And having just said all of that about Susan, upon having given the matter far too much thought, the real Problem of Susan, to my mind, had nothing to do with her family dying. It sucks a lot, but it happens and people can die without God Specifically Being Out To Get You. People cope with that and move on all the time, and we feel for them, but they do not get recorded as one of the Great Literary Injustices.

No, what I started thinking was that I’m thirty-five. I love my life. I have work I care about and a man I am quite desperately in love with. And if I suddenly fell through a wardrobe and was eleven years old again, I would go so batshit insane that they would have to make up new words for how insane I had gone.

I expect I might have a hard time playing nice with the god responsible.

So, y’know. (I realize that half my short stories turn up as “Point of view of the woman in this otherwise well-known story” and beg forgiveness in advance.) This one may even qualify as fan-fic! I make you a gift of it, although if my plane goes down in the Atlantic, please remember me for Digger and the Little Red Riding Hood thing instead.

 

“Elegant and Fine”

The real problem with Susan, in the end, was not that she was no longer Narnia’s friend. It was that she had already been its lover.

They all did it, of course. They were Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve, and while the first sin might have been of knowledge, the Church generally agreed that carnality had occurred shortly afterwards. And Aslan had already pulled his inscrutable vanishing act, and so was not around to disapprove.

Besides, it would strain credibility, even in a land of magic and talking beasts, for four young people coming of age far from home to remain strictly celibate.

Peter had several very close relationships with dryads and Lucy had always been fond of fauns. Edmund…well, you could never tell with Edmund, but Susan had her suspicions. He was very close friends with that Badger. Not that that meant anything, and even if it did, it was really none of her business, but…well.

Hell, everyone and everything talked, which tended to blur the lines quite a lot, and there weren’t any other humans in Narnia. Susan herself made the very personal acquaintance of a faun and several wood-gods, all of them courtiers and very discreet.

Eventually, when the four Kings and Queens were old enough that they could actually be introduced as rulers in foreign courts without raising any eyebrows, the dwarves let it be known that there was a nation next door named Archenland and another rather larger one named Calormene, and there were actually quite a few humans inhabiting both.

You could understand why they did it, of course—nobody wants to admit that there’s a twelve-year-old on the throne, especially if he’s been appointed by a conveniently absent lion. The Calormenes would have been over the border before you could say “annexation.” Still, it led to some awkward conversations at the dinner table.

When she was in her mid-twenties, Susan toyed with the idea of marrying an actual human prince, but the experience with Rabadash rather soured her on her own kind, and she went back to wood-gods. By the time any other princes presented themselves, she had already met…him.

He was a dwarf.

He was nearly as broad as he was tall, and his head barely came up past her waist. He had gnarled hands from working metal and he was as ugly as she was beautiful.

He worked with black iron and white gold, and from his fingers came extraordinary beauty, objects elegant and fine. When he touched her, Susan felt as if she were one of his creations, as if he refined her down to her purest essence, as if she too were elegant and fine.

She loved him profoundly and without reservation, and though dwarves are not a demonstrative people, he wrote his love for her in forged metal, with hammerblows and flying sparks, with the touch of his fingers against her skin.

If she had had any idea that when she rode to the Lantern Waste, she would never see him again, she would have barred the doors of her room and refused to set foot outside Caer Paravel.

When she fell through the wardrobe with her brothers and her sister, at first she did not believe it. When Susan looked in the mirror and saw herself, eleven years old again, cheeks and arms smoothed with babyfat, all she could think was that no one could be so cruel.

She tried the wardrobe ten or fifteen times a day, and then the professor moved it and she sank into a deep depression. She opened doors at random, without looking, closets and cupboards, trying to find the one that had Narnia behind it.

Old linens. The smell of mothballs. Sets of china with missing teacups and kitchen devices that had outlived their utility.

Nothing.

Her siblings were no help. A strange languor was taking over their minds, Narnia becoming a bright, distant dream, like a book read in childhood. Susan could feel it in her own mind, plucking at her memories—had the wallpaper in her room been red or green? Had there been five steps down to the river, or eight? The Raven that sat behind Peter in the throne room, the person who really knew what was going on—Peter had no head for economics, even when he was past thirty—had the Raven been male or female?

She woke one night and realized that she no longer remembered her dwarf’s name.

Even if I find him again, I won’t remember who he is. And I will be eleven years old.

She put her face in her hands, and wept as she had not wept since Aslan had died.

 

When they found themselves back in Narnia, a year later, she had almost succeeded in putting it out of her mind. The magic had plucked and teased at her mind until it felt like a dream, or like something best remembered as a dream.

Almost.

Not entirely.

Experience has a way of marking you, even if you do not remember it, or remember it only as a dream. You cannot keep the death-vigil for a god and go unchanged. You cannot walk across a battlefield with blood and mud and the moans of the dying around you, and go back to being an ordinary eleven-year-old girl.

You cannot live to be thirty years old, and have it wiped cleanly from your mind.

Frustration made Susan grind her teeth, even as her bones lengthened and she got her period again. (The school nurse tried to jolly her through it—“There there, my dear, you’re just becoming a young woman, that’s all!” Susan’s laughter was torn out of her like sobs, and the nurse kept a close eye on her for a week.)

The stranger in the mirror looked a little more like herself, but only a little, and not nearly quickly enough. There were things that she could do with makeup, and they helped, but not nearly enough.

Once loved, skin remembers skin, and the fact that she was trapped in a child’s body and many long years away from anyone’s idea of a lover…well.

She wanted to strangle most of the girls her own age and all of the boys. They had never had to plan a battle campaign, or figure out how to bring famine relief to parts of a countryside where the inhabitants thought roads were an act of foreign aggression.

They had never been in love.

And here she was. In Narnia. Again.

Thirteen hundred years too late.

Parts of her raged and screamed, and she shoved those parts down inside and only let them out when she had a bow in her hand. She put arrows through the skulls of three Telmarines, and then the dryads (who were shockingly old-maidish for a race of scantily-clad female trees) pulled her away. She suspected them of being in league with Father Christmas.

Hypocrites. It should have occurred to them by now that battles are ugly when anyone fights.

She wanted to grab Trumpkin by the shoulders and shake him until his loyalist teeth rattled and scream “Did you have an ancestor who loved the Queen? What happened to him? Did he ever forgive her for leaving him? What was his name?”

That Lucy was as brightly worshipful as ever and Peter was doing his best English schoolboy game-as-a-pebble routine would have tried the patience of any number of saints. Edmund was the only one who seemed to have anything flickering behind his eyes.

“Has it occurred to you,” she hissed at him one night, “has it occurred to any of you that they’re all dead? Have been dead for a thousand years? All of them—Tumnus and the Beavers and—and my—“

She had to stop and press a hand to her forehead.

“Of course it has!” said Edmund, in a low voice. “My friends—all of our—yes, all right? All right? What do you want me to do? Sit down and refuse to fight because they’re all dead? It won’t bring your dwarf back, you know!”

“What was his name?” Susan demanded. “Do you remember? Edmund, if you know—I can’t remember any more, I’ve tried—“

“Oh, Su,” said Edmund, in quite a different voice, and he put an arm around her shoulders. She cried for awhile. She thought he did too, but he was right, and it didn’t bring them back.

On the last day, when Aslan drew her and Peter aside, she did not cry. Her throat closed up and her heart clanged so loudly in her ears that she missed half of what he said.

Too old to return to Narnia?

You shoved me back into this wretched unformed child’s body, lion-god, and made me a thousand years a widow, and now I am too old?

If Susan had been standing next to the White Witch, before the Stone Table, looking down at Aslan bound and muzzled, she would have asked to wield the knife.

Peter was keeping his chin up and saying all the right things. Susan sank her teeth into her lower lip and thought that she would have given everything she had not to come back to Narnia this time.

Aslan looked at her as he spoke. He knew what she was thinking, of course. He always did.

Susan didn’t care. If he was going to go around refusing to be a tame lion, he could hardly fault her for refusing to be a tame woman.

Lucy was coming up, with Edmund beside her. She gritted her teeth, and swallowed her rage. It would not do Lucy a great deal of good to see her god gut her sister with one of his gigantic paws. And she’d be damned if she cried in front of him. She had cried for him once already, cried and worked her fingers bloody prying a muzzle from his dead jaws, and this was how that vigil was repaid.

She would be glad to never see Narnia again. The languid erasing of her memories could not come quickly enough. There was nothing left for her here.

If she lived long enough in her own world, if she was lucky, perhaps she would find someone there.

Someone who made her feel elegant and fine.

Someone who loved her, as she had loved someone once, long ago, in a childhood dream without a name.

 

  • reply Lon ,

    I’m goons go have a cry now.

    • reply Lon ,

      Stupid auto-correct! That’s supposed to be “gonna”, not “goon”.

      • reply RhianimatorLGP ,

        Just like Elrond in LotR and Duncan Idaho in Dune, Susan seems to be the eternally screwed character here. There always seems to be one in every story or series considered great. Some supporting character who gets used like a tissue by the “hero”.

        • reply Escher ,

          > “Rabadash”

          Wasn’t it “Radabash”?

          I could be wrong, and it doesn’t really matter.

          It’s just that it immediately made me think of “Rapidash”.

          • reply tanita ,

            *sobs angrily*

            This story is KILLING ME.
            Good thing Aslan is only an Oxford don’s imagination. If this was really God I would never forgive him. Ugh.

            Again: reading these books in adulthood is kind of crazy-making. But, you do crazy better than the rest of us. ☺

            • reply Tanit-Isis ,

              Ok, I liked the Neil Gaiman “Problem of Susan” story, but I like yours even more. And I think I’m maybe glad that I only read the Last Battle once, when I was about eleven, and while I remember it being both powerful and sad most of the icky stuff was totally lost on me. Funny, I had never noticed the problem when I read the series as a child, nor heard of it until a few weeks ago, and this has to be at least the third blog post on the subject I’ve stumbled on.

              But then, my favourite Narnia books were always the ones that didn’t involve the four children…

              • reply Eugene Arenhaus ,

                You’ve finally given some substance to Susan who’s been merely used as a “bad example” by Lewis. I suspect Susan is a character whom the author never really knew what to do with, and she ended up randomly written out of the narrative because he needed an apostate to contrast with the rest of the good Aslan’s faithful. Susan reflects he whole problem with Lewis’ “I wish I were a kid again” thing, seasoned heavily with his morbid Catholicism.

                Narnia books are both brilliant and flawed, like their author. A person who felt the call of the Faerie and struggled with it because he was molded into a form of a good Catholic. Lewis was a bonsai kitten who grew up into a bonsai cat and stayed like that for ever: full of growth potential stunted by the awkward shape his creative limbs were bent into, and likely pained by their uncomfortable attempts to stretch into their natural way. No wonder the thought of returning to childhood permeates early Narnian stories; a person who matured wholesomely would never wish for that.

                So Lewis, probably, had written more about his own tragedy into Narnia that he intended. Narnia is a land of collected classical mythos, with fairytale talking animals and pagan fauns, dryads and gods, created and ruled by an apocalyptic god. That god moves in mysterious ways and dispenses reward and punishment for reasons impossible to understand for mere mortals – who still are awed by the very thought of him and are expected to accept and love him unquestioningly. Lewis’ writing can’t help reflecting this god of his, who often does very cruel things for inscrutable reasons and condemns what Lewis longs for, but somehow still has to stay the essence of love and adoration.

                This incongruence between what Lewis says Aslan is and what he makes Aslan really do is something he himself had struggled with, and could not quite keep out of Narnia: the Epicurean problem of a good monotheistic God who allows evil to exist. I am sure that he could have written an apology of Aslan’s disposal of Susan and Peter much in the vein of his apologetic “Mere Christianity”.

                But anyway, you’ve taken a character who’s been ignored, slandered and abused by her creator, and gave her substance, history and justification, finding them in the gaps left by that creator – and turned her sad abandonment into an act of heroic defiance, and her vacuous immaturity into its opposite. I salute you. 🙂

                It’s like “Paradise Lost” in tiny scale. Monotheistic settings naturally grow their Lucifers who then quietly wait for their Miltons. It is inevitable. 😉

                • reply Jenny D ,

                  I cried reading this. I’d just been reading through all of Ana Mardoll’s deconstructions of Narnia, and agreeing that something was very very wrong with how Lewis treated Susan. And now this. So very spot-on.

                  And isn’t that the essence of good fanfic? You take what’s happened in canon, and you come at it from a new perspective.

                  • reply raff ,

                    I am harping on exactly the worst part of this I think…

                    “Let’s just say that the Badger had trouble walking one morning. Or ever again for that matter.”

                    • reply KLCtheBookWorm ,

                      Oh my goddess. That was powerful. Keep on defying them, Susan!

                      • reply Life Lessons ,

                        This is frakking brilliant!!! Absolutely brilliant!! You have brought out a point about the story that I had never thought of. To me, I would never have left Narnia and reading this is just so poignant and perfect. Huzzah to YOU!!!

                        • reply fairyhedgehog ,

                          I always felt uncomfortable about Susan.

                          I love how you’ve made us feel the tragedy of her being dragged back from adulthood into a child’s life. Poor Susan! No wonder she fell out of love with Aslan; he really did treat her shamefully. But then he always was desperately sexist, too.

                          • reply Alex R. ,

                            Amazing. Wonderful. You nailed it.

                            • reply Melissa Mead ,

                              Eugene Arenhaus, I think Lewis was Anglican. Protestant, anyway. I read somewhere once that JRR Tolkien was pleased that he’d converted his friend to Christianity, but regretted that he didn’t become Catholic.

                              What a brilliant story.

                              • reply Fiona ,

                                That bit has ALWAYS bugged me, esp. once you read “The Horse and His Boy”. They were grown-up, had princes and princesses negotiating for their hands, lovers and futures and beards and hairy bits… and then they have to go through the door and DO IT ALL AGAIN, only this time with adults looking on condescendingly. It just shows how much of a furphy the longing for childhood is because honestly, growing up was annoying.

                                I was naturally all scornful of Susan as a kid and cheered for the eternally bright and joyful Lucy but as an adult, my heart bled for her, time and time again.

                                You’ve brought that all back and let me reclaim poor ol’ Susan. Thank you 🙂

                                • reply wrye ,

                                  Well said, Fiona. Maybe Susan (the survivor) is meant for all of us adults to ponder, whether Lewis consciously intended it that way or not. Past a certain age, we have all digested or witnessed terrible news and had to go on in the world alone.

                                  Ursula, this is beautiful and fantastic. Wide-Sargasso-Sea fantastic. Thank you for Digger, (and congratulations too) but I will remember you for this, just the same. And love you a little bit, in a readerly sort of way.

                                  I like this piece immensely. I’ve cone to think that the only answer to the problem of Susan (and more broadly, of a compassionate God who permits bad things to happen) is that, at the very very end of things, she reaches heaven as well in her own time and fashion, and at very long last, all sorrows are ended, all wounds are healed, all lost ones are found again. and she is given to understand the reason *why*.

                                  And so now, I like to think she will one day be given back a name now lost to time and memory. That is how it ought to be.

                                  And may all of us be given the same.

                                  • reply raff ,

                                    “That bit has ALWAYS bugged me, esp. once you read “The Horse and His Boy”. They were grown-up, had princes and princesses negotiating for their hands, lovers and futures and beards and hairy bits… and then they have to go through the door and DO IT ALL AGAIN, only this time with adults looking on condescendingly. It just shows how much of a furphy the longing for childhood is because honestly, growing up was annoying.”

                                    Indeed. In fact, The Horse and His Boy is the one that raised the most issues for me. I kept wondering why Shasta felt absolutely no longing for his home — not the place with his adoptive “father”, but Calormen. Even if someone picked me up and transported me to a wonderful utopia, I’d still probably miss the people I’d known there and my own culture, for all its pitfalls and pain.

                                    And lo, I found a fanfic that addresses this issue as well:
                                    http://www.fanfiction.net/s/6670232/1/South

                                    • reply Don Hilliard ,

                                      Um…wow?

                                      I read a fair bit of Ms. Mardoll’s posts from your previous link…and while I think she has some very good points and I am really, REALLY not trying to be nasty…you said as much or more of importance in one short-short than she managed in thousands of words of tendentious and slangy prosing.

                                      Damn, woman, you are good.

                                      (An artist friend used to joke that any artists attending a get-together at a convention should wear badges reading “I HATE YOU, I HATE YOU, I HATE YOU” just to save time in observing the others’ work. That’s about how I feel every time I read the fictions what you toss up here…)

                                      • reply anon ,

                                        Its been a very long time since I’ve read these books…. but at the final one, wasn’t there a “they all go to heaven”sort of thing? I can’t remember if susan was there or not, but if she was, there were plenty of others besides the people from earth, if I remember right. so she does have a chance later? maybe?

                                        • reply Emma ,

                                          Lord. It’s just perfect. Thank you.

                                          • reply Tara ,

                                            You are a creepy weird and dark person. But I love you for it.

                                            • reply John M. Burt ,

                                              I was in a production of “Heaven Can Wait” once, and I remember being struck by the dead boxer’s reaction to the suggestion that he be reincarnated as a baby: “Nix, nix, I ain’t goin’ through THAT again!”
                                              Yes, I could be eighteen again, but eleven? No way.

                                              • reply Ellen ,

                                                What a beautiful piece of writing.

                                                I love Lewis, but his issues about women and sex have always bothered me (I think the way he describes Jadis is another example), although I tried to write them off as products of an earlier time (Barren arms! The scandal!).

                                                Thank you for this.

                                                • reply Jennifer L. ,

                                                  And this ties in with a verse in my favorite Seanan McGuire song, “Wicked Girls Saving Ourselves”:

                                                  “Susan and Lucy were queens, and they ruled well and proudly.
                                                  They honored their land and their
                                                  lord, rang the bells long and loudly.
                                                  They never once asked to return to their lives
                                                  To be children and chattel and mothers and wives,
                                                  But the land cast them out in a lesson that only one learned;
                                                  And one queen said ‘I am not a toy’, and she never returned.”

                                                  • reply Singingnettle ,

                                                    Even when I first read the series as a little girl, I spent a lot of time after I finished the books worrying about the impossibility of the children going through all they went through, growing up as kings and queens, and being shoved back into the lives of English schoolchildren. It reiterates all over the world every day in some way, of course: children seeing things and doing things that children should not see and do, yet, if they survive, being returned to “normal” life and being expected to behave like children. And yes, it always seemed to me that Aslan was, in his way, inexpressibly cruel.

                                                    • reply Sandy Brownlee ,

                                                      Wow. This stirred me up – and I ended up writing my thoughts out in a 2 page blitz. My thoughts are a little different than the ones expressed here. To be honest, I feel uncomfortable in viewing Susan as a victim. I just feel that so diminishes her. She’s written a classic fairytale heroine. This is the queen who went into battle, the girl/woman who helped rule a kingdom, who was willing to step into the unknown. When you have faced monsters and death, it puts a bit of steel in your spine. That is not a victim of fate. That is a character who knows how to choose.

                                                      It’s tempting to look at Susan through personal lenses. I mean, this is a broken world – and in my experience it’s people who keep breaking it. We all face the crap of life… loss, suffering, betrayal. I’ve gone through a lot of that this past year – and in the years before that I allowed the experience of loss and betrayal to put a dagger through my heart and pin me to the wall. No more. I choose… just like Susan chose. Only I don’t choose disbelief. I could – but I don’t. And I’m healing because of it.

                                                      • reply Reaching for Stories « Misnomer Knits (and stuff) ,

                                                        […] read more short fiction, because it’s so powerful when done right (‘it’s like in Elegant and Fine‘. ‘It’s like in Miss Brill – you just know that it would have, should have […]

                                                        • reply Danny in Canada ,

                                                          I’ve run a little emulation of CS Lewis, and this made him cry.

                                                          Well done.

                                                          • reply FlamingoTango ,

                                                            Thank you for your story. It made me think. It is unique and very good.

                                                            • reply Darrin ,

                                                              Could have done merrily without the bestiality: otherwise, superbly played.
                                                              I do wonder about the attitude that a loving god would prevent bad things from happening. I’m an atheist, so possibly I miss something, but according to the believers I know, God supposedly gave people free will. Elementary logic says that for your choices to be real, they have to have consequences. If there were a God, and he sat up in Heaven pushing the Reset button every time someone made the wrong choice so no one had to cope with the consequences of it, nobody’d be making choices, really: you’d just all be engaged in an endless game of ‘what if’.
                                                              .
                                                              Some things happen just as a result of the world working the way it works: fire doesn’t stop burning someone’s house down because they’re a nice person and gravity doesn’t stop working because a nice person’s going to fall. It’s not judgement or punishment or anything else: fire and diseases and gravity and all that don’t know who they affect. The rest happens because people make choices, and some of the consequences of those choices are horrible. But we make the choices,so how are the consequences anyone’s fault but our own? Somebody made a choice the night my brother died, but it wasn’t God: it was the drunk who got behind the wheel.

                                                              I’ve heard a lot of people say ‘If God was really loving, he’d have prevented this or that or whatever’. To me that’s like saying that if that drunk’s mother had loved him, she’d have followed him around all his life and locked him up the minute he took a drink. Well, yes, if she had, my brother would still be alive, no doubt about that. And from what I saw, she really did love her son and was sick about what he’d done. But he wasn’t a child: he was an adult. He knew what can happen when drunks drive, and he did it anyway. The choice was his and the blame is his, too. Not his mother’s, not his father’s, not his friends’, not God’s. Just his.

                                                              Like I said, I’m an atheist: afaIc, religions are just a holdover from the days when we needed to explain what we didn’t understand. You can’t bargain with a tornado or reason with a blizzard or propitiate a disease, but you can do all those things with gods, so we made gods and made them just like ourselves. I understand that. I understand why people need to believe there’s something or someone in charge. But I don’t think I’m ever going to understand wanting to everybody to be able to make their own choices but complaining about having to cope with the results.

                                                              • reply The Tarnished Hero – A Favorite Archetype often done Wrong | The Forbidden Pool ,

                                                                […] Susan Pevensie, if you are interested in further reading, my suggestions are: Ursula Vernon’s Elegant and Fine Neil Gaiman’s The Problem of […]

                                                                • reply Yohannon ,

                                                                  Ursula,

                                                                  I’m a long time fan of your work, which is why I was surprised I hadn’t run across this blog (and this post!) before now. A friend at work pointed me this way, and I should have KNOWN it was you (look, the word WOMBAT is in the URL! And to think I was an avid “Digger” reader!).

                                                                  I remember starting down this road briefly when I first read the series when I was 14. Already in the throes of puberty, I couldn’t believe that the Pevensie’s were so sanguine at the idea of going through that experience AGAIN. If they all recalled EVERYTHING, how could they not freak out at the reset of their ages?

                                                                  I understand the discomfort at the implications of “bestiality”, but I always suspected the real problem with cross-species relations were the questions of consent and sentience — if both are clearly there, does the “other” cease to be a beast, and becomes people?

                                                                  But yes, the worst part would be knowing what it was really like to “grow up”, and being treated as if you couldn’t know. That the experience of battle, war, death, personal achievements, skills and (above all) love just… tossed away. Nearly a quarter century.

                                                                  Could any of us, regardless of age, ever recover from losing 25 years? I turned 50 this year, which was, by coincidence, almost exactly 25 years since I moved from New York to California. You’d think a 50 year old male would be DELIGHTED at the prospect of returning to his “callow youth” with all of the experience of that quarter century.

                                                                  I would resent it. Hate it, despise the gods, the fates, or the quirk of physics that would so cheat me of every experience, for good or ill, that made me who I was. Even with a “cheat sheet” of what to look for it would take years to “catch up”.

                                                                  So yes, please excuse the belated outpouring of my appreciation of brilliance, but “Bravo!”.

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