Linda Dey explores the connection between good stories and the instilling of virtue.
Reading Time: 6 minutes

At the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the four children, now mature rulers in Narnia, are hunting a White Stag which leads them to the lamp post where all their adventures in Narnia began. In spite of their foreboding that “strange adventures or some great change” in their fortunes will come if they pass the lamp post, they decide to continue following the White Stag. Peter makes the case for this course of action: “…never since we four were Kings and Queens in Narnia have we set our hands to any high matter, as battles, quests, feats of arms, acts of justice, and the like, and then given over.” This argument convinces even fearful Susan who says, “Let us go on and take the adventure that shall fall to us.”

It’s no accident that the word adventure is repeated twice more in the closing paragraphs of the book. C. S. Lewis the philologist is fully aware that the word adventure, from the Latin ad venire, means literally “that which comes to us.” And what is it that comes when the children pass the lamp post? What comes is the children’s return to their own world and the adventure of living in that world with a new vision given to them by their time in Narnia.

What has Lewis done here? He has given us a picture of what good stories can do. In his essay “Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings” Lewis writes:

The value of myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the ‘veil of familiarity’; by putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves. This book applies the treatment not only to bread or apple but to good and evil, to our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys. By dipping them in myth we see them more clearly.

Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, as stand-ins for all children coming to the end of the final chapter of a good story, return to World War II England more able to see the challenges, difficulties, and choices before them as “high matters – battles, quests, feats of arms, and acts of justice” that require of them the same fortitude, magnanimity, and sense of justice they have learned to exercise in Narnia.

Children (and adults) need stories to show them how to fulfill their part in the Story. Each of us is a character in this real Story. What being in Narnia did for the Pevensie children can be done for anyone by the reading of a good book. Children can learn what virtue and vice look like through stories. Exhortation to act virtuously is important and good as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough; it does not touch the heart and fire the imagination in the way that Peter’s slaying of the wolf Maugrim in order to rescue his sister does. Sir Philip Sydney makes this point in his Apology for Poetry. In an article on Tolkien’s moral vision Donald T. Williams paraphrases and quotes Sydney:

So the philosopher has the precept, and the historian has the example—but ‘both, not having both, do both halt.’ They stumble and fall short
of the ultimate goal of education: inspiring and enabling virtuous action on the part of the reader himself. But look, says Sydney, at what the poet can do: ‘Now doth the peerless Poet perform both. For whatsoever the Philosopher saith should be done, [the Poet] giveth a perfect picture of it in someone by whom he presupposeth it was done…a perfect picture, I say, for he yieldeth to the powers of the mind an image of that whereof the Philosopher bestoweth but a wordish description, which doth neither strike, pierce, nor possess the sight of the soul so much as the other doth.’ Literature, then, has the serious moral purpose of providing role models that help us form the ideals and aspirations we live by; it achieves this purpose through concrete images of virtue and vice.

Virtue and vice are best understood in the context of a narrative. Characters in good stories who act with courage or perseverance provide children with a vision of goodness. They help counter what Peter Kreeft calls one of the chief heresies of our age: “the dullness of goodness and the beauty of badness.” Exposure to good stories also helps children understand that they inhabit a story and that their individual choices and actions are part of a narrative which gives those actions meaning and their lives a sense of purpose.

In After Virtue Alasdair MacIntyre makes the point that our lives are “enacted narratives.”

…man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal…But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’ We enter human society, that is, with one or more imputed characters—roles into which we have been drafted—and we have to learn what they are in order to be able to understand how others respond to us and how our responses to them are apt to be construed. It is through hearing stories of wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance on riotous living and go into exile to live with the swine, that children learn or mislearn both what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.

As Christian teachers we must help our students see and understand the Story of which they are a part. The modern world tells us that we are self-created, autonomous beings who write our own stories and who can be whatever we want to be. There are no “roles into which we have been drafted.” This is meant to be a message of freedom, but it is actually a source of alienation and a route to meaninglessness; nonetheless, this message permeates our culture and works against the culture of virtue we are trying to provide in our schools.

As belief in moral absolutes disappeared at the end of the 19th century, what some have called a culture of character was replaced by a culture of personality and a new view of what it means to be a person came into being. In the culture of character people understood themselves as essentially moral beings and, as David Wells explains in Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision, the growth of the person was understood in terms of “virtue to be learned and practiced and private desires to be denied.” Character formation through training in virtues was a central goal of education. Virtues were seen as moral absolutes to which people were meant to conform. The culture of personality has overturned this understanding of who we are. No longer is the focus on moral virtues to be cultivated; the focus is now on
one’s image which can be fashioned. Life becomes a performance, a self-created narrative, in which people seek to look good and make themselves appealing to others. In the culture of personality there is no fixed or objective view of what a person is meant to be beyond what one makes of himself. We write our own stories and model ourselves after celebrities who have successfully created appealing images. Ken Myers in analyzing this phenomenon says: “The culture of celebrity and personal performance which permeates our society is profoundly destructive. It’s not just that being well-known for simply being well-known (in Daniel Boorstin’s classic formulation) is a thin and vapid achievement. More fundamentally disordering is the way in which the deeply sensed notion of ‘identity as performance’ promoted in the culture of celebrity undercuts the very idea of reality or real life; more than the work of nihilistic philosophers, the prominence of performers in our society nudges us toward referring to ‘reality’…rather than to Reality…In a culture of celebrity and performance the existence of reality becomes dubious and persons aspire to be desirable commodities.”

This, of course, is not surprising when people insist on creating their own reality. What has been lost is the Reality that we are all players in a narrative which we did not write for ourselves. We are created beings and the Creator is the Author of our story, a story which began with the Creation of the world, a story in which we each have a unique part to play. This understanding gives meaning and purpose to our choices and individual actions. It can motivate us and our children to persevere through hardship for the sake of a higher good. And best of all, the Author has already told us how the story ends; we know it has a wildly happy ending.

Children need stories; stories are not frills to be fit in somewhere after the grammar, math, history, and science are attended to. Good stories are food for their souls. Be careful not to kill and dissect the stories; C. S. Lewis warns us against efforts to teach children to appreciate good literature. That’s not our job; they need to discover a love for stories on their own. Create an environment that encourages reading stories; read to them; show them how much you love to read and help them become lovers of stories. And most important, be sure they know the Great Story of which they are a part. Help them come to understand that they have an important role, just as David, Esther, and Daniel did, in an adventure story in which virtuous actions matter.

As Bilbo says to Frodo near the beginning of The Lord of the Rings: “Do adventures ever have an end? I suppose not. Someone else always has to carry the story.”