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Aslan's Breath—The Creation of Narnia and the Ruach Elohim

By Matthew Dickerson

A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it.

Thus begins the creation of Narnia, told in C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew. I was thinking about this creation passage recently as I was finishing up my own book, Aslan’s Breath, about Lewis’s portrayal of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, in his Narnia stories. There are, I believe already trinitarian hints in the opening of this creation narrative. Aslan will soon appear in his incarnate form as a lion—a particular physical creature existing within his created world—but at this moment the creative presence is omnipresent, seeming “to come from all directions at once.” And when I read the imagery of a deep voice speaking without words, I think also of Paul’s description in Romans 8:26 of the Spirit interceding for God’s people with “groanings too deep for words” as the NAS translates the passage.

Note that ruach, the Hebrew word used for “spirit”, can also mean “wind” or “breath”. The Biblical creation account in Genesis 1:2 speaks of the ruach elohim, usually translated as the Spirt of God, as with the NIV translation which tells us that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the deep.” But that phrase can also be translated as the wind of God, and thus the CEB renders the passage: “God’s wind swept over the waters.”  Similarly, the New Testament word pneuma can also be translated as spirit, breath, or wind. Thus it isn’t surprising that Jesus uses wind as a metaphor for the Holy Spirit in his famous dialogue with Nicodemus (John 3:8), and when he imparts the Holy Spirit to his disciples (John 20:21-22) he breathes upon them. 

As the account of the creation of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew continues, we find the imagery of both wind and breath, which also seems to point us to the Holy Spirit. Indeed, throughout the scene, the narrator twice describes the wind moving over the newly created world as Aslan continues to sing that world and its creatures into existence.

Far away, and down near the horizon, the sky began to turn grey. A light wind, very fresh, began to stir. The sky, in that one place, grew slowly and steadily paler. You could see shapes of hills standing up dark against it. All the time the Voice went on singing. . . . And as he walked and sang the valley grew green with grass. It spread out from the Lion like a pool. It ran up the sides of the little hills like a wave. In a few minutes it was creeping up the lower slopes of the distant mountains, making that young world every moment softer. The light wind could now be heard ruffling the grass. 

If we keep Genesis 1:2 in mind, the imagery here seems to point both to God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity (in the imagery of the Lion), and also to the Holy Spirit present both in the fresh wind of God, and perhaps even earlier in the voice speaking in utterances too deep for words. 

And then, when we come to Aslan giving to creatures the gift of speech and—I believe—of spirituality and the ability to love, in addition to the imagery of wind we get also the breath of Aslan himself and the imagery of fire, which is yet another symbol associated with the Holy Spirit in the New Testament (Matthew 3:11, Acts 2:3).

At last [Aslan] stood still and all the creatures whom he had touched came and stood in a wide circle around him . . . . The Lion opened his mouth, but no sound came from it; he was breathing out, a long, warm breath; it seemed to sway all the beasts as the wind sways a line of trees. . . . Then there came a swift flash like fire (but it burnt nobody) either from the sky or from the Lion itself, and every drop of blood tingled in the children’s bodies, and the deepest, wildest voice they had ever heard was saying: “Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.” 

Moving past the imagery to the implications, I think we could make at least three important points about Lewis’s narrative—which, indeed, reflects the Biblical creation narrative of the first two chapters of Genesis and the first chapter of John’s gospel. First, the universe is not a purposeless result of random causes; it is the result of a creative act; it is intentional, meaningful, teleological. Second, it is an act of love. Indeed, the first command Aslan gives his creatures after awaking them is the command to love; they are to love in imitation of their creator who made them and the world in which they live as an act of love. And a third thing we see is that the Spirit is here, present throughout creation, and throughout history. Perhaps the most simple way to phrase this is that the created physical world has spiritual significance: the significance of the Holy Spirit.

The way Lewis suggests we ought to respond to this knowledge may be most clearly seen in the contrast between Frank, who becomes the first king of Narnia, and the characters of Uncle Andrew and Jadis. When Digory first meets Jadis, Jadis recounts her story of destroying her own world of Charn rather than let her sister rule it. Digory replies by asking, “But the people? All the ordinary people who’d never done you any harm. And the women, and the children, and animals.” Jadis replies, “Don’t you understand? I was the Queen. They were all my people. What else were they there for but to do my will?”  Jadis doesn’t see the world as having any spiritual significance. To her the world—including even its creatures—is just a collection of resources to be used, consumed, exploited as she wishes, in order to bring her pleasure and power.  

Of course, earlier in the story we’d already seen the same attitude in Andrew who thinks nothing of being cruel to his guinea pigs since he bought them himself. The attitude really comes out later when coins fall out of Andrew’s pocket and grow into a coin tree, and the broken bar from the English lamppost thrown by Jadis grows into a lamppost after landing in the living soil of Narnia. “I have discovered a world where everything is bursting with life and growth,” he proclaims. “The commercial possibilities of this country are unbounded. . . .  I shall be a millionaire . . . the first thing is to get that brute shot.” He has no recognition of the world as having been created, or of having spiritual meaning. He perceives himself as having discovered it, and thinks of it only in terms of exploitation. 

These examples make the character of Frank, the cabby who will become king, even more exceptional. When the cast of characters first arrive in the empty world, and they are wondering whether they have died, the narrator describes Frank’s response. 

“And if we’re dead—which I don’t deny it might be—well, you got to remember that worse things ‘appen at sea and a chap’s got to die sometime. And there ain’t nothing to be afraid of if a chap’s led a decent life. And if you ask me, I think the best thing we could do to pass the time would be to sing a ‘hymn.” And he did. He struck up at once a harvest thanksgiving hymn, all about crops being “safely gathered in.”

I could easily fill a whole other blog with the significance of how Jadis fears death, but Frank does not; Frank accepts his own creatureliness and finitude. But a more immediate observation is simply that Frank’s first thought is to sing a hymn of thanksgiving. It is true that he does this before Aslan actually begins to sing the world into existence, and thus it isn’t (yet) a response to creation in Narnia. Yet it does reveal Frank’s character. His practice from his own world (which is to say, our world) is to see the goodness of creation and of God’s provision, and to give thanks for that, even in a situation that could easily be seen as dire. This, indeed, should be our own response to this doctrine of creation. 

A little later, when the voice begins to sing Narnia into being, Frank says, “Gawd! Ain’t it lovely? . . . Glory be! I’d ha’ been a better man all my life if I’d known there were things like this.”  He moves from thanksgiving to joyous praise and awe. As “Gawd” is cockney slang for God, we see that this praise is addressed to the creator!  We might even use the word wonder to describe Frank’s response. I suspect that much of the common human response of exploiting God’s creation (and one another) comes from a lack of wonder. I think a great gift of Lewis’s stories (if we allow it) is that they open our own eyes to the wonder of creation, seeing it’s glory, as Frank does. What if we were all able to recognize the Holy Spirit moving over the land? 

Frank’s wisdom—and his contrast with Uncle Andrew—continues when Andrew goes into a long angry diatribe, and Frank tells him to “Stow it” (meaning “be quiet”) and then makes the very wise proclamation: “Watchin’ and listenin’s the thing at present; not talk.” The importance of this observation could also fill several blogs. One of the best and most important responses to seeing the world as creation is just to pay attention to it; to be still, and listen, and look, and watch; to marvel and wonder at what God has made. Consider the lilies. Consider the birds. Note how the heavens declare God’s glory. Cease striving, and now that the Creator is God. Watching and listening is, indeed, the thing to do. 


Matthew Dickerson has published several books about the writings of C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien, most recently Aslan’s Breath: Seeing the Holy Spirit in Narnia and (with his friend David O’Hara) Narnia and the Fields of Arbol: the Environmental Vision of C.S.Lewis. He has also published two novels of medieval historical fiction (The Finnsburg Encounter and The Rood and the Torc: the Song of Kristinge, Son of Finn), a three-volume fantasy novel, several works of narrative non-fiction nature and environmental writing, some philosophy and spiritual theology (Disciple Making in a Culture of Power, Comfort and Fear). He lives in Vermont with his wife on a wooded hillside, within a short drive of three adult sons, three daughters-in-law, and a quiver of grandchildren, and is a member of the Chrysostom Society.


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