Quite some time ago, elisem
asked me if I would read Neil Gaiman's story, "The Problem of Susan" (Fragile Things
, New York: William Morrow, 2006: 181-190) and write about it. And, well, Fourth Street is coming up, and I am procrastinating like a crazy procrastinating thing, and I finally got around to it.
Spoilers both for the Gaiman story and for, inevitably, C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia
"The Problem of Susan" is essentially an objection to the fate of Susan Pevensie, but what makes the story interesting is that it's an objection on several levels. The objection is articulated openly and directly by both characters in the story: the professor and Greta, the journalist sent to interview her. The easy thing, of course, would be to make the professor Susan, and Gaiman gracefully eschews the easy thing, while never quite letting go of the identity between them. The professor is the right age; she lost her entire family (two brothers, one named Ed, and a younger sister) in a cataclysmic train crash; she is an expert on children's literature. But the Chronicles of Narnia exist in the world of the story; Greta and the professor talk about the books and about the professor's likeness to Susan and, in fact, The Problem Of Susan:
"You know, that used to make me so angry."
"What did, dear?"
"Susan. All the other kids go off to Paradise, and Susan can't go. She's no longer a friend of Narnia because she's too fond of lipsticks and nylons and invitations to parties. I even talked to my English teacher about it, about the problem of Susan, when I was twelve. [...] She said that even though Susan had refused Paradise then, she still had time while she lived to repent."
"Not believing, I suppose. And the sin of Eve."
I want to hold that thought for a minute, before we go on with the truly crushing blow Gaiman's professor delivers to Lewis's simplistic moral judgment. Before we go on, let's look at the only "solution" to the problem of Susan offered in the story.
It is not, let's be clear, a solution the story embraces. It's second-hand, what Greta's English teacher said to an indignant twelve-year-old girl (and clearly with an eye to reinforcing the allegory): she still had time while she lived to repent
. We know nothing about the English teacher except that she was a woman (all the characters in the story are women, except for the lion), and I think the professor's sharp, disbelieving, "Repent what?
" sums up the story's response to this idea. But Greta struggles to find an answer--not believing, which is certainly Susan's sin in Prince Caspian
, and "the sin of Eve."
And what I want to unpack here is twofold. First of all, "the sin of Eve" is not, as far as I can recall, ever mentioned in the Narnia books. Lewis gives the intrinsic evil of women over to the White Witch. "Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve" is intended (or at least I've always read it as being intended) as a formula of equality. It's not better
to be a Son of Adam; Lucy is the hero of the first three books, and it's Edmund who is the Judas and who possibly, depending on how one defines it, partakes of the sin of Eve. That's the other question that Gaiman, drat him, leaves indeterminate: what is
the sin of Eve? Disobedience? Greed? Succumbing to temptation? Or tempting Adam in her turn? But the important thing is that none
of these is a sin Susan Pevensie commits. Which I think points out something Gaiman (and Greta and the professor) never quite says, which is the fundamental arbitrariness of Susan becoming her siblings' scapegoat. "There must have been something else wrong with Susan," says Greta, articulating the dissatisfaction, but not having an answer to it.
Apparently, in Lewis's canon, Thomas is less forgivable than Judas. Edmund betrays Aslan, repents, and is forgiven. And never betrays Aslan again. Susan willfully disbelieves, repents, and is forgiven--and then, dammit, goes right back to willfully disbelieving again. And here's the other thing I wanted to bring up. In my posts on Narnia
, I talked a lot about Lewis's negative portrayal of adulthood, particularly adult femininity, and the way that all his "good" characters sneer at Susan for choosing that over Narnia. That seems to be Susan's sin in Lewis's eyes, and I think it's interesting that Gaiman doesn't articulate that directly, but his critique of Lewis's stance captures perfectly what's wrong with it:
"I don't know about the girl in the books," says the professor, "but remaining behind would also have meant that she was available to identify her brothers' and little sister's bodies. [...] My younger brother was decapitated, you know. A god who would punish me for liking nylons and parties by making me walk through that school dining room, with the flies, to identify Ed, well . . . he's enjoying himself a bit too much, isn't he? Like a cat, getting the last ounce of enjoyment out of a mouse."
Gaiman is pointing out, brilliantly, that the smug self-superiority of Lewis and his characters, sitting in judgment on Susan, is only possible because they don't have to deal with the real world anymore. They don't have to--and certainly don't
--think about what Susan is going through, about the grotesque, tragic, terrible mess that they've left behind. And that's all right for them, being dead and all, but Gaiman (I think) is taking Lewis to task, quietly and politely, for not facing up to the consequences of his grand moral judgments. "He's enjoying himself a bit too much, isn't he?"
And if that were all there were to "The Problem of Susan," it would be a fantastic story. But that isn't all. There's another layer.
(Actually, there are two other layers, one of them being the tangent about Mary Poppins Brings in the Dawn
, which shows beautifully the way in which this old-woman-who-isn't-quite-Susan-Pevensie has grown up and left behind the great tragedy and betrayal of her youth. She doesn't dream about C. S. Lewis and Narnia; she dreams about a different children's book entirely, and one--since Gaiman can make it up to suit himself--with a quite different relationship to its Christ-figure and his female opposite number.)
The dreams of Aslan and the White Witch, which may be the professor's, or may be Greta's, or may belong to both, are a much more vicious critique of Narnia than the surface narrative of the story. And a much more vicious critique of adults and adulthood than Lewis ever imagined. In the dreams, Aslan and the White Witch make a deal to betray the children. Aslan eats the girls, and the White Witch does something
to the boys ("she stares, unflinching, at the twisted thing her brothers have become"). And then the lion and the witch fornicate. And the terrible last line, with its echoes of being washed clean in the blood of the Lamb, perfectly captures the predatory nature of Lewis's Narnia, the way that it claims for itself and keeps those it claims to love. It isn't that Susan was left behind. It's that she escaped.