When you read The Chronicles of Narnia as a child, it is easy to get swept up in the talking animals, Deep Magic, and the evil Queen Jadis and her plots to rule the world. However, if you return to the world that C.S. Lewis built as an adult, some of the more troubling aspects quickly crowd to the forefront. For many, chief among them is the treatment of Susan Pevensie. In the final book, The Last Battle, most of the children who had spent time in Narnia — as kings and queens or otherwise — are invited back to Aslan’s Country, in the end, to live out their days. Noticeably absent is Susan Pevensie, formerly the Gentle, who did not end up in the magical afterlife with her siblings.
“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 grown-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. “Look! Here are lovely fruit-trees. Let us taste them.”
And with a nod to the ever pervasive Garden of Eden, the Pevensie children move on from their formerly beloved sister without a second thought. With Lewis, the Christian idea of “being in the world but not of it” was threaded throughout every Narnian tale, and Susan was thusly cast out for, well, behaving like an actual human being. The idea that she is no longer worthy of leadership because she dared dabble in a little vanity and traditionally “feminine” things is, to say the least, more than a bit problematic. Neil Gaiman’s short story “The Problem Of Susan” grapples with Lewis’s narrative choice, challenging readers to examine how they really feel about one of Narnia’s Queens being shut out at the eleventh hour.
The idea of the Good And Blameless (i.e. Virginal) Queen has been pervasive in the fantasy genre since the beginning. Hell, the actions of Guinevere bring Camelot to a less-than glorious end and earn her a one-way ticket to a nunnery. It is all too common that female characters aren’t allowed any sort of moral complexity. It is the Virgin and Whore dichotomy time and time again; women can only be wholly “good,” otherwise they are cast out.
Enter The Magicians. (Full disclosure: I have not read Lev Grossman’s books yet. They’re on my To Be Read list, but life is busy and there are a lot of books.) Over the course of three seasons, the SYFY [parent to SYFY WIRE] show has developed into not only a genuinely fun take on magic but a nuanced character study. In the last season, no one grew more as a person than High King Margo (Summer Bishil). As she settled into her role as ruler of Fillory, Margo shed her petty mean girl persona in order to make the difficult decisions necessary when you’re in charge of a magical kingdom. However, the qualities that made her Margo from the start remained: ambition, cunning, glamour, and more than a little selfishness. However, despite the fact that these traits that would have disqualified her from glory in earlier genre tales, Margo manages to save her kingdom (at least temporarily) and become the ruler that Fillory needs in such turbulent times, with the seemingly encroaching terror of the faeries and the volatile nature of magic and its absence. Plus, the woman can rock an eye patch like no other.
How many male heroes have made the difficult choices and edged closer to the title of “anti-hero” while still managing to be seen as great — but maybe not good — men? Women who embodied shades of gray are almost always shunted to the status of villain instead of being seen as the multifaceted individuals, a status awarded to male protagonists in fantasy and beyond. However, we want more than just Strong Female Characters. We want complex ones.
Putting female characters up on impossible pedestals is just another version of denying true representation. As much as I may have wanted to be Lucy Pevensie as a child — a viceless angel who was allowed entrance into Narnia at the end of it all — I see myself and the women that I know in characters like Margo. Women can be more than one thing. Leaders. Sinners. Fashion plates. Champions. Failures. Queens.
While The Magicians is obviously intended for a more adult audience than the likes of Narnia, this tension remains. Why is it so rare that women can be fully formed characters in fantasy instead of the pure ciphers who exist merely for the quests of men or to be paragons of chastity and goodness? There is room for the more stereotypically good characters to remain (everyone needs a precious cinnamon roll or two to root for) while also opening up a realm of possibilities in story-telling development.
The Magicians' Margo embodies the qualities that Susan was banished for. Sex, lipstick, and complex morality are no longer disqualifications for a female ruler in genre. Instead of being left behind alone to identify the broken bodies of her siblings (seriously, Susan’s story is so dark when you really consider it), Margo gives us a woman who isn’t punished for her flaws. They only make her more human.