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livredor
Clever people talking about Narnia
Thursday, 08 December 2005 at 05:23 pm
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In case anyone is living under a rock, they've just released a Narnia film. This has led to lots of fun discussion about Narnia. daegaer has collected a lot of links, from both traditional and alternative media. On the whole the bloggers do a better job than the journalists, IMO. She has some good discussion in her own journal too.

If you don't want to plough through all those essays, the key one to read is Andrew Rilstone's Lipstick on my scholar. He outlines the major issue that most of the discussion is about, which is generally known as the Problem of Susan: why is Susan excluded from Aslan's kingdom at the very end of the series? Now, he's partial, Rilstone; he more or less argues that the Problem is a straw man made up by people who want to attack either Christianity or CS Lewis himself. I think he's basically right; Philip Pullman and JK Rowling, the main (famous) proponents of the Problem of Susan theory both have a major animus against Lewis, Pullman particularly.

As far as there is an issue here, it's a "problem" with Christianity itself and its views of the afterlife; Lewis is one of the most sensitive, reasonable exponents of that view I know of. And of course, there is plenty of variation among Christian beliefs; I'm talking specifically about the subset of Christians who believe that only a few people will be "saved" through their faith in Jesus and the rest will be excluded from any reward if not actually subjected to eternal punishment. That's a view that I personally find very unpalatable, but it's not my place to criticize Christian theology. I would say that if you have a problem with that basic tenet of Christianity, blaming Lewis for it is a bit daft. Unless I suppose you think that writing a children's fantasy series as a Christian allegory was itself a morally bad thing to do, which I think some people do hold.

There's also the feminist side. I don't think either Lewis' Christianity or his writing is inherently misogynist, myself, but I'm pretty forgiving about gender stuff in novels. A book would have to be really blatantly sexist for me to have a problem with it; I don't go looking for subtext which might possibly be read as anti-women if you squint the right way. But anyway. It is the case that Susan is female, and maybe this has something to do with her fate, for what it's worth.

I'm very far from being an expert on CS Lewis; in fact, my memories of the books are extremely hazy. So I don't really have a strong view about the Problem of Susan myself, I'm just enjoying the discussion as a spectator. So here are two more essays from the previous occasion this was a big thing in the media, both intelligent analyses coming from a slightly different standpoint from Rilstone: rj_anderson being extremely erudite, and rilina's response. Oh, and there's a little bit of discussion that developed in the comments to the post where I said I was planning to make this post about Susan.

With that preamble, what I really wanted to talk about is sartorias' recent post: Lewis vs. Susan. sartorias is reading the pshat of the Narnia Chronicles, rather than the nimshal of the Christian allegory. (If English has any technical terms for analysing allegorical text, I don't know them, so I borrow the terms from Jewish Biblical scholarship.) Why, within the story's own terms as opposed to the wider Christian context, is Susan excluded? The discussion on that post is really fascinating, and covers the religious questions, the feminist issues and all kinds of different viewpoints. There's one thing that stood out for me even with all these lovely thoughtful ideas, though: this comment of papersky's.

Let me highlight this sentence from papersky's comment, because I think it really brilliantly captures the experience of feeling yourself to be the only authentic human drowning in a sea of sheeple:
When I was a teenager there was a point where it really did seem to me that my female friends were actually ceasing to be people in their pursuit of being teenagers -- it wasn't sex so much as a desire to be attractive (fashion and make-up and dieting) a desire to have a boyfriend as an accessory and a desire to be "in" (changing, or affecting to change their personal tastes in music, films and culture generally to the majority taste)
The thing is, I think that's a hugely common experience among teenagers: believing you're the only one in your entire peer group who isn't totally superficial. Browsing around on LJ is a good way to get a perspective on this; you can see journal after journal after journal where teenagers, mostly girls, talk about how most of the people they know are idiots who only care about fashion and being popular, and they're the only one with ideals. I have this vision that the girls a particular unique snowflake despises are simultaneously writing in their journals about how they're so lonely being the only person who cares about anything beyond fashion and meaningless "relationships"...

I'm not going to embarrass myself by reproducing here the bad blank verse I used to write (and publish in the school magazine) when I was a teenager. I was luckier than most, because I managed to connect with other real people even before I had the maturity to realize that most people are worth getting to know, and you just have to make the effort. This led to some really intense and precious friendships; feeling that my friends and I were the last bastion of resaon against moronic popular culture was a very bonding thing. I had blue_mai, and Spanish M, and doseybat; I wasn't entirely alone.

CS Lewis was of course writing for children. If he actually intended to portray being Christian in a secular world as like being the only teenager ever to care about higher things, he was being very clever in some ways. The trouble is of course that Susan is discarded so suddenly; Lewis' readers are just as likely to identify with Susan (who is of course a very sensible and likeable person for the whole series up to the very last bit at the end) as anyone else. And the other trouble is that any really mature reader, as opposed to a child who thinks they are mature, is going to be able to see the worth even of someone who cares about mainstream culture, and therefore be annoyed that Lewis' Aslan doesn't value such a person.

While I'm (vaguely) on the subject, cakmpls has a very cool piece on The Outsider in A Christmas Carol. Scrooge, unlike the kids in Narnia, is saved precisely because he learns that he isn't actually superior to everyone else. He doesn't have to be an Outsider. Lewis' characters effectively get divine sanction for their smugness, and maybe that's the problem.


Moooood: thoughtfulthoughtful
Tuuuuune: Chanticleer: In dulci jubilo
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angeyja: default
From:angeyja
Date:December 8th, 2005 08:08 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry
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But anyway. It is the case that Susan is female, and maybe this has something to do with her fate, for what it's worth. Until reading work on Lewis, I considered it a character based decision. Perhaps, making Susan female to begin with was something along those lines; but, I am afraid I do not have the history on his writing.

What I mean by the above, is that looking at who they are and what they do in the first book, Susan seemed easiest, perhaps the only one to do that with.

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angeyja: default
From:angeyja
Date:December 8th, 2005 10:36 pm (UTC)
3 hours after journal entry
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And I shouldn't post while skim reading. I haven't read the Narnia books in quite a while; but, for the sake of gathering in data points, I don't recall that suddeness as much I took it personally because I was much closer to Susan than Lucy, and I didn't understand why I couldn't be both sensible (I was) and fantastical (most definitely.) It seemed to me the type of silly thing an adult might decide to write to make a point.

Of course, my world must have been different, and I in a different way naive. Regarding highschool, I have no real idea why I have don't have the perception of otherness, except that I passed through that sort of at ten. Not, totally passed, which I still haven't, but the feeling did't thump me over the head as a teen.

I think I straddled groups a bit, and it was late seventies and I was the bio lab asst, skinny poorly dressed, glasses braces etc, so there was a definite perception of being a geek before that was a cool thing; but, not of being an outsider. I was pretty aware of soem of the social things going on but not much a part of them.

I tend to be the same now. I don't see default differences between groups, aside from what is acceptable and not, or good and not. One of my colleagues is from Zimbabwe, and it is a constant struggle to keep here here. In another environment, she would be considered very cool.
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livredor: portrait
From:livredor
Date:December 9th, 2005 05:10 pm (UTC)
22 hours after journal entry, 05:10 pm (livredor's time)
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Thanks for these thoughts, that's a really interesting perspective both on Susan and the Outsider thing.

I was much closer to Susan than Lucy
Yeah, I haven't read the books for a long time either, but my recollection is of being vaguely irritated with Lucy and prefering the older two.

I didn't understand why I couldn't be both sensible (I was) and fantastical (most definitely.)
Absolutely! I always resent the assumption in a lot of children's books, particularly children's fantasy, that anyone who takes a scientific, rational view always rejects the magical stuff that happens, and generally the story punishes their skepticism.

I have don't have the perception of otherness, except that I passed through that sort of at ten.
I didn't mean that it's absolutley universal for teenagers to feel that they don't fit in with their peers. I only meant that it's a lot more common than said teenagers imagine.

I don't see default differences between groups
Yes, I can relate to that, definitely. I think my self-image at school was that I wasn't particularly part of any group, but no group ostracized me and most people were willing to be civil to me. And as an adult I tend to be drawn to individuals more than cliques or particular circles. So my sense that "nobody understands me" was relatively mild compared to many.
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sea_bright: default
From:sea_bright
Date:December 8th, 2005 09:27 pm (UTC)
2 hours after journal entry
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In reply to your previous post mentioning this issue, shreena said:

The problem that I have with it is the speed with which she's dismissed... I just think more explanation of this is needed, some reaction from the other kids (even Lucy doesn't seem to care), some explanation from Aslan that she still has time to repent and she may join them in the end by a longer route, is needed... I think a lot of children particularly find the abandonment of a central character in a sentence really mystifying and somewhat worrying.

I think the lack of reaction from the other kids is an integral part of Lewis's theology. He's grappling with question that's vexed theologians throughout the centuries: the attitude of those who have chosen Narnia/heaven towards those who have made the opposite choice. Lewis takes the view that if those in heaven can be made miserable by the absence of those who have chosen not to join them, it's not truly heaven.

Lewis also deals with this topic in The Great Divorce: he (or rather one of his characters) says, "Either the day must come when joy prevails and all the makers of misery are no longer able to infect it: or else for ever and ever the makers of misery can destroy in others the happiness they reject for themselves. I know it has a grand sound to say ye'll accept no salvation which leaves even one creature in the dark outside. But watch that sophistry or ye'll make a Dog in a Manger the tyrant of the universe." (Fontana 1972 edition, p. 111. He's talking specifically here about those people who wallow in self-pity rather than embracing the joy of heaven, but I think the point can be extended.)

I agree, though, that some reference to the chance of Susan finding her way there eventually would be nice. Lewis did appear to think that there's always hope that people will make the right choice (The Great Divorce is all about people being given the chance to opt for heaven even after they've been dead for some time), and there will certainly be great rejoicing if they do so. On the other hand, while I doubt he meant to mystify his readers by Susan's non-appearance (though you're right than this is probably often the case), I suspect he did mean to worry them - to make the point that decisions made in the here and now matter in eternity - and maybe he didn't want to blunt that point.

It is a rather harsh passage, though, and I'm not saying I think Lewis couldn't have handled the subject better - especially as his intended readership was children.
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rj_anderson: James Marsh - The Colour of Spring
From:rj_anderson
Date:December 9th, 2005 12:50 am (UTC)
6 hours after journal entry, December 8th, 2005 07:50 pm (rj_anderson's time)
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I agree, though, that some reference to the chance of Susan finding her way there eventually would be nice.

Lewis did in fact make a statement of this very sort (albeit in a letter, not within the context of the Narnia series itself) about Susan: dr_c quotes it in his comment here if you're interested.
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livredor: words
From:livredor
Date:December 9th, 2005 05:42 pm (UTC)
22 hours after journal entry, 05:42 pm (livredor's time)
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Lewis takes the view that if those in heaven can be made miserable by the absence of those who have chosen not to join them, it's not truly heaven.
That's a very interesting angle, and one I hadn't thought of, either in the context of real-world Christianity or the Narnia allegory. Thank you for this explanation.

while I doubt he meant to mystify his readers by Susan's non-appearance (though you're right than this is probably often the case), I suspect he did mean to worry them - to make the point that decisions made in the here and now matter in eternity - and maybe he didn't want to blunt that point.
Mm. Lewis' Christianity certainly isn't warm and fuzzy, and he doesn't try to sentimentalize it because he's writing for children. I think from a literary point of view this is a strength. From a religious point of view, I'm not qualified to judge; certainly Pullman seems to think that Christianity is evil, but then I think Pullman is an idiot. Possibly the Chronicles serve as an antedote to the fluffy lambs and cute cherubs version of Christianity that is most commonly offered to children? If the Susan thing is meant to be disturbing, then it's not surprising that a lot of readers were in fact upset by it.
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(no subject) - jennifer (12/8/05 10:48 pm)
livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:December 9th, 2005 06:01 pm (UTC)
23 hours after journal entry, 06:01 pm (livredor's time)
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I'm going to play devil's advocate for Aslan/the Christian God
Even though I do know that the Devil's Advocate in its original meaning is someone who is on God's side, I find this sentence amusing. However.

it is a choice: if you make the choice to place the things of the world too far above God/Aslan/Narnia/Heaven/what have you, He's going to say, "OK, if that's your decision, so be it," and close off heaven to you.
I think that's a fair reading, and I think that is pretty central to Rilstone's defence of Lewis. Susan excludes herself from Aslan's kingdom as much as Aslan turns her away. But I think a lot of readers find it implausible that Susan would suddenly have a personality transplant to that extent. And (since she is a character in a book rather than a real person), one can perhaps blame Lewis for making Susan make such an obviously dumb choice.

I think my problem here is that most people don't elevate trivial things over things of real substance. It's very easy to stereotype your enemies as doing so, and that stereotyping is something I think teenagers are particularly prone to. But very often it turns out to be the case that such people just don't necessarily want to talk to you about what really matters to them.

From Lucy's point of view, Susan only cares about lipstick and nylons and parties, but maybe if she actually made the effort to communicate with Susan, she'd find that Susan actually cares about being liked, or finding love, or living a worthwhile life in this, physical world... I suppose the underlying problem is the Christian / Narnian assumption that there's really only one thing worth caring about, and everything else is trivial.

I don't think the door is permanently shut for Susan,
I think that's right, especially in the light of Lewis' other writings, but I also think it doesn't come across at all in The Last Battle. That's perhaps one aspect in which Lewis did not succeed in getting his message across, because Susan having another chance is really not obvious to most readers.
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sea_bright: default
From:sea_bright
Date:December 11th, 2005 01:25 am (UTC)
2 days after journal entry
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I think my problem here is that most people don't elevate trivial things over things of real substance.

Don't they? I know I do all the time... If I didn't elevate pointless procrastination over real work, I would have finished my DPhil a year or two earlier and would probably have written one or more novels by now. If I didn't elevate excessive snacking on the wrong sort of food over health, I would be slim instead of being significantly overweight. If I didn't elevate all sorts of ultimately unimportant things over spending a sensible amount of time each day in prayer, I'd be a lot closer to God, and as a result, would probably be a lot further down the road to being the sort of person I'd really like to be.

In the context of the Susan debate specifically, I think the point Lewis is trying to make is that having had even a really intense, meaningful, and personal religious experience doesn't make one immune from falling away later in life. I wish I could say that I find the change in Susan implausible, but unfortunately, I don't - I've seen something not dissimilar happen to people I care about, and there have been periods when I've come perilously close to it myself.


I suppose the underlying problem is the Christian / Narnian assumption that there's really only one thing worth caring about, and everything else is trivial.

Well, sort of... except that the other things are still valuable, as long as they're enjoyed in a way that leads you towards the ultimate good rather than away from it. I think Lewis's argument would be that whatever Susan is interested in, if it becomes an idol and hence leads her away from God, it's never really going to make her happy in the long term. (As the essay you link to points out, Susan's mistake is not loving lipstick and nylons per se, it's loving nothing but them: they've become an idol.) On the other hand, putting God first won't necessarily mean giving up on the good things of this world, and on those occasions when it does, they'll be replaced with something much better.

(Not entirely sure how clear I've been in that final paragraph, as it's getting late and my brain is starting to go fuzzy... will happily clarify if necessary!)
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angeyja: default
From:angeyja
Date:December 10th, 2005 12:16 am (UTC)
1 days after journal entry
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I agree with you on Susan. I think that is more from a general feeling than Susan as a character though. And I may be way off. I read pieces of a book last year on Lewis and Freud, and I think what stuck in my head there was a passage on his awakening, on a bike ride I think.

The book was given to me by my father because it was important to him. He was, and we were in my family up until the current generation, raised Roman Catholic. The piece of connection has to do with questioning, and the ability to change, and change our choices, as we continue to grow and question.

I do see people giving up thought about the spiritual or the numinous for various reasons, and I think that as a point it is a valid one, and in soem ways an expected acknowledgement.

Not an irrevokable choice though.
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jai_dit: default
From:jai_dit
Date:December 9th, 2005 02:08 pm (UTC)
19 hours after journal entry, 06:08 am (jai_dit's time)
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I'd have to reread the series before I could really make any reasoned comments about it, but thanks so much for the links and your own essay; such interesting reading!
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livredor: teeeeeeeeea
From:livredor
Date:December 9th, 2005 06:07 pm (UTC)
23 hours after journal entry, 06:07 pm (livredor's time)

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Thank you, I'm really pleased you got something out of it!
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