There are some books you always come back to, no matter how long you have been away from them. You come back to be comforted, uplifted, to see old friends again…
Or you come back because there is something still nagging at you.
This post is for people who have read The Chronicles of Narnia. There are spoilers, so if you have not read the books, please go fill the gaping hole in your childhood as soon as possible and come back to this post afterwards.
The Pevensie children, who enter the world of Narnia through the wardrobe, help put an end to winters with no Christmases, and become kings and queens, appear in five out of the seven books in the series. One wonders if perhaps Narnia with all its creatures was created just for them — for their particular salvation, though of course they play a large role in saving Narnia in return many times.
They appear at the very end of book seven, The Last Battle, on the other side of the stable door and in Aslan’s country.
There are three fascinating plot choices Lewis made in this last book regarding the Pevensies:
- Peter, Edmund and Lucy die in a train crash. That is how they end up in Aslan’s country (heaven) at all.
- Susan, however, was not on the train, and does not die. So she is left alive in our world and is not present with the other three in the last book.
- We learn that Susan has stopped believing in Narnia altogether.
Briefly – #1 is fascinating because up until this point, the only main character who dies during any of the stories is Aslan himself, and he comes back because of the “deeper magic before the dawn of time.” The children’s deaths are not dwelt upon at length, but I remember feeling a little shock when my dad read this part to me when I was a child. I may have been dimly aware that I would have only been a few years younger than Lucy was at that point. Lewis does not seem to shy away from hinting at his young readers’ own mortality as they learn that the characters they have followed and identified with met a rather tragic end.
But it is points 2 and 3 that surprised me far more when I first read The Last Battle. In fact, “surprised” isn’t really the right word. “Horrified” might be closer.
The whole book, of course, is about the battle of belief. Eustace and Jill find themselves in a Narnia where many people do not believe in Aslan anymore, or confuse Aslan with the demonic figure Tash. The Pevensie children, who had saved Narnia long before, are now perceived as mere legends themselves.
And then we find out that Susan herself has also stopped believing:
“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”
“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.”
C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle
I was crushed.
Initially, I was devastated by Peter, Edmund and Lucy’s seemingly quick recovery from the loss of their sister. They seem irritated with her instead of deeply wounded by her absence.
Then, I was angry with the culprit herself. How could Susan give Narnia up for nylons? How could she leave her brothers and sister and the world they had shared? Above all, how could she leave Aslan?
And, finally, I was furious with the author. How could Lewis have left Susan?
If your feminist side, like mine, is also angry with Lewis for condemning Susan’s interest in “nylons and lipstick” and growing up, see Eileen Lee’s wonderful response to that complaint here. A taste:
It is not so much Susan’s external activities, I think, that Lewis wanted to highlight, but the condition of her heart. And this was her condition—that she was preoccupied with things that, while not necessarily bad, were not worthy to be the foundation of her identity or source of affirmation. For she was a Queen. She had simply forgotten so.
My younger self was angry with Lewis, and my older self is still troubled by his choice, but now I think perhaps he was onto something.
Losing one’s faith really is a form of forgetting.
I’ve written about the connection between faith and memory before, and so have Popes Francis and Benedict in Lumen Fidei. How often does our faith in God waver because we forget what he is really like? How often do we sin because we forget ourselves?
How many friends of ours, or family members, have fallen away from faith because they seem to have forgotten something? You kind of want to shake them sometimes and say, “But don’t you remember?”
In Susan’s case the relationship between faith and memory is particularly striking. She wants to be “grown up” and leave her former identity behind. She has forgotten who she really is.
But of course Aslan has not. He always did say, “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen.”
That line gives me hope for Susan, and for all the Susans in the world (of which number I am often included).
Later, Lewis gave this tantalizing response to a concerned young reader in 1957:
“The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there’s plenty of time for her to mend and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end . . . in her own way.”
via Matthew Alderman, “Whatever Happened to Susan Pevensie” First Things
His words still echo in my mind.
I have this crazy desire to write that book. How does Susan “get to Aslan’s country in the end, in her own way”? How does she react to the death of her entire family? (We learn the Pevensie parents also died in the crash.) Does she grow up like she wants to? Does she get married and have kids? Does her daughter get to Narnia somehow, even after the ending of that world in The Last Battle? (Time always was flexible between that world and ours.) Does the story somehow involve the horn of Queen Susan, which was lost after the events of Wardrobe and rediscovered in Prince Caspian? Or does it perhaps explore the chase of the ever-elusive White Stag?
I have, of course, no right to attempt such a story. The “canon” is closed.
And perhaps leaving Susan’s fate unresolved is wise. Lewis’ troubling, irritating choice alerts young readers to the fact that “the last battle” of your life–the only battle of your life–is the battle of faith, and that it is ongoing. You win, you lose, you win again, you lose again. Even a Queen of Narnia is not safe. And even a “grown up” is not lost.
Peter, Edmund, and Lucy are not devastated by Susan’s departure not just because the “sorrows of hell cannot touch the joys of heaven” but also because, perhaps, the separation may only be temporary. Susan’s story, Lewis indicates, is not over yet.
Neither is ours.
I can see the beginning chapter now.
They were not to take the train, because Mother hated trains. But Father was very ill and the doctors said country air was the kindest medicine left for him. The small farm cottage that had been left to them years ago was prepared. So the Walker family took a bus from London, and then another bus, and then another—each a little less crowded than the last…