The Lion, the Witch, and the Educational Value of C.S. Lewis

Joseph Pearce writes: This essay by high school sophomore, Sophie Stachurski, was entered for the Tolkien and Lewis Essay Contest which I direct in partnership with Homeschool Connections and Holy Apostles College. Although it wasn’t the overall winner, it is very well-written and perceptive and is on an education-related topic. For this reason, we’re publishing it here, not merely for the content of the essay itself but also as an illustration of the quality of Catholic education experienced by Miss Stachurski. 

My first encounter with C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia came when I was 7 years old. I ventured into the wardrobe with the Pevensie siblings in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. My second-grade teacher would read a chapter aloud to the class every day after recess, with the hope of encouraging us to continue reading outside of the classroom. Admittedly, I never actually continued the series past this book (I had been occupied by my recent discovery of Harry Potter) and didn’t have any outstanding motivation to return to Lewis’ famed world. This changed, however, when I entered high school. The books were once again being showcased by my teachers, but now for much different reasons. I quickly learned C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia can be utilized as a tool beneficial in teaching religion to high schoolers.

Lewis was well-known for inserting theological themes into his books, reflective of his own Christian beliefs and values. The Chronicles of Narnia is no exception. In a letter to a young fan, Lewis wrote the following:

The whole Narnian story is about Christ. That is to say, I asked myself, ‘Supposing that there really was a world like Narnia and supposing it had (like our world) gone wrong and supposing Christ wanted to go into that world and save it (as He did ours) what might have happened?

The series has been dissected and scoured by many in search for all of the many allegories of Christianity. Many of the characters and elements of the plot of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe were deliberately crafted and written in a way to parallel the life of Jesus Christ and his followers, thus making it the perfect introduction to the basic teachings of Christianity for young children. As a teenager, I feel Lewis’ work has allowed for me to grasp the depth behind Jesus’ mission of salvation and its deeply personal nature.

The true meaning behind Lewis’ books was initially introduced to me in my religion class during freshman year in a brief unit dedicated to exploring “Christ-Figures on Screen.” Lewis’ leonine character, Aslan, had been brought up as one of the first examples, and we briefly discussed his Resurrection and his role as Narnia’s savior. This came as a slight shock to me. I previously assumed that Aslan was simply meant to be the series’ token hero, not a major piece of a convoluted allegory. Later, each of the individual Pevensie siblings was looked at as metaphors for the various types of Christians. Although these details are perhaps obvious to readers familiar with Lewis’ strong belief, it certainly inspired in me a new and fleeting appreciation of the thought that went behind Lewis’ work. After the unit passed, Narnia once again fled from my mind until the following school year.

A few weeks into sophomore year, my religion teacher instructed us to begin reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Initially, I thought that we would be taking a respite from the textbook’s material, which was not the case. In contrast, we would be reading the book alongside the textbook. My teacher had previously made the claim that he could teach all the textbook’s contents using The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. To my surprise, this claim would hold true.

The first religious symbol within the novel we discussed was the temptation of Edmund with Turkish Delight, the latter being used as a symbol of sin. Prior to reading the chapter in which Edmund first encounters the White Witch, we learned about the capital sins, more popularly known as the “seven deadly sins.” In the case of Edmund, his decision to trust the villainous White Witch simply because of her promise of endless Turkish Delight is his passing through the gateway to further “sins.” Therefore, fueled by greed, gluttony, and a heavy dose of middle-child syndrome, Edmund allies himself with the White Witch, effectively betraying his siblings. Here, Lewis illustrates a prime example of the negative examples of giving into temptations, albeit the consequences of Edmund’s actions are slightly more dramatic. In this context, the White Witch acts as a simplified devil. She lures Edmund into her domain with false promises and dishonesty and opens the path for further disobedience.

It is easy to antagonize Edmund because of his poor choices, but to do that would be hypocritical. Out of all the Pevensie siblings, Edmund is the one whom all readers can identify with. Whereas the others are one-dimensionally good, Edmund struggles to follow the path of goodness. He makes bad decisions and allows himself to be influenced by people he shouldn’t, but so does the rest of humanity. Like Edmund, we can still find redemption. Aslan’s personal pardon of Edmund’s misdeeds serves as a much-needed reminder that Christ died for every individual’s sins. Rather than looking at Edmund as the weakest of the siblings, my teacher invited us to explore how we all have a little bit of “Edmund” in us.

Additionally, this scene can be used as a contrast to the Gospel story where Jesus resists the three temptations of the Devil in the desert. Whereas Christ succeeded, Edmund and the rest of us often fail. Still, even if we do succumb to the initial temptation of sin, we are not condemned for the rest of our lives. Soon after Edmund realizes he has been tricked by the White Witch, he desires to return to Aslan and his siblings. In order for him to do this, Aslan must sacrifice himself in Edmund’s place as is required by Narnia’s laws of Deep Magic. These details emphasize Aslan’s similarities to Christ as both Jesus and as the Passover sacrificial lamb. One of Christianity’s central doctrines, the Paschal Mystery, states that God has redeemed all people from sin and death through Jesus Christ’s Suffering, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension.

Lewis draws additional parallels to Jesus’ Paschal Mystery with the events preceding and following Aslan’s Death. For instance, in a unit dedicated to the Crucifixion of Jesus, my textbook goes through a series of events that took place prior to Jesus’ death, some of which include the Agony in the Garden, Jesus’ Condemnation by Pontius Pilate, and Simon of Cyrene’s assistance of Christ with the cross. As expected, there is a correlating scene within The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for each of these occurrences. Together as a class, my peers and I went through each event and searched for connecting scenes in the book. Through collaboration, we were able to compile a fairly lengthy list. For example, the scene where Aslan walks off into the woods before he is killed by the White Witch closely matches that of the Agony of the Garden. What’s more, in a parallel to Simon of Cyrene, he is then later joined by Lucy and Susan Pevensie, who walk with him as he approaches the Stone Table, the Narnian equivalent of Jesus’ cross. There are even more parallels contained in Aslan’s actual death. While on the Stone Table, Aslan is spat at and mocked by the White Witch’s followers, much like Jesus was by his opponents while he appeared before Pontius Pilate. Also, a muzzle is placed on Aslan in a fashion similar to that of Jesus’ crown of thorns.

When compared side-by-side, the separate contents accentuate and play off of each other. Incorporating The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe into lessons about Christ adds a new perspective to the Gospel stories frequently taught in a repetitive manner. Aslan’s quest to free all Narnians from the White Witch’s vicious reign reminds readers just how important Jesus’ act of salvation is. Simply listing out the sequence of events of the Resurrection does not have the same impact as presenting it alongside a triumphant tale of four siblings and a talking, Christ-like lion. By integrating C.S. Lewis into my religion class, my teacher has effectively created a more engaging way to teach the central messages of Catholicism

The journey of searching for religious symbols within The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has encouraged me and my classmates to further develop our critical reading skills and imagination. Even though Lewis includes more obvious elements that draw similarities between his series and Biblical themes, some require a more in-depth familiarity with the Gospel. Therefore, the background knowledge provided within many school-grade religion textbooks can provide students assistance in analyzing the symbols and metaphors for Christianity found within the novel’s text. Likewise, it is also necessary to employ one’s imagination when faced with a task such as this. Just as the Narnia series was born from Lewis’ imagination, we too must use ours when interpreting his works. All in all, identifying and studying the religious aspects found within the text of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe instills students with valuable critical reading experiences.

In addition to learning the content within the textbooks, prayer and meditation also comprise a major aspect of my religion class. This too has also been influenced by C.S. Lewis and was accomplished most notably through a project in which we were instructed to design our own Narnia character. Alongside a visual representation of the character, we had to submit answers to questions about our characters. The first required an imagined scene between the original character and Aslan. Previously, we had done a guided meditation in which we simulated a meeting with Christ. I found that what I had written in the project closely matched the experience I had during that meditation. To elaborate, my character, a siren named Esther, longed to join Aslan’s cause, but felt she couldn’t for a variety of reasons. In my meditation, I confronted the excuses I created for myself concerning my discipleship.

The inclusion of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe into my religion class’ curriculum proved to have a positive impact on both myself and the class a whole. The characters and events found in Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia serve as purposeful references to Christianity. These parallels have provided me with a strong reinforcement of the values taught by Christianity such as the personal relationship between us and God. By inserting the ideas of the Paschal Mystery into a fictional world, Lewis successfully highlights the importance of Catholic doctrine in an innovative and effective way.

SOPHIE STACHURSKI is a sophomore at Notre Dame High School in Fairfield, Conn., and lives in Trumbull. At school, Sophie plays lacrosse and volleyball and is involved in campus ministries. 

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