Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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Susan and the War and the Wood Between the Worlds

June 17, 2024

Sheila Vamplin

Mrs. Helsten, our fifth grade teacher, read aloud to us every day. I looked forward to it every single time. She read well and chose her readings well. Consequently, everyone heard the entire set of The Chronicles of Narnia in fifth grade.

The stories mesmerized me. From sixth grade to college, I reread the series every year or two. In college, for a children’s literature course, I created a poster-size map of Narnia, based on the Pauline Baynes map that Mrs. Helsten had kept on our classroom wall. I loved imagining the places and remembering the stories as I drew, wrote, cut, and colored to make this map.

Of Narnia itself, much can be said — but reflecting on the theme of courage in the context of my current life brought most to mind three parts of the stories: the Wood Between the Worlds, the role of war, and the character of Susan.

The Wood between the Worlds

I grew up surrounded by woods. The woods behind our house in town were swampy, the water deep enough to be messy but not dangerous; we played there freely and often. The woods across from my best friend’s house had a wonderful creek running through them. The woods behind my family’s later house in the country had a hollowed-out tree stump that was usually full of water; my friend and I called it the witch’s stump. So woods and water played a part in many adventures and took us to other worlds of our own making. It wasn’t hard, then, to imagine how the pools of water in Lewis’ story could do what they did, magically transporting people from the wood to other worlds.

As an adult, that magical wood comes to mind especially in a certain pecan grove, part of a retreat center I’ve retreated to regularly for the past 25 years. The grove itself is known as the Fairy Meadow and has an old, worn sign designating it as such. After a big rain, pools of water form in a certain area and always send my mind to Lewis and the magic of moving from one world to another.

This pecan grove itself is a place that often transports me. I’ve seen deer there many times and have stood or crouched, still and quiet, for long moments, silently “conversing” with them, reminiscent of Narnia — until my muscles ache, I have to move, and they amble, or sometimes spring, away. Sometimes I’m transported to childhood when I climb into a tree, as I often did as a girl.

Most often I’m transported to a realm of prayer. The branches curve overhead like a cathedral ceiling. The wind blows freely there, like the Spirit blowing where it will. The place feels alive with the spirit of the family who originally chose the spot and planted the trees; alive with the love of God that makes all growth possible; alive with the beautiful blending of divine Creation, human creativity, and hard work.

It is a way of going to another world for a while, and I always return more alive, more at peace, and more convicted of the presence of God in our world.

I’ve had friends tell me they don’t like going into woods.  They feel lost in the woods and think about snakes and other things and scenes from scary movies. For them, entering the woods requires courage.

For me, instead, the woods give me courage. They strengthen my heart and draw me closer to the One whose perfect love casts out all fear. At the same time, as with the pools in Lewis’s wood, they also require courage because time in the woods often brings a call to new realizations, opening up places in my mind and heart that need to change. This receiving and practicing courage is all part of having a heart and being open to growth, and my time in the woods is a gift; like Lucy’s cordial and Susan’s bow, my retreats have been like a special gift from Aslan for facing the battles of life.

Narnia and the Wars

Mrs. Helsten lived in Germany for six years just after World War II, along with many who went over to help after the devastation of the war. As a child, I thought of WWII as long ago and far away. The black and white pictures and films we saw made it seem so. Now I realize that Mrs. Helsten was only twenty-two when she went to Germany with her young husband. The war was for them a very present reality.

And now I know that C.S. Lewis was writing those stories during the very years that the Helstens lived in Germany. No doubt Mrs. Helsten knew this, and I wonder if she felt some connection to the books for that reason. Wars have a way of creating bonds.

As an adult, I experienced war as a present reality. War broke out in my husband’s homeland, Croatia, the very week that we flew over to begin our life together there. We lived through a long three-year “winter” of war, with air raid sirens, blackouts, bombs, refugees, and everything that war brings about.

The first time I watched the 2005 film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, with the children and their mother running for shelter as bombers flew over London, I realized I had completely forgotten the setting that originally sent the Pevensie children to the professor’s house. Now, however, watching it brings tears, and I see the whole set of books differently. And we know that Lewis’s experiences in WWI influenced his thinking about battles, good and evil, light and darkness, and the need for Aslan.

Susan and Courage for the Unseen War

As for Susan, as a child I had reasons to identify with her. While I wasn’t known for being beautiful, I did have long hair. I had an older brother, a younger sister, and a younger brother. My name began with “S,” and my sister’s began with “L.” Like many older sisters, I fell into a role of trying to figure things out and help others know what to do and how to do it, and attempting to keep peace in the family.

Naturally, I was dismayed to learn in The Last Battle that Susan had lost her belief in Narnia. At the time, it seemed impossible to me, terribly sad, and I think I felt some sense of, “Well, then I don’t want to be like Susan, if that’s the case. Because I could never do that!”

These days, however, when I think of Susan, I do so with compassion and hope.

I have certainly struggled with worldly attractions. Not so much “nylons and lipstick and invitations,” but things of the world that have pulled at me, opened my mind to doubts, and made it harder for my heart to be open to the world of faith and true beauty.

And maybe like Susan, at times I’ve been “too keen on being grown-up,” in the sense that I wanted to know and understand things beyond my grasp. A course in epistemology at a young age became a great challenge to my faith. An earnest friendship with an earnest atheist, begun with each hoping to change the other’s mind, did the same.

Painful experiences in adulthood  — living through that war among them — have caused great spiritual struggles with periods of doubt about, and distance from, that beautiful world embodied in the pecan grove and its possibilities. Doubts about God’s goodness. Fears of all kinds, inner battles that tore at the tissue of my heart and challenged any courage I could summon.

While pondering this essay, I came across a website where people were discussing Susan’s situation. Some of the discussion was hammering out details of who actually said what (e.g., it was Peter, not Aslan, who said Susan was no longer a friend of Narnia.) One woman, self-described as secular, saw Susan’s choice as an expression of liberation and considered all the hand-wringing of the others a needless shame. She assumed that Susan had become sexually available, based on the mention of nylons . . . which brings up the possibility that Susan could have had experiences not of her own choosing that led her to become so involved in physical beauty and popularity, some back story her family knew nothing about.

One commenter shared a view close to my own. With analysis of lines from the Chronicles themselves, and later letters written by Lewis, he made the point that while Susan is described as distracted by the world and no longer connected to the Narnia experiences, nothing Lewis wrote in the books says that this is a permanent situation for her.

The commenter quoted a letter by Lewis to a reader who asked why he’d written Susan out of the story. Lewis responded, “Not [because] I have no hope of Susan’s ever getting to Aslan’s country; but because I have a feeling that the story of her journey would be longer and more like a grown-up novel than I wanted to write.”

To another reader he wrote,The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there’s plenty of time for her to mend and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end.”

And the spiritual battles I’ve fought in my own life, how I’ve seen myself survive periods of doubt and distraction, give me hope for Susan and for all who struggle to believe.

Living through an actual war takes courage. I admire the courage of Mrs. Helsten and her husband even to go to Germany just after the war, knowing the devastation and despair they would be witnessing. I know that living in Croatia during the war tested my own courage greatly.

But it also takes courage to be in Susan’s place in the everyday world and to fight the inner battles required for returning to a place of openness and faith. In some ways, those battles may be harder. In a political war, everyone is going through it together, and as hellish as it is, there is some sense of solidarity in the experience.

Inner battles are often fought alone, at least much of the time, and fraught with fear. Fear of change. Fear of what others will think if we do change. Fear of failure if the change proves challenging. Fear of trusting God when we’ve been greatly hurt. We fight these battles on the battlefield of our mind and heart, which no one else can see. They call for great courage, and thankfully, God is good to send us comrades in arms when needed. But He often lets us struggle alone to grow us up and to help us learn how much we need others. He wants to increase not only our courage but also our fortitude, knowing we will need it as we persevere through the battles yet to come throughout our lives.

I’d like to believe that Susan one day happened upon another wardrobe, a lamppost, or maybe even a train station accident, and that a part of her heart remembered . . . yearned . . . and opened. As if Aslan himself were breathing on her, her mind and heart softened and came to life again, giving her courage to once again believe in and love the Lion and his land.

This is what I pray for the Susan’s I know and love, who have lost a precious friendship they once knew. I pray the same for all the parts of our hearts that need softening, reviving.

May they and I dare, with courage, to enter the woods, step into the water, and find the beautiful new world. May we live wholeheartedly, together, in Aslan’s country in the end.

The featured image, “St Edward’s Doors – Stow-in-the-Wold,” is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her glad permission for Cultivating.


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