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Bark Like A Fish, Damnit!


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ursulav

Elegant and Fine

And having just said all of that about Susan, upon having given the matter far too much thought, the real Problem of Susan, to my mind, had nothing to do with her family dying. It sucks a lot, but it happens and people can die without God Specifically Being Out To Get You. People cope with that and move on all the time, and we feel for them, but they do not get recorded as one of the Great Literary Injustices.

No, what I started thinking was that I’m thirty-five. I love my life. I have work I care about and a man I am quite desperately in love with. And if I suddenly fell through a wardrobe and was eleven years old again, I would go so batshit insane that they would have to make up new words for how insane I had gone.

I expect I might have a hard time playing nice with the god responsible.

So, y’know. (I realize that half my short stories turn up as “Point of view of the woman in this otherwise well-known story” and beg forgiveness in advance.) This one may even qualify as fan-fic! I make you a gift of it, although if my plane goes down in the Atlantic, please remember me for Digger and the Little Red Riding Hood thing instead.

“Elegant and Fine”

The real problem with Susan, in the end, was not that she was no longer Narnia’s friend. It was that she had already been its lover.



They all did it, of course. They were Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve, and while the first sin might have been of knowledge, the Church generally agreed that carnality had occurred shortly afterwards. And Aslan had already pulled his inscrutable vanishing act, and so was not around to disapprove.

Besides, it would strain credibility, even in a land of magic and talking beasts, for four young people coming of age far from home to remain strictly celibate.

Peter had several very close relationships with dryads and Lucy had always been fond of fauns. Edmund…well, you could never tell with Edmund, but Susan had her suspicions. He was very close friends with that Badger. Not that that meant anything, and even if it did, it was really none of her business, but…well.

Hell, everyone and everything talked, which tended to blur the lines quite a lot, and there weren’t any other humans in Narnia. Susan herself made the very personal acquaintance of a faun and several wood-gods, all of them courtiers and very discreet.

Eventually, when the four Kings and Queens were old enough that they could actually be introduced as rulers in foreign courts without raising any eyebrows, the dwarves let it be known that there was a nation next door named Archenland and another rather larger one named Calormene, and there were actually quite a few humans inhabiting both.

You could understand why they did it, of course—nobody wants to admit that there’s a twelve-year-old on the throne, especially if he’s been appointed by a conveniently absent lion. The Calormenes would have been over the border before you could say “annexation.” Still, it led to some awkward conversations at the dinner table.

When she was in her mid-twenties, Susan toyed with the idea of marrying an actual human prince, but the experience with Rabadash rather soured her on her own kind, and she went back to wood-gods. By the time any other princes presented themselves, she had already met…him.

He was a dwarf.

He was nearly as broad as he was tall, and his head barely came up past her waist. He had gnarled hands from working metal and he was as ugly as she was beautiful.

He worked with black iron and white gold, and from his fingers came extraordinary beauty, objects elegant and fine. When he touched her, Susan felt as if she were one of his creations, as if he refined her down to her purest essence, as if she too were elegant and fine.

She loved him profoundly and without reservation, and though dwarves are not a demonstrative people, he wrote his love for her in forged metal, with hammerblows and flying sparks, with the touch of his fingers against her skin.

If she had had any idea that when she rode to the Lantern Waste, she would never see him again, she would have barred the doors of her room and refused to set foot outside Caer Paravel.

When she fell through the wardrobe with her brothers and her sister, at first she did not believe it. When Susan looked in the mirror and saw herself, eleven years old again, cheeks and arms smoothed with babyfat, all she could think was that no one could be so cruel.

She tried the wardrobe ten or fifteen times a day, and then the professor moved it and she sank into a deep depression. She opened doors at random, without looking, closets and cupboards, trying to find the one that had Narnia behind it.

Old linens. The smell of mothballs. Sets of china with missing teacups and kitchen devices that had outlived their utility.

Nothing.

Her siblings were no help. A strange languor was taking over their minds, Narnia becoming a bright, distant dream, like a book read in childhood. Susan could feel it in her own mind, plucking at her memories—had the wallpaper in her room been red or green? Had there been five steps down to the river, or eight? The Raven that sat behind Peter in the throne room, the person who really knew what was going on—Peter had no head for economics, even when he was past thirty—had the Raven been male or female?

She woke one night and realized that she no longer remembered her dwarf’s name.

Even if I find him again, I won’t remember who he is. And I will be eleven years old.

She put her face in her hands, and wept as she had not wept since Aslan had died.

When they found themselves back in Narnia, a year later, she had almost succeeded in putting it out of her mind. The magic had plucked and teased at her mind until it felt like a dream, or like something best remembered as a dream.

Almost.

Not entirely.

Experience has a way of marking you, even if you do not remember it, or remember it only as a dream. You cannot keep the death-vigil for a god and go unchanged. You cannot walk across a battlefield with blood and mud and the moans of the dying around you, and go back to being an ordinary eleven-year-old girl.

You cannot live to be thirty years old, and have it wiped cleanly from your mind.

Frustration made Susan grind her teeth, even as her bones lengthened and she got her period again. (The school nurse tried to jolly her through it—“There there, my dear, you’re just becoming a young woman, that’s all!” Susan’s laughter was torn out of her like sobs, and the nurse kept a close eye on her for a week.)

The stranger in the mirror looked a little more like herself, but only a little, and not nearly quickly enough. There were things that she could do with makeup, and they helped, but not nearly enough.

Once loved, skin remembers skin, and the fact that she was trapped in a child’s body and many long years away from anyone’s idea of a lover…well.

She wanted to strangle most of the girls her own age and all of the boys. They had never had to plan a battle campaign, or figure out how to bring famine relief to parts of a countryside where the inhabitants thought roads were an act of foreign aggression.

They had never been in love.

And here she was. In Narnia. Again.

Thirteen hundred years too late.

Parts of her raged and screamed, and she shoved those parts down inside and only let them out when she had a bow in her hand. She put arrows through the skulls of three Telmarines, and then the dryads (who were shockingly old-maidish for a race of scantily-clad female trees) pulled her away. She suspected them of being in league with Father Christmas.

Hypocrites. It should have occurred to them by now that battles are ugly when anyone fights.

She wanted to grab Trumpkin by the shoulders and shake him until his loyalist teeth rattled and scream “Did you have an ancestor who loved the Queen? What happened to him? Did he ever forgive her for leaving him? What was his name?”

That Lucy was as brightly worshipful as ever and Peter was doing his best English schoolboy game-as-a-pebble routine would have tried the patience of any number of saints. Edmund was the only one who seemed to have anything flickering behind his eyes.

“Has it occurred to you,” she hissed at him one night, “has it occurred to any of you that they’re all dead? Have been dead for a thousand years? All of them—Tumnus and the Beavers and—and my—“

She had to stop and press a hand to her forehead.

“Of course it has!” said Edmund, in a low voice. “My friends—all of our—yes, all right? All right? What do you want me to do? Sit down and refuse to fight because they’re all dead? It won’t bring your dwarf back, you know!”

“What was his name?” Susan demanded. “Do you remember? Edmund, if you know—I can’t remember any more, I’ve tried—“

“Oh, Su,” said Edmund, in quite a different voice, and he put an arm around her shoulders. She cried for awhile. She thought he did too, but he was right, and it didn’t bring them back.

On the last day, when Aslan drew her and Peter aside, she did not cry. Her throat closed up and her heart clanged so loudly in her ears that she missed half of what he said.

Too old to return to Narnia?

You shoved me back into this wretched unformed child’s body, lion-god, and made me a thousand years a widow, and now I am too old?

If Susan had been standing next to the White Witch, before the Stone Table, looking down at Aslan bound and muzzled, she would have asked to wield the knife.

Peter was keeping his chin up and saying all the right things. Susan sank her teeth into her lower lip and thought that she would have given everything she had not to come back to Narnia this time.

Aslan looked at her as he spoke. He knew what she was thinking, of course. He always did.

Susan didn’t care. If he was going to go around refusing to be a tame lion, he could hardly fault her for refusing to be a tame woman.

Lucy was coming up, with Edmund beside her. She gritted her teeth, and swallowed her rage. It would not do Lucy a great deal of good to see her god gut her sister with one of his gigantic paws. And she’d be damned if she cried in front of him. She had cried for him once already, cried and worked her fingers bloody prying a muzzle from his dead jaws, and this was how that vigil was repaid.

She would be glad to never see Narnia again. The languid erasing of her memories could not come quickly enough. There was nothing left for her here.

If she lived long enough in her own world, if she was lucky, perhaps she would find someone there.

Someone who made her feel elegant and fine.

Someone who loved her, as she had loved someone once, long ago, in a childhood dream without a name.

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.


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Perfect. I appreciate the musings on Susan, I've been doing some myself this last year because I'm struggling with the religion I was born and raised in and it's fucking hard.

Off-topic, but oh man, you have my utter sympathies. I can joke about it now, but it was really one of the more unpleasant times of my life.

Also, I do think this counts as fic, Ursula, but that's okay, because it's superb. The best kind of literary analysis fic.

Holy crow, woman, that was heartbreaking!

I was going to say the same thing. Utterly heartbreaking.

I wish this Susan could have found some of her dwarf's work and been able to ask.

Oh man. THANK YOU. I recently reread these books and the whole thing with Susan just seemed so unjustified and damned unfair. I figured she should have some very good reasons (and it was disturbing that none of the other children had any at all) for not wanting to think much of Narnia. This definitely follows along the lines I was thinking, too.

Damnit, Ursula, you're making me cry!

I second that! How depressing. Good! Accurate, perhaps! But depressing.

I always had issues with that. They GREW UP in narnia. They were adults. They were considering marriage. And then they tumble back home and are kids again? WTF.

Also, as far as I'm concerned this is wholy canon, and I don't think I will ever forget it, as "You shoved me back into this wretched unformed child’s body, lion-god, and made me a thousand years a widow, and now I am too old?" will not cease bouncing around inside my head. Even trying to wrap my head around someone who tore me from my life, made me a child again in another life, and then put me back in the world this life is in but after my husband and everyone I love was not just dead and gone, but so long gone their tombs had returned to dust along with them? Yeah. I'd kill them. I'd kill them slowly, and I'd likely laugh while doing it.

Edited at 2012-09-14 05:08 am (UTC)

Oh, this is heartbreaking and wonderful.

And once again, I want to put you and Seanan MacGuire in the same room and provide you both with lots of caffeine and whatever creative supplies you desire, and stand back.


Oh, my.
Oh MY.

Presto, fly this idea by her agent! Between Ursula's Deadlines-Will-Be-Met and Seanan's Three-Books-At-Once skillsets, we might have a book (a series?) in our grabby hands by March 2014.
Precioussssss.

Holy crap, Ursula. *does the Wayne & Garth bowing routine* I am not worthy, I am not worthy. That was...sublime.

Ow. Beautifully done. Ow.

You've read Neil Gaiman's "The Problem of Susan", yes?

It's in Flights Vol II and Fragile Things, I believe.

(didn't see anyone else mention it in this or the previous post on LJ - ok, just checked Tea with the Squash God and someone did mention it there but I'm going ahead and leaving it here for the LJ folks)

I loved the books growing up, thought it was stupid Susan didn't get to go back; but now that I understand the "message" behind the stories it's hard to share them with the kids. We have the books; I've told them the ~correct~ order to read them in (can't believe they're putting The Magicians Nephew first nowadays...); we've seen the first movie, maybe the second; but when they don't get into them I don't even try to encourage them. Just as happy for them to read the Percy Jackson novels, Harry Potter, Jhereg, etc...

I came down to say this, too. Folks should definitely read his take, as well.

This. A thousand times this. Thank you for fully articulating and solving a problem which I have long held with the Narnia series, what happens to Susan at the end and how... deeply unfair it felt. No, thanks to this little bit of fan fiction, it no longer seems that way. I can happily imagine that she escaped into a life that she wanted in the regular world.

And thank you for writing an amazing little story to go with it!


Thank you for the lump in my throat.

This was wonderful! You read my mind on the Problem with Susan--I never got it either, and it drove me mad--and this, THIS answers things beautifully!

Damn! I never had a problem with Lewis's treatment of Susan but then I never understood why anybody would want to be grown-up and forsake magic they knew existed, and Susan was always the character I least identified with (though being the bossy big sister probably the one I"m most like...). That said, this was incredible, really fit so well with the stories and basically rescued that character for me. Fantastic!

completely off topic, but

roooof

2012-09-15 09:50 pm (UTC)

Gorbash icon! I literally squealed when I saw that!

So far, I have a pretty consistent reaction to everything you've written; I get a strange urge to grab random passersby and tell them "read this, and everything else she's done. Now. Don't wait." (I have foisted both Digger and Dragonsbreath 1-3 on family, and linked to the regency ninjas, and should have to the annotated fairy tales.).

This one gets that, plus a little extra heartbreak of its own

I love this, it's powerful and also deeply honest in a way that I often found the Narnia books not to be.

Btw, have you read Lev Grossman's The Magicians and The Magician King, he's playing with ideas from Narnia (and from Harry Potter) in a host of fascinating and powerful (if sometimes problematic) ways.

I hated The Magicians so much. Dreadful hipsterish faux-ironic stuff. And making The Problem of Susan analogue be about a boy. Ugh.

Aw dang. This is just amazing!

I had never thought about this from Susan's point of view before. Heartbreaking.

Close to tears. Poor Susan. :( :( :(

Not so much 'the problem of Susan' (I never liked the implications of that title) but 'The Anguish of Susan'. Thank you for an imaginative piece of metafic that gives a much maligned character back her humanity.

(And I love the scene with her and Edmund).

Thank you.

I could never reread Narnia after the extend of the allegory really sank in. Parts of it just made me so angry, and I suspect that's because of what you mentioned - that what we're shown and what we're told often doesn't feel right together. And Susan, oh my heart breaks for her. Yay for fanfic :-)

I read the original one in my (Catholic) grade school as an assignment. That should have been my first clue, eh?
I didn't really fall in love with the books like lots of others did. I read a Horse and His Boy as a kiddo, because horses, but that's about it. And I remember that one being really problematic but I can't remember why. Racist? I'm not sure. It was a long time ago.

Now, I'm just grumpy about Narnia in general since I've evolved from a non-religious-person-who-is-Atheist-but-doesn't-realize to a full blown Angry Atheist Rantasaurus. Ugh.

That said, THIS post by Ursula was far, far, far better than I remember Narnia ever being. Take THAT C.S. Lewis.
Honestly, Ursula, you are amazing and I'm absolutely certain you're going to be Gaiman famous in short order.

Thank you so much. Even as a child, and still completely in love with Narnia and Aslan, I could never be happy with what Lewis did to Susan. As an adult, even less so.

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