Continuing yesterday's discussion, I'd like to share a bit more from Katherine Langrish's new book, From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia With My Nine Year-Old Self. Here she discusses The Magician's Nephew, which is the first book in the Narnia timeline (though not the first written or published):
"For those who came to The Magician's Nephew as I did, after reading several of the others first -- this would include most of its original readers -- there is a brisk, fresh energy to the narrative with its new characters and new setting. The first four pages (three minus the illustrations) form a brilliantly economical scene-setting and tell us everything we need to know about Polly and Digory, and Digory's Uncle Andrew, mad Mr. Ketterley. Within another page or so Polly is showing Digory her den in the attic, a dark place behind the cistern where she keeps a box containing various personal treasures, a story she's writing, and of course provisions: apples, and bottles of ginger beer which make the den look satisfactorily like a smugglers' cave.
"Polly is tough, practical, and confident, with a strong sense of self-respect. (And she is the only character in all the Narnia stories who is a writer. I wonder what she wrote about?) She is an excellent partner for the impulsive and more emotional Digory. In his 1998 article for The Guardian, 'The Dark Side of Narnia,' Philip Pullman has complained that in the Narnia books Lewis is guilty (among other crimes) of sending the message 'boys are better than girls.' Possibly it's not fair to take someone to task for an opinion in a newspaper article written so long ago, and some of Pullman's accusations are justifiable, but hardly this one. I cannot see it and never have. To base an accusation of sexism on 'the problem of Susan' alone is to ignore the strength of such different characters as Polly, Lucy, Aravis and Jill -- all gallant, courageous and memorable. I do wonder how recently Mr. Pullman had read the books.
"A little girl myself, I certainly didn't feel excluded or denigrated. The easy, bickering comradeship between Polly and Digory was just what I was used to in E. Nesbit's books. Moreover, Polly sounded like me: I wrote secret stories! With my brother, I loved to make dens -- in hedges, cupboards, in corners of the playground, in barns, in attics, sheds and lean-to's, in patches of waste ground, on building sites. (Pacing stilt-like, ten feet up, across the open floor-joists of a half-completed house, my brother fell across and through them, badly scraping his ribs. We didn't confess.)
"Just as the Bastable children in The Treasure Seekers play detectives and spy on the empty house next door, Polly and Digory explore further down the attic tunnel, hoping to come out in the abandoned house next-door-but-one. They try to calculate how far they will have to go, and I don't notice any nonsense about boys being better than girls: the children are equally and endearingly erratic with their sums, getting different answers, trying again, and even then not getting it right. Their mistake leads them to emerge in the wrong house. Pushing open a little door in the rough brick wall, they see not a barren attic but a comfortably furnished room -- lined, of course, with books. Everything is silent. No one seems to be here. Full of curiosity, Polly puffs out the candle-flame and steps through the door...."
But Katherine, like many other readers, is not forgiving of C.S. Lewis's portrayal of Susan in The Last Battle, the final book of the sequence (and arguably the most flawed):
"At the very end of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, Ignorance, who has followed the hero Christian from the City of Destruction (the world) to the Celestial City on top of Mount Zion (heaven) is refused entry. Instead of keeping to the King's Highway he has taken the by-roads, dodging the hardships and not learning the lessons, so when he comes to the gates he has no passport and is turned away:
"'Then they took him up, and carried him through the air to the door that I saw in the side of the hill, and put him in there. Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gate of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction.'
"Susan is made an example of by Lewis to illustrate the same point. Her sins, according to her friends, are numerous. Eustace complains that she regards Narnia as a childish game. Jill says Susan's only interested in 'nylons and lipstick and invitations.' Polly -- Polly! -- snarkily accuses Susan of having wasted all her time at school waiting to be the age she is now (is this really the sensible, responsible Susan who was so excellent at swimming and archery?) and predicts that she'll waste the rest of her life trying to stay that age.
"It is a ludicrous prediction: Polly cannot possibly know how Susan will behave for the rest of her life. Even God doesn't judge you until you're dead. What Lewis clearly hopes to convey is that Susan has been lost to worldliness, but it's a sorry try. Nylons? What else did he think a young woman would put on her legs in 1955? The reference to lipstick may have worked (a bit) when I was a pony-mad nine year-old with no conception of ever wanting to use make-up or talk to boys, but it's poor evidence for the eternal damnation of a character who simply seems to have reached adolescence or committed what A.N. Wilson has called 'the unforgiveable sin of growing up.' Lewis has grafted all this on to Susan's character, and the whole thing is trivialised by the shocking indifference of her family and friends as they line up to drop a few catty remarks and dismiss her:
"'Well, don't let's talk about that now,' said Peter. 'Look! Here are lovely fruit trees. Let us taste them.'
"Lovely fruit trees? Huh!"
I had the same reaction to Lewis's betrayal of Susan when I was a child, though I could never have articulated the problem so well; and half a century later, I still feel that same indignation. Susan deserved better. But as for the other girls in the seven Narnia books, to me they were heroes all.
Words: The passage quoted above is from From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia With My Nine Year-Old Self by Katherine Langrish (Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd, 2021). The Philip Pullman quote is from "The Dark Side of Narnia" (The Guardian, October 1, 1998). All rights reserved by the authors.
Pictures: The Narnia map and book illustrations above (from The Magician's Nephew and The Last Battle) are by Pauline Baynes (1922-2008). All rights reserved by the Baynes estate.