Book Review: “Lilith” by George MacDonald

Lilith is equal if not superior to the best of Poe.
~W.H. Auden

If we define Literature as an art whose medium is words, then certainly MacDonald has no place in its first rank—perhaps not even in its second. There are indeed passages where the wisdom and (I would dare to call it) the holiness that are in him triumph over and even burn away the baser elements in his style: the expression becomes precise, weighty, economic; acquires a cutting edge. But he does not maintain this level for long. The texture of his writing as a whole is undistinguished, at times fumbling…But this does not quite dispose of him even for the literary critic. What he does best is fantasy—fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man…Myth does not essentially exist in words at all.
~C.S. Lewis, 1946

Title: Lilith
Author: George MacDonald
Pages: 252
Published: 1895 (making this a piece of Victorian literature)
Spoiler-free Synopsis: In his large and mostly empty home, young gentleman Mr. Vane is led by a strange old librarian, Mr. Raven, to a mirror that transports him to an otherworld, where he is confronted with the truth of his own soul and with the very mystery of evil itself.
Reason for Beginning: After reading MacDonald’s own Phantastes, I determined to read any work of his that I could get my hands on. Lilith was the next I could get my hands on.
Reason for Finishing: An entrancing and utterly unique, unpredictable story, full of the beauty, the gravitas, and possibly the underlying reality of dreams.
Story Re-readability: It may not be the easiest reread, due to MacDonald’s peculiar style, but it probably should be in order to better understand its underlying meanings. As Lewis says in the quote above, there is a wisdom in MacDonald that comes out in his writings, and I don’t think we’re likely to fully understand his wisdom after only one reading of it. Fortunately, each chapter is fairly short and usually comprises a single major incident, such that you can easily track your progress through the book.
Author Re-readability: This is my second MacDonald novel, and I loved it and will seek out his other books as well. The value in rereading him comes not so much from his writing style (though there are times when he manages a wonderful turn of phrase), but in the deep content of his books and the values that infuse them. He can preach boldly without being preachy because his sermons are woven into the fabric of his stories. Take the sermon out of the story, and you lose the story.
Recommendation: I would be pleased if everyone read this book, as it is so unique and has so much of real value, both aesthetically and spiritually, to offer. Yet I think that many people may have difficulty getting beyond the book’s strangeness, as sublime as I find it. Knowledge of Christianity is extremely helpful in understanding this book, as MacDonald references theology quite often without explaining his references very well; nonetheless, such knowledge is not necessary. In fact, MacDonald himself would probably have preferred readers to merely read and soak in his story without trying to understand every little bit as they go. When reading Lilith, focus on the emotions of the characters and of the scenes, and then use the theology to guide your understanding of those emotions.

Obtainability: I recommend reading a physical copy of Lilith so that you can underline passages and make notes in the margins. However, it is also available online, in the public domain, here.

Key Thoughts

You bewilder me!”
“That’s all right!”
~Lilith, pg. 30

If I could meet with just one dead author, it would be to sit down with George MacDonald and have him explain, page-by-page, what he meant in Lilith and Phantastes. These two novels have some of the most surreal and difficult plots I have encountered. It’s not that they are bizarre or meaningless in any postmodern way—through them runs a deep and sure current of absolute Truth that always leads to the Christian gospel. As C.S. Lewis noted, MacDonald has a tendency to preach his point even in his stories, only we do not mind as much as we might because he is a superb preacher. With this I agree. It is not MacDonald’s values or his message which seem obscure, but the details of every strange event which, while providing opportunity for commentary of a philosophical or theological nature, are nonetheless quite, well, strange.

The plot is closer to a dream narrative, and the question of why certain events happen is better answered by examining them from an allegorical or symbolic perspective rather than applying mundane logic. I think MacDonald’s powerful images are meant to awake in us recognition and acceptance of spiritual truths. Many of these are not very clear when we first encounter them in the book, but become clearer by the end. Take this excerpt near the beginning:

Then I saw, slowly walking over the light soil, the form of a woman. A white mist floated about her, now assuming, now losing to reassume the shape of a garment, as it gathered to her or was blown from her by a wind that dogged her steps.

She was beautiful, but with such a pride at once and misery on her countenance that I could hardly believe what yet I saw. Up and down she walked, vainly endeavoring to lay hold of the mist and wrap it around her. The eyes in the beautiful face were dead, and on her left side was a dark spot, against which she would now and then press her hand, as if to stifle pain or sickness. Her hair hung nearly to her feet, and sometimes the wind would so mix it with the mist that I could not distinguish the one from the other; but when it fell gathering together again, it shone a pale gold in the moonlight.

Suddenly, pressing both hands on her heart, she fell to the ground, and the mist rose from her and melted in the air. I ran to her. But she began to writhe in such torture that I stood aghast. A moment more and her legs, hurrying from her body, sped away serpents. From her shoulders fled her arms as in terror, serpents also. Then something flew up from her like a bit, and when I looked again, she was gone. The ground rose like the sea in a storm; terror laid hold upon me; I turned to the hills and ran. (50)

Is the ground rising literal or metaphorical? It could be either, I don’t know. Nor do I know what purpose it serves for the incident or the story at large. Our protagonist knows as little as we do at this point. And yet even now, having finished the book and knowing who the woman is and why she grasps her side in pain, and even knowing the source of her arrogance and misery…I still don’t know why she appeared at this early instance, why she fell to the ground now and not other times, and why her limbs sped away as serpents (when next we see her, her limbs are attached the way they are supposed to be). I can say, to some degree, what MacDonald means, but I have no idea why he chose to say it in this way!

When confronted with Mr. Raven, a person who seems to shift physically between an old man and a literal raven at the casual blink of an eye, and who speaks in seeming riddles and appears to inhabit an otherworld even as he stands in Mr. Vane’s library, Mr. Vane accepts the situation rather quickly and engages in philosophical argument. Not that he fails to question the weirdness of the situation; he does, but doesn’t dwell on it long. What I’m trying to say is that his reactions are not always what the reader’s would be or what the reader would expect. This isn’t a bad thing, really: it makes Mr. Vane a much more interesting protagonist. He engages philosophically with the dreamworld around him, trying to understand it and his place in it. Still, it is often hard to understand why he reacts in a certain way at a certain time, or why a particular thing happens.

Yet MacDonald is aware of the strangeness, and sometimes comments on it. There is an instance where Vane becomes enslaved to a group of evil, brutish people who are so stupid that he could easily either escape or even overcome them by his wits. Yet he continues in his slavery and only tries to escape in the most inconvenient and unnecessarily difficult ways. Much later, when he is wiser, he reflects on that incident with incredulity at his own foolishness.

"The lady stood a little way off, looking, even in the clumsy attire I had fashioned for her, at once grand and graceful."

The chapters are short, and each one contains a very curious scene, most of which are so strange and powerful in their imagery that they will stay with you for some time: there is the house of Mr. Raven and his wife, with an endless dark room lined with couches on which people lie who wait for the resurrection of the dead—they have willingly died to themselves in order that they might live a new life;  the Evil Wood, in which skeletal armies massacre each other every night, but fade before the sun rises; the bountiful forest of the Little Lovers, children of innocence and beauty who spend their days alternately frolicking and hiding from the stupid adult brutes that live nearby; the hall of leaves and branches in which skeletons dance and curtsy like aristocrats; the massive dry riverbed that is plagued by monsters only at night; the House of Bitterness, whose kind but enigmatic mistress speaks to white leopards and always wears a veil over her face; a male and a female skeleton of recently-deceased aristocracy arguing comically about their broken carriage and the difficulty of walking without muscles on one’s knees; the great city of Bulika with its silent, fearful populace, its leopards and creepy Thin Man stalking the streets; and the final scenes, so magnificent and rapturous, of…ah, but that would be revealing too much!

I have listed these images in an attempt to prove a measure of what Lewis is saying in his quote above: that the power of MacDonald’s stories lie not in the words he uses, but in the events themselves. I could retell the entirety of Lilith in my own words, and as long as I am true to the content of the story, it would retain many of the same haunting qualities it has coming direct from him. This is the power of myth and fairy story, which belongs also to Fouqué’s Undine and which Tolkien discussed in “On Fairy Stories.” (I remember now that MacDonald himself called Undine the most beautiful of all fairy tales he knew.)

Theological stuff

As to the title, the book does involve the old Jewish myth of Lilith, Adam’s supposed first wife, who rebelled in arrogance and greed from God’s established plan and was cast out of the Garden to be replaced by Eve. The story is not in the Bible and is not true, but MacDonald uses it in his fantasy to convey his message of the sheer power of God’s grace. This book is all about salvation, and the necessity of letting go of sin, dying to one’s own self, and accepting the will of God to cleanse us and make us more like Him.

What I love about MacDonald is how powerful holiness is in his stories. Evil is shown truthfully to be weak, decrepit, a desperate sham, a pitiful and vindictive rebellion against God that only hurts the rebel, while only in holiness can people truly find themselves. We are made for Heaven; our struggle through this life is the result of our own sinful rebellion. Sin is part of human nature, but it was never meant to be; it is like a disease which attaches itself to the body, but was not originally part of it. And we cannot cure ourselves—the sick can never cure themselves! We must submit to the One who can cure us. This is always MacDonald’s message, I think: by submitting to Christ, we are cleansed of the evil that was not meant to be part of us, and we become truly ourselves.

There is another theological point, however, which MacDonald does not get right. Perhaps you have heard that he was a universalist? That is, that he did not believe that Hell is eternal, but that every created person, including the demons and Satan himself, will eventually be redeemed and join again with God. Well, it is true: this belief is expressed fairly clearly in Lilith. The Shadow, representative of Satan, is prophesied to eventually lay down his arms and submit to God, “the last to wake in the morning of the universe” (218). I have not read any of MacDonald’s sermons or essays on this subject, and so can only guess at his reasoning. My guess is that he thought that God’s grace and love are so all-consuming that it would be inconceivable for any evil to be able to resist it for ever, even Satan’s. It is a noble error, resting as it does on the sovereignty of Christ’s love and sacrifice, but an error nonetheless. MacDonald made the mistake of relying on his own reason and feelings in trying to understand the concept of Hell, and in doing so ignored the explicit nature of Scripture.

Firstly, if those who consistently and consciously reject the grace of Christ’s sacrifice unto their death do not have to pay an eternal price, but will be saved anyway, then the gospel is robbed of its meaning. Why should any person repent now, if they can sin as they please in this life and be cleansed—easily, without having to do submit to anything themselves, they think—in the next? Secondly, the Scriptures clearly state that eternal punishment exists: Matthew chapters 7, 10, and 25:31-46, among others.

Does this serious error invalidate the spiritual value of MacDonald’s message and story? I think not. Christians must be aware of biblical theology and of where MacDonald trusted his own reasoning over God’s Word, but that does not mean he is no Christian, nor that his book cannot be termed a Christian book. His portrayal of the victory of God’s love over the most dedicated sinners is beautiful and moving. Rarely has the fantasy genre been so amazingly used to communicate the gospel.

And yet, for all that, the unique power of MacDonald’s story is very hard to communicate; you simply must read it for yourself.

None but God hates evil and understands it.”
~Lilith, page 206

Other Reviews
Andrew @ Till We Have Faces

9 thoughts on “Book Review: “Lilith” by George MacDonald

  1. I have read this book, and loved it, and this is an excellent review. Being me, though, I have some notes. ^_~

    “The story is not in the Bible and is not true, but MacDonald uses it in his fantasy to convey his message of the sheer power of God’s grace.” It is not a problem, naturally, for you to say this, but for the sake of engaging a fellow believer in discussion, I disagree. That is not to say that I believe Adam had a wife prior to Eve in a factual sense, but that I believe “truth” in a story is in no way reliant on the facts, but is rather reliant in what is conveyed by the story, or what the reader may draw from it. MacDonald, certainly, reveals some truth through this story, and that in itself is enough to give the story truth, in a sense. This is me being picky, certainly, but I do believe that we too easily couple “truth” with “fact,” while the former is far more powerful, profound, and pervasive than the latter. “Truth will out” even in fiction, and sometimes especially in fiction. I believe that the bible itself contains myths, plays and stories (not just including Christ’s parables, which in themselves indicate that God knows how to use stories to teach us) but that it is also entirely true. That said, it is telling that the story of Lilith is not part of the Bible.

    “Evil is shown truthfully to be weak, decrepit, a desperate sham, a pitiful and vindictive rebellion against God that only hurts the rebel, while only in holiness can people truly find themselves.” This… this whole paragraph is one of the things I love most about MacDonald, and you hit the nail right on the head. He understood the power of God that runs through the universe, and that evil, which seems so great and powerful sometimes, is simply a parasite.

    One more comment, and then I’m done. :)
    I am not a Universalist, nor do I think that everyone/thing will be saved, but I cannot fault MacDonald for hoping such, and exploring the beauty and the power of the possibility. He erred, I believe, but on the side of love, and may I do the same as well, if I must err. I think I have expressed my mind on this before, but I think MacDonald was partly right, in that the power to save all is in God’s hand, but I think, in his desire for all to be saved, MacDonald could not bear to believe that there are those who never will be, because salvation is a choice, and we have freedom of choice. Like MacDonald, I do hope that there is somehow salvation beyond the grave, though I will not rely on that hope. Anyway, I agree that whatever one believes on this score, MacDonald’s views do not invalidate his work. He writes of the wisdom, love and power of God in a way I have never seen in other fiction. Other writers have moments, sometimes many moments of such revelation in their work, but MacDonald’s stories seem to breathe it.

    Can you tell that I am a MacDonald fan girl? XD

    1. Haha, yes I can, and that’s one of the noblest kinds of fans to be. ‘-)

      I’m a little unsure of the distinction between Truth and facts that you’re making in this case, though I may understand. Obviously a story’s Truth has little to do with facts, seeing as even a “nonfiction” story involves much interpretation, assumption, and editing by the teller. Story-Truth could be said, in a sense, to be beyond mere facts. Yet facts are vitally important, for they are the groundwork on which Absolute Truth rests. In fact, for God I don’t know if there is a real difference between Truth and Facts — the difference may only be for us, who are so limited and so bound to mess up the facts at every turn. So anyway, the story of Lilith is clearly not Fact — it conflicts greatly with Scripture and the gospel. Whether there is any Truth in the original myth, I don’t know, but I doubt there is much. I haven’t read the original Jewish source, if there is one, but it sounds very much like a corruption of the Eden story. What I do believe, what I was hoping to communicate in this review, is that MacDonald takes the Lilith story, puts it in his fantasy context, and injects it with wonderful Truth. I doubt MacDonald believes the story of Lilith to be factual, but I don’t know, and I think it’s irrelevant to the excellence and truth of his story. So…maybe we’re in agreement after all?

      Agreed! It’s something I noticed a lot in Phantastes, and I think it’s what Lewis meant when he said that book “baptised his imagination” before he was actually saved. I can’t wait to reread Phantastes and pay greater attention to that theme.

      He does write with the wisdom, love and power of God–well said. I remember our discussion on the matter of salvation of demons or the unsaved after death, and I regret that it fell by the wayside. I agree that this is not an issue on which salvation is predicated, and such we (and MacDonald) might all disagree but certainly still greet each other in Heaven. And while I think that MacDonald’s error is a kind of noble one, being, as you said, based on his overflowing love for man and belief in God’s infinite love, that doesn’t excuse it. God seems to have made His Truth and Fact pretty clear in the Bible — Jesus speaks constantly of the lake of fire, the “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” and never does He indicate that the people thrown in there have a chance of salvation (that is, once in Hell). His message is always clear: repent now, in this life, and there are eternal consequences elsewise. If there is salvation after death, whether merely possible or guaranteed, it kind of deflates the OT warnings and the NT urgings; plus it seems to conflict with the idea of perfect Justice. Mercy and grace allow for the possibility of salvation because Jesus’ sacrifice satisfied Divine Justice. But the person who resolutely rejects Christ to the end, being essentially “forced” to be saved after death? Doesn’t that nullify free will? Doesn’t that basically take a strict Calvinist interpretation of predestination (though I don’t think MacDonald much thought of himself as agreeing with Calvin) and modify it to say that God chose and saved everyone, thus everyone gets saved even if they reject Christ in this life? I greatly admire MacDonald and find his stories very spiritually edifying, but this particular belief of his kind of annoys me because I don’t think he has much basis for it, and that he should know better!

      But I really can’t wait to read, well, pretty much everything he’s ever written. Beyond this, what MacDonald books have you read?

  2. Yet it does involve a certain amount of “squees” on my part when reading certain MacDonaldy passages.

    If you want to move this discussion to e-mail, let me know, ok?

    I think that we at least partly agree on the fact/truth subject. I never intended to say that fact was irrelevant, but merely that it is dangerous to think that fact and truth are interchangeable. Fact is a True thing, but not all True things are necessarily Fact. Does that make sense? I think they may be the same thing for God, as He actually knows all facts, whereas we just assume them, but maybe even He would distinguish between them in some regard. I don’t know (of course).
    I am troubled by the belief some have that the Bible must be entirely “factual” in order to be True. This is the sort of thinking that sends people scrambling to “prove” or “disprove” books of the bible with historical and scientific fact, which misses the point of the Word itself, I think. This is where I can be easily misunderstood, so I will try and pick my words carefully. First of all, I do know that this is a potentially slippery slope, and as such needs careful consideration and sifting. Second, this only applies to some books of the bible. As is said several times in the New Testament, if Jesus did not die for us, in truth and fact, our faith is pointless. I have no doubts that His story is both Fact and Truth (though as you shrewdly point out, the perspectives of those who relay His stories to us, do so from their own vantages). However, the question I put forward is this: are all books of the Bible necessarily factual, and if not, does that invalidate them? Case in point: is the first chapter of Genesis a factual account of Creation, or is it a Creation Myth, or is it a combination of the two? And if it were a creation myth or a combination of fact and parable, would it be any more or less True? I am not saying I believe it is one way or another. I am asking if it fails to tell us about Mankind, Creation, and God if it is a creation myth. And by the same token, if it is completely factual, does it carry any more weight or teach us any more than if it were not? Personally, I don’t think so. The Bible is True, the living Word, which speaks and teaches… and whether it is entirely historical fact is immaterial to me. Now I know that this does matter greatly to some people, and I have no desire to attack those who believe one way or another, but I do think that it is a question that, perhaps, needs asking a little more often. By the same token, I think, many lies are masked by truths, like a pearl, coated in beauty but with a heart of sand, and therefore truth, in the world, requires careful sifting. I wonder if all of that clarifies my thoughts or only confuses more. :P

    “I agree that this is not an issue on which salvation is predicated, and such we (and MacDonald) might all disagree but certainly still greet each other in Heaven. ” I certainly hope so :D
    I agree that MacDonald does err, though perhaps I differ a little from you in how I think he erred. Perfect Justice, to me (admitting my highly imperfect understanding) would need to take into account ignorance of Christ, and perhaps certain kinds of emotional and mental blocks. In my limited understanding, that entails something more than whether or not you have accepted Christ into your life before death. I think that freewill does, indeed, demand true choices that result in damnation, and MacDonald erred in his hope that every soul could and would eventually come to chose Salvation. I do not think MacDonald considered himself a Calvinist.

    I grew up on the Princess and the Goblin and the Princess and Curdie, and both are very dear to my heart. The intro to the latter is, to me, one of the most beautiful descriptions I have ever read, and it never fails to bring me to tears (the creation story in the Silmarilion has a similar effect on me). I have read Lilith, of course, Sir Gibbie, and At the Back of the North Wind. I am planning on borrowing Phantastes from my mother soon. I have a hard time finding unabridged copies that I can afford. I’ve read a few of his short stories too. I recently read “the Light Princess” which was… very weird, but entertaining.

    1. I think we are closing in on it, but I’ll move that part of the discussion to email just in case we end up having much more to say.

      I know, what’s with all these abridged copies? The copies of The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie that my dad read to my sisters when they were kids (but somehow not to me!) are abridged, so I don’t want to read them. I’m too afraid of missing whatever of MacDonald’s wisdom they cut. I also have a beautifully-illustrated adaptation of his “Little Daylight” that I grew up with. I don’t know how much it differs from his original, but I always loved it as a kid.

      Hey! I just found At the Back of the North Wind online! I don’t usually read full books online, but it’s neat to have this just in case. I think “Little Daylight” is a part of that book, yes?

  3. Probably wise, as long-winded as I can be. I so wish that I were better at the art of condensing my meaning. Maybe I will improve over time. ^_~

    *shakes head* I think that either “the modern audience” has little patience for his gorgeous descriptions and winding paths (and dialect, which is often heavy in his un-edited works) or else publishers assume that the patience is not there. Having been raised on the unabridged Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie, the first time I encountered an abridged copy I was horrified… it was like coming across a dear friend who had become emaciated nearly to the point of death! I can imagine that if I had encountered the abridged copies first, I might have loved them, for the story (the two books are all one story, really) is still beautiful and filled with jeweled light set in darkness, but the rhythm and the images, and yes, some wisdom too, are reduced when his work isn’t whole. The copy of Sir Gibbie that I read was sadly abridged and “sanitized”(dialect removed), and while I loved the story, I am looking for an unabridged copy, because I can feel the gaping holes. It is possible to get copies of his work “print on demand” unabridged, but they aren’t great copies… still, the great copies are waaaaay out of my price range, so I will take what I can get!

    Yes, it is. ^_^
    Also, have you ever heard of Librivox?
    They have some unabridged MacDonald, as well as much wonderful stuff! If you like audiobooks and out-of-copyright literature, you will probably love Librivox. I know I do… I’ve just finished listening to all the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle I could find, and my sister-in-law just finished enjoying A Tale of Two Cities. I put Librivox on when I am doing housework.

    1. No, I didn’t know of Librivox! Thanks for the link. I’ve never made it through a complete audio book, as my mind tends to wander or I tend to get sleepy, but it can be very nice to listen to a really good storyteller’s voice. I’ll pass this site on to my cousin. She has Lyme disease, an illness that sucks all her energy away constantly, such that even reading–an activity she loves–is exhausting for her. She’s been trying out audio books to see if those are a more effective way for her to keep going through books, so maybe she’ll make use of this site.

      And I may just start using it myself! +)

      1. Not all of the story-tellers’ voices (nor the quality of their recordings) are top-notch, but that is to be expected as they are all volunteers. Conversely, some are very good indeed. Recently I found one reader who was very difficult for me to listen to, but so far, that is a rarity. I hope your cousin will enjoy this though, and maybe you will as well. I think it is a wonderful project.

  4. Oh, and I forgot one that I have read, which is wonderful even though abridged. The Lost Princess. How could I forget that one! I think you would like it. Most “coming of age” stories that focus on girls focus on all the wrong things. The Lost Princess is like a breath of mountain air in that regard. MacDonald is remarkable to me, among other things, in his gift for writing true little girls as people, something even more rare in fiction than writing true little boys (which is rare enough!).

  5. I can neither wait to again journey through MacDonald’s incomparable dream journey, nor can I wait to see my wife’s reactions. For myself, both Lilith and Phantastes strike notes that I never knew could be reached, nor did I know I should so naturally yearn for them. In smaller measure I’ve experienced the same depth of reaction in Till We Have Faces, though little else correlates the two.

    The psychological depth of this work completely eludes my ability to describe. I hope another read should prove to introduce greater clarity. So, I shall disagree with your analyses in one sense only – I should want MacDonald to explain in detail nothing of his imaginative works. If he should contextualize them by introducing like works or works which inspired them, then very well. Trying to read from C.S.L.’s library has been quite fruitful but such explanations as remove the mystery that is enjoyment are to me unwelcome. I suppose I mean to say that a journey can be appreciated when we can look at Lewis’ or Tolkien’s or MacDonald’s maps or manuscripts, but in the end the story is meant to be encountered through the eyes and experiences of the characters, and not even centrally the eyes of the authors.

    I really appreciate finding another who critically engages and loves many of the same authors, yet enjoys different experiences and lives out these books with a similar center yet very different experience-boundary. Blessings, JRL

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