A few years ago, I read Alan Garner’s Elidor and was struck by a number of similarities with C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books. This is not to say that I think Garner was doing a conscious rebuttal of Lewis in his own work, necessarily (that disclaimer applies to this post as well). Portal fantasies with “chosen” children were, I think, a reasonably established trope by the time Garner’s earlier books were written, as were fantastic unicorns and books that began with train journeys (see for example practically every school story ever). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all of these, along with other tropes, come into play in Elidor, but that’s because Elidor works as an inversion of exactly that type of fantasy.
It’s probably also a coincidence that both writers write of girls named Susan; there are a number of Susans floating about mid-twentieth century children’s literature. Still, reading both the Susans together is potentially illuminating.
Lewis’s Susan Pevensie first appears in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as the concerned older sister. She tries to mother the younger ones, is sensible, is rescued by her brother, grows into a good archer and a beautiful woman.Skimming the book again I see that the being sensible part remains constant; at the end of the book Susan is the only one of her siblings to suggest not taking the path that will (though they don’t know this at the time) send them back to their own world with no way of coming back. In The Horse and His Boy, which is set during the Pevensies’ time as rulers of Narnia, she’s an adult, capable of desire and contemplating marriage to a Calormene prince (who turns out to be evil, as most brown people are). There’s no sign, either here or in the final pages of LWW, that any of the children spend much time thinking about where they came from or contemplate returning– though at the end of The Horse and His Boy Aravis and Shasta hear Lucy telling the story of how the Pevensies came to Narnia, so at least at this point they still remember. And while I find this a little creepy, the implication is that these characters’ lives are here.
And so to Prince Caspian, the last book in which Susan appears. I’m indebted for my reading of Susan in this book to Ana Mardoll’s ongoing chapter-by-chapter deconstruction of the series, all of which can be found here, but I want to particularly focus on these two posts. Ana Mardoll sees Susan as deeply vulnerable, and strongly affected by being hauled in and out of Narnia; and it’s a situation that is potentially traumatic. We’re never shown how Susan feels at being told at the end of Prince Caspian that coming back is no longer an option for her, but it’s quite conceivable that she’s less accepting of it than her brother.
Within the series’ internal chronology, that moment when Susan walks through the door in the air and back to “our” world is the last time we see her. We will see her siblings, and fellow Narnia-adventurers in The Last Battle though:
“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicle 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 grown-up.”
Critiques of Lewis tend to focus on that “nylons and lipstick and invitations” line, and while I find it rather indicative of Lewis’ politics in general, I find what Eustace says to be more interesting. Susan says Narnia doesn’t exist at all, and within the logic of the series this doesn’t make sense because obviously it does exist and this is the real problem.
Back at the beginning of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the Pevensie children had found Lucy’s insistence that she had entered a magical land through a wardrobe alarming, and had asked Professor Kirk for advice. His answer:
“There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad.”
This is a version of Lewis’s trilemma, and let’s ignore for the moment all the things that are obviously wrong with it as an argument. Lucy is not in the habit of lying and is “clearly” not mad (how likely is it that the Professor’s degrees are in anything related to the field of mental health?) so we have to assume she’s telling the truth, against all laws of time and space as the children know them.
Within the logic of Narnia’s universe (which I am respecting much more than the Professor does that of the real world) Susan is not telling the truth when she says Narnia does not exist. Is she in the habit of lying, then, or is something much more serious going on here? I notice that the dismissive comments that the ‘Friends’ of Narnia make about Susan do not come from her family. Polly, Jill and Eustace all have negative things to say, but of those who know her best, Peter is short and changes the subject, and Edmund and Lucy are silent.
One of the reasons I suspect no one expected a third book in Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen series is that it ends so very well. In The Moon of Gomrath Susan briefly rides with, and feels a strong kinship with the Daughters of the Moon. She has further reason to feel like she belongs with them; the Mark of Fohla, given to her by Angharad Goldenhand. We see Susan’s desolation at the end of the book twice, through her own eyes and her brother’s, as they leave her behind.
The Einheriar paled, their forms thinning to air and light, and they rose from her into the sky.
But Susan was left as dross upon the hill, and a voice came to her from the gathering outlines of the stars. “It is not yet! It will be! But not yet!” And the fire died in Susan, and she was alone on the moor, the night wind in her face, joy and anguish in her heart.
The hoof-beats drew near, and the earth throbbed. Colin opened his eyes. Now the cloud raced over the ground, breaking into separate glories that whisped and sharpened to skeins of starlight, and were horsemen, and at their head was majesty, crowned with antlers, like the sun.
But as they crossed the valley, one of the riders dropped behind, and Colin saw that it was Susan. She lost ground, though her speed was no less, and the light that formed her died, and in its place was a smaller, solid figure that halted, forlorn, in the white wake of the riding.
It’s a horrible moment.
And you have to wonder how much of the awfulness of those final moments of Elidor has to do with the terrible thing that has just happened (the death of Findhorn) and how much of it is the horror of return to the mundane world:
… for an instant the glories of stone, sword, spear, and cauldron hung in their true shapes, almost a trick of the splintering glass, the golden light. The song faded.
The children were alone with the broken windows of a slum.
These children cannot skip unconcernedly back and forth between worlds without consequence or thought for what they must now do without. There’s magic, then it’s gone, and they are bereft.
And so to Boneland*, Garner’s 2012 conclusion to what we now know is a trilogy. This is a darker book, an adult book. It works outside the realm of children’s fantasy and in some ways is not fantasy at all. Susan is not present in this book, any more than she is in The Last Battle. Here she is not even named. And Colin cannot work out where his sister has gone; for much of the book he can’t even be sure he had a sister. The siblings are separated, either because one of them has managed again to access the world of fantasy from which the other has been cut off, or by death, or (as is the case in The Last Battle) the two are the same thing anyway. Susan is not the one left behind this time, she has moved ahead into whatever it is she has moved into. Boneland is all about Colin’s fractured psyche that is partly (in one of several possible readings of the book) a result of his childhood adventures. In a sense, then, if we accept Mardoll’s reading of Susan (I do, though I’m reasonably sure Lewis would not) with Boneland Garner may provide us with a solution to the problem of why Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia. I wonder how Colin would answer if asked whether the events of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen were “real”.
* I reviewed Boneland here, and Maureen Kincaid Speller has some detailed notes here that are especially helpful in placing it in the context of Garner’s larger body of work. And see also this lovely snippet about girls who went back (by Atilla/atillariffic on tumblr, based on art by Helen Green/dollychops).