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I’m getting sort of tired of defending C.S. Lewis.
I know a lot of people who are well-read, well-educated people, who are critical informed readers, who know how to take apart narratives, who can see problematic elements and discuss them for what they are fall into a trap. It is a well-meaning trap, a trap that has been set rather unintentionally. So let’s get this out of the way first: C.S. Lewis was by any modern standard, a bit of a stuffy misogynist, but I would also argue that Tolkien, and even Carroll were all the same kind of stuffy misogynist – in the sense that they were purely the product of their time, and should be viewed that way.
But I’m getting a bit annoyed with well-read, well-educated people approach C.S. Lewis with a sort of a wild, rambling caution, stating things like “The Narnia books are wildly misogynistic – I mean, do you know what happened to Susan,” as if the problem of Susan (coined by Neil Gaiman) is the defining factor that summarizes and encapsulates the entire female perspective on the Narnia series as a whole. In fact, it’s an odd thing, because most of these readers have not read the Chronicles of Narnia since they were children, but have read commentary made by adult (and male, oddly enough) contemporary authors like Phillip Pullman, whose essay “The Dark Side of Narnia” I largely blame for this phenomena. Most of these people have also read Gaiman’s fantastic short story “The Problem of Susan” which examines Susan from an imagined, problematic adulthood.
The problem of Susan itself is enormous and complex and problematic, and I address it at length in larger works than this blog allows, but it is also a completely reductive argument that ignores a larger issue, namely: Susan is not the only female character in the Chronicles of Narnia, and suggesting that the Narnia books are entirely misogynistic and not worth reading because of a single paragraph at the tail end of a confusing and confused final book is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
This is because it ignores stellar female characters like Aravis, who is the embodiment of agency, who leaves an oppressive home and flees an arranged marriage to find freedom in Narnia, who is smart and sassy as well as quick-tempered and utterly capable. It ignores Jill Pole, who is cranky and crabby and full of wonderful flaws that have nothing to do with her being female and everything to do with her being human, and who evolves into someone with thought and depth and forethought. It ignores Polly, who is scads smarter than any other protagonist in The Magicians Nephew, and it ignores Lucy, who the entire series revolves around, who is good hearted and golden and still manages to Get Things Done, and importantly, is the one who believes first and foremost in Aslan even when it seems like there is no hope left.
But tragically, it ignores Susan herself, who is a character in her own right beyond her choices at the end of the series. It’s reductive and it’s tragic that she as a character has been boxed into this role to hold up as a beacon of How the Narnia Series Fails Young Women when in fact, the Narnia series says quite a number of things about young women that is rewarding and empowering.
At no time, in the entire seven books, is a single female character kidnapped, taken hostage, or needed to be rescued, with the exception of Lucy during Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in which she is not singled out but part of a group kidnapping. Compare this to the fact that several male characters of note are kidnapped and do need to be rescued, usually by a rescue party that includes female characters, and it happens to Edmund not once but twice, and the entire plot of The Silver Chair revolves around rescuing a male character. Compare that to say, Peter and Wendy, where a large portion of the plot revolves around rescuing Wendy Darling, or contemporary children’s series like Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus, which has several female characters needing rescue.
Consider, too, that Susan herself falls in love with a potentially abusive man, and realizes that he is abusive before marrying him. She does not need to be told by Edmund that he is abusive, or be slapped, or come crying to her brother to save her. Instead she recognizes that the way he treated her when they were courting was a lie, promptly decides she doesn’t like it, and suggests leaving back to Narnia right away.
This is not to say that misogyny is absent from the Narnia books. But it is, quite frankly, not nearly as bad as commentators, usually riding the Pullman train, would have people think it is.