Book Review: “Lilith” by George MacDonald

An entrancing and utterly unique, unpredictable story, full of the beauty, the gravitas, and possibly the underlying reality of dreams.Rarely has the fantasy genre been so amazingly used to communicate the gospel.

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 bat, 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 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

“Morn, with the Spring in her arms…”

I submit this thesis for your reflection: The greatest possible event, in any kind of story, real or invented, is the redemption of some undeserving person through pure love and grace. Often it is at the story’s end, as with the Prodigal Son, but it need not be. In Les Misérables, it happens at the beginning. But in this particular story, in George MacDonald’s Lilith, it does indeed occur near the end. I have not yet finished the last few chapters, but when I came across this passage it was so beautiful that I had to share it.

The scene is the House of Bitterness, in which Lilith, rebel wife of Adam, who has declared herself Queen of Hell and imagines herself free in her evil, but is really a slave of the satanic Shadow, has been forcibly confronted with the depravity of her soul and her slavery to sin. Broken, scornful, and then broken again many times over, she tries to remain unrepentant even as anguish takes her soul. “I will not be remade!” she cries, “I will be myself and not another!” “Alas,” comes the wise reply, “you are another now, not yourself! Will you not be your real self?” Lilith cries back, “I will do as my Self pleases—as my Self desires.” But she knows her words are false. She loathes herself, but fears the surrender necessary for change. For truly, she is so steeped in evil that it has slain her, even as she appears to live. She walks in death; she must die to death if she hopes to live again! The idea is fearful and incredible; how can it happen? “He will forgive you,” Lilith is told. It is too much for her, too much. She acknowledges she is a slave. She admits she is powerless even to change herself, even to cease her own existence. She cries that she is hopeless, that she should die, if she could, and she collapses.

And then comes what may be the finest passage by George MacDonald I have yet read.

Lilith lay and wept. The Lady of Sorrow went to the door and opened it.

Morn, with the Spring in her arms, waited outside. Softly they stole in at the opened door, with a gentle wind in the skirts of their garments. It flowed and flowed about Lilith, rippling the unknown, upwaking sea of her life eternal; rippling and to ripple it, until at length she who had been but as a weed cast on the dry sandy shore to wither, should know herself an inlet of the everlasting ocean, henceforth to flow into her for ever, and ebb no more. She answered the morning wind with reviving breath, and began to listen. For in the skirts of the wind had come the rain—the soft rain that heals the mown, the many-wounded grass—soothing it with the sweetness of all music, the hush that lives between music and silence. It bedewed the desert places around the cottage, and the sands of Lilith’s heart heard it, and drank it in. When Mara returned to sit by her bed, her tears were flowing softer than the rain, and soon she was fast asleep.

Lilith, by George MacDonald, end of Chapter 39,

“Any man is more than the greatest of books!”

What a hell of horror, I thought, to wander alone, a bare existence never going out of itself, never widening its life in another life, but, bound with the cords of its poor peculiarities, lying an eternal prisoner in the dungeon of its own being!…I sighed—and regarded with wonder my past self, which preferred the company of a book or pen to that of man or woman; which, if the author of a tale I was enjoying appeared, would wish him away that I might return to his story. I had chosen the dead rather than the living, the thing thought rather than the thing thinking! ‘Any man,’ I said now, ‘is more than the greatest of books!’

~George MacDonald, in Lilith

100th Post! Also, what’s coming up

Ta-da! This is my 100th post since The Warden’s Walk went online in November of 2010. It has been visited 15,214 times since then, has 23 active subscribers, and, I hope, has been of good use and interest to all of you.

[EDIT: Also, I am trying out a new theme — that is, appearance — for the site. What do you guys think of it? I want to know how easy it is to read and navigate compared to the previous theme. Which do you prefer? I’d appreciate your input!]

July has been upon us for over a week now, and it is time I let you know what I’ve been up to. These are the reviews I expect to have done this month.

Highlander Season 2 has been finished some time ago, and the review is in progress. One of my favorite characters leaves only a few episodes in, but the writing is noticeably getting better. Happily, the writers are showing a greater interest in history, and I hope they continue down that path.

I am now re-watching parts of Doctor Who Series 3, taking notes for review this time. Some fantastic stories get told, the best of them (“Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood” and “Blink”) back-to-back.  While Martha Jones isn’t as interesting as Rose was, she is competent and fairly likable.

Additionally, I have finished Myst: The Book of Atrus, and hopefully shall not wait too long before reviewing it. The book directly engages questions relating to the art and nature of writing itself, and I’d like to examine how the book’s discussion relates to similar ideas proposed by the likes of Lewis, Tolkien, and MacDonald.

Other possibilities include further reviews of the BBC’s Robin Hood Season 1 episodes and the occasional movie review.

I am currently reading The Dragonheroes by Blake Garrett Anderson and Lilith by George MacDonald.