Lipstick on My Scholar
1: In the beginning....
The Devil I will leave strictly alone. The association between him and me in the public mind has already gone quite as deep as I would wish: in some quarters it has already reached the level of confusion, if not of identification. -- C.S Lewis "The Inner Ring"
According to the Bible, the first man and the first woman lived in a garden. God gave them only one rule:
"You are free to eat from any tree in the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it, you will surely die."
But there's also a Talking Beast in the garden(1). The Beast misquotes the rule, and thereby hugely extends YHWH's list of prohibited substances:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say 'You must not eat from any tree in the Garden?' "
You may eat of any tree except... You may not eat of any tree. The serpent knew that you only need to change a couple of words to turn a text on its head. He knew that in the presence of a misquotation, people very rarely go back and check the original. And he knew that if you repeat them often enough and confidently enough, the misquoted words will eventually become better known than the real ones.
2: Being for The Benefit of Mr Pullman.
Phillip Pullman writes books. Some children seem to like them, which is nice; and so do some adults, which is okay. His books are better written than J.K Rowling's, although they don't sell nearly so many copies.
J.K Rowling's books have been turned into hugely successful movies, with the result that she is richer than the Queen. Phillip Pullman's books have been turned into very serious plays by the English National Theater, with the result that he is admired by the Times Literary Supplement and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
"His Dark Materials" has been compared with C.S Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" because it is a serious tale with literary and mythological allusions which uses symbolism to deal with profound religious questions. "Harry Potter" has been compared with the "Chronicles of Narnia" because there are seven books in the series.
When people ask Phillip Pullman what he thinks of C.S Lewis he always gives the same answer:
"Susan isn't allowed into the stable and the reason given is that she's growing up. She's become far too interested in lipstick, nylons and invitations. One character says rather primly: 'She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown up.' This seems to me on the part of Lewis to reveal very weird unconscious feelings about sexuality. Here's a child whose body is changing and who's naturally responding as everyone has ever done since the history of the world to the changes that are taking place in one's body and one's feelings. She's doing what everyone has to do in order to grow up".
"And it is a god who hates life because he denies children life. In the final Narnia book he gives the children the end-of-term treat of being killed in a railway accident so they can go to heaven. It's a filthy thing to do. Susan is shut out from salvation because she is doing what every other child who has ever been born has done - she is beginning to sense the developing changes in her body and its effect on the opposite sex."
J.K Rowling doesn't dislike C.S Lewis and God nearly as much Phillip Pullman does. After all, her books outsell Lewis's and she's richer than God. But her comments about Narnia have an oddly familiar ring:
"There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She's become irreligious basically because she found sex...I have a big problem with that."
Recently, the newspapers have been talking about C.S Lewis, because there is a new movie coming out, starring New Zealand and a computer. These articles become rather repetitive after a while.
"The reason Lewis gives for (Susan's) exclusion from paradise is that "she likes lipstick and nlyons and invitations". To Pullman this has suggested that Lewis considered a girl reaching sexual maturity to be such a terrible thing she should be banished to hell." (Times)
"Pullman has often spoken of his disgust at the exclusion of Susan from paradise at the end of the stories. She has started to become, not a sexless angel, but a young woman interested in evil snares such as "nylons and lipsticks and invitations." (Independent)
It's clear that nylons and lipstick are the most important things about which C.S Lewis ever wrote, and the offending passage deserves the closest possible analysis. It occurs at the end of chapter 12 of "The Last Battle", which is the final book in the Narnia series regardless of what order you read them in. Seven of the protagonists from the previous books have been re-united in Aslan's country, which they have entered through a magical doorway in Narnia.
"Sir," said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. "If I have read the chronicles aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?"
"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 you 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 sight too keen on being grow-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."
"Well, don't let's talk about that now," said Peter.
Can you see what has happened?
Lewis: "She's interested in nothing except nylons and lipstick and invitation."
Pullman: She's become far too interested in nylons and lipstick and invitations.
Rowling: She's lost to Narnia because she likes lipstick
Times: She's excluded from paradise because she likes nylons and lipsticks and invitations.
Independent: She's interested in evil snares such as nylons and lipsticks and invitations.
The sin of "liking nothing except lipstick..." has become the sin of liking it too much, which has become the sin of liking it at all. Finally, lipstick has become an intrinsic evil. It's rather as if you had read "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and concluded that, since the White Witch uses Turkish Delight to bribe Edmund to betray his siblings, Lewis thinks that confectionery is a great evil.
Pullman, to be fair, is trying to make a sophisticated point. He doesn't say that, in the story itself, Susan's sexual maturity causes her to stop being a friend of Narnia. Rather, he thinks that the story allows us to to infer things about C.S Lewis's unconscious attitude to sex. This game - discovering feelings that writers didn't know they had on the basis of things they didn't say - is great fun, and anyone can play it. (There's is a bit-part player in "Prince Caspian" called Mrs Prizzle. Well then, the fact that Lewis chose this name proves that he had an unconscious desire to spank women using the penis of a bull (2). See how easy it is?)
But Rowling and the two journalists have not understood Pullman's subtle point about Lewis's unconscious motivations. They've reproduced his comments without going back and checking the book. As a result "Susan is sent to hell as a punishment for her sexuality" has become one of those things which "everybody knows".
Did God really say...? Did God really say....?
3: What did C.S Lewis say about lipstick?
Lady, a better sculptor far
Chiseled those curves your smudge and mar,
And God did more than lipstick can
To justify your mouth to man -- 'Epigrams and Epitaphs'
It is probably fair to say that Lewis did not spend much of his career thinking about lipstick. Women have been painting their mouths since ancient times; Desmond Morris helpfully points out that artificially reddened lips resemble a vagina and are therefore very sexually arousing to men. But modern "lipstick" was first sold in 1915, when Lewis was 17. Obviously, women's tights couldn't have been made from nylon until the 1930s; but once they became available, they were greatly preferred to the unattractive and inconvenient cotton variety. "Nylons" were hard to come by and therefore greatly sought after during the war and into the 1950s. (In the film "Vera Drake" one pair of nylons is swapped for eight packets of cigarettes.) Lewis must have regarded both of them as relatively new-fangled items.
Lewis may not have quite approved of women's make up in general. Arguing that something is not necessarily important because it is in a newspaper, he remarks in passing that "a very commonplace protest against make-up would be News if it came from a film star."("Letters to Malcolm" XXII) So he evidentially thought that disapproving of cosmetic products was a unremarkable thing to do.
Perhaps this simply shows that Lewis was a little old fashioned, and still believed, like his Victorian parents tthat make-up was appropriate for prostitutes and actresses, but not respectable women. But he also felt that the cosmetics and fashion industries "manipulated" men's sexual tastes and encouraged women to aspire to an imaginary idea of "beauty" that it's impossible to live up to.
It's all a fake, of course, the figures in the popular art are falsely drawn; the real women in bathing suits or tights are actually pinched in and propped up to make them appear firmer and more slender and more boyish than nature allows a full grown woman to be. ("Screwtape Letters" XX)
Feminists would probably agree with him about the falsification of women's bodies for commercial ends; although they might doubt whether the Devil is creating "the beauty myth" in order to stop people from marrying the partners with whom "spiritually helpful, happy and fertile marriages are most likely." (Screwtape is, incidentally, very proud of the fact that most women now dislike men with beards. "There is more in this than you might think." Occasionally, Lewis says something so off-the-wall that I actually can't imagine what he means.)
So, 'she likes lipstick and tights' doesn't mean 'she wants to look nice and attract men'. It means 'she wants silly, expensive, new-fangled consumer goods in order to conform with what the fashion industry says is pretty this season.' Do Pullman and Rowling have an – er – unconscious belief that the only way a person can make themselves look nice is by buying stuff? That would amuse Screwtape no end.
4: What did C.S Lewis say about heaven and hell?
"It's all in Plato; all in Plato, bless me what do they teach them in these schools." -- "The Last Battle".
Lewis believed in a literal heaven and (up to a point) a literal hell. He also believed in purgatory, but let's not worry about that for the time being. He thought that whenever you desire something on earth, you are really desiring heaven; but that nothing on earth can ever really satisfy that desire. He believed that if you love heaven more than anything else, you will in fact, go to heaven; but if you love anything more than heaven, then you won't.
The idea that we should desire heaven and nothing else could be very austere and puritanical. Pullman, typically, says that it is a life-hating creed. In fact, the opposite is true. Lewis can come across as almost cloyingly romantic. He rejects asceticism, the idea that they material world is evil and we should turn away from it and seek heaven. The material world is good, because it is heaven's reflection. His image of "visionary gleams" shining on us from another world is pure Wordsworth:
"There have been times when I think that we do not desire heaven; but more often I have found myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desire anything else?....All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it -- tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear.("The Problem of Pain" )
For Lewis, of course, these glimpses and promises came through Wagner, William Morris and the landscape of Southern Ireland; but he quite acknowledges that other people experience "joy" through different things -- through sport, or gardening, or hobbies such as woodworking or sailing. These are all Good Things. In "The Last Battle" it is strongly implied that Edmund is a railway enthusiast, and it isn't remotely suggested that this innocent pleasure is a barrier to him coming back to Narnia. They only become Bad Things when you start to love them instead of heaven. For Lewis, literally anything apart from heaven is an evil if it is allowed to become an end in itself, rather than the means to an end. The devil in Screwtape doesn't remotely care whether human beings are soldiers or pacifists, provided soldiering or pacifism become more important to them than heaven. Even love, according to Lewis, "ceases to a be a demon only when it ceases to be a God."
This idea is absolutely central to Lewis's thinking. You mustn't confuse means with ends; you mustn't confuse copies with realities; you mustn't confuse reflections for the original; you mustn't confuse a secondary, partial good with a primary or total good. "You can't get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first." The idea pops up over and over again in different forms. He says that classical Paganism was a Good Thing in so far as it was a reflection or shadow of Christianity; but a bad thing otherwise. He say that, as a little boy he used to snaffle his father's tobacco, and because he wasn't an experienced smoker, came away with the idea that cigars are a second rate substitute for cigarettes. He says that the human race is like an ignorant child preferring to carry on making mud-pies in a slum because he has no conception of what is meant by a holiday at the seaside.
"The woman who makes the dog the center of he life loses, in the end, not only her human useful and dignity but even the proper pleasures of dog-keeping. The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication ....If Esau really got the pottage in return for his birthright, then Esau was a lucky exception."
To be damned, then, means to turn away from heaven and instead pursue some little earthly substitute -- which can't, by definition, have satisfy you. Hell is populated by little people who have become so atrophied as human beings that they have become incapable of wanting any kind of happiness. On no possible view does Lewis send Susan to hell as a punishment for liking lipstick. He may, however, define hell as "That state in which you would rather have pretty red lips than be Queen of Narnia."
5: What happens to Susan?
"I think that there are in the end only two kinds of people: those who like happiness, and those who really don't"
It is untrue to say that Aslan expels Susan from Narnia. Susan isn't present at Polly and Diggory's re-union dinner; presumably, because she choses not to be there. Since she isn't there, she doesn't witness the the phantom of King Tirian calling for aid. Therefore, she doesn't play any part in the scheme to recover the magical rings; so the isn't on the train which crashes, so she doesn't die. Since she isn't dead she doesn't go to heaven.
It is also quite untrue to say that Susan is sent to hell. By the end of the book Narnia has come to an end, and all the Narnian talking animals have been judged by Aslan. Those which don't please him are turned into dumb beasts, and disappear into Aslan's shadow. This is a sort of Narnian last judgment. But there's no hint that Susan has met this kind of fate. Our world hasn't yet come to an end; and Susan is presumably still alive and will have every opportunity of coming to Aslan's country by a more circuitous route. (When Lucy asks Aslan if he will tell her how to get into his country from our world, he replies "I shall be telling you all the time".)
Susan is not blamed for becoming an adult. We are told that of the seven "friends", only Jill and Eustace are young enough to be at school. It follows that Lucy, the youngest of the Pevensies must be at least 16 when she comes to Aslan's country. In fact, according to Lewis's "Outline of Narnian History" Peter is 22, Susan is 21, Edmund is 19 and Lucy is 17. So Aslan can hardly be singling Susan out because she has hit puberty.
Certainly we are told that children beyond a certain age can't enter Narnia; this is why the younger Eustace and Jill encounter King Tirian in the "old" Narnia, but the other four only see him in Aslan's country(3). However, this exclusion from Narnia does not represent any kind of punishment or loss of paradise. On the contrary, they are being sent back to their own world to learn to know Aslan under a different name and so find their way back to his country. (Lucy, incidentally, has taken this seriously: when she is shown the magic stable which in some way contains Aslan's country she immediately says "In our world too, a stable once had something in it that was bigger than the whole world": the only explicit reference to Christ in the whole saga.)
Granted, Jill says that Susan is "too keen on being grown up." (Not "grown up" or "keen on being grown up" but too keen on being grown up.) But Jill is herself still a child. Polly, a very old lady, corrects her immediately and says Susan's problem is not maturity but immaturity. ("Grown-up, indeed... I wish she would grow up.") Polly thinks that Susan was the kind of school girl who would rather have been in her 20s, and will carry on behaving like a 20 year old when she is 50.
So, we are left with the actual reasons that Lewis gives for Susan's absence from Aslan's country:
1: She denies that she ever really came to Narnia; she says that her experiences there were only part of a game that she and her siblings used to play as children.
2: She is interested in consumer beauty products and parties to the exclusion of everything else.
3: She is an air-head, fixated with staying at a "silly age", probably 21.
Susan has lived in Narnia; she has reigned as Queen of Narnia during its golden age. She and Lucy have had an intimacy with Aslan that ever Peter does not experience(4). She comforted Aslan during his agony before going to the Stone Table, and he let her stroke his mane. After his resurrection, she celebrated with him and he let her ride on his back. However, she now denies that any of this ever happened, and instead seeks joy exclusively through beauty products. Pullman wants us to believe that "Susan became interested in lipstick, and is therefore thrown out of Narnia." I think Lewis is really saying "Susan ceased to love Narnia, and therefore, became a pathetic figure -- a woman of 50, trying to be a girl of 21, capable of loving nothing apart from lipstick."
Susan is committing Lewis's cardinal sin: getting confused about what is real and what not. She choses to believe that Narnia is only a play-world, something which she and her three siblings made up. This reminds us of the scene in "The Silver Chair" where the Witch imprisons Prince Rillian in a cave and tries to convince him that there is nothing outside it: that Narnia was only ever a figment of his imagination. Indeed, there is a certain similarity between Susan's voice and that of the Witch:
'What wonderful memories you have! Fancy you still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'
'Well, 'tis pretty make-believe thou to say truth it would suit you all better if you were younger. And look how you can put nothing into your make believe without copying it from the real world, this world of mine, which is the only world. As for you, My Lord Prince, thou art a man full grown. Fie upon you! Art thou not ashamed of such toys."
Prince Rillian is saved by Puddlegum who tells him that even if the Witch is right "the made up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones." Whether anyone wakes up Susan, we don't know.
Susan's state of mind is also an an ironic inversion of that of Peter and the others. Peter has discovered that Narnia is "not really real"; in the sense that it is only a shadow or reflection of the real Narnia in Aslan's kingdom. Susan thinks that Narnia is "not real", in the sense that it is something made up or copied from the real world. For Peter, Narnia is "not real" because there is something more substantial above it; for Susan is is "not real" because it was only ever a fantasy. Susan thinks that Narnia was "just a story"; from the point of view of Aslan's country, our world and Narnia are both just the first page of a story which is now beginning.
You might compare Susan's and Peter's perspectives to the contrasting viewpoints of "allegory" and "symbolism" suggest by "Lewis" in "The Allegory of Love". The allegorist takes something in a story to point to something in the world outside the story. ("The dragon represents the Spanish Armada"). The symbolist takes something in the real world to point to something outside it, ("The Pelican is a symbol of God's love.") "To the symbolist, it is we who are the allegory."
Lewis's parable is intended to provoke a response. Parables often work like that. They don't so much instruct us try to provoke us into seeing the point for ourselves. We listen to this part of the story and say – don't be absurd. No-one, having run their hands through Aslan's mane, could possibly decide that they prefer parties. Yes they could, says the story teller – and every day people give up heaven for equally trivial reasons -- sex, booze, money, power...
Even readers who don't share Lewis's conviction that there is a source of "joy" outside of the material world can surely go some way with him on this point. Doesn't most of the human race spend most of its time giving away things which they know will make them happy in return for things which they know will not?
6: ....and Finally.
At the end of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe", the Pevensie children are crowned kings and queens of Narnia. For many years, they govern it along Tory lines:
They made good laws and kept the peace and saved good trees from being cut down, and liberated young dwarfs and young satyrs from being sent to school, and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged ordinary people who wanted to live and let live....And they themselves grew and changed as the years passed over them."
Peter becomes a "deep chested man and a great warrior". Edmund is a "graver and quieter man". And as for Susan -- the Susan who Lewis wants to keep as an infantilised, asexual angel; the Susan who Lewis blames for wanting to look pretty and damns for becoming sexual:
Susan grew into a tall and gracious woman with black hair that fell almost to her feet, and the king of the countries beyond the sea began to send ambassadors asking for her hand in marriage.
Game, set and match, I think
A word from the author
Hello, fellow Narnians....
I wrote this essay more than a decade ago; it's by far the most-read thing I've ever written.
If you've enjoyed it, can I encourage you to have a look round the rest of this site. I'm currently writing an experimental commentary on Marks Gospel; before that I wrote about Spider-Man for two years!
I am a semi professional writer, and writing of this kind is part of my livelihood. So if you have enjoyed this essay or used it in your own academic work, please consider giving a very small amount of money to keep me in tea and Turkish delight.
You could either make a one off donation here:
Or, even better, you could pledge $1 or $2 dollars for each essay I write in the future, here
Thank you for your support.
(1) Genesis does not say that the Serpent is Satan; although certain New Testament passages imply that he is. Much depends, therefore, on the order in which you chose to read the books of the Bible.
(2) No, seriously. See "The Skeleton in the Wardrobe" by David Holbroke. This book also proves that Aslan is an unconscious portrait of the sadistic schoolteacher described in "Surprised by Joy". Oldie had a beard; Aslan has a mane. Q.E.D (I will grant you that "Pizzle" is the dialect term used in "Tess of the D'Urbevilles" to describe the "characteristic part" of a male pig.)
(3) If we go by the ages in the "Outline", then 13 would seem to be the cut off point: since Edmund and Lucy are 10 and 12 at the end of "Dawn Treader" when they learn that they are becoming too old to return to Narnia. (Peter and Susan, who missed that trip, are 14 and 15.) But this makes Eustace a full 4 years younger than Lucy, which is hard to reconcile with the rest of "Dawn Treader."
(4) My forthcoming book "The Cair Paravel Code" will conclusively prove that Lucy was Aslan's consort and the mother of his cubs.