Lilith

Lady Lilith ~Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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 flummoxed. 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 his own 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…”

9 Responses to “Lilith”

  1. Gretchen says:

    Oooh, I love George MacDonald, but I haven’t read this one. My favorites so far are (all) the ones edited by Michael Phillips–but I s’pose I shouldn’t really be admitting that here, that I read edited books! 😉 I just liked his editing better than the other editor’s ones that I read… 🙂

  2. Lindsay says:

    Oh, I loved that one too! It’s amazing how MacDonald weaves so much truth with his fantasy worlds (though he was a universalist,–yikes!), and how he wakes one up to so much of the glory and wonder of the works of God’s hands.

    Phantastes is the best of all I’ve read of his works.

    By the way, does anyone here know the lines MacDonald wrote about meeting another person through the lines of a book? I vaguely recall reading a few lines like this in a library book years ago in another town, but I’ve searched in vain to figure out even the correct work.

  3. Vanesa Ringle says:

    Lindsay,

    Where have you read that he was a universalist? Have you found proof for this claim in any of his works?

    -Vanesa

  4. Lanier Ivester says:

    George MacDonald had absolutely no fear of ‘imagining God better than He is’. (The Hope of the Gospel, 1892). He possessed a conviction of the love of God which many have criticized for its vision of a long-suffering and ultimate redemption of even the most hardened of hearts. Certainly there are grounds for mature questioning of any human teacher or writer on the part of the sincere lover of Truth.

    But MacDonald himself defied labels–let’s not get caught up in that and lose the least joy of his incomparable writings. 🙂

  5. Vanesa Ringle says:

    thank you so much for replying! Absolutely great reply, too. I am glad I posted this question here.

  6. Jennifer says:

    Lanier,

    I stumbled across your website a few days ago and cannot stay away! I have been pouring over your archives. After four busy years consumed with caring for my two babies, moving three times and having my husband often deployed, I am now re-entering a season of life where I can devote time again to reading. My precious boys (now four and two) are a couple of years older, and I can concentrate on a book without falling asleep! 🙂 I am thrilled to have a bit of time again to pour over great books. Thank you so much for sharing your heart here and for taking the time to write book reviews. I am inspired. I look forward to ordering from you soon!

    Blessings to you,
    Jennifer

  7. I have gone back to Lanier’s archives a few time, especially on a cold winter’s day. 🙂

    I must read this book as I love fantasy. I adore L’Engle and Lewis (whose Time Quartet and Space Trilogy respectively just blew me away).

  8. […] 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… 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… 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!” (Click here to read Lanier’s complete review of Lilith.) […]

  9. […] If you’re interested in reading a bit more about George MacDonald, you can read my review of Lilith here. […]

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