Lilith

By

George Macdonald was the grandfather of us all. ~Madeleine L’Engle

Ten pages into George MacDonald’s Lilith I was thoroughly entranced—there’s nothing like a memory-haunted library and a mysterious visitant and secret doors to get this girl to sit up and take notice.

Twenty pages in I was right royally baffled. I found myself floundering and sputtering about as gracelessly as the book’s protagonist, Mr. Vane—and asking almost as many questions.

“How am I to begin where everything is so strange?” he poses to his new-found and utterly unreadable guide, Mr. Raven.

I wanted to know the same thing. Alluring as this new world was that he—and I—had been ushered into, I couldn’t quite find my footing.

But after another forty or so pages of exquisite bewilderment a light began to spread, like one of the incarnate moonrises in the book itself: I was supposed to be confused. It was my journey as much as it was Vane’s and I had as much to be shocked and riveted by as he did. In short, I had as much to learn about living and dying and really living as the benighted hero stumbling about in a world that wavers behind the very thin scrim of this one.

For if Lilith is about anything, it’s about losing one’s life to find it indeed. There’s a hazy distinction that materializes slowly between the characters that are actually dead and the ones that have merely ceased to live. The latter are pitiable things, whether walking around in the prime of life or rattling naked in their bones. The former—those voluntary dreamers that Mr. Vane encounters early on in Mr. Raven’s ‘cemetery’—have merely found what life is all about.

“I am alive!” I objected, shuddering.

“Not much,” rejoined the sexton with a smile, “—not nearly enough. Blessed be the true life that the pauses between its throbs are not death!”

Stoutly refusing the invitation to exchange his image of life for the real thing, Mr. Vane embarks on a journey that is truly fantastical in every sense of the word. This culminating work from the very Grandfather of Fantasy is admittedly a wild ride, peopled with warring phantasms that knock each other to pieces and monsters so gloriously grotesque that I can’t help but think MacDonald secretly enjoyed describing them. But for every evil there is a beauty that dazzles and hurts with its flash of true and living fire. And as I watched Mr. Vane bumble along, tripping over his own efforts and misguided intentions, I couldn’t help but flinch at his stupidity. It just hit a little too close to home, all this workaday dullness to the unbearable realities of joy. With Lilith, I felt like Grandpa George picked me up by the scruff of the neck and gave me a brisk shake. And a kiss for good measure.

Weaving the Talmudic myth of Adam’s ‘first wife’, Lilith, into a story about an ordinary person encountering the love of God is frankly something that only MacDonald would take on. I’m not even up to explaining how he did it. With his untrammeled imagination and wild faith in the goodness of the Giver of Life, he whisks us from the library of an ancient country house to the very feet of the Ancient of Days. And all with that impetuous joy that seems to wave back and hasten us along from the next hilltop he’s mounted, as much as to say, “Never mind all those loose ends and questions of yours—just wait till you see what’s ahead!”

“You have died into life, and will die no more; you have only to keep dead…”

[Editor’s note: Ron Block is another big fan of this book. Read his review here–from way back in 2007! George MacDonald’s Lilith is available in the Rabbit Room store.]

Lanier Ivester is a “Southern Lady” in the best and most classical sense and a gifted writer in the most articulate and literal sense. She hand-binds books and lives on a farm with peacocks, bees, sheep, and the governor of Ohio’s leg. She loves old books and sells them from her website, LaniersBooks.com, and she’s currently putting the final touches on her first novel, as well as studying literature at Oxford.


13 Comments

  1. Rebecca Martin

    What a great review of Lilith! Thank you.

    I first read the book two decades ago in college, and I didn’t understand a lick of it. I reread it in 2006, and it was both faith-strengthening and imagination-altering. Now it’s one of my go-to books. Have you read Phantastes? I think the two are quite the pair, informing each other and filling out the larger tale.

    Now I’m inspired to do some rereading . . .

  2. yankeegospelgirl

    Ah yes, I remember reading this years ago in middle school and thinking it was weird, indeed! I thought it was interesting how Macdonald’s universalism came through at the end, with the implication that even Satan would come to the saving knowledge of God.

  3. Chris C

    I read Lilith this past year and loved it. I have been on a trail lately of alternating MacDonald fantasies and MacDonald “reality” fiction (I’m not sure what else to call it). It’s been a wonderful ride! I had just read a couple of MacDonald’s books before this last couple of years (Phantasties and Back of the North Wind), but I’ve been really blessed with this new trail of books, Lilith being one of them! Though, Lilith didn’t hit me as hard as the last two I just finished up.

  4. Dan R.

    Indeed, the first time I read Lilith was shortly after finishing Phantastes, also for the first time. Looking back on those two I often had trouble remembering where one ended and the other began (which is one reason I decided to re-read Lilith at least one time). It is a strange way to bring a reader into the story, but it was definitely something “Grandpa George” (I like that) had a gift for. I wonder if this phenomenon you so excellently describe has anything to do with what Lewis called the baptizing of his imagination? I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that saying, nor if I’ve ever heard it satisfactorily explained, but this seems to come pretty close.

  5. Becca

    Lanier, I am so glad for this review. Thank you. I started reading Lilith about a year ago, and this encourages me to persist. This insight was particularly needed:

    “In short, I had as much to learn about living and dying and really living as the benighted hero stumbling about in a world that wavers behind the very thin scrim of this one.

    For if Lilith is about anything, it’s about losing one’s life to find it indeed. There’s a hazy distinction that materializes slowly between the characters that are actually dead and the ones that have merely ceased to live.”

  6. yankeegospelgirl

    I’m curious—everyone seems to know _Phantastes_ and _Lilith_, but has anyone here also read Macdonald’s children’s novels _The Princess and the Goblin_ and _The Princess and Curdie_? I personally thought those were actually better written than some of his adult works.

  7. Leanne

    I love _Lilith_. Strange (as many of MacDonalds works are) but so rich. Some of the images he created in there still make me shiver to think of them. The clenched hand, for instance. Just wow.

  8. Ron Block

    Lanier, what a perfect review. You capture the essence and make me want to read it yet again. I loved the Raven: “The universe is a riddle and you are holding your door hard against it! Indeed, you yourself are the only riddle! What you call riddles are truths, and seem riddles because you are not true!” Quoted from memory so I may not be 100% on. I am currently in Manchester in the pub where Charlotte Bronte began Jane Eyre. Our band plays three more dates on this overseas tour, ending at Hyde Park, then I go to Oxford for a day to geek out on Lewis and maybe get to the Bodleian library, and then London for a day. Anyway, thanks for the great post, always love your writing. It always communicates your passion for the subject.

  9. Amy L

    I haven’t read Lilith in possibly 10 years, and I’m in the same boat as Dan — other than the sleeping dead, I can’t remember what images were in this book and which were in Phantastes. Guess I need to read this again, eh?

    Yes, the “Princess and” books are a much lighter, more straightforward read, but that’s because their intended audience is children. I remember feeling like Lilith and Phantastes was a little like playing a puzzle-filled, role-playing video game (and I mean that in a good way). I somehow felt like I had some control over the story, like I needed to figure out the puzzle before anything else could happen. But those senses are all that have survived my memory.

    I do remember that someone asked me to summarize Lilith for them, and it was such a challenge to summarize that I actually typed four to five pages before I felt like I had gotten the important parts. I wonder if I still have that?

  10. Dan R.

    Amy, after re-reading both (I think I’m up to 3x on Lilith and probably only two reads on Phantastes) I can say, at least with Lilith, it’s easier now to connect certain elements with the storyline, which has also become clearer.

    Your last paragraph brings up a funny story. The first time I read Lilith I was intrigued with the idea, and fresh out of reading Phantastes, but I was barely out of high school. When I went to a scholarship interview at a Christian college I was looking at, Mr. smarty pants here nearly jumped up to answer when the interviewer asked what book I was reading at the time. When I told him he chuckled and asked me if I knew what it was about, since, he said, he couldn’t really make head or tail out of it. I think my strategy failed at that point, when it was my turn to chuckle and give him a flat out no, probably making up some excuse about not having finished the book yet. Coincidentally (?) that interview process ended, for me, in disappointment. The moral: looking smart and becoming smarter may be mutually exclusive activities.

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