Where many may have become Neil Gaiman fans through Sandman or Coraline, I first took note of his story telling as a result of an episode he wrote for Doctor Who. Later, I saw his now-famous commencement speech, Make Good Art. This was around the time I was really getting interested in writing, and I thought I could learn a lot from the way this guy approaches work, writing—where they meet—and life.
Recently, I picked up an anthology of short stories, People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction. Aside from my amusement at seeing religion and science fiction side by side, I noticed Neil Gaiman listed as one of the authors. I skipped ahead and read his story, The Problem of Susan, first. I loved it. To get to why I loved it, I have to back up a bit.
Way back in the day, I read The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. It was one of those stories that I’d heard so much about by the time I read it for myself, it was hard to tell which of my thoughts and feelings on the books were actually mine and which had permeated my psyche over years of hearing the interpretations of others. One sentiment, however, overshadowed the entire series for me: the fate of Susan was unnecessarily harsh.
Those who have read the books will recall that Susan loses her title as a Queen of Narnia (contradictory to a statement much earlier in the story, ‘once a king or queen of Narnia, always a king or queen of Narnia’ but that bit only niggled my brain a little) and is denied entry into paradise, not to mention vehemently rejected by her siblings. Why?
Susan is dropped like a hot potato for the supposed sin of growing up and living her life. I was both mildly confused and more than mildly irritated that such absolute judgement should be dished out by the god-like figure, Aslan, for becoming exactly what a young woman of her time would have been taught/expected to become. We’re talking WW2 era here. Women were certainly capable of more than being social butterflies and looking for a good husband, but there weren’t many eager to tell them so.
Susan was hardly my favorite character in the Narnia books. She was often whiny, self-centered, impatient, etc. Traits I now suspect were included to make her fate seem more reasonable. Eternally punishing a sweetheart for her love of lipstick and nylons might have been more difficult for readers to swallow.
A likeable Susan or not, the message I took from it still bothered me: If you can’t figure out what the world, god, your parent (insert authority figure here) wants from you, you deserve to be punished. But don’t worry, here’s a hint: whatever they tell you they want, that’s not it.
So, back to Neil Gaiman and his story The Problem of Susan. The story depicts Susan as an old woman. She has grown up, lived her life. She is a professor of literature being interviewed on her ideas about the meaning of children’s fiction. In the story, her survival when the rest of her family died (and went off to paradise without her) is put in a different perspective. She was there to identify her family’s bodies after the train wreck.
Train wreck. That brings me to what I really admired about this story. Neil Gaiman not only has the ability to create magic and fantasy, but also to see what may not be obvious, even if it should be, through the fog of imagery stories can use to get away with sending mixed messages. The events that take place in the Narnia tales are put under the light of reality. Battles and train crashes don’t end in flashes of light followed by joyously running through meadows. They end in dead bodies. Can Susan be faulted for not being a voluntary participant in these events?
In The Problem of Susan, the old woman states: “A god who would punish me for liking nylons and parties by making me walk through that school dining room, with the flies, to identify Ed, well…he’s enjoying himself a bit too much, isn’t he? Like a cat, getting the last ounce of enjoyment out of a mouse.”
I couldn’t agree more. If there were a god and it behaved like that, I’d have trouble seeing it as a being deserving of my worship and devotion.
There were things I liked about the Narnia series too. I like being taken to alternate worlds even when what waits there isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but I wonder about how easily we gloss over the cold actions of the hero in these stories, which are considered such a wholesome read for children.