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Why You Should (Maybe) Read 'Lilith'
George MacDonald's universalist redemption fantasy.
At its heart, Lilith is a universalist redemption fantasy. I stop short of calling it explicitly Christian as its redemptive qualities fail to point the reader to the work of Christ. Though George Macdonald himself was a professing Christian and his book is chock-full of Biblical references, Lilith is first and foremost a fantasy — and a high, dark fantasy at that. In fact, I’d imagine it something akin to a Victorian opium trip.
The famed C.S. Lewis credited the greater works of George MacDonald with readying his mind for Christ. While Lewis was still an atheist, he had purchased a copy of another of MacDonald’s ethereal books, Phantastes. As Lewis framed that experience, “That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer [...] I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for…”
In this, Lewis recognized the unique ability of myth to express deep thought and sometimes even complex truths, and “it was in this mythopoeic art that MacDonald excelled.” This is the challenge that timeless, anonymous mythology offers us. As the Raven in Lilith would put it, “if you understood any world besides your own, you would understand your own much better.” But unlike MacDonald’s famed The Princess and the Goblin, Lilith is not for everyone, and certainly not for children.
“Oblige me by telling me where I am.” “That is impossible. You know nothing about whereness. The only way to come to know where you are is to begin to make yourself at home." A FREE subscription to A State of Wonder could be a good place to start.
In Lilith, the dreamer (or is he dreaming?) is led from the comforts of his expansive estate library through a mirror and into a strange world. There, he is guided by a raven, a phantasm of his ancestor’s long deceased librarian, who will help him to exhume shadows of foundational realities through frightful adventure.
“...I am still librarian in your house, for I never was dismissed, and never gave up the office. Now I am librarian here as well.'
'But you have just told me you were sexton here!'
'So I am. It is much the same profession. Except you are a true sexton, books are but dead bodies to you, and a library nothing but a catacomb!”
As a literary tool, Lilith employs real-world and pagan mythological references. Like the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia, the book’s namesake and villain has her origins in a bizarre and extra-Biblical Jewish legend. The superstition of Lilith reached its zenith in the middle ages. And though traditional rabbinic authorities reject the existence of any such person — supposedly a baby-snatching she-demon of the night and the first wife of Adam (yes, that kind of weird) — her use as a literary device is meant to communicate the availability of salvation to all mankind.
Does this mean that MacDonald was advocating for the bizarre superstition, that Lilith was somehow a real person? No. At least no more than Tolkien was advocating for Treebeard’s actual existence. Lilith remains a mythopoeic tool. But quite honestly, the whole thing gives me the heebie jeebies nonetheless.
As Lilith is much more thematic than plot-centric, the unfolding of the tale can be very meandering. Ofttimes, the story is downright perplexing, as the reader is challenged to interpret if any given moment in the dream world is still tethered to something physical, or if this scene is yet a dream within a dream.
Indeed, to this point in my life, Lilith contains the greatest dreamscape I have ever read. George MacDonald seems uniquely able to operate in this ethereal realm of overlapping dimensions, where a hawthorn in the forest is footprinted on the grounds of an old country church in our physical world. But at first glance, it was a gnarled old man seated alone.
I followed him deep into the pine-forest. Neither of us said much while yet the sacred gloom of it closed us round. We came to larger and yet larger trees—older, and more individual, some of them grotesque with age. Then the forest grew thinner.
"You see that hawthorn?" said my guide at length, pointing with his beak.
I looked where the wood melted away on the edge of an open heath.
"I see a gnarled old man, with a great white head," I answered. "Look again," he rejoined: "it is a hawthorn." "It seems indeed an ancient hawthorn; but this is not the season for the hawthorn to blossom!" I objected.
"The season for the hawthorn to blossom," he replied, "is when the hawthorn blossoms. That tree is in the ruins of the church on your home-farm. You were going to give some directions to the bailiff about its churchyard, were you not, the morning of the thunder?" "I was going to tell him I wanted it turned into a wilderness of rose-trees, and that the plough must never come within three yards of it." "Listen!" said the raven, seeming to hold his breath.
I listened, and heard—was it the sighing of a far-off musical wind—or the ghost of a music that had once been glad? Or did I indeed hear anything?
"They go there still," said the raven. "Who goes there? and where do they go?" I asked.
"Some of the people who used to pray there, go to the ruins still," he replied. "But they will not go much longer, I think." "What makes them go now?" "They need help from each other to get their thinking done, and their feelings hatched, so they talk and sing together; and then, they say, the big thought floats out of their hearts like a great ship out of the river at high water." "Do they pray as well as sing?" "No; they have found that each can best pray in his own silent heart.—Some people are always at their prayers.—Look! look! There goes one!" He pointed right up into the air. A snow-white pigeon was mounting, with quick and yet quicker wing-flap, the unseen spiral of an ethereal stair. The sunshine flashed quivering from its wings.
"I see a pigeon!" I said.
"Of course you see a pigeon," rejoined the raven, "for there is the pigeon! I see a prayer on its way.—I wonder now what heart is that dove's mother! Some one may have come awake in my cemetery!" "How can a pigeon be a prayer?" I said.
"I understand, of course, how it should be a fit symbol or likeness for one; but a live pigeon to come out of a heart!" "It MUST puzzle you! It cannot fail to do so!" "A prayer is a thought, a thing spiritual!" I pursued.
"Very true! But if you understood any world besides your own, you would understand your own much better.—When a heart is really alive, then it is able to think live things. There is one heart all whose thoughts are strong, happy creatures, and whose very dreams are lives. When some pray, they lift heavy thoughts from the ground, only to drop them on it again; others send up their prayers in living shapes, this or that, the nearest likeness to each. All live things were thoughts to begin with, and are fit therefore to be used by those that think. When one says to the great Thinker:—'Here is one of thy thoughts: I am thinking it now!' that is a prayer—a word to the big heart from one of its own little hearts.—Look, there is another!" This time the raven pointed his beak downward—to something at the foot of a block of granite. I looked, and saw a little flower. I had never seen one like it before, and cannot utter the feeling it woke in me by its gracious, trusting form, its colour, and its odour as of a new world that was yet the old. I can only say that it suggested an anemone, was of a pale rose-hue, and had a golden heart.
In the Victorian-era, George MacDonald had been considered a literary giant. Today, his work is only read in niche circles and is unfairly disregarded as antiquated. No doubt, Lilith is a bizarre and sometimes dark read. But its strong mythological qualities, even if deemed misguided, can challenge us to better understand our own world. Again, Lilith is not for everyone, which is why I do not throw a broad recommendation behind it. But it is brilliant. And if there was ever a book you could judge by its cover, this may be it.