan saying that they must get to know him in our own world. I had forgotten the line "you must begin to come close to your own world now", and as an adult, and keeping in mind the fact that although the Narnia books can certainly be read and enjoyed by adults, they were explicitly written as children's books, not as mainstream genre fantasy books, it seems like an important line. One of the themes that children's books deal with is what it means to encounter the world as a child, and how our encounter with the world must change as we begin to grow up. With its emphasis on talking animals, on evils like "always winter, but never Christmas", Narnia is something of a children's world. Written in the Britain of the 1950s, where mass bombing was a recent memory and rationing of basic food and household necessities was a present reality, children's literature was seen more so than now as a way in which children could escape the dreary reality into a more brightly lit, adventurous world. This ethic is almost the exact opposite of what seems to be a common ethic regarding children's fantasy/adventure lit now: that fantasy adventures provide sheltered child readers a chance to encounter the dark and dangerous things they have no encounter with in reality.

It seems to me that often fantasy readers' reactions to Susan and her abandonment of Narnia is filtered through both their own ideas about sexual awakening and adulthood, and also an implicit F&SF fan belief that stories about other worlds are in a sense dealing with things that are more real than our own world and stories focused on the here and now. Luminaries like Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis have made this kind of argument in reasonable ways: that through the medium of "fairy tales" (which we can take more broadly as fantastic worlds in general) we are able to see issues painted large and thus more clearly.

Realistic fiction can indeed become so mired in the specifics of experience that it loses track of their meaning. While Lord of the Rings may have a setting which is not "realistic", its characters deal with a world that has more moral realism than Ian McEwan's Atonement or Mark Helprin's A Soldier of the Great War, even though these latter two have theoretically "realistic" historical settings.

Of course, a fantastic setting does not necessarily mean a world in which big issues are handled more explicitly. Indeed, the same ability to write a sub-creation which expresses clearly the way the world works from a Christian or more broadly moral realist perspective allows someone with a different worldview to create a word that expresses their own, different beliefs.

This touches both on why I've found myself almost entirely abandoning science fiction and fantasy as I've gotten older. I still turn back to old favorites, and read books recommended by people whose judgement I trust, but given that most F&SF writers have beliefs which are at odds with my own, I often find reading the worlds which they have created (consciously or unconsciously) to reflect their beliefs tiresome. With realistic fiction, there is at least still the basic tie to how the world works, something which I think grounds an honest writer in a certain amount of reality.

It's through this filter that I find myself thinking about Susan in the Narnia books. All of the older friends of Narnia have been pushed back upon our world. They may get together to talk about Narnia, but they live here. Aslan has told them that they must "begin to come close to your own world", and it is in our own world that they must find truth, decide what is important to build their lives around, and discover our world's Aslan. There may not be swords and endless winters and evil wolves to slay in our wold, but in a very real sense the decisions we make in our everyday lives are of greater weight than these fantasy events. We treat those around us with kindness or cruelty, we struggle to earn a living, to find a spouse, to raise up the next generation. We may not be leading armies or founding dynasties or completing quests, but the stakes are in some sense higher.

As someone who writes and usually reads these kind of stories, rather than the latest other-world epic, I sometimes hear a bit of the accusation in Susan's fate. It's in the nature of fandom -- having a deep interest in things which many other people ignore or scorn -- to see outsiders as somewhat blind and clumsy creatures. When people read Harry Potter, they not only enter into the secret world of wizards the Harry encounters, but often see themselves, fans, as the wizard elect, while outsiders who don't understand these things are the hapless muggles.

Growing up around fandom back before Harry Potter came on the scene, terms like "mundanes" or "normals" were thrown around instead of "muggles". Even as the terms pointed to a basic disconnect between fans and others, there was a dismissive edge to them that could twinge the conscience. In a sort of fan self criticism, in Babylon 5 the true believers in the PsyCorps referred to non-telepathic humans as "mundanes", just as fans referred to non-fans with the same term.

Knowing all the explanations why stories of other worlds are important, walking away from the genre feels rather like Susan's betrayal.  And yet, I think there's a better way to think about this, one which points out how both stories of this world and of others are important.

According to Aslan, the reason why the Pevensie children have come to Narnia is to come to know Aslan better: and I'd argue in this sense we should take "Aslan" broadly, they have come to know goodness and nobility and sacrifice more clearly. And yet Aslan tells them that they are not to turn their backs on our world and focus on Narnia. Indeed, at a certain point they must turn from Narnia to their own. For readers, the experience is similar. We come to Narnia in order to understand more clearly Aslan and the virtues he embodies. But while we are meant always to remember Narnia, we're not meant to try to stay there. We're meant to understand our own world and how to live within it. The problem with Susan is not that she thinks about our world. The Pevensies were told by Aslan to do that. Susan's problem is both that she scorns what they learned in Narnia, brushing it off as unimportant and childish, and also that she has adopted a shallow approach to our own world rather than finding meaning in it.  She has disobeyed the command to know our world better, and instead chosen to embrace frivolities.  It's not treated as wrong that she grew up, but rather that she hasn't grown up. 

3 comments:

Antoinette Brenion said...

Well written with lots to think about.

Agnes said...

I'm not sure I perfectly understand your meaning. Do you mean that turning away from F&SF reading is like not returning to Narnia for the Pevensie children (i. e. turning to "realistic fiction", or to turning towards fiction that expresses the real moral working of the world, whether realistic or fantastic in the conventional sense)? I don't think you mean to suggest it's like Susan's absolute denial of the Narnia experience.
I read the post you linked about Susan Pevensie (and those linked in it about her) The idea that she was "exiled" at all is obviously contradiction to the text, and that it was because of sex in particular is as absurd and baseless as the theory that says Eve and Adam's original sin was a sexual sin.
I had the thought about the "archetypal Susan" that she resembles Martha from the Bible, Mary and Lazarus's sister who failed to choose the one thing necessary, the better part, to focus her attention to Jesus. Martha in the Bible is shown to ultimately find the one thing that is needed (when she says she believes in Jesus's power to give eternal life at the time of Lazarus's resurrection), but perhaps what happens to Susan is the typical danger of the Martha character, to focus on the practical, the mundane to a degree that she loses sight of the eternal truth.

Darwin said...

Agnes,

Having to restate concisely is probably a good exercise for me, as this ended up being a long, rambling weekend afternoon of a post.

Yes, I mean that turning away from fantastic fiction can, in a sense, be like following Aslan's directions to Edmund and Lucy that they will now have to get to know him better in our world.

I don't think that one HAS to turn away from fantastic fiction. But I think that doing so isn't necessarily denying the deeper truths of the real fantastic which authors like Tolkien and Lewis used fantasy as a genre to express.