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Briton Rivière's Una and the Lion

A Lion’s Courage

Each period of elementary art that I teach begins with a story. Depending on the classroom setting, either a candle or a special lamp is lit. A song or two may be sung to help students transition into the circle. Beeswax modeling clay is distributed to help the students focus with their minds while working with their hands. And then the story begins.

On a good day, the story is so captivating to the group that there is no chatter, no popping up from their seat to poke their friend’s shoulder, no somersaulting on the rug or requesting to go to the bathroom again thirty seconds after they’ve come back. But of course, for most elementary age children, that’s a lot to ask – and so we do the best we can, good days and less-good days.

A few weeks before we all left campus for an indefinite amount of time, I finished reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to my Pre-K Art class. It took us most of the year to read, since on a good day we averaged about 4-6 pages per day. With art classes only twice a week, you can understand what a lengthy undertaking such a book can be. But children have incredible memories, if helped a little by reminders, and my students were in large part able to keep track of the story across all those months. (The one narrative challenge they seemed to face was in keeping Tumnus the Faun separate from Thomas the Train – who, despite all their insistence, never actually appears in The Chronicles of Narnia.)

The day we read chapter 14 was a good day, and one that I’ve thought of several times since. Chapter 14, if you don’t remember off the top of your head, is called “The Triumph of the Witch.” It is the chapter in which Lucy and Susan watch as the White Witch and every kind of evil creature Lewis could imagine seem to defeat Aslan, the great Lion. The chapter ends with the image of the Witch raising her knife above him, and cuts to black as the two young girls close their eyes to block the killing out. It is a long, horrible chapter, and I had felt a growing nervousness in myself as we approached it week by week. I wondered if my students would understand it and what they would think of it. I wondered what they would ask, if anything. 

We read all ten pages of the chapter that day, and the students were so quiet that they barely seemed to be breathing. One of them laughed nervously when the evil beings mockingly call Aslan “pussy cat,” but when none of the other students laughed, his face relaxed again into earnest listening. When I read the last sentence, the room was quiet, and all eyes were on mine.

“Please raise your hand if you have a question,” I said – my usual practice of encouraging them to think about what they have just heard.

One boy raised his hand. “Do you think Aslan was afraid?”

“That’s a good question,” I responded. “What do you think?”

He thought for a good five or ten seconds, and the rest of the group watched him while he did. Finally he said, in that thoughtfully profound tone that only four year olds can get away with, “I don’t think he was. I think he knew that it’s going to be okay.”

I was struck by this, and wanted to know whether this student already knew the story – if he already knew that Aslan came back, that he had been in control the entire time. I asked the student if he had heard the story before.

“No,” he continued. “But Aslan’s very brave.”

It was at this point that the group’s ability to listen quietly ran out, as it will do, even on the best of days. I moved on to the day’s activity, but have continued to think about my student’s words since then. I thought of them in the days of uncertainty before school closures were announced, and I’m thinking of them now, as we teachers prepare for an unknown period of online teaching. 

“No, but Aslan’s very brave.” 

My student didn’t know how the book would end, but he had picked up on the strength of courage manifested by Lewis’ lion, and he trusted it. He knew that Aslan’s goodness could not be defeated, even when it seemed that all the darkness in the world was set against it.

We are living and working in uncertain times. None of us knows exactly how long it will be until schools and businesses reopen, or until quarantine and travel restrictions are lifted. But if the great books teach us anything – and of course they do – it’s that Goodness always persists. And if there is one lesson above all that we teachers and newly “homeschooling” parents should pass on to our students right now, let it be that: Goodness always persists. It is not surprised by attacks, whether of a physical or spiritual nature. Aslan was in control while bound on the Stone Table, and the King on which Aslan was based is in control now. Let us be so focused on His strength, goodness and provision that fear will have no foothold. As my student drew certainty from a lion’s courage, may our children draw certainty from ours.