Metaphysical Romance: Lilith

Lilith: “What I choose to seem to myself makes me what I am. My own thought makes me me; my own thought of myself is me. Another shall not make me!”

Eve: “But another has made you, and can compel you to see what you have made yourself.”

LILITH: A ROMANCE (1895) is the final novel in the career of Scottish writer George MacDonald.

In a way, it forms a bookend with his first novel PHANTASTES (1858), using a similar setting and genre to approach similar themes, albeit from an opposite perspective. PHANTASTES told of a youth entering fairyland, pursuing romance but finding self-sacrifice, dying and rising again to return to earth to begin a parallel life here. LILITH, in contrast, is about a man of mature years passing through a magic mirror into a desolate spirit world or limbo inhabited by the dead awaiting resurrection, where the alluring love-interest must be persuaded to the path of self-sacrifice for her own salvation. In this mirror world, those alive on earth are seen as dead, and those dead on earth are slumbering to await waking to eternal life.

Both stories are told in a fairytale fashion, with simply-drawn stock characters, heavily symbolic or poetical events, centered on moral challenges and conundrums. Neither are clear, easy, nor enjoyable reads.

Indeed, the lack of clarity, and the lack of enjoyment, make this a difficult book to read, and a difficult review to write. Simply put, yours truly did not understand the book, and, as best I can tell from a glance at reviews and lectures from wiser pens than mine, neither did anyone else.

My main motive for writing this review, if I may be perfectly candid, is not to tell the reader what the book meant, but instead to say what it does not mean. I met repeated errors from other reviewers, whose interpretations are wrongheaded to the point of negligence or malice. At least one reviewer claimed LILITH was an expression of Victorian misogyny, Victorians puritanism, hatred of sex and of sexual expression. Well, dear reader, I do not know what this novel means, but I know it does not mean that or anything remotely like that, so I take up my pen to set the record straight.

The plot is meandering and episodic. The protagonist, Mr. Vane, a bookish fellow, without wife or child, whose library has overspread his wide and neglected mansion, finds himself haunted by the ghost of his father’s library, a Mr. Raven. In the otherworld, to which this house is connected by means of an mirror-chamber in the attic, Mr. Raven becomes a raven in truth.

The otherworld is described as being “the realm of seven dimensions” (a phrase reminiscent of FLATLAND by Edwin Abbott ), with objects there corresponding to objects there, but the limitations of Mr. Vane’s merely human and sinful senses prevent him from seeing things as they are. The trees and bushes of the cold forest of otherworld occupy the same space as the piano in Vane’s drawing room, or the fountain in his garden. For example, prayers in our world are as worms there, living things which, when rooted up by the raven, grow wings and soar to heaven.

Later it is revealed Mr. Raven is Adam, the first ancestor of man. Adam acts as a sexton of an extensive but bitterly cold mausoleum, where all the children of Adam lay awaiting resurrection. The plot of the novel centers on Mr. Vane’s refusal to enter and slumber on the cold slab set aside for him.

Instead Vane wanders the highly symbolic and haunted countryside of the otherworld, through moor and wasteland, forest and city. The land is parched, for all riverbeds are dry, perhaps due to the lack of tears of repentance.

Vane is menaced by monsters in the waterless waste, but protected by the moon, which is always full. He comes across skeletons in various states of decay, either dancing or quarrelling, depending on how grotesquely sinful is the state of their souls.

After, Vane is captured by particularly stupid and nonthreatening evil giants called “Bags” and then rescued by fairylike eternal children called the Little Ones, who never grow up. These are not the puckish and quarrelsome Lost Boys from Neverland: in this reversed dimension, growing up for these children is a degeneration into the stupid evil Bags. The Little Ones are also called the Lovers, since they are creatures of pure love, without guile.

The symbolism here is obscure to me; one assumes, in the same way that life here is death there, and death here is sleep there, growth there is what we here would see as growth in worldliness or cynicism, also known as loss of that childlike simplicity of spirit needed for salvation.

Mr. Vane finds in a cave the corpse of a woman, and nurses it back to health with his own body heat, and, or so it seems, his own blood. She very slowly revives, and assumes a stature of cold and striking beauty. He falls in love with her, and she reacts with scorn, for she boasts she is a queen and immortal.

This is Lilith. However, her boast is hollow, for to be immortal in the otherworld means only to be and remain dead forever, while humbler, childlike souls find true life in resurrection.

Lilith is a character from Jewish lore, the first wife of Adam, not taken from his flesh, who refused to submit to him or bear him children, so was put aside for Eve. In other stories, she is a vampiress and infanticide.

Here, Lilith is queen of the dismal city of Bulika, ringed by a dry moat, where no man tills nor toils, but all dig beneath their cellars for gemstones found there, and to bear children is forbidden by law. Lilith is followed and pursued by a flat, black shadow of her own making.

The throneroom of Lilith’s palace is a black ellipsoid where a mirror of her own beauty hangs at one focus, and her chair at the other, so she is entirely surrounded by images of her own pride and beauty.

After more adventures and symbolic episodes involving dark chambers, ungrateful mothers, leopard fights, and a flying horse made of bone, Vane returns to the forest of Little Ones, and aids their young girl leader, Lona, Lilith’s daughter, first to overthrow the bag giants, then next to overthrow the evil city of Bulika.

Lilith kills Lona, her daughter, battles Eve in leopard form, and is captured into Adam’s mausoleum: for even such a diabolical sinner is Lilith is not beyond reach of purgation and salvation.

In fiery speeches, Lilith defies Adam, motherhood, life and God Almighty, proclaiming herself grander than any of these. Her fist is clenched tight and cannot be opened, but after a long struggle, it is cut from her wrist, and waters return to the desolate landscape.

The great morning of resurrection comes, and all the living things shine with light, down to the least blade of grass. A fair city descends from heaven, and a river of living waters gush from its gates. The Little Ones are escorted within amid angelic voices, thunders, clouds.

An unseen hand leads Vane through a golden to door to wake up on our world, back in his library, doubting whether he sleeps or wakes, wondering at the visions he saw, vowing to await in hope until his final time may come.

Again, the parallel to PHANTASES is evident, for the tale had the same meandering, nonlinear structure, the same heavy use of symbolism, and the ending was likewise a reawakening back at home on earth. There, however, Anados was at the beginning of his life, and here Vane is the end.

It is worth nothing that the name “Anados” means “Uplift” which is given as the name of the ancestor of Vane who first made the magic mirror opening into otherworld. It is possible one story is a sequel to the other, taking place in the same background world, namely, our own, one in fairyland, the other in purgatory.

The characters have very little character, but do have memorable and striking roles, as is often the case in fairy tales. The wry riddling and squawking complaints of the Raven attempting to get Mr. Vane to look at the otherworld correctly, see the meanings of the symbols, obey the instructions established for him, and so on, is vivid. Likewise the haughty pride of the queenly and deadly Lilith remind one of similar immortal and sinister beauties from H. Rider Haggard or C.S. Lewis. Mr. Vane himself is something of an everyman; we get no hints about his past or his goals until quite late in the book.

The writing style is not to my taste, for it is neither as ornate as an epic poem, nor as prosaic as a parable. And yet, at other times, the prose is too ornate, or merely states something the reader has not been led to feel. Allow me to quote one passage from the climax of the book, before the descent of the New Jerusalem:

But hark the herald of the sun, the auroral wind, softly trumpeting his approach! The master-minister of the human tabernacle is at hand! Heaping before his prow a huge ripple-fretted wave of crimson and gold, he rushes aloft, as if new launched from the urging hand of his maker into the upper sea—pauses, and looks down on the world. White-raving storm of molten metals, he is but a coal from the altar of the Father’s never-ending sacrifice to his children. See every little flower straighten its stalk, lift up its neck, and with outstretched head stand expectant: something more than the sun, greater than the light, is coming, is coming—none the less surely coming that it is long upon the road! What matters to-day, or to-morrow, or ten thousand years to Life himself, to Love himself! He is coming, is coming, and the necks of all humanity are stretched out to see him come! Every morning will they thus outstretch themselves, every evening will they droop and wait—until he comes. —Is this but an air-drawn vision? When he comes, will he indeed find them watching thus?

It was a glorious resurrection-morning. 

Is this a description of a large golden sun arising, or merely a sermon about the glory of the Last Day? It seems to be both. I urge the reader not to be hasty: It must be read in context to judge whether it achieves its desired effect.

The visual images are described in a fashion I find confusing, and often I am unable to picture what is happening. Unfortunately, the one place the visions were clearly described, namely, the half-corpse half-skeletons dancing and pretending to be alive, were simply grotesque.

At times, the visual ambiguity is fatal to my enjoyment. For example, Lona is not described, so I do not know if she is a young child or a young woman. When Vane expresses loyalty and love toward her, which I take to be erotic love, I cannot tell whether to be repelled by the pederasty or pleased by the romance.

The theme is grandiose and profound, as profound as anything attempting in prose or rhyme. MacDonald is treading the same ground as Milton and Dante, but using the humble vehicle of the fairytale genre in much the same way as the gnostic visionary David Lindsay in VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS used the genre of interplanetary travel.

The use of a looking glass to enter a looking glass world where all things are reversed from the world we know reminds one of Lewis Carroll (who was a contemporary and friend of MacDonald). Except here, in what we might call a G.K. Chestertonian irony, it is our earthly world that is the backward shadow or image, and things seen as in a glass darkly here, are seen plainly and starkly there, in the Realm of Seven Dimensions. The additional four dimensions are not identified, but include such things as sin and repentance, mind and spirit.

The difficulty for me, since I did not understand the novel, is understanding whether the theme is handled well or badly. If, dear reader, you read this book and intuitively grasp the meanings and symbols as they were meant to be grasped, both the sorrows and glories, successes and failures, will seem real and poignant. If not, then not. I do not want to dissuade the reader for whom this might be the book of gold, and his favorite book of all time, nor do I want to waste the time of the reader whom this book will leave puzzled, irked, and cold.

I cannot even say that if you like books of this genre you will like this book, because there are no other books of this genre, not even MacDonald’s other books, except, perhaps, PHANTASTES. I will say only that this is a deep book, one of those that rewards rereading, so that the more one puts into it, the more one gets out.

But I will say this: this is not a typical Victorian book. It is not a typical Christian book, typical Christian fantasy, or typical fantasy book. It is not a typical anything. It is unique.

There are fantasy elements, such as giants and witches and shape-changing leopardesses, but each of these is treated as a symbol of Christian theology, not as a story element for its own sake. Like the otherworld itself, the novel is seven-dimensional.

And, if I may contradict what other critics have said this is not a book where a puritanical Victorian writer portrays a sexually liberated woman as an image of dread.

Lilith, if anything, will sting the modern reader because she is too accurate and correct a portrayal of modernity. The early suffragettes were spiritualists, that is, witches, and the architype of a vain and selfish woman was as well known then as now. Lilith is a woman who wants to be female without being nun, wife, or mother, serving neither god nor man, destroying rather than sustaining children. She says as much in the text.

At one place, Lilith in regal tones says explicitly that since the child she bore is hers, the child belongs to her, so she may kill the child if it please her. To forbid her from child-murder is an imposition on her rights, and attempt to make her a slave, which Lilith will always resist, despite any torture!

In another place, she says this:

Lilith: “No one ever made me. I defy that Power to unmake me from a free woman! You are his slave, and I defy you! You may be able to torture me—I do not know, but you shall not compel me to anything against my will!”

Eve: “Such a compulsion would be without value….” 

No one ever made me. Sound familiar? Whatever you identify yourself to be, regardless of reality, that is what you are.

In other words, she is not liberated in any way, shape, or form, except perhaps to be liberated from the freedom that comes from virtue, self-control, devotion to heaven.

I can imagine the modern daughters of the theosophists and witches who founded the suffragette movement in the Victorian Era cheering in agreement with the demoness. Lilith is the perfect embodiment of Luciferian pride, both faithless wife and infanticidal mother.

Small wonder the modern reviewers I was misfortunate enough to encounter condemn MacDonald for wrongthink so vehemently.

The Christian humility which applies to man and woman alike, but is more beautiful in women because more needed for virginity and for motherhood, is gall and ashes to the modern mind. Even Milton’s Lucifer is not as perfectly portrayed in his pride as is MacDonald’s Lilith, for she utters defiance against heaven as ringing as his, but the author carries the trope out to its logical conclusion, ending with mere petulance and petty back-talk.

In sum, LILITH is neither puritanical nor misogynistic, for these words are merely used in the modern day to refer to the opposite of their true meanings. It is not puritanical to eschew sexual abnormality and unchastity, nor is it misogyny to prefer modesty to vanity. These things are merely common sense and common decency.

What MacDonald does, as so few writers even dare to attempt, is to show the strangeness and awe-inspiring wonder of common things, of womanhood and childhood, selfishness and selflessness, vanity and honesty, pride and wisdom, death and life and salvation.

In this work, he has wrought something as beautiful and glorious and ugly and odd as life itself, as it might be seen through a mirror, or from another dimension. It might be worth your while to walk a while into that world, and look back at ours.

Or it might not. I do not understand this book, so I cannot say.