Tonight I think I’ll share another fun assignment from my CS Lewis class in grad school. We were asked to give a character sketch of one of the Narnia characters. I had never really done one before, but the parameters must have been really helpful because I think the sketch turned out to be a reliable likeness and I learned a lot, not just about Susan, but about the value of such an assessment. So, Doc Rose, this post goes out to you!
PS. A note to students: This article is the intellectual property of Renea McKenzie. References made to this article in any paper or project should be cited as such.
Once a Queen in Narnia
Sullivan was right: “Form follows function.” And it is for this reason C.S. Lewis chose to write children’s literature, for through the adventures of children, Lewis pits the child-likeness of God’s Kingdom against the childish grownups of modernity. Of the many children in C.S. Lewis’s fantastically magical series The Chronicles of Narnia, the most well known are the Pevensies, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. The four brothers and sisters have grand adventures in Narnia and become beloved Kings and Queens. Susan however, is not as active in the series as the other children because she is not as much of a child. Perhaps better than any adult in the chronicles, Susan represents the realm of Grownups. And it is her self-seeking desire to be grown-up that corrupts and misdirects her practicality, gentleness, and beauty.
Much like Mrs. Beaver, Susan is constantly concerned that everyone have adequate provisions. Without Susan, the four children would have frozen to death before seeing any adventures in Narnia (Lion 51). And again when they are suddenly called back to Cair Paravel to the aid of Prince Caspian, it is Susan who attends to their warmth and safety (Caspian 5-6). Susan is levelheaded and practical. But her street-wise never reaches the fullness of wisdom because of stifling motives in her heart. For Susan desires to show off her “grown-up” savvy and do what grown-ups would say is right, which stops her from following her heart and doing what actually is right (Lion 2).
Wisdom is also shortchanged by fear. Perhaps practicality is in part a mere cover-up; Susan wants to do the practical thing because it is safe. Twice in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Susan suggests the children return home, once when home is England (56) and once when home is Narnia (184). But these instances do not define Susan. Not until Prince Caspian, is she characterized most by her fear. Susan fears the darkness of the woods and the treasure house despite Peter’s encouragement to “Cheer up,” because “it’s no good behaving like kids now that we’re back in Narnia.” “You’re a queen here,” he tells her (21), but Susan lets fear rule her spirit and must be admonished by Aslan (148). “Grownup” is Susan’s false self, as Frederick Buechner would call it, and improper fear is always a result of living out of one’s false self. Susan is too afraid to live out of the empowerment of her name, Queen Susan, and settles for the reduction of the label, Grownup.
Not too unlike Lucy, Susan possesses tenderhearted intuition for which she is called, “Susan the Gentle” (Lion 181). In Prince Caspian, she cannot enjoy her shooting match with Trumpkin because she “was so tender-hearted that she almost hated to beat someone who had been beaten already” (102). But Susan displays this quality best in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (when she is youngest) as she and her sister minister to Aslan during the time leading up to his death and resurrection. Sensitive to Aslan’s troubled spirit, the girls leave their beds to walk alongside the Great Lion, tenderly stroking his golden fur for as long as he will let them. Upon parting, they kiss his face and weep, and after his death they do their best to remove his un-kingly bonds (146-148, 154-155).
But this gentleness is never allowed to mature, and Susan remains a stagnant character; she remains childish, hindered from growth by being too grown-up. Susan is constantly reproving Lucy for doing things she considers childish, such as pretending and storytelling (Lion 21), being unable to discern dreams from reality (Caspian 139), and being selfish (Caspian 143). However, the tension between the two sisters is actually a result of Susan’s childishness and Lucy’s child-likeness. Undoubtedly, Susan was ever praised for her “grown-up” qualities by countless grownups, a thing most difficult to overcome. This flattery results unfortunately in vanity, and Susan never recovers.
There is no question of Susan’s beauty, for she “grew into a tall and gracious woman with black hair that fell almost to her feet and the Kings of the countries beyond the sea began to send ambassadors asking for her hand in marriage” (Lion 181). This was not just the effect of Narnia; in England too, “grownups thought her the pretty one of the family” (Voyage 2), and Lucy nearly makes a fatal choice because of her jealousy (130). Even in Narnia Susan is not quite strong enough to be so beautiful (Horse 61), and we mourn for Susan’s beauty, because it is wasted on things like “nylons and lipstick and invitations” (Battle 135) when it could be, not a shadow, but a reflection, reflecting true Beauty.
It is doubtful any reader will say Susan Pevensie is his or her favorite, but her character should be read with compassion, not contempt. Susan is the King Saul of Narnia, who, in the world’s eyes, should be in the spotlight (and in the world’s eyes is). But Susan fades into the peripheral because Narnia is ruled by Aslan’s economy of real Truth, real Love, and real Beauty. The loss of the White Witch is triumphant because the White Witch is evil, but the loss of Susan is tragic because Susan is good but misdirected, by in which her greatest strengths become her greatest weaknesses. “Once a King or Queen in Narnia always a King or Queen of Narnia” is heartbreaking when we remember Susan and think of how she should be there with the others in the end to begin the “Great Story.”
(c) Renea McKenzie
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