My mother read The Chronicles of Narnia to my brother and me at night, while the four of us—my father half-listening while reading a novel of his own—lay on my parent’s enormous bed. I remember such strong emotion. When we got to The Last Battle, the final installment, I felt warm affection for the foolish donkey Puzzle, grief at the fall of Narnia, sharp frustration at the dwarves who couldn’t see the truth of a remarkable feast set before them.
As a parent myself, now, and a teacher and an Anglican priest, I’ve been revisiting the Lewis of my childhood. What did I learn in Narnia? Did the stories of the Pevensie children encourage me towards virtue? More importantly, through loving Aslan was I better prepared to love Jesus?
According to a new character curriculum, Narnian Virtues, the Narnia stories can powerfully move, mold, and direct young readers. Designed by education professors Mark Pike and Thomas Lickona, the curriculum teaches “universal virtues” to children ages 10 to 14 using The Chronicles of Narnia. It is supported in part by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation and has been taught at a variety of schools, both secular and Christian, as part of a pilot program designed to test the possibility of teaching virtue in Narnia.
This program is not aimed at mere “behavior management,” according to the educators. Rather, it is designed to teach students “to know the good, to love the good, and to do the good” based on the belief that “the Narnia novels have the capacity to motivate a wide range of readers to make efforts to develop the will as well as the skill needed for good character.”
The pilot program’s qualitative results show the curriculum has a positive impact. Many students describe increased self-awareness of their actions and a desire to grow in virtue. The quantitative data is less clear. Lickona characterized the results as meaningful but ultimately modest—“statistically significant” but not necessarily “educationally significant” changes. Assessments show gains in knowledge of virtue. But the quantitative results are more ambiguous when it comes to doing good and loving good. The impact on the head is clear; on hand and heart, less so.
Perhaps the key word is capacity. As Pike and Lickona write, the head-heart-hand model of character education requires a curriculum that instructs, inspires, and guides students in virtue. While the novels surely have the capacity to motivate readers towards good character, whether they will or not is much more tenuous. It may depend less on curriculum and more on context: teachers and their classrooms and schools, students and their families and churches. Taken alone, no curriculum—not even one as thoughtful and faithful as Narnian Virtues—can create a virtue-forming school environment.
One of my colleagues at The Covenant School in Charlottesville, Virginia, recently demonstrated to me how powerful and transformative teaching literature can be. He had a class of ninth graders reading Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. A character in the story spends his long imprisonment making shoes. In the many hours at his shoe bench, he also fashions a “false self,” that allows him, my colleague told his students, to “literally forget who he is.” The character remains mentally imprisoned, even when he becomes physically free.
My colleague used the story as a tool for character formation, prompting students to “see if we have any shoe benches of our own.” Almost all identified some form of technology or social media as a personal “shoe bench,” a site of distraction that feels liberating but ultimately worsens their anxieties.
The student response was remarkably fruitful. Students I interviewed described concrete steps they took to live in greater freedom from social media—deleting accounts, giving up smartphones, and challenging others to do the same.
Stories invite self-reflection—but indirectly. As we enter into the lives of literary characters, we may come to see our own struggles more clearly. Their stories bypass our self-exonerating justifications. Guided by a wise teacher, this can lead to character formation.
Narnian Virtues offers similar possibilities. The most compelling lesson plans prompt students to examine their own shortcomings in discussions of episodes in The Chronicles of Narnia.
One activity, titled “What’s Your Turkish Delight?” draws on Edmund’s encounter with the White Witch and his subsequent addiction to her enchanted candy. Edmund’s inability to see the witch for who she is and his vulnerability to manipulation are partly a result of his youth. The deeper cause, however, is his flawed character. His malformation led to trivial cruelty in England; in Narnia it leads to disaster.
Edmund pursues Turkish Delight single-mindedly, betraying his own family and nearly destroying himself in the process. The image is suggestive of drug addiction, and so it is both striking and unsurprising that students, when asked to identify their own “Turkish Delight” in the pilot programs, frequently pointed to “the use of mobiles phones and the Internet.” The curriculum then guides students to collaborate with their families to develop strategies for personal improvement.
Pike and Lickona insist that character formation is not necessarily religious. They note that the curriculum has been taught in American public schools, where the reigning interpretation of the First Amendment disallows religious education.
Perhaps Lewis, who did not think that moral law was an exclusively Christian affair, would agree with them. Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis and a consultant on the character curriculum, told me that The Chronicles of Narnia are not explicitly Christian—“there’s nothing that requires a Christian reading of the books.” Likewise, he said, Narnian Virtues is not a religious curriculum, but “a project about ethics.”
Pike agrees. Schools, he says, should “distinguish between being good and being Christian,” and the Narnian Virtues curriculum aims to make students good. The designers do recognize that the Narnia books are incomplete when read entirely apart from Lewis’s Christian imagination. The curriculum points out textual links to Christian doctrines where relevant, and supplemental material for Christian education provides a Christian reading of each novel.
There are obvious theological resonances. Aslan’s substitutionary atonement in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for example, follows Edmund’s embrace of the White Witch's offer of kingship—a temptation which mirrors the serpent’s offer in the Garden of Eden that “ye shall be as gods” (Gen. 3:5, KJV).
These allusions reflect Lewis’s deeper Christocentric theology. Just as Jesus drew a range of reactions throughout the gospels, so too does Aslan provoke not only love and devotion, but also fear, confusion, and even hate. According to Ward, “Lewis was fascinated by the fact that identical phenomena could be perceived in diametrically opposite ways.” Those obstinate dwarves drinking wine but tasting only brackish water, who so frustrated me as a child, are just one example. They cannot experience Aslan’s good feast because they will not submit to Aslan.
In Narnia, you cannot love the good without loving he who is goodness. To rightly perceive the gifts of God is to rightly perceive God. Conversely, to reject his gifts is to reject him. At the end of the day, this is really what it means for Narnia to be, as the curriculum designers say, a “morally serious” universe.
In Narnia, character formation in and of itself is an incomplete good. Consider Eustace’s narrative arc in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Of all the characters, Eustace alone experiences the voyage as misery rather than adventure. A liar, whiner, and thief, he is repugnantly selfish and resolutely self-righteous until he awakes to find himself transformed into a dragon—the result of his “dragon-ish thoughts and behaviours,” the Narnian Virtues curriculum notes. The “transformation” does not ultimately change him; rather, it reveals his true character. He has become externally what he already was internally, “a monster cut off from the whole human race,” as Lewis puts it.
Eustace faces up to the truth of who he is and so begins to change. He becomes less dragonish as a dragon than he was as a boy. As Ward says, Eustace is “nicer as a sinner who knows he’s a sinner than he was as a sinner who didn’t know he was a sinner.”
But being good does not save him. Eustace needs Aslan’s claws to tear away his scales, and he needs a baptismal immersion of sorts to be remade a boy. At the same time, though, his character transformation prepares him to accept Aslan’s aid. This is perhaps what our Lord meant in saying that the sown Word of God takes root only in fertile soil—which is “an honest and good heart” (Lk. 8:15, KJV).
Loving the good prepares one to love Jesus, just as loving Jesus entails loving goodness. The forgiveness of sin that makes us right with God leads inextricably to our final end—eternal delight in and worship of he who is. Character formation can’t be neatly separated from religious reorientation. And The Chronicles of Narnia, inasmuch as they can be powerful educational tools, are also means of grace.
The Narnia stories endure primarily because they are delightful stories, but in hindsight I see that part of the delight—part of what made the characters so engaging and the adventures so riveting—flows from Lewis’ understanding of human character. The adventures rivet because they are so consequential for the adventurers: not only their physical lives but their moral character and indeed their eternal destinies hang in the balance. The characters engage most profoundly not when good characters battle evil ones, but when good and evil war within the persons themselves.
In Narnia we find embodied the baffling mystery of the human condition—the gospel truth of our genuine freedom and desperate need. In Narnia we learn that we cannot save ourselves, but we can accept a savior. Above all, in Lewis’s stories we find an image of a king—not safe but good, not tame but beautiful. As our children come to love Aslan, may they thereby learn better to love the true King.
Mark Perkins is ordained in the Anglican Province of America and serves as a priest at St. Alban’s Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida. He taught at The Covenant School in Charlottesville, Virginia for nine years and is also executive editor of Earth & Altar.