“The Problem of Susan”, Neil Gaiman

While I’m in a talking-about-C.S.-Lewis groove, I might as well review this short story.  I reread it yesterday because I was thinking a lot about C.S. Lewis and Aslan and God, and leaving Susan behind when everyone heads into Aslan’s country.  And here’s what I came out of it with: This story hurts my feelings.  On C.S. Lewis’s behalf, my feelings are hurt by this story.

The main body of the story isn’t the problem.  I think the story is great actually.  It’s essentially a young reporter interviewing a professor of children’s literature, who (it’s very strongly implied) is the grown-up Susan Pevensie.  She’s talking about her life after her siblings all died, how she had to identify their bodies, and how she didn’t have much money following the death of her parents, and so forth.  There’s this tone of bewildered melancholy, and weary anger, which I thought was excellent.  These are points which I think need to be made about Susan from The Last Battle, because even making the argument that her crime was caring too much about girly things, and no longer believing in Narnia – even making that argument, the passage comes out damn sexist, whatever Lewis intended.  So hurrah for Neil Gaiman, putting a face on what Susan would have been going through back in the real world, while everyone she loved was frolicking around merrily in Aslan’s country.  (The other three Pevensies didn’t seem to bother much about her either.  I expected better from Lucy.  And Edmund, actually.  Their big sister!)

But, oh, the bits in italics, which framed the main story, hurt my feelings so much.  (Even though I can see how the story would have been incomplete if he had just taken those bits out.)  I’m excerpting a bit, which is rather explicit, so don’t read it if that’s going to bother you.  Aslan and the White Witch have made a deal to divvy up the Pevensy kids, the boys for her and the girls for him:

The lion eats all of her except her head, in her dream.  He leaves the head, and one of her hands, just as a housecat leaves the parts of a mouse it has no desire for; for later; or as a gift.

She wishes that he had eaten her head, then she would not have had to look.  Dead eyelids cannot be closed, and she stares, unflinching, at twisted thing her brothers have become.  The great beast eats her little sister more slowly; and, it seems to her, with more relish and pleasure than it had eaten her; but then, her little sister had always been its favorite.

The witch removes her white robes, revealing a body no less white, with high, small breasts, and nipples so dark they are almost black.  The witch lies back upon the grass, spreads her legs.  Beneath her body, the grass becomes rimed with frost.  “Now,” she says….

And when the two of them are done, sweaty and sticky and sated, only then does the lion amble over to the head on the grass and devour it in its huge mouth, crunching her skull in its powerful jaws, and it is then, only then, that she wakes.

Not something I often say, and not something I really ever want to say, but shut up, Neil Gaiman.

At first this was just a kneejerk reaction.  As an adult I recognize that sometimes Aslan is a bit smug and aggravating, but still there is this huge part of me that just finds him safe and comforting.  I identified really strongly with Lucy when I was a kid – I think because when you’re a kid, people often don’t listen to you, and nobody would listen to Lucy about Narnia – so I also identified with her relationship with Aslan.  Also, when I went and woke up my parents with nightmares, they would tell me that Aslan would blow my bad dreams away.  You know, like he blew away Eustace and Jill in The Silver Chair, most terrifying Narnia book ever; and that’s what I would imagine when I was falling back asleep.  In fact I still do.  So I was never going to take kindly to something like this.

However, on an intellectual level – and, disclaimer, I don’t know if this response is any fairer – but this business with Aslan and the Witch just seems mean-spirited.  Not because I mind things in which God doesn’t come out too well – for a while I was absolutely entranced by the His Dark Materials books, so much so that I bought all three of them, in hardback, right after I finished The Amber Spyglass; and Angels in America is one of my favorite plays ever (brother’s from the homeland!), as well as being one of my desert island movies.  (Hm, I seem to have Angels in America on the brain – could be my subconscious signaling me to read it again.)  I’m Catholic, but as a trend I really don’t mind when God is portrayed negatively, when it reflects the author’s beliefs and attitudes about the world.  I figure, God is tough.  God can take it.

“The Problem of Susan”, to me, is a whole different question.  It’s not an assault on God; it’s a specific, personal assault on one specific person’s affectionately rendered depiction of his beliefs.  C.S. Lewis wrote Aslan to reflect his experience of God, and as I’ve said, that man loved God like nothing else.  Whether you agree with him or not, he wrote Aslan with such absolute sincerity and love.  I think it is unkind to take such an honest expression of someone’s religious devotion, and do this with it; no matter how much you disagree with him, or find his beliefs about women/God/whatever, to be damaging.  It makes me feel all yucky to read this part of the story – a reaction I don’t think I’ve had to something I’ve read since this horrible book I got for my eleventh birthday, the contents of which I don’t remember at all, but which upset me so much I hid it under the couch and still couldn’t sleep knowing it was in the house so I got up and threw it in the trash and poured wet coffee grounds on top of it.

I’m not pouring wet coffee grounds on top of “The Problem with Susan”.  I just wish Neil Gaiman had been more respectful of C.S. Lewis.  And I say this as a girl who likes dressing up pretty with stockings for parties, and has been from a young age completely displeased with how Lewis dealt with Susan in The Last Battle.  (Y’all should see the sexy, sexy yellow dress I got for Christmas.  You know how hot Kate Hudson was in her yellow dress in How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days?  This dress is just like that.  But my hair is longer.)

Okay.  This marks the end of my C.S. Lewis apologetics.  You will not hear another peep out of me about C.S. Lewis.  I am reading his letters but I won’t say a word.  Coming soon: more Sandman, more Shakespeare, the seventh Harry Potter book for heaven’s sake, the interesting book about virginity I am reading, and hopefully some Susan Hill, since every book blog on my blogroll seems to be reading Susan Hill recently.  But no more of the Sally Lockhart books.  I’m tired of them because everyone died, and the Eleventh Doctor has pretentious hands.  Also maybe some science fiction.  I feel myself getting into a very science fictiony mood.  We’ll see how that plays out.