Once a king or queen

What happens at the end of the Narnia stories puzzles lots of people. At least I’m not alone: this is a really interesting example.  The End of All Things, Narnia’s apocalyptic destruction is a complicated and vivid run-through much of Lewis’ vision for his world, and the growing deceit and corruption are brought to a close by the parousia – not of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven but by a headteacherly “Enough is enough” from Aslan.

The Last Battle (the title of the book is itself worth pondering) is the defeat of goodness at the very doorway that leads to judgement. In the depths of early Christian persecution, the writer of the Book of Revelation may have felt much the same. There is a problem throughout Lewis with the vaguely Persian/Indian Calormenes in that, with a few exceptions, they are The Baddies, and their covertly invading of Narnia is already problematic in its racism; here they team up with the power-hungry and deceitful to wreck the rural idyll of Narnia. Am I the only Catholic child to have read in the ape Shift pushing himself as spokesman for Aslan a cruel criticism of my own beliefs? Perhaps this is one of my problems with the book; from an early read I saw this as Lewis knocking down pet hates one by one…  (I think now I was wrong: Shift is a warning to a lot of people – but the initial doubts do stay with me.)

But when after the crisis and the End of All Things the narrative moves into the new Narnia, Aslan’s heaven, Lewis keeps going. Susan, one of the great Queens of the first story, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, is not in the curtain call of great heroes that wraps up the narrative:

‘Sir,’ said Tirian, when he had greeted all of these. ‘If I have read the Chronicles 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.’

She has grown up and away from the world that promised her she would always be a Queen.  It is the problem of adolescent catechesis, the theological issue of the perseverance of the saints.  “Once a King or Queen in Narnia,” Aslan has promised, “always a King or Queen”  – unless growing up has presented the Elect with other choices they have not refused. In Susan’s case it seems drastic and maybe final:

 ‘Oh Susan!’ said Jill. ‘She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly site too keen on being grown-up.’

‘Grown-up indeed!’ said the Lady Polly, ‘I wish she would grow up…’

When Alan Garner returns to his Weirdstone stories he too addresses the issue of how a child in a story grows up. In ways reminiscent of Atonement, he acknowledges that such growing up requires a sacrifice – for Garner it is mental well-being; for McEwan it seems to me to be self-honesty: where Colin in Boneland is lost and wounded, Bryony’s mauvaise foi allows her to deceive her readers and herself.

Susan has neither luxury; she is written out as frivolous and sexual: no longer a friend. We have met adult, marriageable Queen Susan already, trying to avoid marrying the (of course) odious prince of the Calormenes in The Horse and His Boy. (In fact, we met all four of the children-grown-to-be adults at the end of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. I first read their retransformation when I was nine or ten; a re-read of the books at thirteen or so made me think “Poor Peter: to have to go through this twice.”)

But what of Susan? She is avoiding her family, and thus avoids the train disaster that kills them. When we see the heroes, they are in a form we will consider (haltingly) below: Here is the line-up of the heroes of Narnia’s history, younge, freshe folkes, he or she, turned from worldly vanity –  and the iconography is worth considering:

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The only bearded hero is the older man, Digory; the others are young knights in the first flush of manhood.  Susan is not with them, although the other “daughters of Eve,” Polly (with a perm to indicate her seniority) and Lucy and Jill are there.

The excellent and thoughtful collection Women and C S Lewis has a number of chances to address Susan’s absence, with Elmore and Brown’s essays perhaps being the most pertinent. Brown‘s essay Are the Chronicles of Narna Sexist? is a defence, in some ways, of the portrayal of women in the Chronicles, and while I’m not sure I can sign up wholeheartedly to this approach, there are some points worth pondering here. Of particular note is that while her exclusion may seem final, time is continuing in “our” world: the train accident that has brought three of the great monarchs of Narnian history to Aslan’s Country with their friends and mother and father leaves socialite Susan Pevensie (who has been asked repeatedly to reminisce about Narnia and refuses, excluding herself from much of her siblings’ gatherings) with a terrifyingly huge amount of  grief, multiple regrets, and a huge amount of legal and financial clearing-up to do.  Do we imagine Aslan, the Christ-figure, will leave her to do this? Can Peter’s “No longer a friend” cancel out Aslan’s “once a Queen. always a Queen”?

A reading of The Great Divorce suggests to me there is at least some hope that in the Hell she finds herself in after this devastating tragedy, there is further opportunity for salvation: “There is no soul in Hell to whom He did not preach.”  Like the characters in the Great Divorce, she may not take it. She may, in all these (I suspect rather smug: Peter was ever pompous) invitations back to meet up with their friends, have seen what is on offer and refused it irrevocably. Tempting to write the fanfic: Lewis tries very hard with an uncomfortable question, but the text itself seems unforgiving. He will come to write later (see below) of “A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”

However, the issue of children growing up adds all sorts of complexity.  People change as they grow, and Lewis knows this and represents it in so much of his writing it is pointless in a short piece to try an overview. Representation of age, and specifically of youth, recurs several times in Lewis’s fantasy; in worlds where time is changeable – Narnia or Perelandra – the issue of ageing and salvation is an interesting line to follow.  Compare these passages: apologies for the sketchy intros to the characters.

In this first, Caspian, the young, eponymous Prince has become King, and by the end of The Silver Chair has grown up and old and has died: the earthly children are standing by his corpse in Aslan’s Country:

And the dead King began to be changed. His white beard turned to grey, and from grey to yellow, and got shorter and vanished altogether; and his sunken cheeks grew round and fresh, and the wrinkles were smoothed, and his eyes opened, and his eyes and lips both laughed, and suddenly he leaped up and stood before them — a very young man, or a boy. (But Jill couldn’t say which, because of people having no particular ages in Aslan’s country. Even in this world, of course, it is the stupidest children who are most childish and the stupidest grown-ups who are most grown-up.) And he rushed to Aslan and flung his arms as far as they would go round the huge neck; and he gave Aslan the strong kisses of a King, and Aslan gave him the wild kisses of a Lion.
At last Caspian turned to the others. He gave a great laugh of astonished joy.

People have no particular ages in Aslan’s Country, in a state of grace or not in the Country.  Stupidity is the model Lewis uses for those for whom grace is in some way not sufficient, but note that being at the end of adolescence is somehow the desirable age for heaven, or for the bodily resurrection.  If Susan were to return to the faith of her youth, Lewis would grant her, perhaps, the crown, the vitality and maybe the physical appearance of her young adulthood.  Why? Herbert McCabe, in his collection of sermons God Christ and Us, makes a telling point about the resurrection of Jesus:

…the Hebrews saw sickness and death or hell as much the same thing…

So, when you died young, as Jesus did, your spirit or ghost was excluded from the joys of life. So the ghost was the sign of death. ..

This is what filled the disciples with alarm and fright. At first they saw Jesus as a manifestation of death. They have to learn that he is a manifestation of life.

After his ideas in the 40s and 50s (represented in the Space Trilogy, in Mere Christianity and in Narnia), there comes his blistering and raw dissection of love and death in A Grief Observed.  A longer piece might look at this uncomfortable text…  But for now it is worth seeing resurrection much as McCabe suggests: a re-inclusion in the joys of life, for which, maybe, early adulthood is a satisfactory metaphor. But Susan’s materialism is about to be given a shock when she sees the newspaper and connects who was on the train – and then her telephone rings….  The author of A Grief Observed would not, I think, countenance the after-story he sets up in his earlier book: the grief that “felt so like fear…” “All sorts of pleasures and activities…simply written off”  “A door slammed in your face.”  Unless, of course, he would recognise the possibility of a painful repentance and the Leap of Faith in The Pilgrim’s Regress.

*

Let’s leave the healthy “very young man,” enjoying the beatific vision, and Susan (in my speculation) offered the same, and turn to Lewis’ adult novel, That Hideous Strength – link here, and a good critique of its complicated plot here. In this passage Jane, the female protagonist, meets Ransom, the wounded Pendragon who has travelled in the heavens, now called (significantly) Mr Fisher-King, the Director of the resistance to the evils of post-War Britain who lives in a large house called St Anne’s.

Of course he was not a boy – how could she have thought so? The fresh skin on his forehead and cheeks and above all on his hands had suggested the idea. But no boy could have so full of beard. And no boy could be so strong. She had expected to see an invalid. Now it was manifest that the grip of those hands would be inescapable and imagination suggested that those arms and shoulders could support the whole house.

It seems to me the same vision, and it is worth pondering why.

I want to see the boyishness of the resurrected Caspian and the returned Ransom as an attempt by Lewis to depict the resurrection. It is always worth remembering that Lewis was by trade a medievalist and therefore we might look at sources such as the art and literature of the Middle Ages for his inspiration.  We might look at the images of death I have explored before: the Funnybones school of portraying life after death. Giotto, for example (apologies for the link, but the best-looking source is full of adverts) give us resurrection scenes where age is valued but in heaven has not withered its ancients; Fra Angelico’s dance of the saved and the angels at the Last Judgement (very apt for the Last Battle and beyond!) is even more vivid in its fresh-faced angelic and human dancers.  If the youth renewed like the eagle’s (the important Biblical link: Ps 103) is Lewis’ way of inviting his readers into the theology of salvation and resurrection, it does two important things: it gets round the issues of growing old and heaven and the resurrection of the body; it also avoids the uncomfortable feeling that resurrection might (as one one my Theology tutors once jibed) mean my having a reanimated corpse.  Resurrection is therefore a renewal; for Caspian and the heroes of the Last Battle, all is light, refreshment and peace (and hearty adventure: no chance of boredom in Aslan’s Country!); for Ransom the wounded Pendragon, it means he brings his wounds from his great struggle with evil with him, as does Christ in the Gospel narratives.

And Susan growing up? Well, in avoiding the train crash she has more living to do, more time to think. She grew away from Narnia as she put away childish things, but maybe she will know God better in the human world, with time.  As Timothy Radcliffe suggests in Seven Last Words, “It takes time to fertilise human language with the Word of God.” Perhaps as Susan does the growing up Lewis thinks she needs, there is hope for her in Lewis’ vision of the divine economy.

Perhaps.

 

 

One thought on “Once a king or queen

  1. I appreciate your difficulties…I was not encouraged to read the Narnia books as a child, and had to buy them all with my own pocket money. Enraged at the end of the series that Lewis was refusing to continue with ‘The Great Story’ I wrote to him and had an aggravating letter back – dated Christmas Day 1960 – saying he could not write The Great Story until he had died. I would have hurled it into the wastepaper basket but my mother, a non believer in Narnia and much else, preserved it. I hope it is now worth a fortune; at the time it broke my heart.

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