How do you Solve a Problem like Susan Pevensie? Narnia Guest Post by Kat Coffin

Every few years or so, I’ll get a PM on my Twitter or my Tumblr that asks what is essentially the same question.  These followers know my love of all things C.S. Lewis, particularly the Chronicles of Narnia, have heard me wax poetic about gender theory, and have heard me scream about feminism in varying posts or tweets.  All of these factors lead to one question:

How do you solve a problem like Susan Pevensie?

Oh, Susan.  The most maligned and misinterpreted of Pevensies.  And, incidentally, my favorite character.  Let’s talk a moment about these misinterpretations, particularly the ones that have absorbed themselves into the popular consciousness despite how many times I yell about them on Twitter.

In a Time Magazine interview, J.K. Rowling described her debt to C.S. Lewis.

“I found myself thinking about the wardrobe route to Narnia when Harry is told he has to hurl himself at the barrier in King’s Cross Station—it dissolves and he’s on Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, and there’s the train to Hogwarts.”

However, she points out that there were aspects of the Narnian chronicles that bothered her.  She also points out that Susan Pevensie

“…is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a real problem with that.”

On that note, Philip Pullman penned an angry Guardian article where he claimed that for Lewis, a girl’s achieving sexual maturity was

“so dreadful and so redolent of sin that he had to send her to Hell.”

To address this, we ought to look at the problematic scene in question, from the final Narnian Chronicle, “The Last Battle”.

“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicles aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.”

“Oh Susan!” said Jill, “she’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grownup.”

“Grownup, 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.”

“Well, don’t let’s talk about that now,” said Peter.

Fair point, Peter.  Let’s talk about it now.

To respond to Philip Pullman, anyone with basic reading comprehension skills can see that Susan is NOT sent to Hell.  There is quite a difference in being sent to Hell and being absent from the final adventure.  Susan was left alive in this world.  Lewis wrote in a letter that she grew up to be a “silly and vain young woman” but that she “had plenty of time to mend.”

Susan was not left behind.  She chose not to be present in The Last Battle.  To deny her that choice robs her of her own agency, her own right to make bad choices and deal with consequences.

As for the accusations of sexism, I will grant that Lewis was not perfect in terms of gender.  There are reams and reams of problems in the Cosmic Trilogy (for as much as I love them) and my final senior thesis dealt with three of Lewis’ worst short stories.  (In terms of gender, that is.)  And while I would never dare to call the Narnian chronicles the Holy Grail of “Unproblematic”, I think the accusations of sexism are unfair.

I strongly, strongly dispute the idea that the “lipsticks and nylons” line in The Last Battle was sexist.  Susan’s fatal flaws were her trying to “act grown up”, not her being sexually active or femininely vain.

The first time we meet her, in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, her very first lines show her “trying to act grown up”.

“We’ve fallen on our feet and no mistake,” said Peter. “This is going to be perfectly splendid. That old chap will let us do anything we like.”

“I think he’s an old dear,” said Susan.

“O, come off it!” said Edmund, who was tired and pretending not to be tired, which always made him bad-tempered. “Don’t go on talking like that.”

“Like what?” said Susan; “and anyway, it’s time you were in bed.”

“Trying to talk like Mother,” said Edmund. “And who are you to say when I’m to go to bed? Go to bed yourself.”

This expands into a literal arc for Susan and foreshadows her exclusion from the final Chronicle.  We see this in the next novel, Prince Caspian.

In Prince Caspian, Lucy attempts to convince her siblings that she has seen Aslan and that Aslan wants them to follow Him.  None of the Pevensies are able to see him so they doubt Lucy, choosing to make their own decisions—particularly Susan.

The first time Lucy sees Aslan, the others outvote her and proceed a different route.  The second time, Lucy announces she will be following Aslan whether they come or not.  Susan insists Lucy was dreaming and progressively gets nastier as they follow her.

Susan was the worst. “Suppose I started behaving like Lucy,” She said. “I might threaten to stay here whether the rest of you went on or not. I jolly well think I shall.”

But as they walk, all of the Pevensies begin to see Aslan.  Susan sees him last.  And then:

“Lucy,” said Susan in a very small voice.

“Yes?” said Lucy.

“I see him now. I’m sorry.”

“That’s all right.”

“But I’ve been far worse than you know. I really believed it was him—he, I mean—yesterday. When he warned us not to go down to the fir wood. And I really believed it was him tonight, when you woke us up. I mean, deep down inside. Or I could have, if I’d let myself. But I just wanted to get out of the woods and—and—oh, I don’t know. And whatever am I to say to him?”

These lines are key to Susan’s entire characterization.  What’s more, this entire scene foreshadows exactly what happens to Susan in The Last Battle.  It’s not about Lewis being afraid of female sexuality (he wasn’t, I point to Joy Davidman’s personal and explicit letters about their married life as evidence), it’s about Susan “trying to act grown up”.  A form of superiority, of pride—something Lewis himself struggled with all his life. Lewis said,

“When I was ten, I read fairytales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

This is a particular theme of Lewis’ we encounter in his works time and time again.  People acting “too grown up”.  We certainly can be bothered by Susan’s exclusion from the final chapter.  After all, she is my favorite character.  And there’s something to be said about the fact that by the end of the Chronicle, she has lost her entire family and is left alone in the world.  But this was not a “punishment” for going to parties or wearing lipstick or having sex.  The invitations and lipstick (and perhaps the sex) were secondary to the bigger flaw—Susan’s pride and her mocking her siblings for playing with childish things.

This is not to say that Lewis was a perfect feminist and that there are zero problems with his female characters.  What I would give for someone to chat with me about Jane Studdock or the Green Lady.  How I hunger for a complicated, nuanced debate about Orual.  But it always comes back to Susan.

Particularly annoying because the hyperfocus on Susan tends to ignore the other dynamic and interesting female characters in the Narnian chronicles such as Lucy, Jill, Polly, and Aravis.

But that’s how we solve the problem of Susan.  By adding more feminist readings of his work.  Once we get past this Susan stumbling block, we can really start complicating the discussions.   

If you liked this post, see the editor follow-up post by Brenton Dickieson, “8 Questions about the Problem of Susan Narnia Debate, or How to Read Well.”


Kat Coffin (@KatinOxford) is a part-time serious academic and full-time writer/musician, currently residing in St. Louis, Missouri.  Her academic field specializes in the works of C.S. Lewis and gender theory.  She completed her second fantasy novel last year and it is being shopped between publishers.  When she’s not writing dry twenty-page essays on the evolution of C.S. Lewis’ female characters or writing stories about the horrifying and hilarious ramifications of demon summoning, she enjoys long car rides, playing guitar, a good stout, and tearing her hair out over politics.  She is in the process of applying to several programs for her PhD and is a contributing author on Fellowship & Fairydust. Kat blogs at: https://phoenixinoxford.wordpress.com/.

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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81 Responses to How do you Solve a Problem like Susan Pevensie? Narnia Guest Post by Kat Coffin

  1. Steve says:

    While I agree that “the problem of Susan” was not sex or sexism, I’m not sure I agree that it was about growing up. Well, in a way it was — it was about two different concepts of growing. Susan’s idea of growing up was to become an airhead consumer, while the Lady Polly’s idea of growing up was to become a thinking adult.

    I’ve elaborated on that here: The problem of Susan: growing up? | Khanya and here The problem of Susan: growing up? | Khanya.

    I know you’ve read those before, but I think it is really worth thinking about what Lewis did attribute to Susan — not boys or sex, but lipstick and nylons — consumerism. And invitations — the lifestyle of Pullman’s Mrs Coulter, which Pullman’s Lyra also rejected. And Pullman’s Lyra and Will ended up just like Lewis’s Polly and Digory, only with more angst.

    Liked by 2 people

    • kdcoffin99 says:

      I think it’s fair to differentiate true maturity and “wanting to grow up”–I probably could’ve been clearer on that. But I thought Polly herself made that distinction plainly in her line, “I wish she WOULD grow up.”

      Liked by 3 people

      • Steve says:

        Do you have any comments on the magazine covers as representing Susan’s and Polly’s ideas?

        Like

        • kdcoffin99 says:

          I think Lewis was deeply troubled by how ladies’ magazines marketed to young women and little girls and it absolutely ties into consumerism. I think the “invitations” is a pretty key word here. If we really want to get into it, Mark Studdock from That Hideous Strength has similar flaws to Susan Pevensie, and that goes more into Lewis’ thoughts on “the inner ring”.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I agree. I did a lecture a couple of years ago that suggests a Susan-Mark link.

            Like

          • blert says:

            Susan and Mark are two peas in a pod, and anyone claiming Lewis has a hangup about Susan’s sexuality plainly hasn’t read That Hideous Strength (or hasn’t understood a word of it).

            Susan and Mark both are distastefully prideful, both want acceptance by the deformed creatures of this world, and both just want “out of this wood” instead of accepting the struggle that comes with remaining fixed on what is true and right. Mark wants and is focused on all the same essential things as Susan…and he is a man.

            Mark’s wife, Jane, on the other hand, suffers from the flaw that she should be a sexual, procreative being, together with Mark, but she’s not. Neither of them are. They’ve shut off that sexuality, or at least any procreative aspect of it, in pursuit of worldly success and fame. The end if That Hideous Strength is a glorious celebration of sexuality. Should we pull the curtains to hide from view this menagerie of animal couples humping in the yard? Heavens, no! That frank and open sexuality is what we were created for.

            Susan’s problem is not that she grew into a woman and discovered sex. It’s that she frequently, from the first Narnia book to the last, deformed herself and turned away from truth. Susan was not incapable of seeing Aslan, and she loved when she did, but she too often let herself be distracted by the “wood” (world) around her when Aslan wasn’t visibly present so that she stopped seeing him at all, even when he was plainly there.

            Is Susan in Hell? No, but she’s on the path to it. She’s put herself, in a sense, in that dung-filled hovel with the dwarfs at the end of The Last Battle. Everyone else can see Aslan and see paradise, but they only experience darkness and smell foul excrement. The dwarfs recognize they are in a miserable place, but choose to stay there. Susan, in contrast, pretends that what she’s constructing around herself is delightful. Like Mark, Susan deludes herself into thinking that the world of “grown-up” invitations and society is wonderful, even when it’s sick and deformed. We get to see Mark’s chance at redemption, but we never get to see Susan’s opportunity, which is probably what leaves people unsettled.

            Knowing Aslan, there would have been that redemption opportunity for Susan, and it would have made an interesting novel if Lewis had written it–Susan in this world, shut off from Narnia and running from Aslan. What could have happened in this world that would have forced her again to make a choice? What would that choice have been?

            Like

        • MJ says:

          Very good article. You articulated it very well. I have always been bothered by how Susan was left in the whole scheme of things and could never reconcile it to my own satisfaction. This has given me something to think on (and agree with). Thank you

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Callum Vere Beck says:

    It is hard to believe that two such great authors could so misread a passage as to think Lewis was saying she found sex and therefore was sinful and stayed behind. People sometimes lose their innocence so much that they read things into a passage that is just not there. This is such a lovely little dig at vanity and pride but their debased minds want to read sex into it. It is like the apple in the Garden of Eden, people think it is sex, but God had already pronounced cleaving very good.

    Like

    • It might be innocence, or it might be antagonism. It’s also readership, right? Rowling would have spent decades hearing tiresome stereotypes about girls, and when they appeared in a book she loved–and handled kind of inelegantly. My grandmother used to point at every girl with lipstick and ask why young people have sex all the time with strangers. The stereotypes are real.
      I’m not sure they were there like that in 1953, but they were within a decade.
      So there’s that.
      For Pullman, he’s probably just annoyed because Lewis and Tolkien did cool stuff even though they were ridiculous theists.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yewtree says:

        I’d like to hope that Philip Pullman is cleverer than that. I may be wrong.

        Like

      • kdcoffin99 says:

        I think the idea has absorbed itself so long into the cultural consciousness that no one really questioned it. Someone said “oh, this line refers to sex”, combined it with the also outdated and popular theory that Lewis was afraid of sex and women, and there you go.

        Liked by 1 person

        • NG says:

          It is so absurd, because Joy admitted to someone that Lewis was a good husband and lover – certainly not an avoidant.
          I thought he went through ridiculous mental gymnastics to justify his marriage to Joy – (‘she was not really married to her first husband’..) but at least he had the courage to take the step and go ahead, against the advice of many respectable people. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • kdcoffin99 says:

            Very true! Joy BRAGGED about it, actually. She was no wilting flower, that’s for sure!

            Agree with you on the mental gymnastics bit–probably because of earlier comments he’d made about divorce. But he did, and he did it because he loved her and didn’t want to live without her.

            Like

            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              Going (sadly, only) by memory, I’m not sure how gymnastic Lewis’s case was. He assumed Bill Gresham’s marriage was still binding, as his wife was still alive, and so his union with Joy was bigamous and formally null, and Joy therefore simply free to wed. For whatever reasons, Edward Carpenter did not see it that way, but Peter Bide did.

              Like

          • I’m sorry I’m so late on this, but I’ve just been swamped with work.
            Thanks for the comment. See David’s response. I think we do forget that what Lewis did was very shocking and morally troubling in his time. It was as scandalous and disturbing as (depending on context) a Baptist minister’s son getting married to a man, or where I live, a Protestant marrying a Catholic. Some gymnastics were needed for a person like Lewis who professed to believe that “love” just isn’t all you need, despite the pop songs. “Disordered love” feels like real love.

            Like

            • Stefanie Prejean says:

              In Tolkien’s case, it was basically a case of a Protestant marrying a Catholic. His future wife Edith Bratt was an orphan (just like Tolkien) who never knew her father and may not have known his name. She was a member of the Church of England (Episcopalian and therefore Protestant) and while she wanted to marry J.R.R. Tolkien, she wasn’t so enthusiastic about converting to Catholicism. However, she did take lessons from a priest (not Tolkien’s guardian, a different priest) and became Catholic so that she could get married.

              Like

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    They may be there, since I’m not good at keeping up on ‘the literature’, but I’d like to read, or have, interesting discussions on the sexual maturity of Susan to the extent that she almost ends up in a ghastly international political marriage in The Horse and His Boy, which is chronologically sandwiched into The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and how she is suddenly de-matured (perhaps prepubescently) before the Prince Caspian return to Narnia. Ponder “Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children” in that context – !

    Meanwhile, many thanks for this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yewtree says:

      Hi David

      I believe Kay has written about the sudden reversal to childhood of the Pevensies in another blogpost.

      Like

      • kdcoffin99 says:

        You’re very welcome! I did discuss this a little during the #CSLewisBookClub on Twitter. I believe it is very representative (not so much the sexual maturity per se, which I would say is only incidental) of how Lewis and other writers of his time felt returning to their ordinary lives after WW1. You have to grow up very fast during war-time, particularly when you’re conscripted, and it must’ve been jarring and traumatic to return home and still be a relatively young man and treated as such. I often wonder if he was reminded of this when he met the children who stayed with him during WW2.

        Liked by 3 people

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Thanks!

          I’ve gotten to wondering about Tolkien’s discussion(s) in drafts of ‘On Fairy-stories’ of James Barrie’s Mary Rose (1920) and the terrible problems of someone disappearing into another world without aging, while all those left behind age, suffer years of loss, sometimes even die in the person’s absence. I wonder whether Lewis and Tolkien discussed this, and how Lewis in any case is in some sense working with it in the Chronicles of Narnia – in the first place with the Pevensies aging in Narnia, then ‘de-aging’ on return in the first book, with no time passed on earth. Then, those who go to Narnia ‘tend’ to grow too old to return (if I – lazily! – recall correctly), which does not apply when they die on earth. Susan is left with their loss through death, but with the complexity of her Narnian experiences and memories – if she chooses to attend to them – with, as eowynscudieradirohan suggests, the possibility this “changed Susan for the better”.

          This makes me think of Till We Have Faces as a possible parallel in some weighty ways with the later life of Susan.

          (Those who go back to Narnia, and find how much time has passed, do suffer the aging or loss of those they knew there before – though that is not the whole of their experience, either.)

          Liked by 1 person

        • Stefanie Prejean says:

          J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis both fought in the Battle of the Somme but did not know each other at the time. Another writer who fought in that battle was A. A. Milne (author of Winnie the Pooh)

          Liked by 2 people

    • blert says:

      The aging and de-aging at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is one of the weirder aspects of the Narnia books. The Pevensie children have grown into adults in Narnia. They appear at least a decade, if not more, older. Their speech and mannerisms are entirely transformed. They’ve even forgotten memory of the Lamp Post (which is particularly odd given that Tumnus and the White Witch regard it as a well-known Narnian landmark that even sets a boundary to the country) and of England. Then, suddenly, they’re back in children’s bodies, speaking again as English children. That final chapter involves two bewildering transformations.

      Then, at the start of Prince Caspian, the children transform again. Their bodies don’t revert to Narnian adults, but their abilities and manner (although not the stilted, courtly speech, which also doesn’t show up in The Horse and His Boy) returns the longer they breathe Narnian air. Lewis isn’t consistent with these transformations, and they seem to happen according to whatever Lewis needs narratively at the moment to move the children back and forth between worlds. It’s jarring, and it’s hard to ascribe much meaning to the transformations because Lewis is so inconsistent with them.

      Like

      • I agree that this is one of the least elegant parts of the book. An editor today would have helped. But the idea of growing in one world but losing (at least some of) that growth in the home world is kind of intriguing.

        Like

  4. Charles Huttar says:

    Thank you, Kat, for this sensible and well-balanced survey of a much fuller range of the evidence about Susan. C. S. Lewis is by no means an easy author, and certainly not a sloppy one. Why do some seemingly smart people think they can latch onto one isolated piece of his work and spin a whole theory out of it, ignoring all the rest of the picture Lewis gives us? (Not to mention the rest of the picture that Lewis doesn’t give us, that is, the conjecturally four-plus decades remaining to Susan.)
    In Pullman’s case, would “spiteful polemic” be a fair answer? Neil Gaiman’s “The Problem with Susan” is a bit more complicated. Clearly, upon reading The Last Battle he did see a problem, and he cast what in effect is his “reader response criticism” in a fictional form, which is one legitimate way to do it, and it seems more thoughtful. At least it puts the dialog between him and the rest of us on a somewhat more responsible level. And exchanges between critics with different views can sometimes result in improved responses.
    But Gaiman uses the wrong preposition. The “problem” (which you mention in your second paragraph) is not a problem WITH Susan. Rather, she IS the problem, or rather, her presence (or non-presence in this final Chronicle is a literary problem, one that engages many readers. Usually the first thing to do when you encounter a problem like that, especially in a writer you have come to like and trust, is to stop and think it over: not jump too readily to conclusions.
    And that you have nicely helped us do.
    My own current work on Lewis is, I won’t say terribly specialized, but just fairly remote from this particular theme in Lewis studies. So I don’t know how high on the quantitative citation rankings Monika Hilder’s trilogy stands, in which she makes a good case (I thought) for Lewis as a pretty level-headed feminist author. Yes, really! (The details: Monika B. Hilder, The Feminine Ethos in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (2012); The Gender Dance: Ironic Subversion in C. S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy (2013); Surprised by the Feminine: A Rereading of C. S. Lewis and Gender (2013).) I commented in my review (Christianity and Literature 65.2 (March 2016): 264-68) that there is quite a lot of repetition over the 3 volumes and putting it all in a single book would have made it more accessible financiaIly for readers who aren’t content to concentrate on just one of Lewis’s genres (or for struggling college libraries). Be that as it may, Hilder’s careful work deserves more attention than (I suspect, judging from your not referring to it) it has received.
    I’ll gladly chat with you about Jane Studdock. She is a many-faceted character, but one small way to get a purchase on what Lewis is doing is to compare her with Damaris Tighe in The Place of the Lion, whose powerful impact on his LIFE is well attested in his letters.

    Liked by 2 people

    • kdcoffin99 says:

      You’re very welcome! I’m actually very familiar with Ms. Hilder’s work, have used her critiques and thoughts extensively in my own research and writings. I don’t agree with her on everything, but she is has some really fascinating stuff. I might publish my senior thesis (which DOES cite her quite a bit) on my own blog, though I’m hoping to get it published in a journal at some point. Happy to discuss Jane at any time.

      Funnily enough, I’m far more okay with Gaiman’s short story than I am with Pullman’s ignorant comments. I actually wrote a little about this on my Tumblr once upon a time, talked about how he was disturbed and uncomfortable with Susan’s fate, and how “The Problem of Susan” (I do agree it is the problem with Susan rather than of, which I think is what you were getting at) sought to resolve that for himself. Gaiman specializes in turning fantasy into something gritty and dark, so the story is supposed to disturb and disgust. I talked about how I initially hated the short story but became more appreciative of it after immersing myself more in his work–after all, as a sometimes fanfiction writer, I often do the same thing with characters I feel are treated unjustly by their creators. I ended my post by saying that I thought Gaiman and Lewis might have some loud disagreements, but would walk out of the pub friends.

      Gaiman himself liked the post on Tumblr. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

    • Charles, I agree with your assessment of Hilder’s work. I reviewed the trilogy for SEVEN recently. I use it extensively in a section of my thesis, taking it a bit further.
      I really like Jane. Damaris is a parent of Jane, or an older cousin of some kind.

      Like

  5. Rachel Bell says:

    I don’t have anything to contribute intellectually at the moment, I just wanted to say I’m super excited this article exists and it’s great. And I would devour a post about Orual— Till We Have Faces is by far my favorite (just did my undergrad senior thesis on it!)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. MJ says:

    Very good article. You articulated it very well. I have always been bothered by how Susan was left in the whole scheme of things and could never reconcile it to my own satisfaction. This has given me something to think on (and agree with). Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve read the post and the discussion with great interest (saving all the link for later). I find this approach to “Susan’s problem” very similar to what I’ve always thought on the subject: it’s not the others who ban Susan from Narnia – she does it herself because she forgets all the experiences she and there and all the lessons learned. it is true – she doesn’t grow up, but just thinks she is grown-up, confusing the external signs (like make-up and going to parties) with real, internal, maturity – which always means taking responsibility and accepting your age without forgetting what you used to be as a child. I do hope she finds her way to Narnia in the end: tragedies like the one she experiences when she lost her family do change us – sometimes for the better and sometime for the worse. I want to believe it changed Susan for the better and after all the anger at the destiny and God, all the grief and pain she would find consolation in those childhood memories – when they were all together and happy. And Narnia was naturally a part of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • kdcoffin99 says:

      I think that’s rather key. When we paint Susan as a victim, we actually deny her the right of choice–the right to make a bad choice, to live with the consequences of your own actions.

      Lewis both encouraged his readers to write their own Narnian stories and mentioned that Susan would find her way to Aslan’s Country in her own way, so no fear there! She found her way back.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. dalejamesnelson says:

    Surely, surely, the key to what Lewis intended — if we can turn ourselves to his text in The Last Battle and away from movie imagery and The Critics — was to provide, in Susan, a feminine version of the same spiritual defection of which he gave a male version in Surprised by Joy — the male being Lewis himself in adolescence (14 years old). Where Susan’s defection is emblematized by nylons and lipstick, the male defector’s defection was emblematized by learning to smoke (I think — can’t find the reference now) and wearing dandified clothes (and affecting the correlative spoken mannerisms).

    Chapter 4 of Surprised by Joy describes at some length Lewis’s attempts to become “dressy” by wearing “very low cut coats and trousers worn very high to show startling socks” (cf. nylons!). He took to “plastering my hair with oil” (cf. lipstick!). He was at pains to learn “all the latest songs” and “latest jokes” so as to impress others (cf. “invitations”).

    Critics so eager to find a way to pin their hobbyhorse sexism on Lewis have missed the clue to what the “problem of Susan” really seems to derive from. It’s likely that Lewis had the writing of Surprised by Joy, and this passage, in mind when he wrote The Last Battle, if you can go buy chronology of publication: S by J 1955, Last Battle 1956 — but didn’t he write the Narnian books even closer together than this would suggest? is it possible he was working on the autobiography and the final Narnian book at the same time?

    Susan, c’est moi, he might well have said, as Flaubert said Madame Bovary, c’est moi.

    Dale Nelson

    Like

    • dalejamesnelson says:

      “By,” not “buy.”

      Like

    • Callum Beck says:

      Great comment. The problem with a feminist (or Marxist, etc) critique is they read into the text stuff that is not there. Here, they read Lewis as a misogynist uncomfortable with sexuality rather than as a human critiquing vanity and pride, which knows no sex.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I disagree, Callum. The problem with a BAD feminist (or Marxist, or Christian, or conservative, or environmentalist) critique is they read into the text stuff that is not there. Any ideological question can bend a text. But a Marxist is fine asking, “how does ideology work in Narnia?” or “what is the relationship between people and the work they do in the text?” It’s a good question. A feminist can ask, “what are the roles of women and girls in the text?” It’s a good question, just like the question, “How does Aslan show us the heart of Jesus?” is a good question. And Lewis intended to say things about politics, gender, and Jesus. So the questions are also organic to Narnia.
        A step further, good analysis can consider how readers read. The reality is that we no longer share the worldview Lewis had, so we are translating. Good critics will help us translate well.
        I think I might follow up briefly tomorrow, because your second point is really interesting.

        Like

      • kdcoffin99 says:

        Have to disagree here. I think feminist critiques (and Marxist critiques on other works, perhaps not Narnia though…well, on the other hand, considering the economics of slavery in Dawn Treader–ah but that’s another post!) are essential for reading Lewis. And for reading a lot of fiction, frankly.

        But we can’t paint feminist critiques under one brush. I am biased, considering my focus is Lewis and gender, but even the feminist critiques I read that I disagree with are far from “reading into the text stuff that is not there”.

        Like

    • Hi Dale, thanks for a note. A couple of years ago I have a lecture with PRECISELY that argument. As I’ve said, I don’t think the Susan conclusion is organic to Narnia or elegant. The fact that she is “always a Queen of Narnia” makes it jar, for me. But it also reminds readers that the story isn’t over.
      But it isn’t just feminists that ask these questions. All readers do. Nicolas asked me at supper this week, “Is Susan in hell?” I quipped back, “What? Because she missed a train? Quite the ticket.” But it is a question the text seems to invite.

      Like

    • kdcoffin99 says:

      I very much agree that Lewis modeled Susan’s flaws off of his own as a young man. Susan’s journey is supposed to be very much like his own.

      Like

  9. dalejamesnelson says:

    Brenton, I’m not criticizing people who “ask questions” about Susan. I’m criticizing reading that, commonly as a result of academic training, always “finds” offenses, on the score of “racism” or “sexism” or whatever, that might not really be there. Readers are trained with a hermeneutics of suspicion based on the doctrine of white male patriarchy oppression, “binary thinking,” “essentialism,” etc. For these readers, every serious act of reading involves the reader’s re-injection of himself or herself with such leftist politics. Willful misreading may be approved as a creative exercise. Just as the cultural Marxists continue the long march through the institutions, the individual reader, already indoctrinated, continues a long march through “texts,” re-indoctrinating himself or herself. This sort of thing might lead to some clever readings; but cleverness is not the same thing as wisdom, and may well preclude it..

    Award-winning specimen here: “Aggressive Disintegration in the Individual”: A Lacanian Study of Signification and the Destruction of Self in Shakespeare’s King Lear, by Alex Muller.

    https://www.winthrop.edu/uploadedFiles/undergradresearch/AMullerArticle.pdf

    “Cordelia is death” — !

    One tries to imagine a parallel universe in which right-wing notions exercised hegemony on campus rather than left-wing ones. I imagine we would all think it strange if, every time a reader took upon a book (other than entertainment fluff), he or she “uncovered” its failures vis-a-vis free market capitalism. But unless we read widely outside our own period, we probably don’t realize how bizarre our present milieu is. I imagine that shelves and shelves of academic books from the past 35 years or so may, one day, be regarded largely as monuments to a dreadful period in literary studies.

    Even a liberal writer for Harper’s magazine senses something of what’s come about:

    https://harpers.org/archive/2019/05/winning-the-peace-political-obsession/

    Dale Nelson

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    • Oh, I did not know that Cordelia was death. I thought sex was death. Or maybe it’s that death is sex. If things get crazy enough in literary criticism, pretty soon death will just mean death.
      Thanks Dale. I do admire your interest in rooting things in the classical tradition of reading in the modern West. That is why I had you submit that article so you can share that point of view in a period Of life when I simply can’t do anything of the sort. We probably disagree on politics, and the importance of politics, but I agree that bad readng is bad. There is the text.
      Attend to it.

      Like

      • dalejamesnelson says:

        To reply to Brenton’s 2 May 4:40 pm comment:

        When Brenton refers to the article that he had me submit, he is referring to this piece:

        https://apilgriminnarnia.com/2019/01/29/what-counts-as-an-old-book-a-response-by-dale-nelson/

        If anyone hasn’t read it yet but is willing to take the time, I might ask that reader, time permitting, first to read the Harper’s magazine piece here (also mentioned above):

        https://harpers.org/archive/2019/05/winning-the-peace-political-obsession/

        It’s one thing to differ about politics (as Brenton suggests he and I probably do). Politics ought to be largely the art of resolving differences, without resorting to persecution and violence, through negotiation and compromises.

        The problem on campuses and elsewhere, which so greatly troubles me, is that the Left has largely abandoned “politics” in this sense (art of negotiation and comppromise), resorting to such bullying tactics as disinvitation of speakers, harassment, humiliation, and violence — while, at the same time, it has “politicized” everything.

        Here, at this blog, lately, we have seen how politicization has contributed to poor readings (by Pullman et al.) of Lewis’s writings about the “Brown Girl” and of Susan, in ways entirely consistent with Leftist inquisitional procedures. Like the American president’s tweets, this constant politicization of life is demoralizing. (I believe that situation contributes to a cultural situation in which fascism of the right and of the left is increasingly likely.)

        But please, folks, read the Beha piece, and, then, perhaps, mine, if you haven’t already.

        DN

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks for clarifying Dale. Can you imagine why I keep bringing up these readings which I think to be not good readings? Do you see what I’m doing?
          I also don’t grant the separation from politics and other aspects of community like education and literature and marriage. I know you want to create a sacred space for literature and I love the work you do to keep as attended to the text. But the text itself (in the case of Narnia) brings up politics, leadership, gender roles, different ways of loving, theological problems, class critiques, and a bunch of other criticisms of the zeitgeist. Lewis was very politically engaged, though not capital P politics (beyond being anti-Labour personally, at least after the war).
          Second, Lewis’ theoretical work leads us to consider the reader’s experience. On this laboured question of Susan, ask girls how they read and you’ll see a lot of girls were hurt or puzzled by this.
          So I think it’s worth talking about (regardless who is president).

          Like

          • dalejamesnelson says:

            Replying to Brenton 3 May at 1:21 pm — You wrote, “I know you want to create a sacred space for literature,” etc. The “sacred” language is yours, suggesting a dichotomy between the sacred and the profane that I (and Beha) haven’t contended for. What (and Beha) is the collapsing of everything into the political, and censuring whatever isn’t in line with identity politics. I take it that that is what the “woke” movement on campus and in popular culture, law, education, and “fine art” means.

            This is a great diminution of imagination and it’s not conducive to human flourishing. Conversely, intimate, oft-renewed experience of literature that elicits good reading, and works of nonliterary art that similar reward the attentive person, can and often do contribute to it. Healthy politics, I would say, does, among other good things, the good work of enabling space in our individual and communal lives for that to occur.

            As a preliminary to that kind of experience, yes, it may be necessary, for some people sometimes, to resolve certain “issues” that arise. So it may be that the “problem of Susan” has to be dealt with, for some readers, not as something central to The Last Battle, but in order that the enjoyment of the work may go forward.

            You assume that many girls have been troubled by the Susan-and-lipstick passage, and you may be right; I don’t know what source, or anecdotal experience, has come to your attention. I associate the “problem” primarily with a now elderly, white, male writer (Pullman), for whom I have wondered if the “Susan problem” he has written about is not largely a stalking horse for a dislike of something else, namely Lewis’s belief that people’s decisions may have eternal consequences.

            So I hope you have not imagined that I’m contending for the suppression of discussion of topics such as the “problem of Susan.” I do think, though, that some of the talk about it is not much in the service of good reading of a good book, and that “approaching” literature habitually with the “lenses” of politicized notions is likely to work against good reading and against the expansion of consciousness that Lewis describes in the concluding pages of An Experiment in Criticism.

            Dale Nelson

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            • dalejamesnelson says:

              I meant:

              What (and Beha) contend against is the collapsing of everything into the political

              Like

            • I’m sorry I’m so late on this, but I’ve just been overwhelmed with work.
              Thanks for the comment. I appreciate you taking the time to respond carefully. Partly, I gave you more work by “sacred space”, when I really just mean a protected or valued one rather than a religious one.
              I kind of followed up on this with my 8 questions post. We agree that bad readings are bad, and that any reading should attend to the text. We disagree, I think, in what constitutes an authentic reading. I hope we agree that Lewis was 100% correct about a love of diversity and literature drawing us out of our selves into an experience of “other”. I love that idea and am profoundly shaped by it.
              Briefly on Susan, I’ve had dozens and dozens of students, mostly young women, deeply disturbed–and in every context I’ve taught The Last Battle. It is a thing, which is why I talk about it. I think there are deeper ways to read the passage that shows a much more capacious vision for how we can read and what Lewis deeply valued.

              Like

            • kdcoffin99 says:

              Hi Dale, I missed a couple comments, so I wanted to respond particularly to your bit here: “You assume that many girls have been troubled by the Susan-and-lipstick passage, and you may be right; I don’t know what source, or anecdotal experience, has come to your attention. I associate the “problem” primarily with a now elderly, white, male writer (Pullman), for whom I have wondered if the “Susan problem” he has written about is not largely a stalking horse for a dislike of something else, namely Lewis’s belief that people’s decisions may have eternal consequences.”

              With all due respect, this isn’t an assumption, this is plain reading. I’ve done quite a bit of research on “the problem of Susan” and there are quite a few female readers that were hurt and upset by Susan’s exclusion–and that is definitely worth listening to. I get comments on my Tumblr and Twitter every day from young women who don’t know what to make of Susan’s exclusion. That’s why I wrote this piece and spend so much time researching it. It’s certainly not one old white man who had a problem wiht it.

              Like

              • Callum Beck says:

                Of course there are many female readers that were hurt and upset by Susan’s exclusion. There are also quite a few men who are, including myself and young Nicholas. This is not a female issue it is a human one, and the gender of the excluded person is completely irrelevant. I just think it great that Lewis had the guts to exclude anyone because it raised profound human and spiritual issues, and if a feminist reading misses that genderless point then it has failed to understand Lewis. Edward was a little rotter, Lucy a saint, but we do not do male readings of either of these these realities.

                Like

              • kdcoffin99 says:

                The fact of the matter is, it is a female issue. There weren’t a lot of fantasy books that centered female characters. Not like Narnia did. It is certainly a human issue, but it is a female issue as well, especially when it’s written in gendered terms.

                Lewis didn’t write in a genderless manner and it’s a misreading to read him so. Overlooking the gender problems is just as bad as demonizing him because of them.

                And, to be frank, we do not need male readings of Edmund or Lucy because Lewis scholarship is already inundated with them.

                Like

  10. dalejamesnelson says:

    Also — this starts another hare and doesn’t really belong here — but I wonder if there isn’t a generational difference in the background of some of these discussions. I’ll be autobiographical here and say that I remember, 40 and more years ago, looking at library books, looking at books in used book stores and new book stores, and it was as if I were looking for clues to something. And there was a lot of faith that I could and should and would find important things in books. Among other things this meant that I’d better buy a book, if I could afford it, that might otherwise be gone. So I accumulated books as well as reading them. When I read Colin Wilson’s accounts — though he was more of my dad’s generation, having been born in 1931, than of mine — of reading and reading in the British Museum as a young man, and sleeping in a bag on Hampstead Heath because he was so poor though his intellectual life was getting richer almost by the day — I felt an immediate kinship.

    And I don’t get the sense that this sort of thing is at all common for people, say, under 30 or 35 nowadays. For them, it seems there’s the idea that you can find what you need by traveling, by being a “citizen of the world” or at least living in a very big city and eating in exotic restaurants and so on: you want to accumulate experiences, not books. There just isn’t very much urgency about books and reading, unless you are an academic person who wants to develop a career, etc.

    My time has run out. This is only a very sketchy sketch of a tentative feeling.

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    • dalejamesnelson says:

      Continuing my comment from 3 May at 7:02 pm, here’s a link to something by Colin Wilson that relates to what I said. Start reading at page 9. I disagree with Wilson about most things, but I’ll always like him for writing like this, in which he expresses that urgent sense of the importance of books that I was getting at:

      http://www.aristeia-press.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Sample_Religion_and_The_Rebel.pdf

      I’m not, by the way, saying that Wilson’s generation or mine was better than a younger generation. The relevance to the discussion here of politicization is that I’m wondering if the emphasis on scouring “texts” for political themes (identity politics, etc.), as seems to be so common now, is partly due to a need to find a way to make them seem worthwhile, for people who maybe, honestly, just wouldn’t know all that much about what to “do” with a book otherwise. I don’t know.

      Dale Nelson

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      You will have had a lot more recent and numerous ‘experience’ of young people in the classroom, than I, but my general experience, for what it is worth, suggests there are still lots of book-loving young people ‘out there’.

      I’m not sure how exceptional Dr. Parker is (or the age-range of her readership), but… consider:

      https://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.com/

      And, among her “Blog List”, ‘In Which I Read Vintage Novels’ (and many who comment there).

      A different point is the university study of literature – e.g., I just ran into this yesterday, in Clare Lehmann’s autobiographical note online: “I founded Quillette in 2015, after dropping out of a masters program in forensic psychology. Prior to embarking on my post-graduate studies, I had worked in the non-profit and government sectors in Australia’s capital city, Canberra. My ambition as a teenager was to become an English professor, but I found literary theory as it was taught at university to be unimpressive.”

      I had a curious exchange in 1979 or 1980 with B.F. Skinner in the Q&A after a lecture of his, in which (as I recall it) he was, among other things, wondering about what ‘system of rewards’ could be constructed to get children interested in reading – and I asked, what about the inherent interest and reward of a good book? (I think, Dickens was part of the discussion – I don’t remember if I introduced the examples of Pearl Buck and my grandmother having read just about all of him, at age 8 or so).

      Like

    • Hi Dale, I don’t have the ability at this moment to follow up on the cool discussion that follows. And I don’t know if things have moved on, or not. But I have a couple of quick thoughts:
      1. I think you and I have each experienced ideological and identity criticism differently. For me it has been very healthy and encouraging (with lots of goofiness too, particularly in biblical studies and American literature). I think it was coming of age in your teaching of time and came out fighting and with a whole different framework.
      2. I have great hope for younger generations. Poetry readership is up 40% from my generation, I heard on CBC. I think the Harry Potter generation are better readers than mine was. I think the disappointment with my generation will partly be offset by cool kids coming.
      However, I think we as a culture have moved on. In the late 60s, governor of California Ronald Reagan said that society cannot afford intellectual curiosity. I think that argument has won, definitively. But I do hope there is a remnant of readership.
      3. I aim to be the book seeker. The “Pilgrim” in my title is not accidental.
      Cheers, bd

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Hmm… That’s not how I experienced ‘Death Valley Days’… 😉 Maybe Mr. Reagan was thinking of those (academics!) who considered “Turn on, tune in, drop out” to be the equivalent of ‘intellectual curiosity’.

        And I wonder if the academy-as-sausage-factory which the young Tolkien was surprised to hear critiqued in those terms by Joe Wright, is finally getting some well-deserved knocks (if only among other things)?

        Like

        • I’m not sure what Reagan was thinking, but the idea of education as utility is the undoubted doctrine by policy makers. I have worked in government and after years of explaining and trying to win people, no one believed that education needs to be free in order to be transformative to culture. I never won a single convert. Education is for economic development. Reagan may not have made this, but he helped lead the charge.

          Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I wonder what the Prussian contribution to this was (and/or wasn’t) – via the late-19th c. American infatuation with and imitation of German academic approaches?

            It’s a very ‘inklings’ matter – maybe especially C.S. Lewis-y (or maybe he just wrote more about it one way and another – whether in Rehabilitations (1939) or scattered comments. e.g., about not forcing the uninterested into a sort of ‘academic’ approach). I should go looking to see what, if anything, he happens to say about Shaw’s Man and Superman, and Jack Tanner’s paean about polytechnics, there…

            I need to look into Reagan in detail, too – what nuances (or not) about educational diversity (so to call it), and universities and ‘the practical’ – and ‘economic’… e.g., in a Californian context, I wonder how the Hoover Institute fits into this picture?

            Like

  11. dalejamesnelson says:

    Lewis’s story of his conversion, everyone will remember, could be regarded as a bibliographical narrative. Bede Griffiths’ Golden String too.

    So when people of the now-older generation read such books, they likely can readily relate to the “existential” importance of books, even where the books were at best dubious guides to life (Castaneda!), or have become hot media properties (The Lord of the Rings). I wish that Gerald Jonas’s 1965 piece on LotR

    were available to you free.

    For later generations, the self-chosen books were the Harry Potter ones, Twilight, Hunger Games, etc., and I don’t think these were experienced by their teenaged or twentyish readers as having the importance that, say, Hesse’s Siddhartha, or LotR, often had for the generation of the Sixties and Seventies.

    https://www.unz.com/print/Nation-1967may08-00598/

    There’s a citation (above) that might give a sense of the way Tolkien and Hesse were associated in the minds of some.

    I don’t have the sense (from my experience of teaching, etc.) that books matter, personally, “existentially,” to readers under 35 or so like this, now; and, so, again, I wonder if the classroom business — which is what I have in mind in these comments — of reading books through “lenses” that elicit familiar political matters, is a way of finding “something to say” about them.

    That would have seemed pretty odd, I think, to my favorite teacher when I was an undergraduate, about whom and whose teaching I have written here:

    http://fancyclopedia.org/brian-christopher-bond

    A young person now will turn to counselors and websites, not books, to help him or her come to terms with romantic feelings. (I turned to La Vita Nuova and Mary McDermott Shildeler. Autre temps!)

    Dale Nelson

    Like

  12. dalejamesnelson says:

    To David, 4 May, 9:04 am, who wrote, “You will have had a lot more recent and numerous ‘experience’ of young people in the classroom, than I, but my general experience, for what it is worth, suggests there are still lots of book-loving young people ‘out there’” —

    You’re writing, of course, from the Netherlands, while I was thinking of the United States (as I neglected, in typical American fashion, to specify, when I generalized).

    Here in the States, under-35s might be reading, but I wonder if they are reading with the inner urgency that I’ve tried to suggest, or if, rather, they do not really think of books as being the place where they might well find things they need. *That*, I suppose, they more usually think of as something you find in Internet sites, travel, &c.

    They might *arrive* at university hungry to explore the literary heritage, but they will read a lot less therein than they would have in earlier times, and, on the other hand, will be initiated into politicized literary theory, which tries to appropriate their reading for the agenda of cultural Marxism. It is easy for me to imagine discussions of everything from Sophocles on up getting herded into the political arena (e.g. with Sophocles, talk about the presence of slavery in Classical Athens). Now whatever it is that draws a teenager to English studies, I doubt that it has been common for it to be a desire to run one’s reading through a politicized hermeneutic grid. “So many ways to miss the point,” to take the title of one of Milo Kaufmann’s little books.

    Prior to the hegemony of theory, I think there was more room for students to read more in primary works and, reading them, to engage imaginatively with them. There was less professorial insistence upon using “lenses” supplied by the prof. In my experience, there was quite a bit of freedom for good reading to occur — and sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t. And indeed it was “freedom” (often, indeed, with risible or deplorable applications) that was the great word back then in the Seventies or so. Today “freedom” has lost its luster for the young, who, instead, are led to focus on “equality,” with sometimes bad results that we are, in part, seeing.

    Professors, annoyed or resigned to the sight of students engaged with phones etc in class, may lament the “age of distraction,” but — if they only knew! — their “lenses” may themselves be a distraction.

    However, some readers will still find their way, sometimes, to books. As I’ve mentioned before, perhaps when some of them do, they may find a teacher who will say something like this: “Ah! You love a good book! Welcome to the underground.”

    Dale Nelson

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I’ve sung not so long ago in a choir – accompanied by a student orchestra, none of whose members were music majors but all of whom delighted in (going on) skillfully making music – and perhaps it’s similar on both sides of the Atlantic (and the Channel/North Sea) where the hearty reading of good books is concerned: more outside, than inside, the ‘literary’ faculties – I have certainly seen undergrads here burdened with ‘theory’, and I wonder to which university (or college) I could recommend a book-lover going, or whether I would be likely to study Eng. Lit. formally, if I were finishing high school, today. (Either would require a lot of looking into, on my part, I think!)

      Liked by 1 person

  13. dalejamesnelson says:

    One more thought in this tangent I introduced. I’ll offer two notions and a third that seems to follow from them given the current fashion for leftist literary lenses.

    I’ve been reading Alan Jacobs’s The Year of Our Lord 1943 — which, so far, seems to me a fine read. On page 67, Jacobs quotes Eliot on Tradition, as something that “cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it be great labour.” That, I believe, is the main thing that university studies in literature should be about. If not the universities, who will do it? (To answer my own question: I believe that it can be done, by the individual, but much more laboriously than if the university, in its areas of language and literary studies, is faithful to its primary vocation.)

    There’s a second thing, which I’ve mentioned in earlier comments, and that’s the individual’s free and often urgent exploration of literature on his or her own. A well-stocked university library or a good used book store has been a place to do this. Here the individual is seeking literary works and other writing that comprise a “golden string” to follow. And probably, for the most part, he or she needs to be left alone to do this, though the reader will often be getting ideas for reading from comments, spoken or written, by friends, mentors, &c.

    Now, it seems to me that the fashion of politicized classroom activity works against *both* of these. The student reads less than formerly in the tradition to which Eliot alluded, and the politicization also gets between him/her and the reading that *is* done, because of the insistence on reading as something to do while using feminist or queer or postcolonial (or whatever) lenses.

    This state of affairs may have something to do with the decline in enrollments in English studies, along with perceptions about employment.

    Dale Nelson

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      In this context, the possible conjunction of two novels popped into my head, the other day, Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940) with Luis’s escape from the government’s attempt to propagandize him, and Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), set in the same period as Greene’s – of which in fact I have only seen the film adaptation, so far – with its different, but in some ways related, escape of (some of) her students from her attempts to form them on her terms. How thematic is this attention to the mis-education of children in 20th-c. English fiction, I wonder? (Certainly a feature of the dystopian Brave New World and 1984 (and, in the 21st, I think, of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), too) and also, it strikes, me, of both Lewis’s Ransom and Narnia books, as well as The Abolition of Man.)

      Liked by 1 person

    • Callum Beck says:

      Hi Dale

      No doubt this conversation has been going on a way too long so I am not sure of the wisdom of adding another bit, but I will. I have appreciated all you wrote and have to admit I am decidedly on your side of this debate over that of my good friend Brenton.
      Part of the justification for feminist, Marxist, etc readings is that we all have our biases. This is true. But something about this justification bothered me and I think I have figured it out but am still working on it.
      I was trained to recognize my biases (although like all, I do this imperfectly), not in order to interpret someone’s writing from my perspective but as a safeguard against mis-interpreting their thinking by reading it solely through my own lense. It was a call to get into their perspective and worldview, and see life through their eyes.
      But the feminist / Marxist / queer / etc readings seem to make no effort to read the text from the author’s perspective but twist the purpose of recognizing our inherent biases into a call to read it from their biased perspective. So they can put whatever nose on the text they want to and dismiss it outright if they do not like its underlying philosophy.
      So Brenton says of Susan: “On this laboured question of Susan, ask girls how they read and you’ll see a lot of girls were hurt or puzzled by this.” That to me is the complete wrong question. This is not a girl / guy issue, Lewis is certainly making no comment on feminist theory; it is a human and theological question that is completely gender neutral. So young Nicholas has the same hurt and puzzlement as I do and as all the young girls do; and the issue would be no different if it was King Peter who chose to be an important lawyer / politician and gave up Narnia as a childhood fancy. Lewis was not inviting a feminist critique of this idea and nor is the text. But he was concerned with heaven and hell and pride and vanity, and those are the issues that the text begs to be discussed.
      I think Dale’s summary to hit the Susan nail on the head: “I associate the “problem” primarily with a now elderly, white, male writer (Pullman), for whom I have wondered if the “Susan problem” he has written about is not largely a stalking horse for a dislike of something else, namely Lewis’s belief that people’s decisions may have eternal consequences.”

      Callum Beck

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        As an sort of tangential follow-up to your saying, “It was a call to get into their perspective and worldview, and see life through their eyes”, this seems very much to have been the intention and successful manner of Lewis’s 10-week course in political philosophy for undergraduate history students, from ‘Platonic Communism’ to Lenin’s The State and Revolution (1917), as A.G. Dickens recalled experiencing it in the 1930s, when I interviewed him for the Wade Oral History Archive.

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      • kdcoffin99 says:

        Hi Callum, I’d like to respond to your comment as well. Particularly your note: “But the feminist / Marxist / queer / etc readings seem to make no effort to read the text from the author’s perspective but twist the purpose of recognizing our inherent biases into a call to read it from their biased perspective. So they can put whatever nose on the text they want to and dismiss it outright if they do not like its underlying philosophy.”

        So firstly, I’d like to remind us that Lewis himself didn’t like the idea of “assuming the author’s intent”. He argued for complete separation of the text and the author, he preferred to take the story as it was. Of course, this makes it a bit troublesome for Lewis scholars to study his work this way! 🙂

        Secondly, I think it’s a mistake to assume that feminist/Marxist/queer readings of a text automatically dismiss it. I have a lot of queer/LGBT followers that participate in the #CSLewisBookClub who adore Narnia and love talking about it. I’ve been DM’ing with two separate people who are neither cis nor straight talking about their very positive experiences reading Narnia–and their queer criticisms of the text. Criticism isn’t always dismissing something outright, oftentimes it adds to the text. My younger sibling has a truly fascinating queer reading of Eustace’s transformation into a dragon in Dawn Treader that I think Lewis himself would appreciate–not agree, but appreciate. And therein lies the crux of it.

        I also think it’s unfair to assume that a traditional reading that doesn’t consider feminism or Marxism or whatever is automatically bias free. I know a lot of Marxist scholars and queer scholars that will read through their lens (as we are all wont to do) but can still be perfectly objective. We need diverse perspectives on Narnia and all of Lewis work, because that allows it to grow and allows us to grow.

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    • kdcoffin99 says:

      Hi Dale,

      I’d like to gently comment that queer readings, feminist readings, and other such readings are not necessarily “through a leftist lens”. There are quite a few such scholars that do not necessarily identify as “leftist”.

      I’d also like to point out that there is no simple straight readings of a text. We’re all inhibited by our biases and perspectives and that is not necessarily a bad thing for reading academically. We want to encourage discussion and viewpoints, so if someone connects something Lewis wrote to Marxist theory, it’s far better and healthier to engage with them than to simply assume they’re dismissing it.

      We all read with some kind of lens. It’s impossible not to. I am a woman, I read with a woman’s perspective, I believe in feminism, so that colors my readings, but before I was a feminist, I still wanted to critique and consider the women, to remember the ladies, to paraphrase Abigail Adams. I always want to know what an author was thinking when they wrote a woman a certain way.

      As I said before, it is impossible to read without a lens. There is no such thing as a straight, simple reading.

      Like

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  17. Saul Snoke says:

    If I was to re-write Narnia, I would make Susan a lesbian or a tranny. But then again, I’m Jewish.

    Like

  18. James Jones says:

    Great comment.

    Like

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