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Inspired by Why was Susan treated so unkindly? I'm asking the following question about the Neil Gaiman short story The Problem of Susan. What did Gaiman have in mind in the nightmare/dream sequence at the end of the story? I think it's fairly obvious what sequence I mean, but to be clear, I'm talking about the scene starting with

In the dream, the lion and the witch come down the hill together.

It's not entirely clear what this has to do with Susan. My impression is that Gaiman is delivering a swift, but not very directed, kick to the Narnian mythos. It's undeniably effective on its own terms, but it's possible he has something more specific in mind, and I'm missing it. I'm debating whether I should quote the relevant paragraphs here - the link could stop working any time.

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    In most analyses, the lion is presumed to represent Jesus and/or the Catholic Church. The witch is presumed to represent the sin of greed or the power of Satan. – Valorum Nov 3 '16 at 23:13
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    I wonder whether it could be viewed as sort of an assertion of a more pagan female/male duality, rather than the monotheism of Christianity. That’s the significance of the bit about Mary Poppins Brings in the Dawn: the assertion of a divinity that the Christian God did not create and has no control over. – Adamant Nov 4 '16 at 6:56
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    @Valorum - true^, but for consistency, CS Lewis was a protestant, so it would not be the Catholic church unless you meant lower-case-catholic (means "unversal") church. – Mikey Jan 10 '17 at 22:45
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The scene can basically be viewed as a response to, and affectionate rejection of (or alternative to) C.S. Lewis’s religious beliefs as some have seen them to be portrayed in The Last Battle.

It’s worth noting that Gaiman does not see himself as trying to criticize Lewis, but more trying to come to terms with his own feelings about the matter:

NG: Right—I think people who read that story as Neil telling off C. S. Lewis are kind of missing the point; people who talk about it being about how we process children’s literature are closer to it. The actual problem of Susan in the C. S. Lewis books is a moment that I find deeply problematic . . . you have this weird moment that just seems wrong.

Fragile Things: An Interview with Neil Gaiman

That said, it seems clear that the scene is meant to present an alternate interpretation or theology that differs from that of Lewis.

The scene is certainly a little obscure, but with some probing, the basic point is pretty straightforward. While the sequence with Aslan and the Witch may be the most attention-grabbing, the scene with Mary Poppins Brings in the Dawn is perhaps more illuminating:

The professor’s lips prickle with shock. And only then does she understand that she is dreaming, for she does not keep those books in the house. Beneath the paperback is a hardback, in its jacket, of a book that, in her dream, she has always wanted to read: Mary Poppins Brings in the Dawn, which P. L. Travers had never written while alive.

She picks it up and opens it to the middle, and reads the story waiting for her. Jane and Michael go with Mary Poppins on her day off, to Heaven, and they meet the boy Jesus, who is still slightly scared of Mary Poppins because she was once his nanny, and the Holy Ghost, who complains that he has not been able to get his sheet properly white since Mary Poppins left, and God the Father, who says, “There’s no making her do anything. Not her. She’s Mary Poppins.” “But you’re God,” said Jane. “You created every body and everything. They have to do what you say.”

“Not her,” said God the Father once again, and he scratched his golden beard flecked with white. “I didn’t create her. She’s Mary Poppins.”

“The Problem of Susan”

It’s important to understand that this is a commentary on the following dream vision (the one with the lion and the witch). God the Father’s “golden beard” recalls the golden color of Aslan, to start with. What this presents is a counter or alternative to Lewis’s conception of God. The original Narnia books put forth a Christian conception of an all-knowing and all-powerful God in Aslan. In the (non-existent)1 Mary Poppins Brings in the Dawn, God is instead proposed as multiple. There is an entity, in the form of Mary Poppins, that is separate, coeval, and similarly powerful.

This fits with the first dream, which shows an alternate ending (the true ending, perhaps, in Gaiman’s story, where, instead of killing the White Witch, Aslan argues with her over terms):

All this was snow, she thinks, as she looks at the battlefield. Yesterday, all this was snow. Always winter, and never Christmas. Her sister tugs her hand and points. On the brow of the green hill they, stand, deep in conversation. The lion is golden, his hands folded behind his back. The witch is dressed all in white. Right now she is shouting at the lion, who is simply listening. The children cannot make out any of their words, not her cold anger or the lion’s thrum-deep replies. The witch’s hair is black and shiny; her lips are red.

“The Problem of Susan”

Instead of being portrayed as a sinful rebel against God, a Satan stand-in (the perspective of the original books), the Witch is viewed as a power equal to Aslan, one who can negotiate with him, and gain an equal share of the spoils:

In the dream, the lion and the witch come down the hill together. She is standing on the battlefield, holding her sister’s hand. She looks up at the golden lion, and the burning amber of his eyes. “He’s not a tame lion, is be?” she whispers to her sister, and they shiver.

The witch looks at them all, then she turns to the lion and says, coldly, “I am satisfied with the terms of our agreement. You take the girls: for myself, I shall have the boys.”

“The Problem of Susan”

The use of the line “not a tame lion” here is telling. Aslan is not morally superior to the Witch, in this story’s conception: he is a similarly unknowable and amoral entity. As Neil Gaiman said in an interview:

NG: It seems to me that one of the most interesting things about God as a concept, if you decide to believe in God, is that God’s ways are unknowable. And God obviously, look at the world around you, does or is responsible for some terrible, terrible, awful things. A young girl kidnapped and kept in the darkness and sexually abused. The deaths of six million Jews. A mudslide that buries a village. All of these things. If God is doing the good stuff, he’s got to be doing that stuff too. If people are standing up there saying, my football team just won with help from God, then obviously God just pissed over the other team. So I’m thinking about that and this analogy running through the Narnia books, the idea that Aslan is the incarnation of God and he’s not a tame lion, everyone keeps saying he’s not a tame lion . . . except that he is a tame lion! He’s really nice! He doesn’t kill anybody, except possibly some really evil witches who kind of deserve it. Lions, generally, especially not tame lions, are not people you want to go off with, because they could eat you. They can turn on you and they can make life really, really bad for you.

Fragile Things: An Interview with Neil Gaiman

And further, and more explicitly:

They’re not people—they’re lions and they’re dangerous! It’s worth remembering that Gods, whether they exist or not, are not tame either.

Fragile Things: An Interview with Neil Gaiman

That’s the conception of the divine that he presents as an alternative to that of Lewis: an Aslan who is as dangerous as the White Witch, and a White Witch who is as divine as Aslan.

There’s also another intriguing aspect. Note that the (male) Aslan take the girls, and the (female) Witch takes the boys. Even more notably, Aslan and the Witch then engage in intercourse.

It’s difficult not to view this as an assertion of a sort of pagan female/male duality (recalling the concept of the Lady and Lord), over the monotheistic divine/sinful duality that is perhaps more characteristic of the original novels. Rather than being a Satan counterpart, the Witch is then viewed as the divine female counterpart of Aslan.

1: It’s interesting to note the wording in the passage about this book. Not something that Travers never published while she was alive, but something that she “had never written while alive.” Perhaps something that she wrote after she died?

  • Thanks, Adamant. That's an impressively erudite interpretation of the text. And good supporting quotes from NG. Though I still don't exactly see how that ties into "The Problem Of Susan". Oh, and just to be clear, the beginning scene/dream is the equivalent to the scene of the actual book where Aslan come roaring in after being "reincarnated" and kills the White Witch, correct? But in this story, they have a chat instead. – Faheem Mitha Nov 4 '16 at 8:53
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    @FaheemMitham - I think so, yes. I think that is how it “really happened,” in Gaiman’s interpretation: not the eating people alive bit, but the witch not being killed. But it could just be a dream. Either way, the interpretation presented by the dream scenes is of the Witch as Aslan’s equivalent. – Adamant Nov 4 '16 at 8:59
  • @FaheemMitha - Though, the whole hill thing does mirror a scene in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, so it is possible that this is just Susan dreaming about it, and getting at some truth about things by doing so. Even if the Witch did get killed in “The Problem of Susan,” as happens in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, this interpretation is not necessarily entirely wrong, since the Witch is implied as still existing thereafter (doesn’t someone try to summon her in Prince Caspian?) But what literally happened is less important than the alternative theology being presented. – Adamant Nov 4 '16 at 9:06
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    @FaheemMitha - The way it ties in, I think, is that “The Problem of Susan” is that Aslan appears to be excessively cruel to Susan. And Gaiman says, “Yes, of course he is! He’s a God. Gods are not tame, and they aren’t always nice.” And the juxtaposition of Aslan with the White Witch is meant to show how he’s not a tame lion, and not a “nice” God, but in some sense the Witch’s counterpart. Instead of killing the Witch (a sign of opposition), he has sex with her instead (a sign of similarity). – Adamant Nov 4 '16 at 9:13
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    As a followup to the "excessively cruel to Susan" part - many (most?) people focus on how Susan was cruelly denied entrance to Aslan's Country (read heaven) because she liked nylon/lipstick and wanted to have fun, or whatever. But Gaiman focuses on the more earthly/secular/humanistic viewpoint of Susan left on Earth having to deal with her whole family having died in a horrific railway accident. And from that point of view, Aslan certainly looks like a lot worse. That's a actually a rather Old Testament way to treat a believer. Or perhaps the point is that she was an ex-believer? – Faheem Mitha Nov 4 '16 at 17:41

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