[Content Note: Misogyny, Abusive Relationships]
Note: This post is cross-posted from Ana Mardoll’s Ramblings.
A lot has been said, here and elsewhere, about the misogyny directed against Susan Pevensie in The Last Battle, wherein it will be revealed that Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia and may-or-may-not have been barred eternally from heaven (depending on how you interpret the theology of the gates closing and everyone you’ve ever heard of from Narnia being in heaven at that point). And a lot has been said here about the misogyny directed against Susan Pevensie in the two books that feature her as a protagonist: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian.
What I generally see less of on the internet is a treatment of the misogyny directed against Susan Pevensie in the novel which is thematically set in the middle of LWW, at some point between the victory over the White Witch and the ending when the children tumble out of the wardrobe: The Horse and His Boy.
In THaHB, we see Susan Pevensie in the country of Calormen, where she is a guest of the crown prince Rabadash with an eye towards potentially accepting his suit of marriage and becoming crown princess of the country. This is the bulk of the relevant passage:
“Now, Madam,” the King was saying to Queen Susan (the lady who had kissed Shasta). “What think you? We have been in this city fully three weeks. Have you yet settled in your mind whether you will marry this dark-faced lover of yours, this Prince Rabadash, or no?”
The lady shook her head. “No, brother,” she said, “not for all the jewels in Tashbaan.” […]
“Truly, sister,” said the King, “I should have loved you the less if you had taken him. And I tell you that at the first coming of the Tisroc’s ambassadors into Narnia to treat of this marriage, and later when the Prince was our guest at Cair Paravel, it was a wonder to me that ever you could find it in your heart to show him so much favor.”
“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.” […]
“Yes,” said the King. “We have now seen him for what he is: that is, a most proud, bloody, luxurious, cruel, and self-pleasing tyrant.”
The first thing I note when reading this passage is that if it is a thematic hook to LWW, then it is a bad one unless it aims less to link to the previous material and more to protect Lucy from a slander on her character that will instead be applied to Susan (more on that in a moment). The extremely meager description of the Pevensies’ adult lives in LWW deliberately differentiates between adult-serious-Susan and youthful-playful-Lucy by making it clear that Susan was courted by kings (read: older, wiser, more responsibility) and Lucy was courted by princes (read: younger, playful, less responsibility):
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. Edmund was a graver and quieter man than Peter, and great in council and judgment. He was called King Edmund the Just. But as for Lucy, she was always gay and golden-haired, and all princes in those parts desired her to be their Queen, and her own people called her Queen Lucy the Valiant.
If this passage were taken as literally and exclusively true (i.e., that all Susan’s suitors were kings and all Lucy’s suitors were princes) and if it were understood that this state of affairs was the case at least in part because it reflected the Queens’ inclinations (i.e., that Susan was attracted to kings and Lucy was attracted to princes) then the Prince Rabadash character in THaHB should be courting Lucy, not Susan. But Prince Rabadash is supposed to be Obviously Evil, and I don’t believe Lewis could bring himself to write Lucy — his favorite girl, and the character named after and dedicated to his real life niece — as being so foolish as to consider Rabadash for her husband, even if she has only known him for all of about four short weeks.
So instead Susan has to step up to the plate again as the series’ scapegoat. And this is a pattern. Others have suggested that Susan is left out of Narnia in The Last Battle not because Lewis hated Susan for her gender and sexuality but because he “needed” an apostate in order to underline his theology that once saved is not always saved. Yet this “explanation” only explains why an apostate was needed, not why Susan was chosen to fit the bill. And subsequent contortions to explain why the apostate had to be Susan rather conveniently ignore the pattern that Susan is consistently called upon to be a scapegoat throughout the series, regardless of whether these incidents fit her established character.
Though she is established as gracious and wise, she is the one who falls for the obviously cruel-and-evil Rabadash in The Horse and His Boy — and she imprudently falls for him based on his fighting prowess in the jousts, even though this characterization would almost certainly have better suited the impetuous and warlike Lucy. Though she is established as loyal and loving, she is the one who sees Aslan last in Prince Caspian and serves as the Doubting Thomas, even though this characterization would more consistently have fit the logical-and-factual Edmund who previously would have rejected the idea of an invisible lion who can only be seen on faith alone (and who has had the least interaction with Aslan in his time in Narnia). And though she is established as caring about friends and family, she is the one who is left behind in The Last Battle, even though Peter — the highest king of them all! — would have made a more sobering fallen-from-grace apostate object lesson than she.
Consistently, when Susan is allowed to be on-screen, she is brave and courageous and wise and gracious and gentle and clever and quick-witted and a good swimmer and an expert markswoman. Yet whenever a non-redeemed (i.e., not Eustace or Edmund, whose redemption arcs cover much of their respective books) Son-of-Adam/Daughter-of-Eve is needed who is to be damnably bad, then Susan is called in to fit the bill, even when the choice to use her flies in the face of earlier characterization — and flies over more thematically appropriate targets.
Here, Lewis “needs” a royal Narnian delegation in Calormen in order for Shasta and Prince Corin to have wacky Mark Twain-esque switcheroo shenanigans, and he “needs” a woman victim to set off the flee-and-fight storyline that occurs as a backdrop to the Shasta-and-Aravis journey, just as he “needs” an apostate in The Last Battle in order to check off all the boxes on the theology checklist. And so, as usual, he reaches for Susan: she’s in Calormen to be courted by Rabadash (with Prince Corin along for the educational opportunity), and when she decides not to marry him, the Narnian delegation can wipe her frightened tears away and whisk her out of the country, while Rabadash hotly pursues them from behind with his army.
Lucy would have fit this storyline better. Lucy is the one who is courted by princes. Lucy is the one whose characterization is more likely to prize showmanship in the jousts. Lucy is the one who would be brave enough to leave the comfort of her familiar Cair Paravel to go live in an entirely different country with wholly different customs and people. But Lewis can’t use Lucy here because the traits that make Lucy fit this situation are the traits that run counter to how Lewis wants to portray Rabadash’s lover: he wants someone weak, frightened, helpless, and (most of all) worthy of blame.
Lucy wouldn’t cry when face with captivity and rape and forced marriage, because Lucy is the “right” kind of girl, the kind of girl whom certain male authors love to write into their fantasy stories: always brave and fearless and tomboyish — though not too tomboyish, because “butch” girls are threatening, so Lucy remains only “as good as a boy” and not “as good as a man”. And Lucy wouldn’t seriously consider marriage with anyone, let alone the obviously evil Rabadash, because she is Lewis’ virginal Artemis, more interested in war and hunting than marriage and sex — though not too uninterested in sex, because lesbian/bisexual girls are threatening, so Lucy still has the occasional princely suitor that never turns into anything serious.
And so on: Lucy is too idealized as the Perfect Girl to be used in a situation that relishes in slut-shaming a woman for being sexual and vulnerable. So the onus is on Susan to be the sexual one, enticed by Rabadash and enticing him in turn so that he — a violent dark-skinned man — can pursue her with the intent to rape and abuse her. All light-hearted fare for a children’s novel, naturally, and not at all perpetuating harmful stereotypes about violent sexualized men of color who threaten helpless white women. And it’s in the context of this heavy backdrop of sexual violence and forced marriage and spousal abuse, that we hear these words from King Edmund the Just:
I don’t think we’re meant to disagree with King Edmund the Just here (“Edmund was a graver and quieter man than Peter, and great in council and judgment. He was called King Edmund the Just.”). Certainly Susan doesn’t round on him with a lol-whut-fuck-you-too-buddy; she humbly apologies for her “folly” and cries for “mercy” before feebly trying to justify her mistake in a way that only makes her look more blame-worthy in the eyes of the dedicated slut-shamer. (Of course the guy you impetuously feel in love with for nothing more than his hot body and mad tournament skillz isn’t going to be a good husband — jocks are jerks! So sayeth the Nice Guy.)
It’s horrifyingly jarring (though not surprising) to see this kind of victim-blaming language in a text that is dealing with a woman facing the possibility of an abusive marriage from whence there is no escape and no support, no matter who she marries. If Susan marries a foreigner — whether Rabadash or any other king in this ‘verse — she will be utterly alone in her new country and potentially abusive new relationship. She cannot even be sure of being able to communicate her situation back home to her family, let alone be assured that they will intervene on her behalf, since such intervention would risk not only her life but also war between two or more countries. And if she conceives a child before her family can intervene on her behalf, there’s another huge can of political worms: it’s a rare country that would be okay with their foreign queen absconding back to her homeland with the heir to the throne in her possession.
Susan has to live with these fears and realities with all her marriage proposals — not just the one from Rabadash — which makes it particularly odious for the text to suggest that Edmund has axiomatically considered all this far more than she simply because he’s male and therefore More Objective. It’s additionally disgusting to see this attitude coming from someone who is her brother: a person who is, by virtue of his privilege, largely insulated from the concern of marrying a dangerously abusive spouse if Narnian culture is as patriarchal as the medieval England it appears to be modeled on, as well as largely immune from the expectation that his marriage will result in him relocating to an entirely new country full of potentially hostile strangers. The point being that Edmund and Susan may have comparable roles in Narnian government, but that doesn’t mean that they have the same privileges when it comes to marriage and their relationship with their future spouses.
Privilege aside, Edmund is also a family member with whom Susan ostensibly has a deeply close working relationship and loving family relationship, and whose support she would most need if a husband turned abusive. And I say “turned abusive” there quite deliberately, since as much as Lewis/Edmund would like us to believe that women can magically know who will abuse them far in advance of marriage, real life is rarely so easy to diagnose — and it is extremely common for abuse to manifest only after a relationship change (marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, etc.). A person who is not-abusive as a boyfriend or suitor is in no way a guarantor of a person who will be not-abusive as a husband or father. In the same vein, spousal abuse cannot be accurately predicted on the grounds of that person’s relationship with hir parents, subjects, former spouse, children, etc. Abuse is not a mathematical equation — and for that reason is it pure victim-blaming to treat abuse as a constant, unavoidable force where the onus is on the victim to modify hir behavior in response to always-correct diagnoses regarding who will turn out to be abusive and who will not.
But the issue here isn’t just that Lewis and Edmund want to blame Susan for her poor choice in suitors — they want to condemn her so strongly that Edmund will literally love her less if she chooses to marry Rabadash.
When I was younger, I found myself in a relationship that turned abusive. Like Susan experienced with Rabadash, my lover seemed charming and good when we first met, and he was careful to show only the best side of himself. When he started to turn abusive, he did so gradually, carefully grooming me to accept the abuse that he consistently normalized as appropriate and necessary. He systematically destroyed my self-esteem, to the point where I genuinely believed that I caused the abuse, and that he was not responsible for it — I believed this even though, like Susan, I was smart and gifted and relatively privileged.
And one of the reasons why I stayed with my abuser for so long, and one of the ways in which he was able to destroy my self-esteem and my sense of self-protection was because my family made me believe that they literally loved me less for being with him. And they made me believe that because they were part of a religious group — a religious group which was very fond of quoting C.S. Lewis, I add as a point of data with no particular emphasis — which told them that the only way to save me was to cut me loose and let me experience the worst life possible, so that I might repent and come back. What they didn’t understand was that cutting me loose only left me more vulnerable and only underscored to me that I was totally alone and completely without value. By loving me less, they enabled my abuser to abuse me more.
In The Horse and His Boy, Edmund tells Susan that he will love her less if she marries her “dark-faced lover”. But I think the truth is that Edmund never loved Susan in the first place, because he is a mouthpiece for Lewis and Lewis himself never loved Susan. She was never anything more to him than the second girl to fill out the two-boy, two-girl Pevensie foursome; the child-mother to remember the coats; the practical Martha to Lucy’s adoring Mary; the Doubting Thomas to the sporadically visible Aslan-Jesus; the apostate who may have once said “lord, lord!” when she stood by at his crucifixion and resurrection yet nevertheless will not enter the kingdom of Heaven. Lewis and Edmund cannot have loved Susan, because their behavior is not consistent with the definition of love which Lewis himself would surely have known well:
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. […] And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Edmund is not patient. Edmund is not kind. Edmund keeps record of wrongs. Edmund does not intend to protect Susan from those who would harm her. Edmund does not trust her with a dialogue about her feelings rather than a statement of what she must do to retain his love. Edmund does not possess a love which will persevere for Susan regardless of the choice of husband she makes. Edmund literally cannot love Susan less because he doesn’t love her at all.
For all that Susan is condemned by her critics for turning her back on her family and on Narnia, it has always been abundantly clear to me from this passage that they turned their backs on her first. To Susan, and those like her (including myself), I offer these powerful words from Defying Gravity:
Too long I’ve been afraid of
Losing love I guess I’ve lost
Well, if that’s love
It comes at much too high a cost!