“But I Don’t Wanna Be Susan!” Guest Post by Beth Oliver

?????????????This summer I posted a quick write up of my project of reading Lewis chronologically thus far, called “Taking a Breath Before a Second Dive.” In the comments a great discussion broke out, and one of the dialogue partners, Beth Oliver, said something that sent me reeling with its implications. I will likely co-opt her phrase and use it to my own nefarious purposes. But, before I do, I thought I would ask her to explain the idea more fully. I love this post by Beth, where she responds to the Pilgrim’s (my) questioning. I hope you enjoy!

The Pilgrim’s devotion to all things Clive Staples has been a wonderful reminder of the many “What? You too?” moments kindled by Mr Lewis. How has this writer, so remote from myself in culture, education, gender and era, managed to lead me into so many well-lit rooms? As we tend to do, I tried to understand through comparison, and obviously chose as Mr Lewis’ counterweight, J.R.R. Tolkien, the architect of my other, slightly glossier, childhood palace. My first thought:

“In Tolkien, I want to get into Middle Earth. In Lewis’ fantasy, I’m there already – the real world is Narnia/Perelandra/Screwtape’s office.”

The Pilgrim has justifiably asked me to explain myself.

I grew up the second of a family of four kids – boy, girl, boy, girl. Obviously of the pre-iPad era, we were raised on Narnian broth. In our hours of Narnia-based play my older brother was of course Peter Pevensie and frequently reminded us of his situation as the High King. My younger brother was obliged to take on Edmund (he was wedged in his sullen stage at the height of our play), and the youngest, my sister, acquired the envied role of Lucy. I resented my place as fussy Susan, as well as the implication that I was the type to abandon the wonder and thrill of Narnia for boys and lipstick. It was some consolation to run around with a makeshift bow and quiver of arrows while my sister brandished a butter knife.

WallWe were equally enamoured of Middle Earth. Strangely, we never identified closely enough with any characters from Middle Earth to “be” Boromir or Frodo or Legolas – we usually discussed what “race” we would be, (and often, what weapons we would carry). Everyone was always adamant I would be a hobbit, I imagine something to do with height, curly hair and appetite. I’ve come to terms with this – even though if you were to combine the roles, and devise a hobbity Susan, you would probably come out with Lobelia Sackville-Baggins.

The point of all this narcissistic reminiscence is that it reminds me that Narnia constructs an allegory with which we as children could identify, squabbling siblings visiting another world. The fantasy exists as an illustration of the truth Lewis pursues in his non-fiction; of faith, courage, lust, deception, flawed humanity.  Even Narnians acknowledge that they inhabit “another” world, whereas Middle Earth is the only world (excepting possibilities hinted at in The Silmarilion). Visitors are wearing school uniforms when they re-enter

"The Wood Between the Worlds" by RiONX (http://rionx.deviantart.com/)

“The Wood Between the Worlds”
by RiONX (http://rionx.deviantart.com/)

Narnia, until someone finds them a suitable tunic. And they are put back in their school uniforms to go home. Narnia is self-conscious. It knows it is one of many possible roads chanced upon by Polly and Diggory in the Wood between the Worlds. Middle Earth is blissfully egocentric*.

The Heater and I are currently re-reading The Lord of the Rings aloud. At this juncture I’d like to highly recommend hearing The Ride of the Rohirrim and The Battle of the Pelennor Fields aloud at least once in your life. If ever one wanted to saddle up for righteous war… We see the white horse tail streaming from Eomer’s helmet and hear the fierce, joyful singing of the Rohirrim as they cheerfully slay the foes of Gondor. Middle Earth exists for the sake of itself and for the sheer fun of it – you can feel Tolkien’s love for the details of armour, dragons, golden trees, herbs with magical properties and horses that never seem to tire. Tolkien dedicated his life to the fearsome task of constructing another world, history and language, while Lewis sought to understand this one.

Of course we want to get into Middle Earth, a place where the right thing to do is clear-cut. Deeds of valour are straightforward. Keep walking until you get to Mount Doom. Keep Interactive Narnia Mapfighting orcs. Sing a song, build a kingdom, eat some lembas. Who wouldn’t want an ancient, blessed sword from the Barrow Downs that will prove itself a game day player? Middle Earth is glorious escapism, a place to be a hero.

In Narnia and other Lewis worlds, complexities of a less black and white reality are present – jealousy, faithlessness, vanity, gluttony, sibling rivalry, the aching marital breakdown in That Hideous Strength. Can you imagine Aragorn paying an extortionate price for a couple of beers because he is too proud to appear cheap by questioning the bill?

When I read Narnia, I can tell I am reading the same person who, as the senior devil Screwtape, wrote this frighteningly accurate description of us on our bad days:

“Your patient must demand that all his own utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all his mother’s utterances with the fullest and most over-sensitive interpretation of the tone and the context and the suspected intention. She must be encouraged to do the same to him. Hence from every quarrel they can both go away convinced that they are quite innocent. You know the kind of thing “I simply ask what time dinner will be and she flies into a temper” (The Screwtape Letters, Ch 3)

Susan Narnia bow_battle Anna Popplewelland this, from Ransom’s discussion with the sorns of Malacandra, which makes me smile. How must our drive to nest, to build, to organize and create appear to those friendly, bemused aliens?

“Two things about our world particularly stuck in their minds. One was the extraordinary degree to which problems of lifting and carrying things absorbed our energy. The other was the fact that we had only one kind of hnau:” (rational animal) “they thought this must have far-reaching effects in the narrowing of sympathies and even of thought” (Out of the Silent Planet, Ch 16).

To put my original thought another way, Tolkien’s world makes me want to be a hero, but Lewis’ worlds show me who I already am. It remains to be seen whether I am Susan.


*The terms in which I describe Middle Earth and Tolkien could be considered negative, but that’s unintentional. I love, admire and frequently re-read his tales, because of course there is great truth in his writing also. I’m also not saying Tolkien isn’t a moralist. Total rejection of evil is required by those tempted by the Ring – you can’t borrow it, you can’t hide it, you can’t use it for your own ends, you have to destroy it. I am reminded of the George MacDonald quote that opens Lewis’ The Great Divorce:

“No, there is no escape. There is no heaven with a little of hell in it – no plan to retain this or that of the devil in our hearts or our pockets. Out Satan must go, every hair and feather.”

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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17 Responses to “But I Don’t Wanna Be Susan!” Guest Post by Beth Oliver

  1. jubilare says:

    I have never thought of the Lewis/Tolkien contrast in this way, but I definitely see what you are talking about. What a fascinating view!

    I do balk at one thing, though. I cannot call Middle Earth black and white. I know you mean it lovingly, but I don’t see it as being true. Lewis goes for the day-to-day experiences of human life in a sensitive and nuanced way. Tolkien does not, but “black and white” doesn’t represent the complexity and grayness of so many of Tolkien’s characters. 🙂


    • Thank you for reading, I’m glad you found it interesting! I suppose it’s important to emphasise that I meant that Lewis created “less” black and white worlds than Tolkien, a spectrum rather than a binary state. But I do agree that many of his characters have great depth – Eol, the Dark Elf, Feanor and Boromir spring to mind.


      • Even though Narnia and the Hobbit are more fairy tale than LOTR or the Ransom books, I agree that the subtleties in Lewis are greater. Till We Have Faces has a very sophisticated view of good and evil, whereas in the Hobbit, goblins are just bad, vile. Smaug is wrong, bad.
        The Ring is more subtle and ambivalent, isn’t it? It is a vehicle of evil or good rather than evil or good, perhaps.


      • jubilare says:

        I’m not sure I get the distinction, really. It may just be a question of semantics, though. I see a difference between them in terms of subject matter and perspective (Lewis gets a little more inside his characters, Tolkien walks beside them). I see that Tolkien has more “high” and “low” types, but I also see that he even develops those. Sauron wasn’t always evil, nor even Melkor, etc. If one looks far enough back in the legendarium, nothing is simply black or white. Not Galadirel, nor Gandalf. The only exceptions I can think of are monsters: Shelob, Ancalagon, etc.


        • I think what I mean is this: The form of fairy tale requires these binaries: good/bad, high/low, off/on, etc. So I was wrong to point out people. I mean ideas, actions, movements in Tolkien are informed by the “There and Back Again” form of fairy tale. The way people react to the ring is complex and varied, but they hand on certain primary urges.
          I think in Lewis it is both more complex and more singular. In Lewis, evil is subtle, bureaucratic, upside down, insidious in its normalcy, not in its greatness.
          I am writing a paper now that argues that all of Lewis’ morality and “the way we live” is focussed on one particular point, one way we poise ourselves before the universe.


  2. I have a daughter called Beth (short for Bethan, the Welsh Elizabeth)! I think you have said some great things about Lewis’s work. He observed ordinary life so very well and his work exposes so many of our illusions. I agree with Jubilare about Tolkien. His complexities play out over such long periods of time, the fall of Saruman for example, that in the snapshot that is The Lord of the Rings, you tend to see the outcome of processes that began long before the story begins.


  3. I am called Bethan (long for Beth) by some who are fond of me. Thank you for your kind words. Young Bethan read only The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, hence the formation in my mind of Middle Earth as I describe it above. It was many years before The Silmarillion and others took me to more dizzying heights. I love what you say about Lewis’ work exposing our illusions – that is exactly what I meant about him leading me in to well lit rooms.


  4. Such a personal insight into the blogger and her world. Truly enjoyed imagining Beth and her siblings playing out the books that are dear to me, too. My husband and I read LOTL aloud early in our marriage, and were so amused by the way our baby daughter would turn in her baby seat to follow our voices as we took turns. “Almost as if she understands!” we told ourselves. The day she found LOTL on her own, and began reading it as a teen, she was shaking with excitement. “I feel like I KNOW this story…”


  5. jubilare says:

    “I think in Lewis it is both more complex and more singular. In Lewis, evil is subtle, bureaucratic, upside down, insidious in its normalcy, not in its greatness.” I agree with the … almost mundane (though horrifying in its mundanity) nature in which Lewis deals with evil, but I am still tripping up on words like “more complex,” “more subtle,” and “more insidious.”
    I also agree that the focus of the different types of stories told is a big piece of this, but I may not agree with you on what type of stories they are. The Hobbit is an exception in Middle Earth. It is simple because he was writing a simple fairy tale, as he sometimes did. The Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings are complex because by that time he was creating a world of its own, an epic.
    Lewis, on the other hand, always gives the impression (at least to me) of being close to home, down to earth (even in space) and interested in “us.” He is not writing an epic, even when he writes a series. He is, in my opinion, writing about us. About himself/humanity/the world. Our world, even when it is set in another. That kind of subtlety and complexity I will grant, but it is a different kind, rather than a greater kind. We’re closer to Lucy, Ransom, Orual. Faramir and Gollum are, I would argue, equally complex, but they aren’t us… does that make sense?

    I know I probably sound like I’m being… uh… oversensitive? Defensive? I don’t think that I am feeling those things, though. Perhaps I just have a different perspective on Tolkien, having sunk my head in his books for so many hours, and perhaps I am even a little too deficient in my understanding of Lewis. If what I am saying makes any sense, though, maybe it will be useful for exploring another aspect of the difference between their two styles.


    • It’s okay to be defensive, though I suppose it is usually the other way, Tolkien folk looking down on poor little Lewis folk in their simplicity and homeliness!
      But I think one shift in premise will see that we are mostly on the same side. I don’t think “more” means “greater” in any way. Lewis’ overt interest in cultural criticism and spiritual theology–hence the subtlety and particularity–have a cost. Who reads That Hideous Strength or The Great Divorce? It is a focussed readership, and the stories are not as grand (I would argue). Tolkien’s universality and moral simplicity, then, are “greater” from a different angle.


      • jubilare says:

        It doesn’t make much sense to me for those who love the man who created and loved Hobbits as much as Tolkien did to look down on another author for loving the “little guy.” But then sometimes people don’t make a lot of sense. You know I love Lewis, and I know you love Tolkien. I just finished The Great Divorce for the first time, and loved it. Till We Have Faces is in my top ten favorite books along side LotR. I don’t think the question of which one was “better” is even answerable, as they have quite different aims.

        So I am not at all defensive in terms of the fact that I think you are attacking or devaluing Tolkien. I know very well that you are not. I’m prodding because I’ve had my head buried in Tolkien a lot over the years, and I do not think considering the books more simple in terms of black and white morality is correct. I can see that the way the two men explore morality is quite different much of the time, but I look at both of them and I see a high level of complexity and nuance. It is quite possible that I am agreeing with you, but that the words you are using trip me up, I’m not entirely sure.


  6. Reblogged this on thinking about jane and commented:
    A most enjoyable collaboration with The Pilgrim in Narnia, whose passion for and knowledge of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien dwarfs (hee hee) my own. I was honoured to write a guest post about these wonderful worlds.


  7. Pingback: What does Philip Pullman’s Daemon Voices have to say about the Inklings? Guest Post by Wesley Schantz | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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