Welcome, dear readers, as always.
I’ve just finished the Narnia books once more. If you don’t know them, they are a series of 7 fantasy novels
written and published in the early 1950s by C.S. Lewis (1898-1963),
an Oxford and then Cambridge professor, who was a close friend for years of JRR Tolkien
and a member of the combination literary club and drinking society called “The Inklings”,
which met in various Oxford settings—college rooms and pubs like The Eagle and Child
in the 1930s and 1940s.
As a boy, Lewis and his brother had created an imaginary world, “Boxen”,
(This is a modern collection of the bits and pieces which the boys wrote—and illustrated.)
and, in later years, produced the lands of Narnia.
The books follow the adventures of a group of children—mostly related—and the group changes in time—as they are brought to Narnia to accomplish tasks set for them by a magical figure in the shape of a lion, called “Aslan” (which is Turkish for “lion”, as Lewis explained in a letter of 1952—C.S. Lewis Letters to Children, 29).
(This is by Pauline Baynes, 1922-2008, whom Lewis asked to illustrate the first edition of the Narnia books after being impressed by her work for Tolkien. Baynes also did the map of Narnia seen above.)
There are a number of films made from the books, a BBC series from 1988-1990, which included the first four books (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair)
and bigger commercial films of the first three, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005),
Prince Caspian (2008)
and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010).
As these films have been made, they’ve gradually begun to split from the original books, and the older BBC versions tend to be closer to those originals, but I enjoy both—wonderful special effects in the newer films, but I feel that the characters are closer to the books in the older BBC adaptations—and the older series includes The Silver Chair.
One of the children in the first volume is Susan Pevensie,
as played by Sophie Cook, in the BBC version,
and by Anna Popplewell, in the later films.
And this time through the books I was really struck by Lewis’ gradual portrayal of Susan as a kind of moral failure, the cause of which Lewis explained in a letter to a child in 1955:
“Peter [the older boy in the first and second books] gets back to Narnia in it [“it” being the last book of the series, The Last Battle]. I am afraid that Susan does not. Haven’t you noticed in the two you have read that she is rather fond of being too grownup. I am sorry to say that side of her got stronger and she forgot about Narnia.” (C.S. Lewis Letters to Children, 51)
Susan’s slide begins in the second book, Prince Caspian, where she lies about not having seen Aslan when she has (Chapter 11, “The Lion Roars”), and the narrator of the third book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, further condemns her by saying, “Grown-ups had thought her the pretty one of the family and she was no good at school work (though otherwise very old for her age)…”
She makes no appearance in books 4-6 (The Silver Chair, The Horse and His Boy, and The Magician’s Nephew), but her full condemnation occurs in the final book, The Last Battle. Basically, the plot is about the final destruction of Narnia and the transfer, at the close of the book, of most of the major characters to a kind of paradise (actually perhaps a form of Heaven, as it’s revealed that several of those characters had been killed earlier in a railway accident without knowing it). The last king of Narnia, Tirian, asks Peter, someone from our world who is one of the first characters to visit Narnia, and became a king there, “Has not Your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?” The replies—from Susan’s fellow Narnia visitors–explain in detail Lewis’ earlier remark in his 1955 letter.
“ ‘My sister Susan,’ answered Peter shortly and gravely, ‘is no longer a friend of Narnia.’
‘Yes,’ said Eustace [a major character from books 3 and 4], ‘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 [one of the protagonists, along with Eustace, in book 4], ‘she’s interested in nothing now-a-days 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 [a main character in book 6, The Magician’s Nephew]. ‘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.’ “ (The Last Battle, Chapter XII, “Through the Stable Door”)
It’s never said, but, because all of the other major figures are together in some sort of paradise, Lewis, as a Christian, is clearly implying that Susan, by her absence, has been denied redemption and therefore condemned to the opposite of heaven, which seems surprisingly hard-hearted of him, considering that her crimes seem to consist of “forgetting Narnia” and being “grown-up”.
Narnia, however, isn’t just the place, it’s its ruler, Aslan, and, by Aslan, as Lewis tells a child, “I meant the Lion of Judah” (C.S. Lewis Letters to Children, 29), that is, Jesus. No Narnia, then, meant no Jesus, and no Jesus, to Lewis the Christian, meant no happy afterlife.
For me, however, that other charge, of being what Susan believes is “grown-up”, is equally sad, as I find it linked to Lewis’ own view of maturity, as he outlines in his wonderful essay, “Three Ways of Writing for Children”. (Here’s a LINK so that you may enjoy it, too: https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=9117 )
In one part of the essay, Lewis addresses what would seem to be Susan’s “grown-up” view of her fellow Narnians’ desire to keep Narnia alive in their memories—and his own response to such behavior:
“Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development: When I was ten I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
Thus, except for Susan, the others have shed this fear of being “childish”, as Lewis has in openly declaring his happy and unashamed adult consumption of fairy tales. Lewis then goes on to define what he believes being grown-up means:
“2. The modern view seems to me to involve a false conception of growth. They accuse us of arrested development because we have not lost a taste we had in childhood. But surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things? I now like hock, which I am sure I should not have liked as a child. But I still like lemon-squash. I call this growth or development because I have been enriched; where once I had one pleasure, I now have two. But if I had to lose the taste for lemon-squash before I acquired the taste for hock, that would not be growth but simple change. I now enjoy Tolstoy and Jane Austen and Trollope as well as fairy tales and I call that growth: if I had had to lose the fairy tales in order to acquire the novelists, I would not say that I had grown but only that I had changed. A tree grows because it adds rings: a train doesn’t grow by leaving one station behind and puffing on to the next. In reality, the case is stronger and more complicated than this. I think my growth is just as apparent when I now read the fairy tales as when I read the novelists, for I now enjoy the fairy tales better than I did in childhood: being now able to put more in, of course I get more out.”
(In case you’re not familiar with the terms, “hock” is a now rather old-fashioned word for German white wine and “lemon-squash” is, more or less, lemonade.)
Applying this to the other Narnians, we can understand that what Lewis implies is that:
1. Narnia = Aslan, and what Aslan stands for
2. by remembering Narnia, they remember Aslan
3. by including their experience of Narnia in their adult lives, they gain from the inclusivity which Lewis believes makes real “grown-ups”—and the easy entry into the paradise which appears near the end of The Last Battle
4. and, because Susan is unwilling or unable to do this, she must suffer the consequences.
I earlier wrote that, condemning Susan seems hard-hearted. Lewis was a gentle and kind-hearted man, however, and, in another, later, letter, he offers one more thought about Susan:
“The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having been turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there is plenty of time for her to mend, and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end—in her own way.” (C.S. Lewis Letters to Children, 67.)
Thanks, as always, for reading.
And know that there’s always