Lilith and Fantasy’s Inheritance

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There are a great many things to be said about Lilith. Stepping through this arduous, masterful story felt something like watching an artist make his first few meager brushstrokes on a gigantic blank canvas: the first quarter or so of my reading experience was an uncomfortable exercise in waiting for those inaugural brushstrokes to find themselves surrounded by enough context to finally make sense.

That first portion felt like work—but then, once I reached the tipping point of comprehension, the meaning of the story compounded exponentially, and those first brushstrokes were revealed in hindsight to be inevitable and unchangeable. To step into this world of MacDonald’s is to become acquainted with a deep and confounding logic equally at work in our own world, and the only viable medium available for him to convey this underlying logic—as evidenced by his story itself—is the highly elusive and allusive genre of fantasy.

And this is why talking (and writing) about a book like Lilith is so difficult. The meaning of the story defiantly refuses to be extracted or abstracted. If anything, it’s refracted—through the imaginative lens of the reader, only ever glimpsed from various angles, none of which can be replicated. For this reason, getting to know the meaning of Lilith feels kind of like how I imagine it would feel to learn sign language: picking up on unfamiliar patterns and discovering the way they relate to one another, all in hopes of becoming proficient in a whole new vocabulary of signs with their attached significance.

Sometimes it takes the tales of another world to bring our own into focus.

Drew Miller

But once we have picked up on this new vocabulary, what a language we inherit! Words come attached to the stories they tell and the characters who animate them—anyone who has read Lord of the Rings, The Earthsea Cycle, or the Harry Potter series knows this great pleasure. The mere mention of the Elder Wand, for instance, evokes not just a fictional object, but the timeless human choice between power through violence and power through self-sacrificial love as epitomized by the actions of Voldemort on the one hand and Lily Potter on the other. The Shire is not just a fantastical location; it is an emblem of a fragile Creation whose fate depends unjustly on the whims of war, and whose scourging strikes grief deep into the hearts of our dearest hobbits.

It’s my hunch that our attraction to such iconic places and objects as these speaks less of some ignoble impulse to escape into an imaginary world than of our delight in and defense of the precious things of this world. The thing is, with all the overlookable familiarity of this world (our eyes are weary of seeing), sometimes it takes the tales of another world to bring our own into focus.

When Nathan had the awful, needful task of making King David aware of his sin (2 Samuel 12), he did not confront him with the bare facts of David’s actions. Instead, Nathan first had to bring alive the weight of evil in David’s imagination. And the medium required for this task? A parable: an other world whose tale of injustice would provoke an anger in David that, paired with conviction, could lead only to repentance.

Time and again, we humans are most effectively awakened to the treasures of this world (and the imperative to uphold them) by tidings from another. And this currency of story is a treasure all its own: transferred from imaginary worlds to our lived world, it’s made tangible in the unmistakable virtues of joy, hope, kindness, and long-suffering—virtues which yield exponential return, increasing the value of life itself.

The treasure—the inheritance—of MacDonald’s Lilith is marked by a strikingly resilient hope in the face of obstinate evil and the terrifying threshold of death. And this hope surfaces most readily throughout the novel in the open posture of children. We learn in such deceivingly simple sentences that “sleep is too fine a thing ever to be earned,” that “no one who will not sleep can ever wake,” and that “the darkness knows neither the light nor itself; only the light knows itself and the darkness also.”

And what is the value of such an inheritance? As Rebecca Reynolds has reflected:

Good and evil live on slender electric threads of neurons. Pluck one thread, and all worlds resound at once. Harmony here is harmony there. Dissonance here is dissonance there. . . A promise is a needle running through all dimensions at once. A bond is a bond is a bond.

What I love about her word choice is that she speaks of morality without sucking it dry of its aesthetic implications. In short, it is not only right, but beautiful to love and do good. When we draw from the inheritance of a rich story like Lilith (or, you know, the Bible), our consciences are satisfied, yes, but so are our imaginations.

I’d like to end with a question: What’s a story from another world that struck a chord with your own? What was the “harmony there” that caused sympathetic vibrations with the “harmony here”? I would love to hear your answer and invite you to write it here in a comment.


11 Comments

  1. Jeremiah

    Nausicca of the Valley of the Wind and also Castle in the Sky are two tales that always speak deeply to me. Hayao Miyazaki used film in the way that MacDonald used pages, and I find them both to be the two most inspirational creators I have encountered.

  2. Brenda Nuland

    I remember reading The Silent Planet, how Earth was the planet no one talked about and why that was so. It made me look at the Fall in an entirely new perspective.

  3. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    A big one for me was Stephen R. Donaldson’s 1st and 2nd Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. It’s dark and complicated and indulgent and jam-packed with hard and complex truths that I still think about to this day. Great post, Drew. Lilith is one of my favorite books and you’ve articulated many of the reasons why.

  4. Drew Miller

    @drewmiller

    “Hayao Miyazaki used film in the way that MacDonald used pages, and I find them both to be the two most inspirational creators I have encountered.” Jeremiah, that’s so well-said. I feel a lot of kindredness between those two voices as well, though I’ve never seen either of the two Ghibli films you mentioned. My favorite at this point, having seen just a few, is Princess Mononoke.
    And Pete, I’ve never heard of that or heard you talk about it before! I’ll definitely have to check it out. Dark, complicated, indulgent, hard and complex truths…I often find that I like all those things 🙂

  5. J Lind

    @jlind

    Lion King. Hear me out: it’s Hamlet, recast in east Africa. Regardless of the medium, the story is archetypal and powerful — losing your teacher, escaping to bohemian nihilism, remembering your ancestors, embracing your role in a metanarrative, accepting responsibility for the sins of the world… The fantastic elements (i.e., talking warthogs, Beyonce lionesses) revive the excitement of the story and extend the hero’s journey to the animal kingdom. And surely nothing’s more harmonious than the Circle of Life? Elton or not, it takes me somewhere new, fantastic, and familiar.

  6. Lara Lleverino

    Jane Eyre by Brönte, The Chosen by Chaim Potok, The Curate’s Awakening by George MacDonald, White Banners by Lloyd C Douglas, The Harvester by Gene Stratton Porter and The Calling of Dan Matthews by Harold Bell Wright have all been books that stuck with me for years and called me back to rereads. Eyre for the lesson regarding the cost and value of principles and self worth, The Chosen for learning to see outside yourself, White Banners for the redemption of suffering, The Harvester for the healing brought by connecting with creation. Calling of Dan Matthews for the fortitude to stand for your faith in the face of social mob mentality. And the Curate’s Awakening for the vision of Heaven.

  7. Drew Miller

    @drewmiller

    J—well said! I’m on board.
    A church friend of mine was involved in a high school production of the Lion King last spring. Kelsey and I went…and wept. I was ashamed. But I was also reminded what a beautiful story it is.

  8. Matthew Cyr

    Thanks for this post, Drew, and for inviting us to participate with your question. I sense you’re assimilating MacDonald’s “vocabulary” in Lillith more easily than I did. I remember feeling pretty lost until toward the end….but what an end.

    As for chord-striking “other world” stories, The Book of the Dun Cow comes immediately to mind. Being such an introvert, being a leader and a shepherd of a community is the furthest thing from my desires, but the book opens that life to me in a way that makes it almost familiar, as well as beautiful and heartbreaking. Is strange to say that a rooster named Chauntecleer feels more deeply human to me than most human characters, with all his grumpiness, brusqueness, impatience and fear blended with strength and courage, tenderness and selfless love?

    Another one that was an absolute thunderbolt for me was Doug McKelvey’s “The Places Beyond the Maps.” I don’t think I can even talk about it without ruining it for those who haven’t had the privilege of it yet. I’ve been almost afraid to go back and read it, like it’s too potent.

  9. Jeremy Gentry

    I’ll echo previous posters who mention Miyazaki’s films. I’ll never forget the first time I watched My Neighbor Totoro—as a 39-or-so dad alongside my two youngest daughters—and feeling absolutely awed in a way that I’d not felt for as long as I could remember. We went for a walk after the film ended and the world outside felt more fully alive; everything seemed bigger, more vibrant. And I’m not sure how to explain this; perhaps my underused imagination had been reawakened. I’ve since purchased nearly every Miyazaki film, and we’ve watched most of them numerous times (and Castle in the Sky and Nausicca are probably my other favorites).

    It’s cool that this article came up amid my first reading of the first three books of the Earthsea Cycle. Walking around as a sponsor at preteen camp last week, I would read snatches of the third book when the kids were otherwise occupied, and I found myself thinking about something similar to what this article touches on. So much of my life is saturated with the practical goings-on of the various spheres of my existence, and this seems to crowd out much awareness of the spiritual (which is at least part of the reason I write the Lord’s Prayer and read the Bible every morning—to be reminded). But reading this book of this other world—where words have power, where good and evil exist in a tenuous balance—I was moved to consider how little attention we pay to the same in our everyday lives. It made me want to pay more attention to my words; it made me think anew about how casually we pray and how amazing this seems given that our words invoke an awesome/awful/terrific/terrifying God. And it made me think about how I need literature of other worlds to help me see my world with fresh eyes, just as this article points out.

    I teach these kinds of ideas every year to sophomores, so I am excited to have experienced it in a new way before the new school year. And I’m glad to have encountered this post!

    By the way, I’ll add a few books to the list, a few of the books that help me see the world more clearly (though, with the exception of maybe McCarthy, these aren’t “other worldly” books):
    The Road by Cormac McCarthy
    Our Town by Thornton Wilder
    Gilead by Marilynn Robinson (all three in the collection, actually)

  10. Janet

    I, too, have been captivated by an otherworldly story, or rather, series of stories. I came to read The Chronicles of Narnia in my 20’s and they have permeated my psyche in a way no other books have ever done. I have felt such joy and comfort from them. I have wept openly and unashamedly while reading them aloud to my children or by myself. I look forward to grandchildren so that one day I may pass on this experience of transcendence that has so captured my imagination.

  11. Chris McLaughlin

    Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” series has captured my imagination and helped me frame what’s happening in the “real world”. So much beauty, so much truth. I’m grateful for her writings.

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