The notion of alternate universes lives in a strange place in popular imagination. It is used by popular movie franchises, debated by science and the topic of the occasional joke. The multiple universes of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia predate most of these interpretations and their presence is often forgotten within the wider image of Narnia. This image was somewhat reworked in Lev Grossman’s Narnia inspired Magicians books but the utilization of the multiverse remained quite similar. These books demonstrate the limitations of the notion of alternate universes because the readers are only able to focus on these worlds one at a time. So, in these conceptions the multiverse becomes a kind of back closet where characters and ideas can be shoved for later use before being pulled out at the appropriate moment. Both Lewis and Grossman us this strategy to great affect with good writing making the movement in and out of the multiverse feel smooth and blended with the more singular world of their stories.Read More »
C.S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia are steeped in Christian theology to a degree that even to a reader not searching for it some themes come through clearly. From the publication of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1950 with its clear allusions to the crucifixion to The Last Battle’s end of days as appearing in 1956; Lewis constructs a fantasy world that is tied together by the faith of the child heroes. However, in The Last Battle a lack of faith is confronted as Susan Pevensie is the only protagonist from the earlier novels not to return to Narnia and as such is left out of the heaven that Aslan creates. Lewis has a clear representation of the end of days and of the paradise that follows but what is not clear is the fate of Susan who is left in the ‘outer’ world to live out the rest of her life. For many readers of The Last Battle, especially the young readers it is directed at, Susan’s absence is accepted and then largely ignored but Neil Gaiman explored the absence in his short story “The Problem of Susan” with a protagonist who is usually read as Susan herself, all grown up. Examining the contrast in tone between The Last Battle and Gaiman’s story shows how the framing of a narrative can shift the line between the mundane and the horrible provoking questions about what is absent from fantastic narratives like Lewis’s.
The reason that Lewis gives for Susan’s absence is that she has become too interested in boys and lipstick and no longer believes in Narnia. In the context of Christian theology this is an attachment in worldly pleasures that turns one away from God, but Lewis also keeps Susan away from the train crash that kills the other friends to send them back to Narnia. This is perhaps what prevents Susan’s absence from seeming overly upsetting to the audience, she still has the opportunity to find her faith and gain access to heaven in Narnia. However, Gaiman’s exploration of the issue shows Susan’s survival as an event of mundane horror. There are no epic battles or great moral causes in Susan’s world, there is just the gory reality of identifying bodies from the train crash. Gaiman’s professor speaks about her younger brother Ed’s decapitation and the anxiety of not being sure that the people she is looking at are really her family. Lewis is writing for children, so his books are devoid of the kind of bloody horror that Gaiman uses, instead trying to provoke sadness or melancholy but “The Problem of Susan” puts the real-world kind of horror that Lewis covers up on display in contrast to the joy of Lewis’s Narnia.
Part of that joy of going “farther in and farther up” into the heaven of ‘real Narnia’ is the reunion with family and friends who have been lost to death and time. Each of the Friends meet the Narnians from their individual adventures from Lucy’s Mr Tumnus to the kings of the later books like Caspian or Rilian; all the beloved characters are waiting for the heroes, and the reader, at the end of the book. Once again Gaiman examines the events in Narnia from the perspective of Susan who is the one left behind. She is alone in a house in the process of aging alone on her way to dying alone while missing her deceased family. Susan doesn’t mourn the loss of Narnia, of heaven, because she doesn’t really believe in these things anymore. She mourn the death of her family because in her version of reality they are no longer accessible. Susan is not just bared from paradise, something that is not of much concern to her, she is trapped in a world where her family is dead and nothing, she can do will let her see them again. This is a separate kind of horror to the gore from time directly after the train crash, this is a suffering that is brought on simply by the nature of reality. There is no need for the false god of The Last Battle for there to be sadness and pain, because the crushing loneliness of being the sole survivor is enough.
It is possible to read Gaiman’s torment of Susan as a critique of Lewis and of Christian theology, but it could also simply be a challenge to explore the events that occur just outside the range of a story. Storytelling places a lens on the protagonist that it is concerned with which often obscures the supporting characters and world that surround the plot. No one thinks about what Stormtrooper 517 is thinking about or how life turns out for the first years who are evacuated before the Battle of Hogwarts. It would be impractical and likely boring for a creator to go down all these side routes but Gaiman points out the positive or negative aspects of a story are largely a matter of perspective.
The fantastical world of The Chronicles of Narnia leads the reader to think about the world of the books within the context of reaching the paradise of real Narnia but that is not the perspective of Susan who is left behind. The horror for Susan is a mundane horror of real-world death and loneliness rather than sadness because she is not in Narnia. Gaiman’s issue might not be with the existence of the heaven of Narnia but rather with the simplification of what life is like outside of it. Understanding the life of Susan through Gaiman’s short story exposes not only the darker side of Lewis’s creation but also forces a consideration of what The Last Battle says outside of the Christian narrative of spiritual salvation.