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.