“Oh, Susan! She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”
Jill and Polly ¹
“Grown-up, indeed. 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.”
In successive books of the Narniad Susan Pevensie, Queen of Narnia, also known as Susan the Gentle and Susan of the Horn, slides from grace to such a degree that she is no longer considered a “friend of Narnia”. The consequence of this is that in The Last Battle she is not in the fatal train crash that ensures her siblings go “further up and further in” to enter the “true” Narnia.
In many ways this seems dreadfully unfair on the poor girl – not only is she not to know the joy of entering Aslan’s Country with the others, but she is to be left without a family. And this for many readers feels like a betrayal.
What is the reason Lewis denies Susan her reward at this stage, the culmination of his grand design? Do the persistent rumours, that he planned to write a further volume entitled Susan of Narnia, have any foundation in fact? Or is there a practical reason why she’s not on the roll call of the Friends of Narnia?
As does Tirian in The Last Battle, Katherine Langrish asks what has happened to Queen Susan. When Peter tells Tirian that she’s no longer a friend of Narnia, Langrish notes that this is “where Lewis finally ditches Susan to make a theological point.” Susan, she points out, is Lewis’s version of Ignorance in Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress: by taking byways and avoiding hardships Ignorance is denied entry to the Celestial City on Mount Zion and shown the way to hell.² Has Susan really been damned because of her apparently wilful ignorance? Or is she worthy of redemption at some future stage, as Lewis intimates?
“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.”Letter to Marcia, 1955
A “rather silly, conceited young woman.” Hmm. Let’s, instead, for the moment dispose of the notion that an eighth volume was intended to follow the original septad of stories. In answer to her query, here’s more of what the author wrote to Marcia, the young admirer of his Chronicles who asked what became of Susan:
“I could not write that story myself. Not that I have no hope of Susan’s ever getting to Aslan’s country; but because I have a feeling that the story of her journey would be longer and more like a grown-up novel than I wanted to write. But I may be mistaken.”Letter to Marcia, 1955 ³
There are two things to note here. First, Susan has every chance to eventually get to Aslan’s Country – and it’s clear that Lewis hopes so. Secondly, Lewis says he’s not the person to write Susan’s story – though he did invite his correspondent to write the story themselves (which, if they ever did so, would be a good instance of fanfic before the term was invented). So he’s firm on not intending to add another instalment to the Chronicles of Narnia – Susan’s story would have to be about her as a grown-up and thus suitable for an adult novel, even if he leaves room for doubt.
But he seems never to have written it, unless one can find clues in his subsequent adult fiction. In fact, at least one person did write about Susan’s future – Neil Gaiman, in his 2004 short story ‘The Problem of Susan’. In an introduction to his piece Gaiman wrote that
“There is so much in the books that I love, but each time I found the disposal of Susan to be intensely problematic and deeply irritating. I suppose I wanted to write a story that would be equally as problematic, and just as much of an irritant, if from a different direction, and to talk about the remarkable power of children’s literature.”Introduction, Fragile Things ⁴
Equally as problematic and deeply irritating it certainly is. Gaiman’s story begins and ends with erotic dreams, which bookend an interview between an earnest young journalist and a retired academic, a certain Professor Hastings, whose siblings had died – like Susan’s – in a train crash, with the then young woman having to identify her relatives from the mangled remains. The venerable professor’s surname, Hastings, takes its name of course from the Sussex town not a dozen miles from Pevensey, from which we are meant to draw the obvious conclusion: which is that the academic is the grown-up Susan Pevensie.
There are sparks of brilliance in this piece but by playing hard and fast with layers of reality and inserting his habitual leitmotif of explicit sex – an apparent allusion to Susan’s obsession with being an adult – Gaiman seems to suggest her sin is the loss of innocence brought about through ignorance; perhaps at the root of Gaiman’s critique is Lewis’s puritanical streak, which placed Innocence on a pedestal while condemning Experience to an existence filled with regret.
I’m now going to suggest a good reason – maybe not the only reason, but at least a very plausible one, I think – why Susan was, at that time, excluded from the “friends of Narnia”.
Who, of the travellers to Narnia, gets to travel to Aslan’s Country after the stable door is closed? Polly and Digory, now adults of course; the siblings Lucy, Peter and Edmund; and Jill and Eustace: that’s seven individuals from our earth. Susan would have made eight – and this number wouldn’t have fitted in with Lewis’s finalised cryptic schema of seven books, each inspired by one of the seven medieval ‘planets’ – Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Mercury, the Moon, Venus, and now Saturn. (The Pevensie parents, who also died in the train accident, of course never travelled to Narnia and so never had cause to believe in it.)
Seven is traditionally seen as a magical or mystical number – for instance it accounts for the seven days of week, five of which in English derive from the Teutonic equivalents of Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn – and Lewis was not averse to using the number overtly (as in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader with the Seven Isles and the seven lost lords).⁵
This then may partly be the reason why Lewis was reluctant to write the further adventures of Susan, the odd one out, the unwelcome eighth figure, and why in the course of composing the Narniad he realised she had to fulfil the role of the awkward Pevensie sibling. Nylons and parties and her characterisation as “silly and conceited” strike us as dreadful reasons to denigrate her and deny her a place among the chosen few; these are of course the author’s excuses for excluding her at this point, not truly valid reasons.
For many is the youngster who yearns to be older and to be seen as more mature than they are; and many are the, ahem, maturer adults who wish they remained the vibrant vigorous young things they were in their early twenties – or as they imagined they could have been. Surely Susan can’t be blamed for that any more than a good number of the rest of us?⁶
When discussing ‘Narnia’ we need to be clear which Narnia we’re talking about. There’s the true Narnia which is Aslan’s Country, the one we get more than a glimpse of in the closing pages of The Last Battle but which we were made aware of in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. There’s also the world of Narnia, the one the visitors from our world get called to by a horn call, or enter (and exit) through a portal – a door to a wardrobe or in a perimeter wall, a picture frame or a stable door, or with magic rings and a pool of water. This is the world we can picture as a flat round table, much as in the Norse concept of Midgard (what we’d call Middle-earth) and the various mappae mundi of the Middle Ages.
Then we also know that Narnia is but one country amongst many in the world of Narnia. In the West there is an apple orchard on a green hill far, far away (accessible via a waterfall or on a winged horse), and also Lantern Waste; to the North there are marshes, heaths and more rugged landscapes of Ettinoor and the Wild Lands; to the East is the sea and islands and the western borders of Aslan’s Country; to the South is Archenland and Calormen. And in the centre is Narnia itself, land of talking animals and mythical beings.
Finally there is a mundane Narnia, an ancient Roman town in the geographic centre of Italy, underlying the modern Umbrian hilltown of Narni. Perhaps the site’s antique origins encouraged Lewis to cheerfully include satyrs, fauns, centaurs and minotaurs among Narnia’s denizens, but he clearly chose the name with some consideration, as Roger Lancelyn Green reported:
When Walter Hooper asked him where he found the word ‘Narnia’, Lewis showed him Murray’s Small Classical Atlas, ed. G. B. Grundy (1904), which he acquired when he was reading the classics […]
Coincidentally the Duomo in the town commemorates Lucy Brocadelli, venerated as Blessed Lucy of Narni, a late medieval mystic and stigmatic, though whether Lewis was aware of her existence hasn’t, as far as I know, been recorded. As it happens we haven’t far to look for Lucy Pevensie’s origins: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was dedicated to another Lucy, Lewis’s goddaughter Lucy Barfield.
Susan the Gentle
And what of Susan’s origins? Perhaps Lewis was recollecting the story of ‘Susanna and the Elders’ from the apocryphal Book of Daniel. In this tale two leering old men lust after Susanna, spreading the calumny that she entertained a young man in her garden; the prophet Daniel challenges the men, exposes their lies and proves Susanna’s innocence. Queen Susan of course gets the leering attention of the Calormenes in The Horse and His Boy before the Pevensies are able to flee the city of Tashbaan, which to me suggests a connection between the two figures.
Perhaps Susan Pevensie, who’d spent time in America with her parents, was unfairly regarded by her siblings as having her head turned by America’s bright lights. I’d like to think however that the nylons, lipstick, partying and similar trappings were a passing fad and that any conceit which had been detected in her was quickly dissipated by the sorrow she will have suffered after the tragic end of her family. Surely there’s hope for Susan the Gentle.
¹ C S Lewis. 1956. The Last Battle. Puffin Books, 1965.
² Katherine Langrish. 2021. From Spare Oom to War Drobe. Travels in Narnia with my Nine Year-Old Self. Darton, Longman and Todd.
³ Impending Doom. 2021.’What C S Lewis Said About Susan’s Fate in The Last Battle.’ Narnia Web. 1st August, 2021. https://www.narniaweb.com/2021/08/what-c-s-lewis-said-about-susans-fate-in-the-last-battle/
⁴ Neil Gaiman. 2004. ‘The Problem of Susan’, in Fragile Things. Headline 2018:16-17, 237-250.
⁵ Am I being too fanciful in seeing in the surname Pevensie an echo of the word “sevens”? The alternative is that it references Pevensey, where Duke William landed with his army in 1066 prior to conquering England and taking the crown; the Pevensie siblings similarly land … in Narnia, prior to defeating the White Witch and becoming Kings and Queens.
⁶ Matt Mikalatos. 2021. ‘The Problem(s) of Susan.’ Tor.com. 12th May, 2021.