I Went to Narnia and All I Got was this Lousy Complex: Lewis, Gaiman, Grossman, Fearscape

The Problem of Susan, from the Problem of Susan and Other Stores, P. Crag Russel and Neil Gaiman, Dark Horse, 2019

In October 1950, C.S. Lewis’s novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was published, and this was the birth of Susan. In this novel four kids are evacuated to the large country house of an old professor, because the war—World War II—is on. In this house they find a gateway to another, more magical world called Narnia. The gate isn’t always open. They go through it once it is, and have an adventure, growing to adulthood as kings and queens who have met God, and then they come back through and are children again.

Susan Pevensie is the second-oldest of four children, these evacuated siblings, and she is the oldest of the two of them who are girls. Susan is the “little mother” of the group. She aspires to maturity and to approval, though it is not presented as aspiration—Susan is simply the oldest girl, and so in reality or in fiction she has the responsibility to be the way she is. Children’s fiction of the period often reflects this, as does the phrase “little mother,” existing before I use it. The four Pevensies enter Narnia on the behest of the youngest, Lucy, and thanks to the leadership of her pure heart and the chosen actions of each of them they rid the land of evil and become co-monarchs before returning to their childhoods in England.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe cover, Puffin Books

In 1951, Prince Caspian came out: the sequel. Susan is a little older now (by a year; she’s probably eleven or twelve) and in this novel she reminds the reader of her dual nature: she has the confidence and dash to loose an arrow at an adult guard’s helmet without prompting or permission in order to save a stranger’s life, but she’s also enough enmeshed in normativity that she’ll betray her sister’s heart just out of pique, taking up the don’t-do-that-dear attitude of the colonial-age appropriate female. Susan is glad to be back in Narnia and to remember her prior life, but spends a lot of time in this novel being picky or unhappy. Towards the end she is told that she will never return to Narnia. Peter, older brother, is told this too—but he appears in The Last Battle, a later story of Narnia, where Susan does not. Here in Prince Caspian the implication is simply that Susan and Peter have become too old to go on magical adventures.

In The Horse and His Boy, published three years later in 1954, Susan is seen as a Queen of Narnia. This is not a return for the character though it’s a return for the reader; this book is set within the duration of the Pevensies’ Narnian adulthood, pages unwritten but technically covered in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Susan’s role is, as ever, that of the adult woman, though now she’s grown into it and has a natural right to the authority of adulthood, where previously her “being like mother” is an attribute found negative by both her brothers and the professor who gave them all refuge. Susan is abroad to discover whether she should marry a handsome prince, which it turns out she shouldn’t. She doesn’t appear in many scenes, is not given a starring role, and for a child it’s hard to reconcile an adult depiction with the younger one you know. But, it is mature to marry for politics. It is approved to marry for duty. It is feminine to desire marriage to a handsome prince. It is appropriate to refuse a diplomatic marriage to a man who would make a bad king. Susan is motherly to an orphaned boy; Susan’s femininity, maturity and appropriacy are still her defining aspects.

During The Last Battle, published 1956, Susan does not appear. Since Prince Caspian, the series has developed and starring roles have gone to other children, many of whom are there, and she is noted in her absence. Textually, Susan cannot and does not come back to Narnia before its destruction and the ascension (or descent) to heaven (or hell) of all its inhabitants, because she has stopped believing in Narnia. The lack of belief is not left as an open question or a potentiality, it’s stated, and it is not left to lie as a personal failing later to be righted, though Lewis responded to worried readers in personal letters that Susan could have come right by Narnia later in life. This is not in the text. As noted by many commentators, Susan’s absence and loss of belief is juxtaposed directly with her interest in the signifiers of femininity appropriate to her class.

“Oh Susan!” said Jill, “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. “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 reader does not see Susan going to heaven; neither does Susan get to remain either mature or approved in the eyes of the reader. In the eyes of the reader—in my case and in several public cases—lipstick, nylons and invitations cast her out and feminine markers and behaviour are themselves original (innate) sin.This is the subject of a fair amount of casual and academic scholarship, by both feminists and others. It is known colloquially as the problem of Susan, which is also the name of a short story, now comic, written by Neil Gaiman. Readers receive various messages. We hear, to be girly is to be unworthy. To “grow up,” as we are all directed to, is to be truly childish (which is bad). To have one’s head turned by frivolity or festivity or feminine adornment is to be silly, and to silly is to be owed a dose of humility. By example, we’re informed we cannot have both the lightness of heart to believe in childhood’s adventures and a joy in material frippery and private events or soirées. In practice, we perceive types of femininity that are bad and which mark us as unmagical. To be a girl who conforms to visions of female maturity is to forsake and be forsaken.

The “problem of Susan” posits that her treatment by her author is unfair: it is biased. It is sexist. That the Chronicles of Narnia are intrinsically unsound (in this way, and in others), love them deeply though we do. A character in Gaiman’s short says that “There must have been something else wrong with Susan, something they didn’t tell us. Otherwise she wouldn’t have been damned like that—denied the heaven of further up and further in.” But to the average endorser of “the problem of Susan” there wasn’t something else wrong with Susan. There was simply a corrupt vision of femininity in the author’s hands, merging types of women with behaviours liked or disliked. Some stake a claim that’s its plain old virgin and whore. Lucy and Susan: carefree and careworn. Right and wrong.

The Problem of Susan has been rereleased in comic form by Dark Horse, now drawn by P. Craig Russell. It’s a comic I dislike, because it is unpleasant, but it is certainly relevant to the ongoing metanarrative of Susan.

Susan notices the witch's red lips, The Problem of Susan, from the Problem of Susan and Other Stores, P. Crag Russel and Neil Gaiman, Dark Horse, 2019
Susan notices the witch’s red lips, The Problem of Susan, from the Problem of Susan and Other Stores, P. Crag Russel and Neil Gaiman, Dark Horse, 2019

Often, Susan’s banishment from Narnia is referred to as a sexual matter. J K Rowling and Philip Pullman are both quoted to this effect on Susan’s Wikipedia page. This is the product of their analysis, and of Gaiman’s too; he shows us his Susan (“Professor Hastings”) looking at a dead centaur’s penis, and the White Witch’s shiny hair and red lips. He tells us Hastings/Susan remembers kissing a beautiful man in a summer house and how she went with a married man to Spain, and how that man “took” what “was left” of her virginity. How offhand, how distanced! P. Craig Russel shows us a man’s hand holding down Susan’s tense wrist on the sand. Her hand is contorted, discomfort in implication. Sex as a ruiner, in Gaiman’s story, though he seems to be arguing that making sex a ruiner is unfair. Gaiman and Russell together show us a vase of purple rhododendron flowers, described as sticky and vulgar but not appearing to be so. They show us the Lion fucking the Witch. The implication is that seeing the sexual in Narnia is what kept Susan out—that her own recognition of the seedy or the erotic was the “other thing” that was wrong with Susan. Gaiman suggests that Lewis decided Susan, approaching puberty, was a wrong lens for his sexless story.

This story also suggests, upon contemplation, that seediness is present whether recognised or not, and that an erotic mind is not the fault of its host—that we should all, in effect, stop minding when other people are horny, because sometimes things are sexy and casting out the aroused—symbolised by Susan—is unfair. A journalist or interested writer, Greta, visits Professor Hastings to discuss her book and they turn to discussion of Susan when it emerges that Hastings’ own life has mirrored Susan’s. Greta recalls how her teacher, when she was young, said that Susan being left alive ensured that Susan had time to repent. Hastings asks “Repent what,” and Greta suggests “Not believing, I suppose… And the sin of Eve.” What the sin of Eve is goes directly unanalysed. But it’s probably supposed to be “noticing sex.” Adam and Eve were naked, and Eve’s sin was eating the apple which awoke an erotic gaze.

An expansion of this theme could be that Lewis was unable to see the growing Susan as a perspective character, and subsequently erased her unknowability from his controlled structure, because his heterosexual view of women was too subliminally eroticised to be respectful or fully cognisant of a character who was becoming one. This is uncharitable towards men, and unnecessarily preoccupied with the mind of the author (who is, after all, literally dead). Additionally, The Problem of Susan is insufficiently compassionate in much the same way as its original. Things happen to her which the audience may be indignant about, but her reflection on those things is not engaged.

Rowling, Pullman and Gaiman all pick sex as what Lewis found sinful about her, and it can’t simply because she’s a girl of ever-unstated age. Peter is older, after all, and never associated with sex. Lucy is never associated with sex; ditto Jill and Polly, though all are of very similar age. Why they fix upon eroticism as Lewis’ objection must be to do with the wider text. Personally I’m not sure that lipstick and nylons are any more innately sexual (or indeed vain) than golden crowns and rich fabrics, or specially designated personal weaponry, all of which are textually approved in Lewis’ novels. But lipstick and nylons were at that time more exclusively feminine, so more easily disempowered by association with silliness. But Gaiman refers to Lewis’ characters descriptions of Susan’s luxe silliness by telling us she uses Chanel scent and “believes” it to be her “sole extravagance,” in the same panels as those which tell us even Susan now regrets the consequences of her adulthood:

Susan regrets her age, The Problem of Susan, from the Problem of Susan and Other Stores, P. Crag Russel and Neil Gaiman, Dark Horse, 2019
Susan regrets her age, The Problem of Susan, from the Problem of Susan and Other Stores, P. Craig Russel and Neil Gaiman, Dark Horse, 2019

This Susan has written a book called A Quest for Meanings in Children’s Fiction, which seems somewhat rum. The cover image is of Aslan having flowers braided into his mane by Susan and Lucy, so, this Susan calls Narnia fiction, just like The Last Battle’s Susan-by-report did—she’s still a nonbeliever—but she also studies it for “meaning.” Whenever people in fiction overtly search for meaning, folly is implicit and maturity spoofed. Defending Susan from perceived negative sexualisation by negatively sexualising her, and humiliating her indulgences and adult intellectualisation in chorus with Polly and Jill, doesn’t feel like good criticism. Additionally, it doesn’t seem kind, and that makes me feel bad. I suppose this is an achievement.

“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 problematic, and just as much of an irritant, if from a different direction, and to talk about the remarkable power of children’s literature.” —Gaiman, Fragile Things

The Problem of Susan (Dark Horse) does not give Susan back to her audience. It keeps her suspended for inspection, which is anathema to the truth: you can’t solve the problem of Susan until you envelop her faults as your own and forgive them for how they’ve been miscast.

Susan’s lack of belief in Narnia—her second forgetting and refusal to remember that their adventures “really happened,” and her ability to dismiss stories of that world as her siblings’ strong ability for imaginative recall—is brought into question by commentary, rather than text, as a genuine forgetting or a choice to forget. During Prince Caspian Susan refuses to believe that Lucy has seen Aslan. Later she confesses that a quiet part of her knew he was there as Lucy said he was, but she buried it. On adult reflection it’s unclear whether Lewis meant Susan to truly have forgotten Narnia by The Last Battle, or is she preferred not to remember, though all four children really did forget it after their first return. Only one is presented as wicked: choosing denial. And surely if she had truly forgotten, through magic, she would have been forgiven? Or are we supposed to humour our siblings forever? Perhaps, looking at Lewis’ wider writings, we are—but Narnia is real, in the text, so if the lesson was supposed to be that Susan’s sin was stopping saying “yes, Peter, my seventeen year old older brother, you were a very spectacular king in that pretend world we all made up. I will never stop being grateful you pretended to kill a wolf for me,” it was poorly presented.

I find a pubescent Susan who chose not to remember that she had already grown to adulthood elsewhere eminently valid, and think it’s important to note that puberty, though of sexual function, is not in practice a purely sexual experience. We grow, our bodies and brains change, our hormones change, we experience new rules and expectations in their application to ourselves. When Polly complains Susan has “wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now,” she and the reader, and perhaps the writer, forget that Susan has already been the age that she is now.

As you reach the end of the 1988 film Big, when protagonist Josh says to Susan (her name is really Susan) that she could “come with [him],” I.e. use the same magic he has to become a child again, and continue their romance as cusp-teenagers, and she says no—”I’ve been there before. It’s hard enough the first time.”—do you think “Unbelievable!” or “God damn this bitch, what a magic-denier”? Do you think “Obviously this is about the author’s negative attitude towards sex”? I don’t, even though Big does have a pretty dismaying sex plot. No: I understand that one’s teenage years can be quite awful, and why somebody would yearn for them to be over, or choose never to revisit. I understand Susan in Big, and I understand wicked Susan Pevensie. I easily imagine somebody who knows she has already done this—grown up—wanting it to be over, again. The problem of Susan is that Lewis did not allow Susan to be, or perhaps, sure, did not comprehend Susan as a perspective character. His story rendered her choices and motivations invisible, showing children reading his stories only the disdain of her younger peers and older brother.

Elizabeth Perkins as Susan in Big, 1988, waves goodbye
Elizabeth Perkins as Susan in Big, 1988, waves goodbye

Even as his novels start, Susan has begun to be taken and shaped by how a girl, who will become a woman, is supposed to be—worrying if Lucy is crazy rather than playing a game or telling the truth, which nets her a stern talking down from the professor—and that is never allowed to be something that has been done to her, only something which is a corrupting part of her. His text dislikes a part of her before he’s even begun. The same could be said of Edmund, and of Eustace, both of whom receive centre-stage, painful redemptions. While Susan gets a small echo of this large theme when Aslan greets her in Prince Caspian, it is small, and it is not sufficient, as her major condemnation is yet to come.

The Magicians, a novel from 2009 (adapted to television drama more recently, though that is not a part of my reference material), offers another “what if Narnia were really real” narrative in which to consider the problem of Susan. Combining the basics of Harry Potter, Narnia and other classics of related genres to create a story about chaotic young adulthood for the aging audiences of both—to quote the man himself, The Magicians is a more grown-up novel than Lewis wanted to write. Grossman’s book sees a realistic teenager, Quentin, still obsessed with the Fillory (Narnia) novels he read as a child, is offered a place at Magic University. Further, he discovers that Fillory itself is also real, and the books he loves were based on real children’s visits to the real magical world he has also found. Both magical environments are very dangerous, as is the emotional world Quentin comes to inhabit. Central to this emotional danger is Janet, the older girl of the core group of four that Quentin joins. Janet is brittle and unpleasant, though capable of generosity, loyalty and great glamour—she’s a socialite template given appreciable life, and in that way she’s an ultimate actualisation of “the problem of Susan”. Janet contains solely feminine markers. Lipstick, nylons (though perhaps outmoded) and invitations are her domain. She’s unkind and bitter and disempowered, pretending to be on top of the world.

Quotations about Janet from The Magicians by Lev Grossman, transcribed on Goodreads

Janet is a problematic Susan: the nightmare girl who embodies the things that repute female sophistication to be sharp, chilly and scary. Through her Grossman asks, alright, what if Susan did contain as much carelessness and harmful nature as anyone could say? What if she was really just a bitch? What if feminine power and callous horniness do go hand in hand, and lipstick/nylons/invitations mean silly and conceited? Would it be, then, that there’s nothing to her but the condemnable? Would it make her intrinsically unworthy? Should we want to see her lose? Then he answers no: Janet becomes a Queen of Fillory. (Grossman appears to enjoy mean people more than Lewis, whose high value of humility is evident over pages. This explains their differing choices to a basic extent.) The Magicians is a metanarrative itself, though, and needs to encompass its source. There was an older girl who went to Fillory and pretended to forget it, and became a mother. Problematic Susan ascends, but the problem of Susan is still there. The real problem of Susan is that mothers are a drag and we never figure out how to forgive them for that. When I say “we,” and “never,” I mean “the problem of Susan” represents a we who do never. We talk about “the problem of Susan” and care about what happened in this story from half a century ago because it echoes what has happened to us since.

The problem of Susan is that we want the woman off our back, and we’re alleging that’s a problem we have in a world where there’s no recognition of patriarchy. Peter is high king because he’s the oldest, of course! Not because he’s a boy, in any way at all. Heavens no. Pretend you don’t see that in real life boys take precedence, no matter if they came out first. This is a fairytale. He’s older. It’s about age. Age. Age. Sexism has no relation to choices made in children’s books.

Of course, it does. It’s not Susan’s fault that the whole world wants women to take care of anyone who might be classed “under” them and hates how women nag. It’s not a young reader’s fault that Narnia doesn’t want us to be like those other girls. But it’s pretty much our fault if we don’t ever try to get through all of that. And it’s authors’ faults if they can help but they don’t. Rowling is an interesting example as a commentator of Susan because her Susan is Aunt Petunia. A girl found that magic was real when she’d already learnt how to be normative and older. Discovered magic, loved it, was disempowered and rejected by it. Pretended it didn’t exist. Became Aunt Petunia, the dried up old conservative reactionary who does go to parties and who does care about her looks and her home—which only serves to humiliate her, because she is not beautiful and her house is just a house, and the reader knows it. Aunt Petunia has nothing to do with the sexuality of puberty, and neither does Harry Potter, though he gets his letter when he’s eleven. Sexualising Susan to explain her as the Last Battle outlier is insufficient, and unnerving, but noticing how (middle class?) British normativity feels about grown-up women is not. Gaiman, Lewis, Rowling and Pullman are all a part of that. Grossman is adjacent. I’m in it, and it’s in me.

Toward the end of The Magicians, Quentin is informed that Fillory was discovered because a child tried to hide in a clock, instead of a wardrobe, to escape sexual assault. This is the bridge from The Magicians to Fearscape, Ryan O-Sullivan and Andrea Mutti’s 2018-19 comic (Vault) of an otherwise not terribly Narnian aesthetic. Fearscape begins with a heavy indication that it is a series pouring straight from the perspective of Henry Henry, a plagiarist and unreliable narrator. Henry hates his mentor, wildly successful fantasy author Arthur Proctor, and steals his new manuscript while Arthur is in hospital. Henry was abused by his mentor, hence the hatred, but he will not tell the reader this in so many words. Despite this it’s evident and that evidence is, thanks to the Magicians, a link that turns the magical world Henry discovers into a Narnia that’s otherwise much more of a Wonderland. Then Fearscape can provide the last word necessary on the problem of Susan.

Jill and Henry Henry in Fearscape #1, Ryan O'Sullivan and Andrea Mutti, plus letterer, Vault, 2018
Jill and Henry Henry in Fearscape #1, Ryan O’Sullivan and Andrea Mutti, plus letterer, Vault, 2018

Henry is chosen by the Muse, a yellowy-golden angel lady, to be the one author of his generation to enter the Fearscape: the font of all inspiration which contains the extant validation Henry desires. Henry is mistakenly chosen, as he is taken for Arthur Proctor, but there’s a strong joke in the notion of a plagiarist being today’s greatest creative. As the series continues the reader is regularly reintroduced to Jill (not Jill Pole—Jill Proctor), daughter of Arthur, and she initially seems as dismissible as Henry’s narration claims. She’s humourless, unstylish, responsible, demanding, and tired. She’s looking after her father, who has progressive memory loss as well as other health concerns, and she’s the only person who recognises Henry as the fink that he is. Her father treasures him. Henry steals Arthur’s book and doesn’t visit him nicely; Henry hates Jill. In issue three or four, Jill finds herself in the Fearscape listening to Henry’s bullshit parade and is literally cast out—forced into immediate exile by Henry, the narrator, who claims the story as his own and refuses to credit her with relevancy or perspective. Fearscape is definitely not a Narnia story on its surface, it doesn’t pull its aesthetic or motifs from any given adaptation and it isn’t about children or goodness, though it is, in the negative, about humility. It’s not a parody or even a pastiche. But from this point, Fearscape is certainly a solving of Susan.

Jill and Henry Henry in Fearscape #5, Ryan O'Sullivan and Andrea Mutti, plus letterer, Vault, 2019
Jill and Henry Henry in Fearscape #5, Ryan O’Sullivan and Andrea Mutti, plus letterer, Vault, 2019

By the final issue Jill has claimed the reborn Muse as her own son to raise, and is the object of the text. Henry is gone, irrelevant. Jill acknowledges and publicises what her now deceased father did to Henry despite what it costs her, because the truth is the truth, and the dialogue and illustrations beautifully combine as only comics allow to subtly but certainly ask why male victims are afforded the trust to grow into wildly unpleasant people ultimately forgivable for their suffering when female survivors are required to get on with it and deal with being disliked and disdained anyway. I think of Susan, and how I understand her turning away from a place that played with her status, and where she was told she’d never go again, as a coping mechanism that results in exclusion. Susan’s state of denial might or might not have been healthy, but to frame it between eyerolls and disappointment is cruel. To have it discussed in her absence, without her perspective, teaches young readers ill. The problem of Susan is that no matter how many scholars and readers have analysed and criticised the text, Susan is still the only one left out. She must be wrong, or have something wrong with her, or the text is unfair or imperfect. Some children (I presume) are good at understanding a text as imperfect and context as coincidental. Others are not. Ostracised Susan is a stumbling block for the thoughts, with too many realistic associations to melt quickly. She’s too “there” to be forgotten, so she remains a troubling question. Susan is an object on the landscape.

In Fearscape #5, Jill’s unseen dimensions have a fine, implicit presence, and her choices and roles throughout are valorised in retrospect. She’s an adult to the template and a mother, and neither of those things make her less. Jill took care of everything, like she was supposed to—and finally, in the end, the narrative noticed. In opposition to my critical peer Caitlin Rosberg, I see the ending of the story as the gate to her freedom, finalising her journey from an object of aggression and disdain, to a compassionately seen object, to an unseen, undefined one—as close to not-an-object as is possible in fiction. It’s a release.

If the problem of Susan was that she was a girl written by a man who didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t depict her as an admirable young adult of the twentieth century, then it’s been progressively solved by subsequent men writing ever lighter-handed visions of that ignoble womanhood. They caught her; they set her free. It took time. It would be wrong to say some of the rest of us haven’t been taking Susan back for our own all along. But when relief comes from the outside, it’s one thing less to worry about.

Claire Napier

Claire Napier

Critic, ex-Editor in Chief at WWAC, independent comics editor; the rock that drops on your head. Find me at clairenapierclairenapier@gmail.com and give me lots of money