'The Problem of Susan' is Neil Gaiman's phrase for what happens to Susan Pevensie in C S Lewis's Narnia books. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Susan and her sister Lucy personally witness the death of Aslan, weep over his corpse and witness his resurrection. Aslan personally crowns her Queen of Narnia, along with her sister, as he crowns her two brothers Kings of Narnia. Then Susan goes back to our world, with her sister and brothers. Later Narnia novels shift the focus increasingly away from the Pevensies, until the end of the sequence when Lewis inserts them, rather abruptly, into the very last chapter of The Last Battle. At this point, though, Susan is not with them. Narnia is finished; the friends of Narnia get to go to the heaven of which Narnia itself was but a shadow. Peter, Edmund and Lucy, having all been killed at the same time in an our-earthly train-crash, find themselves suddenly in Narnia, and from there proceed to the real heaven. As a bibliophile, I've always loved the way Lewis describes this latter destination:
For them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.Not Susan, though. She is no longer a 'friend of Narnia'. Indeed, she no longer believes Narnia is real ('Fancy you still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children', she tells Eustace, dismissively, back in our world). The killer is this assessment of Susan's priorities from Jill Pole: 'she's interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations.' Invitations to parties, that is. In a word: sex has become more important in her adult life than Narnia. Ergo: no heaven for her! J K Rowling in an 2004 interview summed up the 'problem of Susan' thesis:
There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She's become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that.Quite. Now, one can consider (as I do) the gender politics of Lewis's writing problematic in lots of ways without considering him a dedicated sexist or misogynist. Indeed, I really don't believe he was either of those latter things. To read his theological works is to see that he didn't have a problem with sex as such. He had a problem with people becoming so focused on sex that it crowded out the things that really matter in life, like the young couple at the beginning of The Great Divorce so caught-up in one another's physical allure that they literally can't see the road to heaven that's right in front of him. For myself that line of argument, which clearly has some merit to it, would be more convincing if Lewis included any (to use the modern jargon) 'sex positive' representation at all in his Narnian writing. We can speculate why he doesn't. It's an unsurprising omission in children's books written in the 1950s, I suppose.
When I teach Narnia, a good proportion of my students become quite animated in their critique of the books' gender politics: Lewis making his satanic figure of evil a beautiful woman, for example; the lack of female agency when compared to male among the various characters; the problem of Susan itself. I used to be with them on that. But my perspective on the problem of Susan was altered by this clever and, I think, perceptive essay by my friend Alan Jacobs, written in response to an earlier blog post I wrote on this matter. The 'gender critique' perspective on Susan's lack of access (maybe temporary, maybe permanent) to the true Narnian heaven is: she's excluded because she has become a sexually mature woman. Alan disagrees:
I think that the right way to put it is to say that Susan simply chooses not to return to Narnia. That we paltry little humans have the power to refuse God is a point that Lewis returns to often in his theological writings. As he writes in The Problem of Pain, if we demand that God leave us alone, “that is what he does” — and, interestingly, Lewis prefaces that statement with an “Alas,” as though he might well prefer God to operate in another way. (Which also helps us understand that in sparing Susan from the train wreck that kills the rest of her family he is trying to give her a chance to turn back around towards Narnia. However, the emotional tenor of all this is muddled by this catastrophic contrivance to get the rest of the Pevensies into Narnia one last time; it's one of Lewis's unwisest narrative choices.)This seems to me the most likely explanation for why Lewis wrote Susan the way he did (I actually give this passage to my students for discussion).
I think this point — that we can refuse God and that some of us do — was important enough to Lewis that he was determined to get it into the Narnia books, but how was he to do it? The point wouldn't be made strongly enough if any of the less dominant characters embodied it, so it had to be one of the Pevensies. He couldn't make Lucy a backslider: she was the one who had always had the greatest faith and the greatest spiritual discernment. And he couldn't use Edmund either, since any renunciation of Aslan by Edmund would destroy the whole portrayal of Edmund's redemption in the first book. So it had to be either Peter or Susan, and I suspect that Lewis was not quite ready to face the possible theological implications of the High King of Narnia becoming a rebel against Aslan. So Susan it had to be. Lewis was backed into a structural corner, as it were.
This is not to say that Lewis didn't have some deeply troubling ideas about women, only that I think he couldn't have gone in another direction if he were going to make this theological point about our ability to be “successful rebels to the end.”
Lately though I've been re-thinking Susan. Quite possibly I've been over-thinking Susan. The thing is: the way we style the throwaway reference at the end of The Last Battle as 'the problem of Susan' makes it into the problem of puberty. The thing about that is that we tend to forget Susan has already gone through puberty, at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. All the Pevensies have done the same. The experience has turned them less into sexual beings and more into Renaissance Fair cosplayers:
“And more,” said Queen Lucy, “for it will not go out of my mind that if we pass this post and lantern either we shall find strange adventures or else some great change in our fortunes.”The white stag here is either Lewis's gesture towards Celtic mythology (in which the uncatchable stag represents the beckoning other-world; quite a neat reversal if so, for Narnia's otherworld, here, is our mundane one) or else, perhaps, it is a nod towards Saint Eustace. Eustace was a high-up Roman general who converted to Christianity during a hunt, when the stag he was hunting displayed a crucifix in amongst its antlers.
“Madam,” said King Edmund, “the like foreboding stirreth in my heart also.”
“And in mine, fair brother,” said King Peter.
“And in mine too,” said Queen Susan. “Wherefore by my counsel we shall lightly return to our horses and follow this White Stag no further.”
“Madam,” said King Peter, “therein I pray thee to have me excused. For never since we four were Kings and Queens in Narnia have we set our hands to any high matter, as battles, quests, feats of arms, acts of justice, and the like, and then given over; but always what we have taken in hand, the same we have achieved.”
“Sister,” said Queen Lucy, “my royal brother speaks rightly. And it seems to me we should be shamed if for any fearing or foreboding we turned back from following so noble a beast as now we have in chase.”
“And so say I,” said King Edmund. “And I have such desire to find the signification of this thing that I would not by my own good will turn back for the richest jewel in all Narnia and all the islands.”
“Then in the name of Aslan,” said Queen Susan, “if ye will all have it so, let us go on and take the adventure that shall fall to us.” [The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, ch 17]
[Lovely image there, by an artist called Swandog]. Conceivably Lewis thought back to this stag when he came up with the name for Eustace Scrubb. But could the stag in some way stand for grown-up sexuality, some iteration of a sex-positive Christianity not in thrall to the dreaded lipstick, nylons and invitations? A clean sort of desire? Hard to parse it that way, I think. Ezra P might disagree:
I ha' seen them mid the clouds on the heather.I suppose 'they', there, is us, humanity, chasing our ever-receding quarry with eyes of love-yearning. Which is all well and good, except that, at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, it is Susan who advocates giving up the pursuit: 'wherefore by my counsel we shall follow this White Stag no further'.
Lo! they pause not for love nor for sorrow,
Yet their eyes are as the eyes of a maid to her lover,
When the white hart breaks his cover
And the white wind breaks the morn.
‘Tis the white stag, Fame, we're a-hunting,
Bid the world's hounds come to horn!’
I wonder if it doesn't present, in effect, as a kind of thought-experiment. What would happen if you went through puberty into adulthood, then reverted abruptly to childhood again, and then went through puberty a second time? Speaking for myself I'd like to hope I'd handle the whole business better. But the Narnia books say the reverse: Susan handles puberty well, winds back time, goes through it again and makes a hash of it.
We could read this several ways. One would be to say: 'growing to adulthood is less sin-prone in Narnia than in our world'. But another would be more, shall we say, Tiresian. Imagine you could try puberty twice, first (for want of a better word) 'virtuously', the second time (again: terminology is tricky) lustfully. Could it be that the order in which Susan goes through these twinned experiences tends, conceivably even to Tiresias's proportion of nine-parts-to-one, to the conclusion: a virtuous puberty is fine, but a lustful puberty is ... better.