There are two things that really bother evangelical friends of Narnia, and they both show up in The Last Battle. One of them is the presence of Emeth in Aslan’s country, and the other is the absence of Susan in that same country. The character of Emeth is a striking one, and the problem presented by him a significant one, worthy of a full treatment—so perhaps another time.
What I would like to do here is address the troublesome absence of Susan from Aslan’s country. What does it mean? Where does it fit in this story? Why does the apparent apostasy of Susan seem like a gaping narratival hole that doesn’t fit with any part of the larger story? I want to argue that it does not seem to fit because it really doesn’t fit. My intention is to show that a final apostasy on the part of Susan is really a literary impossibility.
I want to begin by sketching the character of Susan, as she is represented in the Narnia stories, beginning with what I take as clear indications of her faithfulness and loyalty. She is a true daughter. I then want to move on to discuss her characteristic failings and temptations. One of the things Lewis does throughout the Narnia stories is show how his child protagonists are fully capable of sins and failures, and Susan is no exception. So when she stumbles, how does she stumble? From that point I want to move on to discuss the prophetic importance of Cair Paravel, and the nature of Cair Paravel (and all of Narnia), and how it all relates to Plato. Bless me, what do they teach them in these schools? And then, if I have enough ones and zeros left to me, I want to sum up what I think happened to Susan.
So we begin with these four children. “Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy” (Loc. 2404). We will end with the same four.
There are many indications throughout the stories that Susan is an honest and sincere follower of Aslan. She can stumble, but when she does, Aslan puts things right again. “Welcome, Peter, Son of Adam,” said Aslan. “Welcome, Susan and Lucy (Loc. 3648). She is welcomed by the lion, and all is right.
She and Lucy are the two witnesses of the death of Aslan on the Stone Table. “Please, may we come with you—wherever you’re going?” asked Susan (Loc. 3871). They accompany him there because he was hungry for the companionship. She clearly loves him.
“The cowards! The cowards!” sobbed Susan. “Are they still afraid of him, even now?” (Loc. 3918).
And together the two girls are the first witnesses of the resurrection. They held vigil all night after his death, and in the morning at sunrise, the table cracked in two, and Aslan was alive again. The Deeper Magic had undone all the witch’s plans.
“And he crouched down and the children climbed onto his warm, golden back, and Susan sat first, holding on tightly to his mane and Lucy sat behind holding on tightly to Susan” (Loc. 4017).
She was the recipient of great gifts.
“Susan, Eve’s Daughter,” said Father Christmas. “These are for you,” and he handed her a bow and a quiver full of arrows and a little ivory horn. “You must use the bow only in great need,” he said, “for I do not mean you to fight in the battle. It does not easily miss. And when you put this horn to your lips and blow it, then, wherever you are, I think help of some kind will come to you” (Loc. 3473).
She grew into a great and beautiful queen, which will be discussed in a moment, but her carriage was not like that of a Jadis at all.
“And Susan grew into a tall and gracious woman with black hair that fell almost to her feet and the kings of the countries beyond the sea began to send ambassadors asking for her hand in marriage. And she was called Susan the Gentle” (Loc. 4201).
When she was courted by Rabadash, more than a few have been struck by the fact that she gave that kind of character the time of day. But there was an explanation. Will she have him?
“The lady shook her head. ‘No, brother,’ she said, ‘not for all the jewels in Tashbaan’” (Loc. 4931).
But why had she even thought about it?
“That was my folly, Edmund,” said Queen Susan, “of which I cry you mercy. Yet when he was with us in Narnia, truly this Prince bore himself in another fashion than he does now in Tashbaan. For I take you all to witness what marvelous feats he did in that great tournament and hastilude which our brother the High King made for him, and how meekly and courteously he consorted with us the space of seven days. But here, in his own city, he has shown another face” (Loc. 4936).
And when it became apparent that the Calormenes would not let them get away easily, she takes full responsibility for their dilemma.
“I am the cause of all this,” said Susan, bursting into tears. “Oh, if only I had never left Cair Paravel. Our last happy day was before those ambassadors came from Calormen” (Loc. 4998).
In Prince Caspian, Lucy is the first one to see Aslan summoning them to go the opposite way. Susan maintained that Lucy was simply being naughty and headstrong, but when Aslan finally reveals himself to her, she puts everything right in exactly the right way.
“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 what ever am I to say to him?” (Loc. 8180).
We are going to see in a moment that one of Susan’s besetting temptations is that of anxiety and fear. Lewis elsewhere argues that certain vulnerabilities have corresponding strengths, and Susan’s strength in this regard is tenderness. She is a great archer, but she is a great archer with a tender heart. When they rescue Trumpkin, it is through Susan’s marksmanship.
“He floundered away to the far bank and Peter knew that Susan’s arrow had struck his helmet. He turned and saw that she was very pale but was already fitting a second arrow to the string. But it was never used” (Loc. 6938).
She did what she needed to do, but she didn’t have to like it. She was “very pale.” And when Edmund had a fencing match with Trumpkin, her response is plainly marked out.
“Susan (who never could learn to like this sort of thing) shouted out, ‘Oh, do be careful’” (Loc. 7675).
And then it came to the archery contest between her and Trumpkin.
“She was not enjoying her match half so much as Edmund had enjoyed his; not because she had any doubt about hitting the apple but because Susan was so tender-hearted that she almost hated to beat someone who had been beaten already” (Loc. 7696).
And then, when she beats him, she tries to salvage Trumpkin’s pride.
“It wasn’t really any better than yours,” said Susan to the Dwarf. “I think there was a tiny breath of wind as you shot” (Loc. 7700).
Fear and Timidity
Throughout the stories, if someone is going to hang back, or regret having come, or be anxious about some new venture, that person is almost certainly Susan.
“I don’t know that I’m going to like this place after all,” said Susan (Loc. 2965). “I’ve a horrid feeling that Lu is right,” said Susan. “I don’t want to go a step further and I wish we’d never come (Loc. 2977). “Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion” (Loc. 3173). “Then—have we no hope?” said Susan (Loc. 3391). “How perfectly dreadful!” said Susan as they at last came back in despair. “Oh, how I wish we’d never come” (Loc. 3220). “Oh, do let’s go back and go the other way,” said Susan. “I knew all along we’d get lost in these woods” (Loc. 7876). “Oh, do let’s leave it alone,” said Susan. “We can try it in the morning. If we’ve got to spend the night here I don’t want an open door at my back and a great big black hole that anything might come out of, besides the draft and the damp” (Loc. 6830).
That this is a feature of her personality, and not just something that affected her when she was an English schoolgirl in the strange land of Narnia, can be seen in how she responds at the very end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. She is a very great queen by this point, but she is still the one who urges them all to hang back.
“And in mine too,” said Queen Susan. “Wherefore by my counsel we shall lightly return to our horses and follow this White Stag no further” (Loc. 4228).
Lucy grows up into Lucy the Valiant, while Susan becomes Susan the Gentle.
“At Cair Paravel,” said Corin. “She’s not like Lucy, you know, who’s as good as a man, or at any rate as good as a boy. Queen Susan is more like an ordinary grown-up lady. She doesn’t ride to the wars” (Loc. 6155).
Mark that comment that she is more like “an ordinary grown-up lady”—it will appear later.
After Susan apologized to Lucy in Prince Caspian, and said that she did not know what she would say to Aslan, what is actually notable is what Aslan said to her.
“Then, after an awful pause, the deep voice said, “Susan.” Susan made no answer but the others thought she was crying. “You have listened to fears, child,” said Aslan. “Come, let me breathe on you. Forget them. Are you brave again?” “A little, Aslan,” said Susan” (Loc. 8196).
Aslan is speaking here to the center of what troubled her — her tendency to listen to her fears.
The Beauty of Susan
Another standing issue in the books is the fact that Susan was regarded as the beauty, and Lucy not.
“Grown-ups thought her the pretty one of the family and she was no good at school work (though otherwise very old for her age) and Mother said she “would get far more out of a trip to America than the youngsters.” Edmund and Lucy tried not to grudge Susan her luck, but it was dreadful having to spend the summer holidays at their aunt’s” (Loc. 8968).
Please note another aspect of this, which is that it was the grown-ups who thought her to be the beauty. She was flattered and reinforced in all of this, and it is not surprising that Lucy took this assessment on board also. This is why Lucy was tempted, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, to say a spell from the magician’s book that would make her beautiful—over against Susan.
“Then it changed and Lucy, still beautiful beyond the lot of mortals, was back in England. And Susan (who had always been the beauty of the family) came home from America. The Susan in the picture looked exactly like the real Susan only plainer and with a nasty expression. And Susan was jealous of the dazzling beauty of Lucy, but that didn’t matter a bit because no one cared anything about Susan now” (Loc. 10539).
This was Lucy’s temptation, not Susan’s, but we should be able to connect the dots. All of these issues relate to one another. And that Susan was more beautiful actually, and not just in the opinion of the grown-ups, can be seen in Lewis’ comment that when Lucy saw Aslan, she was almost as beautiful as she would have been had she uttered the spell. This tells us that Susan was more beautiful, but Lucy wasn’t plain.
Grown-Up in the Wrong Way
We have already seen that Susan was “old for her age,” and so on. But Lewis has been giving us indications of this from the very beginning. At the start of their adventures in Lion, for example, Edmund is kicking against her grown-up-ness.
“I think he’s an old dear,” said Susan. “Oh, 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” (Loc. 2415).
We see the same thing in Prince Caspian.
“Where did you think you saw him?” asked Susan. “Don’t talk like a grown-up,” said Lucy, stamping her foot. “I didn’t think I saw him. I saw him.” (Loc. 7899).
When we are informed of Susan’s absence from Aslan’s country, this is the problem that is identified.
“Sire,” 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’” (Loc. 15691).
In short, she had become a “grown-up” back in England, and this attitude is described as being “no longer a friend of Narnia.”
“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.” “Grown-up, 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” (Loc. 15696).
It is not hard to connect this with the first set of temptations, her problems with her internal fears. We should have no difficulty imagining a beautiful girl who finds her identity in that beauty, and who has had that identity reinforced by all the grown-ups in her life. She is fearful of not getting there in time, and wants to hang onto it as long as she can once there. What is someone to do, if they find their identity in beauty, in a world where beauty fades?
But Aslan had known what Susan was returning to, and he had prepared her for it.
“Was that what Aslan was talking to you and Susan about this morning?” asked Lucy. “Yes—that and other things,” said Peter, his face very solemn. “I can’t tell it all to you. There were things he wanted to say to Su and me because we’re not coming back to Narnia” (Loc. 8898).
In short, Aslan did not prepare her for what she would face back in England in order to abandon her there.
Now all this appeals to us, because nobody wants Susan to veer off into Aslan’s shadow, never be heard from again. But some might suspect that this is simply an emotional ploy. Play the violins a little more sweetly—surely Aslan wouldn’t do that to our friend Susan. But is there anything more substantive?
Cair Paravel of the Four Thrones
A strong doctrine of providence runs through all the Narnia stories. Aslan is behind everything. He pushed the boat with the infant Shasta in it ashore. He summons Eustace and Jill before they think to call on him. And when the four Pevensie children tumble into Narnia, they find four vacant thrones waiting for them. They are destined to rule at Cair Paravel. This is what drives the action of the story.
We are not told who built it, but the land of Narnia is defined by that great castle.
“This is the land of Narnia,” said the Faun, “where we are now; all that lies between the lamp-post and the great castle of Cair Paravel on the eastern sea. And you—you have come from the wild woods of the west?” (Loc. 2493)
When Tumnus confesses what he was about to do, he says something in passing about that great castle. The future of those four thrones was common knowledge—even if sometimes disbelieved.
“And if she is extra and specially angry she’ll turn me into stone and I shall be only a statue of a Faun in her horrible house until the four thrones at Cair Paravel are filled—and goodness knows when that will happen, or whether it will ever happen at all” (Loc. 2571).
We can also see the importance of the castle from the fact that the White Witch laid claim to it. She says she is the “Chatelaine of Cair Paravel, Empress” (Loc. 2960).
“When Adam’s flesh and Adam’s bone
Sits at Cair Paravel in throne,
The evil time will be over and done” (Loc. 3188).
“Because of another prophecy,” said Mr. Beaver. “Down at Cair Paravel—that’s the castle on the seacoast down at the mouth of this river which ought to be the capital of the whole country if all was as it should be—down at Cair Paravel there are four thrones and it’s a saying in Narnia time out of mind that when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit on those four thrones, then it will be the end not only of the White Witch’s reign but of her life, and that is why we had to be so cautious as we came along, for if she knew about you four, your lives wouldn’t be worth a shake of my whiskers!” (Loc. 3207)
“Why, all she wants is to get all four of you (she’s thinking all the time of those four thrones at Cair Paravel) (Loc. 3247).
“Four thrones in Cair Paravel,” said the Witch. “How if only three were filled? That would not fulfill the prophecy” (Loc. 3712).
The witch wanted to seize all four children in order to thwart the prophecy, but then realized, shortly before her attempt to kill Edmund, that she could undo everything if only one of the four were missing. In this case it was Edmund, but this would be equally true if it were Susan.
When Lucy and Susan were present at the resurrection of Aslan, it is not an insignificant detail that they were looking straight at Cair Paravel at the moment Aslan came back from the dead.
“Then at last, as they stood for a moment looking out toward the sea and Cair Paravel (which they could now just make out) the red turned to gold along the line where the sea and the sky met and very slowly up came the edge of the sun. At that moment they heard from behind them a loud noise—a great cracking, deafening noise as if a giant had broken a giant’s plate” (Loc. 3977).
His resurrection was to be the means of establishing those four children as kings and queens, and they were looking straight at their glorious future at the very moment he obtained it for them.
But perhaps the earlier “prophecies” were just loose Narnian chatter (you know how talking beasts are), or the anxious superstition of the witch. And Lucy and Susan facing toward the castle—well, they had to be facing some direction, didn’t they? The real question is what Aslan thinks about Cair Paravel. What does he call it?
“That, O Man,” said Aslan, “is Cair Paravel of the four thrones, in one of which you must sit as King. I show it to you because you are the firstborn and you will be High King over all the rest” (Loc. 3670).
Aslan himself calls it “Cair Paravel of the four thrones.” I would submit to you that to have one of the four thrones of Cair Paravel sitting permanently empty is not really a literary possibility.
“The castle of Cair Paravel on its little hill towered up above them; before them were the sands, with rocks and little pools of salt water, and seaweed, and the smell of the sea and long miles of bluish-green waves breaking for ever and ever on the beach. And oh, the cry of the seagulls! Have you heard it? Can you remember?” (Loc. 4174).
This is why Aslan gave the four of them a solemn promise. And it was a promise, grounded in the will of the Emperor-over-the-sea.
“Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen. Bear it well, Sons of Adam! Bear it well, Daughters of Eve!” said Aslan” (Loc. 4181).
Once a queen, always a queen. Bear it well, daughters.
What Do They Teach Them in These Schools?
All this should be sufficient, but I would like to cinch it just a little bit tighter.
Lewis was a Christian Platonist, but he does this in a really admirable way. He turns Plato on his head. Platonism held that the realm of the Forms represented ultimate reality, and that this world was a dim reflection of that ultimate reality. But for Plato, the realm of the Forms would not have been material, tangible, or dense with molecules. Rather, Plato was thinking of an upscale Euclidville. His was a rationalistic and philosophical project. Lewis—plainly in both The Last Battle and The Great Divorce, and subtly in Letters to Malcolm—inverts all this, and makes the realm of the Forms denser and more real than our vapory world down here.
They found themselves in the new Narnia, in the real Narnia. And this Narnia was more solid, not more “spiritual.”
“Kings and Queens,” he cried, “we have all been blind. We are only beginning to see where we are. From up there I have seen it all—Ettinsmuir, Beaversdam, the Great River, and Cair Paravel still shining on the edge of the Eastern Sea. Narnia is not dead. This is Narnia” (Loc. 16076, emphasis mine).
When the eagle flew up to see all this, he saw everything that mattered, and that included Cair Paravel.
“It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door” (Loc. 16084).
All of the old Narnia that mattered. That would include Susan’s throne.
Not only so, but Lewis postulates an inverted Russian doll cosmos, with each internal world being bigger and more material than the world which encased it. So when they go “further up and further in,” they come eventually to the real garden that was behind the shadow garden where Digory got the apple. Another world is inside that garden, and that third world is yet another Narnia. And as they gaze at this backwards onion, where each layer is greater than the one before, what do they see?
“Of course, Daughter of Eve,” said the Faun. “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.” Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all. “I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the stable door! I see . . . world within world, Narnia within Narnia. . . .” “Yes,” said Mr. Tumnus, “like an onion: except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last” (Loc. 16198).
“She could see the whole Southern desert and beyond it the great city of Tashbaan: to Eastward she could see Cair Paravel on the edge of the sea and the very window of the room that had once been her own” (Loc. 16207, emphasis mine).
Of course she could see Cair Paravel. Was it still Cair Paravel of the four thrones? When she could see the very window of the room that had been hers, I wonder if she could see Susan’s room too. Not to put too fine a point on it, I refuse to believe that a craftsman like Lewis would have the shadow Cair Paravel be Cair Paravel of the four thrones, and the second and third Cair Paravels to be limited to three. Not possible.
So when they get into the third Narnia, much greater and larger than the first two, it is here that they can start to see the joining of all worlds. It is here that they see the real England, where their parents are, who are soon to join them.
So we need to be careful. The shadowland Narnia has gone through its final judgment. All of the first Narnia is either here in the third Narnia, or they had veered off into Aslan’s shadow. That was not the case with England. The Pevensie parents were there because of a train accident, and not because of the Eschaton in our world. Susan was not with them because Susan was still alive, in England. In fact, she is probably still there, a nice old lady approaching ninety, somewhere in Oxfordshire.
I would have been prepared to cheerfully grant difficulties for my thesis if Susan had been traveling with her parents by train, and if she had died in the train wreck together with them, and had then not showed up in the real Narnia, the Narnia beyond. That would be a difficulty. It is hard to maintain that someone is in Heaven when, as all can plainly see, she’s not there.
But the Susan of this story is the surviving Pevensie, if you can call life in the shadowlands surviving. Her parents had died. Her brothers and sisters had died. She was left alone, and her story was not close to being done. We can rest assured that she would come at the last to her rightful place, and be seated on one of the four great thrones in the ultimate Cair Paravel. And if we inquired too closely into what would needto have happened to her in order to bring all this about, we can be assured that this would be a sure way to get Aslan to growl at us.
Once a queen in Narnia, always a queen in Narnia.