“Where’s Susan?” asked my daughter as I read to her The Last Battle, the final book in The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis.
Susan is the child queen who helped her siblings save Narnia from the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. However, she is conspicuously absent from an early scene in The Last Battle that includes every character who traveled to Narnia as a child.
“Daddy, where is she?” my daughter asked again.
“We’ll see,” I said, with a tinge of sadness.
Although I’ve read The Chronicles of Narnia dozens of times since I was a boy, Susan’s tragic end gets me every time. The book eventually reveals that Susan grows up and outgrows her love for Narnia. We get few details about her until the end of the book, when High King Peter responds to an inquiry into his sister’s whereabouts.
“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”
“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”
“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. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”
This is more than just a poignant side note about a woman who lost her memory of an alternate universe. If Susan renounced Narnia, then she necessarily renounced Aslan, the resurrected, Christ-like lion she once loved. In Lewis’ symbolic world, she was essentially a Narnian apostate.
As if it couldn’t get any worse, Susan’s demise is further compounded by the revelation that all seven other British friends of Narnia died in a train wreck in England and are beginning their new lives without her in heaven, or “Aslan’s country,” as they call it. But in reading The Last Battle to my daughters, I noticed something new: Susan’s parents died in the train accident too.
I don’t know how I missed it before. Peter alludes to the possibility that his parents happened to be on the same train, and he catches a glimpse of them in heaven. And then at the end, Aslan explains, “‘There was a real railway accident.… Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadowlands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.’”
For the first time, it dawned on me that Susan’s story wasn’t over—not at all. It couldn’t be. One day, Susan was obsessing over “lipstick and nylons and invitations,” and the next, someone would telephone her to tell her that her mother, father, sister, two brothers, a cousin, and three old friends were dead.
I began to imagine the impact of Susan receiving such horrific news, and I called my dad to ask him for insight. Dad, who is a lover of the Narnia series, lost two children in a plane crash when I was a toddler.
“Dad, what did you do when they called you about Rhonie and Scottie?” I asked.
“I just tried to find a way to believe it wasn’t real,” he said. “I kept telling myself it was a hoax until I finally realized that it happened, and then my heart broke.”
No doubt, Susan Pevensie’s heart broke as well. The horror of losing those she loved must have sent her into a tailspin of mental and emotional anguish for years. But Susan’s love for her lost family members must have also made her long for heaven in ways that are only familiar to wounded believers like my father.
I remember Dad vividly describing heaven to me when I was little. Not surprisingly, the central figures in his description were Jesus and the children who died after a downward spiral in a small airplane. God used those children to draw my wounded father into a place of hopefulness, and I imagine that Aslan was able to use Susan’s broken heart to bring her home as well. If so, there would eventually be a happy ending for her after all—it would just take her longer to get to it.
This revelation changed my view of The Last Battle. For me, the best part of the story used to be its culmination in heaven; while Susan’s train-wrecked world was a dull, colorless place where she would live until they buried her in a hole filled with nylons, lipstick, and invitations. But Susan’s inevitably tragic life after the train wreck now gives a new sense of hope. It reminded me that actually, some of Aslan’s best work has yet to be accomplished on this side of heaven, and one of his most effective agents is pain.
As C. S. Lewis famously said, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
He’s right, and whether we like it or not, all of us Susan Pevensies will one day hear God’s call to us in the pain of agonizing loss. By his grace, we will follow the sound of the megaphone back to childlike longings for him and for home.
Joshua Rogers is an attorney and writer who lives in Washington D.C. with his wife and two children. His personal blog is JoshuaRogers.com. You can follow him on Twitter @MrJoshuaRogers or on his Facebook page.