The Problem of Susan and Other Stories [Review]

The Problem of Susan and Other Stories

by Neil Gaiman (writer);  P. Craig Russell (art and adpatation); Scott Hampton (art);  Paul Chadwick (art), Lovern Kindzierski (art); Galen Showman, Rick Parker, Gaspar Saladino (lettering)

Dark Horse Books, 2019

Finally, after  2 1/2 years, I’m getting around to writing a review of this book.

For those who are not familiar with the Chronicles of Narnia and how it has been analyzed by fans and literary critics alike, “The Problem of Susan” refers to how, in the last book, she is revealed to be “no longer a friend of Narnia” because she no longer believes in it and is more interested in the adult world of “invitations, nylons, and lipstick.” For the young, first-time reader, it comes as quite a shock that she’s dismissed it all as a childhood game, because she’s always been such an integral part of it. Of course, this means that at the end of the book she lives, while everyone else who had a connection to Narnia dies in a horrible train crash. But it also means she has lost her entire family. As far as I know, Lewis never brought up this rather cruel point. He did tell a young fan in a letter that he is sure Susan will eventually find her way back to Aslan and Narnia and invites her to tell that story herself, which is kind of sweet. But it doesn’t answer the question of how Susan deals with the enormity of the tragedy she suffers, and if, given how she has turned her back on God (Aslan/Narnia), it is even fair.

(It was only as an adult fan that I considered this. It was one of those things that goes over a child’s head as most have no conception of such a tragedy.)

As with the stag hunt that returns the Pevensies to England, many Narnian fans have turned to fanfic to make sense of this disturbing concept. Others who were fans as children turned violently against the series as adults. J. K. Rowling and Phillip Pullman are two of Narnia’s more vociferous critics, as well as being writers of YA fiction themselves. I’m not going to go into their views here; they are available with an internet search if anyone is curious. But it’s clear to me neither one had re-read the book before spouting their claims.

Neil Gaiman is another author, and fan, trying to make sense of Susan’s exclusion. In 2009 he wrote a short story about it, titled, well, “The Problem of Susan.” Being as Narnia is still under copyright, he had to nip and tuck the subject matter a bit to avoid legal problems with the Lewis estate, and by some accounts, he just barely skated by. However, it was very clear who the story was about and why she was hurting. (If you haven’t read the whole of the Chronicles of Narnia… and are not acquainted with TPoS… you’d likely be completely baffled.)

From that short story, this graphic adaptation was created. It’s a gorgeous work, and a very disturbing one, which was why it has taken me so long to write this review. Because of my own puzzlement with it, this review is going to take the form of a recap in which I critique it as a whole and not split it between story, art, and overall design.

We start with a scene of carnage from a battlefield in which four nameless children — the Lucy, Susan, Peter, and Edmund of the Chronicles — dispassionately walk. There’s no gore, but cute animals and mythological creatures are heaped up, clearly dead. At a distance, a not-Aslan and not-White Witch converse; I’ll call them lion-man and winter witch. This scenario has sexual connotations for the not-Susan character: she notices the penis of a dead centaur and how black the witch’s hair is, and how red her lips. Then she wakes up; it was a dream. She is no longer a child but an elderly retired professor in a cute turn-of-the-century clapboard house.

She does her morning routine, noticing the parts of a dead mouse left on her doorstep by a cat (its head and one little hand) and reads the obituary of a deceased colleague who had once been her boyfriend, ages ago when she was 20. It’s clear death is circling her, and she won’t fight it, for she also despises being old.

Then the POV switches to a younger woman, Greta, who has come to interview Professor Hastings (for that is not-Susan’s name) for a literary publication. Professor Hastings has written a book: The Quest for Meaning in Children’s Fiction, and there’s a picture of a flower-garlanded lion and two girls on the cover! We know who they are. The two women talk about this book, in which it’s said (I paraphrase) that children’s literature as its own distinct genre only came to exist in the Victorian Age, which held that children were inherently pure and had to be protected from the adult world because of that purity. The Professor goes on to say that fairy tales were originally intended for adults and that their violence was toned down when they started to be read to young children, again in the Victorian Age (for that is when those books began to be mass-produced.) Then she reveals a shocker: her family died in a train crash several years after the end of WWII. To which the young reporter says brightly, “Just like in Lewis’s Narnia books!”

The “lion man” and “winter witch” face off.

So… not-Susan really is not Susan, as it’s clear in the story that the Chronicles are a work of fiction and not a biography. Which makes Gaiman’s story not fanfic after all, but a piece of contemporary fiction that has the purpose of Narnian fanfic.

The young journalist goes on to say how angry The Last Battle made her, that “all the other kids go off to paradise and Susan can’t go.” She says her grade school English teacher told her, in reply, that even though Susan has refused Paradise, she still has time to repent. So I guess this English teacher hadn’t read the text of The Last Battle all that closely either.

Professor Hastings then puts in her two cents. She says that after Susan’s family was killed, there was likely no more nylons and lipsticks for her, as she had lost her parents and thus their financial support. She goes on to say that Susan would likely had to identify her family’s mutilated bodies, the same as she herself had to do after the train crash. We get a page of panels in that gruesome vein, culminating in with the Professor saying that “a god who would punish me for liking nylons and parties by making me… 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.” Like the pieces of the dead mouse from earlier in the story.

Visibly upset, the Professor asks if they finish the interview another time, as talking about Susan’s fate has hit a nerve for her.

The Professor takes off her turban (for she has sparse, thinning hair) and goes to sleep in her old bedroom at the rear of her house, the house she inherited from her parents, and looks through old photographs of her siblings. Her eyelid droops like she’s having a stroke. She looks to her right and sees a bedside table with a pile of books on it, one of which Gaiman intends to be LWW without saying it outright (that lion with a flower garland again) and the Professor realizes she’s dreaming because, in reality, there is no table and no book pile in that bedroom, and certainly no Narnia books which she won’t keep in the house for reasons made clear earlier. She picks up a Mary Poppins book from the pile that was planned but never written, in which the prim English Nanny visits child Jesus in heaven; jokes are made, after which the Professor reads her own obituary and is satisfied with it, because everyone is there at the funeral, even the people she had forgotten. It’s implied she has died, and is at peace.

The story might have ended there, as a thoughtful exploration of Susan and Narnia, childhood and fairy tales, and what happens when adult life intrudes with its tragedies and disappointments. But there’s more and it gets confusing.

Meanwhile sleep is not going well for Greta the journalist. The interview with Professor Hastings has disturbed her, made her question her old feelings about the Chronicles. In the arms of her boyfriend, who’s a symbol of adult sexuality, she continues the dream of the Narnian battlefield Professor Hastings was having at the start of the story. In that dream, the lion-man and winter witch have finished their discussion and returned to the children. Their talk was about the children’s fate. The witch takes the two boys and turns them into deformed caricatures of human beings (as if they’d been turned inside out and then had all their bones removed, in the artist’s depiction) and the lion-man takes the two girls, which he tears apart and eats. Of not-Susan, whose role Greta occupies in her dream, nothing is left but her head and her hand, echoing the depiction of the dead mouse earlier in the story. Not-Lucy is entirely eaten, with more relish, because she had always been the lion-man’s favorite.

Then the winter witch sheds her white gown and has wild sex with the lion-man, as not-Susan watches; and after that, lion-man eats her head. Greta wakes up with a jolt. But she can’t wake her boyfriend to tell him about the nightmare. Which makes sense, symbolically, as the dream was women’s business: created by a woman, dealing with female sexuality and the abuse of young women, and having a woman in control: the winter witch, who initiates sex with the lion-man and orders him around.

Thinks Greta of Susan (though it could also be of the Professor) “She grew up. She carried on. She didn’t die,” and imagines the Professor waking in the night to go through the wardrobe, to Aslan and the “distant, dangerous music of a hunting horn.”

“Death comes in the night like a lion,” Greta thinks.

In the last panel the naked witch rides away gleefully on the lion-man’s back, after he’s licked all the blood off his muzzle so it is clean again.

On my first read, it was difficult for me to make sense of this story. On my second read, it was easier to “get” what the author meant to say, up to where the Professor has her stroke, and dies. But what the younger woman continuing the dream — and adding to it the murders of the children and explicit sex — is supposed to say, I still don’t have a clue. Maybe it would have been more obvious in the story version. Adding art to the mix adds nuances and resonances not possible in a written work of fiction, so that it can say more, or sometimes less. I can’t help but feel, however, that Gaiman copped out of the human element of the plot at some point, adding images to titillate and shock. Certainly there’s a male-female yin-yang with the witch and lion, so having the two come together and be one, in the act of sex, makes sense; but it doesn’t tie back in with what was introduced before. In that way, perhaps, he was like Lewis himself, who could certainly mix a merry metaphor.

I’ve heard it said that the story was Gaiman’s rebuttal to the great Susan debate. I imagine that it was his way of saying that fairy tales are, indeed, cruel and you can’t expect them to cosset you no more than you could expect Aslan to be a tame lion. But I can’t say.

On a visceral level, I did find the artist’s depiction of the innocent-looking children (who we all know and love) being mutilated and deformed was disturbing and that element overshadowed the whole story for me. I can live with lion-witch sex.

Since the book contained three other stories, I’ll touch on them briefly.

“Locks” is a rumination on the fairy tale Goldilocks, as “The Problem of Susan” was about the Chronicles. Here, as in the previous story, the juxtaposition of the drawings of innocent children with that of the implications of violence made me queasy. But I’ll lay that at the feet of whoever did the adaptation, not the writer.

“The October Chair” was my least favorite, because the concept of it was so twee, and the story so pat. The months of the year, each having a human representation, all diverse — gather to tell stories around a bonfire. After some Roald Dahl-style bickering, October tells the story of a boy born to lose, with a perpetually runny nose and small slight build, who is bullied by his older brothers and lives life in their shadows. So he runs away one day and meets a ghost boy in a ghost town who acts like the brother he never had. The boy enjoys himself, but he also realizes it’s impossible for him live on his own and make a new life for himself; he’s too young. The police will find him and return him eventually to his family, where he will have to endure more of the same torture.

So he asks ghost boy if he can stay with him forever, and ghost boy points to the threatening-looking abandoned house on the edge of the cemetery, saying he needs to ask it of whoever lives in there, and implies they’re not human. So the poor kid enters the threatening house, and then the too-jolly month of October cuts the story off, to the consternation of the month of June. The story-telling session is adjourned and we never find out what happened.

I didn’t understand this one either, which seemed to say that if life sucks for you as a child a valid option is suicide. Again, it may have been a problem with the graphic adaptation, in which the tragic story of the boy was brighter and more involving than the bickering of the months.

My favorite was the last one, “The Day the Saucers Came” which was more of an illustrated poem of lovesick longing, told in second person, with really gorgeous full-page panels depicting a flying saucer invasion, Ragnarok, and other disasters… all which the “you” of the poem doesn’t notice, because she’s waiting for her lover’s call, with a cute corgi dog beside her. This is more of what I expect from Neil Gaiman.

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