Lilith – George MacDonald

By

W. H. Auden wrote in his introduction to the 1954 reprint of Lilith, “George MacDonald is pre-eminently a mythopoeic writer…In his power…to project his inner life into images, beings, landscapes which are valid for all, he is one of the most remarkable writers of the nineteenth century.” I’ve decided that my two favorite George MacDonald books, Lilith and Phantastes, are a safe and stimulating way for Christians to experience a godly version of a hallucinogenic drug trip.

Lilith is a tribute to the power of truth encased in story. It’s the tale of Mr. Vane, a man at first unaware he has no real sense of identity. Awakened to his true condition by the question, “Who are you?” Mr. Vane contemplates, “I could give him no notion of who I was. Indeed, who was I? It would be no answer to say I was who! Then I understood I did not know myself.” The questioner tells him, “No one can say he is himself, until first he knows that he is, and then what himself is.” Another great bit of identity truth happens when Mr. Vane says, “Tell me how to recognize the nearest way home.”

“I cannot,” answered the raven. “You and I use the same words with different meanings. We are often unable to tell people what they need to know, because they want to know something else, and would therefore only misunderstand what we said.”

The truth of identity in Christ is unintelligible to those who have not yet finished with world-identity. They still think the solution is to be found outside, in the world, in doings, in performance-based acceptance, and no amount of words will convince them otherwise. The only solution is found in the eventual, inevitable disillusionment with world-identity.

The raven continues:
“Home is ever so far away in the palm of your hand, and how to get there it is of no use to tell you. But you will get there; you must get there; you have to get there. Everybody who is not at home, has to go home. You thought you were at home where I found you: if that had been your home, you could not have left it. Nobody can leave home. And nobody ever was or ever will be at home without having gone there.”

“Enigma treading on enigma!” I exclaimed. “I did not come here to be asked riddles.”

“No, but you came, and found the riddles waiting for you! Indeed, you are yourself the only riddle. What you call riddles are truths, and seem riddles because you are not true.”

“Worse and worse!” I cried.

“And you must answer the riddles!” he continued. “They will go on asking themselves until you understand yourself. The universe is a riddle trying to get out, and you are holding your door hard against it.”

I recognized this riddle of identity as the same I’d been asking my whole life. Truth is paradoxical and seems riddle until we are living in it. We live by dying. We are exalted when we are humbled. We find true strength by coming to a deep, settled awareness of our total weakness and inability to “be like Christ.” Each of us is on a journey to find our true Home – not the home of “pie-in-the-sky”, but of meaning, purpose, security, worth, identity down here on planet Earth. We look in the most ridiculous places until we come home inside ourselves and find that our true home is inner, where Christ lives in our hearts by faith, the fountain of everything that we are looking for. When we finally come to our inner home, we know we can never truly leave it.

Mr. Vane then sets out on a journey to discover who he is, a gradual revelatory process that comes through various circumstances and his own inner and outer responses to them. By these he learns his weaknesses, and in his weakness he finds true strength – the strength to lay his life down for others, not in self-effort and presumption but in true love.

Beyond Vane and his journey of identity, MacDonald’s Lilith, like his other great fantasy Phantastes, opens a window into the ultimate purpose and nature of evil. I first read Lilith a decade ago after I’d gone through several years of a deep and dark night of the soul, and through the dark night had learned a great deal about who I am in Christ. Through the Word, Mr. Vane, and personal experience I learned that the Devil most often speaks to us in first person, seeking a foothold in us in order to use us for his purposes.

Casting great light on this dark truth, Lilith‘s character Odu says, “‘He was a shadow; he had no thick to him…He came down the hill, very black…He was nothing but blackness…He came on as if he would walk over us. But before he reached us, he began to spread and spread, and grew bigger and bigger, till at last he was so big that he went out of our sight, and we saw him no more, and then he was upon us!’

‘What do you mean by that?’

‘He was all black through between us, and we could not see one another, and then he was inside us.’

‘How did you know he was inside you?’

‘He did me quite different. I felt like bad. I was not Odu any more – not the Odu I knew. I wanted to tear Sozo to pieces – not really, but like!’

He turned and hugged Sozo.

‘It wasn’t me, Sozo,’ he sobbed. “Really, deep down, it was Odu, loving you always! And Odu came up, and knocked Naughty away. I grew sick, and thought I must kill myself to get out of the black. Then came a horrible laugh that had heard my think, and it set the air trembling about me. And then I suppose I ran away, but I did not know I had run away until I found myself running, fast as I could…I would have stopped but never thought of it…Then I knew that I had run away from a shadow that wanted to be me and wasn’t, and that I was the Odu that loved Sozo. It was the shadow that got into me, and hated him from inside me; it was not my own self me!'”

“…a shadow that wanted to me and wasn’t, and that I was the Odu that loved Sozo.” Odu recognizes his real identity as love for others, and sees the Shadow truly as not-me. The identity of the Shadow, the spirit of Ephesians 2:2, is that of me-for-me, as opposed to God’s Spirit of me-for-others. Our primary battle is not to fight our self, but to fight the lies of the Devil that gain him a foothold in our thought life; that fighting is simply to stand in what God says about us. Beloved. Accepted. One spirit with the Lord. Light in the Lord. Overcomer. Indwelt by Love Himself. “It was the shadow that got into me, and hated him from inside me; it was not my own self me!” As the apostle Paul put the same thought in Romans 7, “Therefore, when I sin, it is no longer I that sins, but sin which dwelleth in me.” In such times, the arrows of the Shadow have gotten past our shield of faith and hit a spot we’ve left unprotected by the armor of Christ. The Shadow’s lies have struck home, and we’ve swallowed them, and soon we act out of the lies to live in Romans 7 temporarily until we wake up again, like Odu, to our true nature in Christ.

I’ve never found a book more illuminating, imaginative, uncanny, or thought-provoking than Lilith. Deep, deep writing worth real digging.

Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he’s not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin’ on audiences around the world, he’s taking care of his donkey named “Trash” and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.


14 Comments

  1. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    This is one of my favorite books of all time. I was wracked with tears during the resolution in the final chapters. Just incredibly beautiful.

    “He is at least clothed-upon with Death, which is the radiant garment of Life,” said Adam.

    “Have we to die again?” I asked.

    “No,” he answered, with a smile like the Mother’s; “you have died into life, and will die no more; you have only to keep dead. Once dying as we die here, all the dying is over. now you have only to live, and that you must, with all your blessed might. The more you live, the stronger you become to live.”

    “But shall I not grow weary with living so strong?” I said. “What if I cease to live with all my might?”

    “It needs but the will, and the strength is there!” said the Mother. “Pure life has no weakness to grow weary withal. The Life keeps generating ours. Those who will not die, die many times, die constantly, keep dying deeper, never have done dying, here all is upwardness and love and gladness.”

    She ceased with a smile and a look that seemed to say, “We are mother and son, we understand each other! Between us no farewell is possible!”

    “I know you!” I answered. “You are the voice that cried in the wilderness before ever the Baptist came! You are the shepherd whose wolves hunt the wandering sheep home ere the shadow rise and the night grow dark!”

    “My work will one day be over, ” she said, “and then I shall be glad with the gladness of the great shepherd who sent me.”

    I could quote this book all day long. One of the little details I absolutely loved about it was that MacDonald never tells us what it was that Lilith was holding, only that she must let it go at any cost.

    That this book isn’t widely known or held up as canon among our great literature is astonishing to me.

  2. Caleb Land

    I know that this is his most famous work, but it is literally the only one of his I have yet to read. His Phantastes, his Fairie Tales, The Princess and Curdie, all good. The annoying thing about this site is that it is costing me money. At least it is money well spent.

  3. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Pete,

    Lilith does a really weird thing to me way down deep. It gets me in touch, inside myself, with reality – I mean actual Reality, not this created virtual world we live in. Lilith is definitely in the small pile of “Deepest books I’ve ever read.” MacDonald has a way of touching the reader down at an archetypal level, fundamentally altering the way we view reality. Examples of mind-blowing truth abound – the skeletal dancers, the skeleton couple with their physical and soulish insides on the outside; the paradoxical conversations with Mr Raven peppered throughout; the Shadow. I agree totally; I could quote this book all day long. I do like the ghostly battle where the combatants are yelling, “The Truth! The Truth!” and bashing each other’s heads in. It reminded me of my experiences in the mid-1990s in some Christian chat rooms.

    Lilith probably isn’t high in the canon of literature because it goes so deep – metaphysically so. I’m currently rereading it – again.

    Best,
    Ron

  4. Kevin Beasley

    Ron…or whoever…

    In mythological Jewish Tradition I understand that Lilith is the female counter-part to the original Adam. She was his wife in Chapter 1 of Genesis, thus explaining the passage that “God created them male and female”. They existed as two persons in one, male and female, hence being created more fully in God’s image. Lilith wanted to be in control and couldn’t find common ground with Adam who would dominate her, so she split from Adam and went her own way becoming a demon that mythological Jewish teaching says returns in scripture from time to time. She is thought by teachers of this story to be the “Screach Owl” or “Night Monster” (depending on your translation) in Isaiah 34:14. Do you know if McDonald was referring to this story in his book?

    Just for the record, I’m not a subscriber to the Lilith myth. Oddly enough, I just came across it earlier today in “The Five Books of Miriam” which is a Jewish females perspective of the Torah. Fascinating book, although not rooted in Christianity. It does, however, have some tremendous perspective on Moses’ writings from a traditional Jewish perspective.

    Just curious if you know if that’s where the name came from.

    Kevin

  5. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Yes, that’s the basis of this book. This isn’t a retelling of that story though, it’s a resolution to it, and it’s pure fantasy. I don’t know if you’ve read any of George MacDonald’s work before but it’s quite unlike anything else you’re likely to have read.

  6. Kevin Beasley

    I haven’t, but I think you’re the one who talked me into Godric and I absolutely loved it! I had read Buechner and love him, but Godric lifted it to the next level. So, maybe I’ll give George a read.

  7. Kathy

    http://www.ccel.org/m/macdonald/lilith/Lilith.html

    For those of you who would prefer not to spend money on some of the best reading of all time, (or who are just curious and want to read it right away instead of heading over to Barnes & Noble) there’s a link to a complete online text of Lilith. I’d still heartily recommend buying the book, however.

  8. Easton Crow

    I have to agree that Lilith is one of the most moving books I’ve ever read. My favoirite passage is the Raven pulling up worms and turning them in to butterflies. Thanks for helping me continue to grow. It is a real pleasure to get to read all of your thoughts. Identity in Christ and our place in Him seems to come up over and over again. God must really be hammering on this with me. Every conversation, book, and passage read this last two weeks has revovled around identity in Christ. I guess I should listen.

  9. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Easton,

    Knowing who we really are is crucial to living out the Christ-ian life. We’re promised rivers of living water flowing from our inmost being. But most of us try to content ourselves with a muddy brook. The mud in the river comes from a distorted concept of “Who am I?” As we purify our thinking about ourselves by renewing our minds with “God’s idea of us when He devised us” (George MacDonald), the expression of Christ’s life through us, his vessels, will become more and more pure.

    Holiness has become a discolored word in these days of the “Jesus died to pay your sin debt” half-gospel. It has come to mean in the minds of many, “Quit doing everything fun and enjoyable and start doing a bunch of stuff that you don’t want to do.” But really, holiness is beautiful; to meet a person who manifests God’s holiness is to meet a truly lovely person. We all manifest that holiness to some degree as God’s Christ-indwelt people, but we stop the flow when we continue to degrade and condemn ourselves for sins we’ve committed, or sins we can’t stop committing. Paul says that “the power of sin is the Law” and that “Sin shall no longer have dominion over you, for you are not under the Law but under grace.”

    As Christ-indwelt people, we are no longer under the demand to work the works of God in self-effort. Jesus, when questioned, “What must we do to work the works of God?” replied, “This is the work of God – to believe on the One He has sent.” Our job as the cups, vessels, containers, is to first receive the Wine of Spirit – and then our job, as branches in the Vine, is to manifest the life of the Vine. A pear tree branch doesn’t grunt and groan and strain to produce fruit. It just sits there, sticking in the tree, and waits. It trusts in the Tree.

    What does all this have to do with George MacDonald? Everything. GM saw that Christ’s love, His goodness, not sin, is what is deepest in us. I’ve seen remarkable change effected by God in my own life by knowing I’m just a cup and then focusing on who He says I am; back in the eighties and early nineties when I had the identity tag “Sinner” emblazoned on my forehead and the Gospel was primarily about forgiveness of sins, life change was very, very slow.

    Blessedly, forgiveness is just the door in; it’s a means, not the end – the end which is Christ Himself being the indwelling heart and life of His people, expressed in our ordinary, everyday doings as we learn to trust His life in ourselves.

    For Kathy and those interested, http://www.george-macdonald.com has a lot of online texts of his work as well. I’ve also got a lot of identity truth on http://www.ronblock.com – feel free to email me with any questions on the articles you might have.

  10. Easton Crow

    Ron- Where was all of this 15 years ago when it was, “If you have a problem with a persistant sin in your life, you aren’t really saved”? That makes so much more sense than going forward and getting saved again (along with everybody else) and never really dealing with the issue.
    No, a pear tree never has to think about bearing fruit. It just abides. I’d like to know more how to carry the analogy in to fierce storms and lightning raging around the tree, woodpeckers nailing holes in the branch, and ornery children trying to break it off. I know the branch just keeps on abiding in the tree. It doesn’t jump down and find a new tree to be a prt of. How does that work with us, when the whole of the world is collapsing in storm and the rain of chioces splashing around us is dizzying?
    In truth, in typing this I seem to see some answers. God has brought calm and helped with the choices through the Word, the presence of real, strong godly men in my life, and through your own words here. Maybe the branch really can just keep abiding in the tree and trust God to have one of the ornery kids throw a rock at the woodpecker.

  11. Matthew Clark

    Wow, I love Macdonald. I’ve been reading, Robert Falconer, The Curate of Glaston and am looking forward to more soon. I feel like I am being discipled across the years by this man. So good.

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