In the discourse on Susan’s controversial absence from Narnia in The Last Battle, the focus is often C. S. Lewis’ statement through Jill that Susan has become interested in nothing “except nylons and lipstick and invitations” (Lewis 169), taken as evidence that Susan was rejected because she came into her femininity and sexuality.
In fact, a better analysis of this scene would begin with the analogy Lewis presents in his sermon, The Weight of Glory: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink, sex, and ambition, when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. ” Both the characters of Lasaraleen in The Horse and His Boy and Susan in The Last Battle can be understood as the “ignorant children” in the context of this analogy, as they demonstrate a narrow-minded focus on selfgratification.
Beyond simply condemning feminine vanity, Lewis shows that the root of the problem is self-interest and prioritization of worldly values compounded by a disregard for the spiritual. Like Susan, Lasaraleen prioritizes stereotypically feminine, even shallow, pursuits. When Lewis initially introduces Aravis and Lasaraleen as foils, at first glance it would seem that he portrays Aravis in the more favorable light simply because he emphasizes her traditionally masculine hobbies, in opposition to Lasaraleen’s traditionally feminine interests: “She [Lasaraleen] was in fact much better at talking than listening… Aravis] remembered now that Lasaraleen had always been like that, interested in clothes and parties and gossip. Aravis had always been more interested in bows and arrows and horses and dogs and swimming. You will guess that each thought the other silly. ” (Lewis 106) The idea that Lasaraleen is “much better at talking than listening” signifies that Lasaraleen is more focused on her own feelings and problems than those of others.
Beyond simply being feminine and having feminine interests, Lasaraleen’s priorities are power, money, and beauty, all underscoring her focus on self-indulgence, as seen in her arguments defending the arranged marriage: “But darling, why don’t you want to marry Ahosta Tarkaan? Everyone’s crazy about him. My husband says he is beginning to be one of the greatest men in Calormen… Positively ropes of peals, I’m told. Baths of asses’ milk. And you’d see such a lot of me” (107-108).
An exasperated Aravis, who herself knows little of Narnia at this point, makes an half-hearted attempt to explain Narnia’s egalitarian appeal (111), but it is clear that Lasaraleen cannot understand even that within her worldview and her priorities. Lewis’ characterization of Lasaraleen aligns with his analogy of the child who makes mud pies instead of going on holiday; satisfied with her position and her wealth, she cannot understand Aravis’ discontent. And yet, just as Lewis’ analogy is not condemnatory, but rather pitying, Lasaraleen’s character hints at more layers that prevent critics from easily condemning her as shallow.
I do not believe it would be a stretch to read an element of genuine loneliness in the added, “And you’d see such a lot of me”; many details about Aravis and Lasaraleen’s brief interaction illustrate that Lasaraleen does truly desire and value Aravis’ friendship. Lewis mentions that Lasaraleen has not seen Aravis since they were children (102-103) and yet Lasaraleen still treats Aravis like a beloved friend, pampering her with baths and pretty clothes (106), things that Aravis does not value but that presumably are the only way Lasaraleen knows to demonstrate affection.
Furthermore, when Aravis first enters Lasaraleen’s carriage in the parade, Aravis’ only threat is, “Do what I tell you or I’ll never speak to you again” (103) – a petty, childish manipulation which should not be effective, considering they already had not spoken for some time – but Lasaraleen quickly complies (103). When Aravis demands, “Where can you hide me? ” Lasaraleen responds, “No difficulty at all, my dear girl… I’ll take you home” (104) and despite her confusion about why Aravis wants to leave, Lasaraleen still helps Aravis escape.
For someone who seems to care little for anything other than herself, she does take care of Aravis in their time together. Lewis does not present Lasaraleen as irredeemable, but as unreached; her worldview is limited by her circumstances and her self-interest. More than Narnia’s magic or different societal norms, Lasaraleen fears the unknown Narnia represents, (110-111), and by extension, the possibility that she would not have the material comforts that she cherishes. Lewis sees that narrow-mindedness as an attitude to be pitied.
Lewis’ explanation of Susan’s absence in The Last Battle can be understood in exactly the same context: more than a condemnation of femininity, Susan’s deliberate narrowmindedness is what prevents her from returning to Narnia with her siblings. At least Lasaraleen’s obliviousness comes from her limited access to information about Narnia, from stories of the White Witch’s reign, and she has not met Aslan. Not only had Susan had been to Narnia several times, but Aslan had revealed himself to her again and again, most notably in his death and resurrection on the Stone Table.
These miraculous events could not be explained by any other rationalization except by the truth of Aslan’s power. Although Susan came to Narnia the most reluctant of the siblings in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, bemoaning, “I don’t want to go a step further and I wish we’d never come” (Lewis 65), and although she does fall back into her disbelief briefly in Prince Caspian (Lewis 161-162), she asks forgiveness for letting her fears hinder her and joyfully follows Aslan to awaken the Narnians the Witch had turned to stone (Wardrobe 181-191) and as he goes about restoring Narnia after Miraz’s tyranny (Caspian 210-218).
Her acceptance of Narnia is what makes the concluding pronouncement that Peter and Susan cannot return because they are too old all the more heartbreaking. Nevertheless, despite all that she has witnessed, by The Last Battle Susan has denied the truth of Narnia to the family who experienced it with her:”…. 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” (Battle 169). Susan’s downfall is not simply that she has focused on “nylons and lipstick and invitations,” but that her focus on those things – her physical beauty and her social life – has become so all-consuming that she refuses to acknowledge Narnia, and by association Aslan.
It is a valid criticism that Lewis is implicitly associating the negative behavior with feminine activities, but that does not mean the behavior itself is inherently feminine. Lewis understood that self-centeredness and an ignorance, deliberate or otherwise, of the spiritual can be exhibited by any gender, as seen in his analogy of the “ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. Once Susan returned to the “real world,” she fell back into the disbelief that she overcame repeatedly in Narnia, her memories presumably more easily repressed as the years went on. In the context of Christian theology, she became content to “conform to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2), as the apostle Paul describes in his biblical letter to the Romans, and rejected the transformation Aslan worked in all the children who visited Narnia.
However, Susan’s absence from The Last Battle does not mean she can never be saved; in fact, being the only Pevensie who survived the train wreck allows her more time to change her ways and hopefully embrace Narnia once again. It is worth noting that Susan spent The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in America by herself, without any of her siblings, and in the seven intervening years between that mention of her and the train wreck that leads to the other Pevensies’ return to Narnia in The Last Battle, it seems like she only became more and more disconnected from her family.
A recent article in Christianity Today discusses the very plausible idea that the deaths of so many of her family members at once might hypothetically be the impetus to her redemption, claiming: “The horror of losing those she loved must have sent her into a tailspin of mental and emotional anguish for years… [and] must have also made her long for heaven in ways that are only familiar to wounded believers” (Rogers). Lewis himself, in a letter to a child asking about Susan’s fate, said: “I could not write that story myself.
Not that I have no hope of Susan’s ever getting into Aslan’s country, but because I have a feeling that the story of her journey would be longer and more like a grown-up novel than I wanted to write” (Lewis 1135). Lewis wrote an entire book on the concept of pain as a divine method to draw people to salvation, and he argues: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (The Problem of Pain 91).
Susan cannot claim ignorance like Lasaraleen could, as she experienced Narnia and Aslan firsthand, but the very knowledge that heightens her wrongdoing also gives her hope for salvation. She knows the truth of Aslan’s power, and perhaps the unwritten continuation of her story begins with remembering and reexamining that knowledge as solace in her grief.