Review: Lilith, by George MacDonald (1895)
There’s the joke that the difference between the Victorians and our current era is that the Victorians were obsessed with Death and acted as though Sex didn’t exist, whereas current modernity is the other way around. It’s not actually true, of course, but it’s still amusing.
Today, I’m going to look at one of those texts that is important to the development of the fantasy genre, while also rather playing into that particular stereotype about Victorians. Specifically, Lilith (1895) by George MacDonald.
I’d read a reasonable amount of MacDonald’s fantasy works before – insofar as one can actually call him fantasy in a modern sense. Strictly, he’s a writer of dream-adventures after the manner of Lewis Carroll, albeit with a more Christian twist. The Princess and the Goblin (1872), as it happens, was a key influence on Tolkien’s Orcs, while Phantastes (1858) can be considered the first modern fantasy novel for adults, depending on one’s definition. Personally, I would prefer to categorise MacDonald as speculative dream fiction, and give the title of modern fantasy progenitor to William Morris. But that’s just me.
I also think Lilith – a good deal meatier than my previous MacDonald reads – warrants the title of flawed masterpiece.
The flaws leap to the eye, unfortunately. The book is frankly twice as long as it needs to be, takes forever to actually get to the interesting parts, and the prose is weak. It lacks the pseudo-archaic diction of Morris, but in its place you get a verbose and bland nineteenth century narrative style, one that is also laden with melodrama. Just as Morris is no Dunsany, neither is MacDonald, and honestly MacDonald has bigger weaknesses as a writer than Morris.
What made the book interesting for me was twofold: the influences on subsequent fantasy, and its underlying philosophical themes.
Influence-wise, MacDonald is one of those key figures who shaped C.S. Lewis – not so much Tolkien, but Lewis adored him. Together with Morris’ Lady (The Wood Beyond the World) and Rider Haggard’s Ayesha (She), the title character is a clear influence on Jadis the White Witch, the intimidating antagonistic sorceress, who is both evil and attractive. There’s even a moment where Lilith the character is thrown into a closet, in the form of a cat, which naturally evokes a certain magical land in a wardrobe. And she is eventually brought down by an army of children and animals. Meanwhile, MacDonald’s magical mirror-portal presages Lewis’ various connections between Our World and Narnia. Seriously, there are points in this book that read like a Victorian attempt to write a Narnian novel.
Nor is Lewis the only later figure who seems to have been influenced by this book. The Little Ones – literally children who aren’t growing up – might well have influenced James Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904). Or at least Barrie presents a darker and more cynical take on the concept. MacDonald’s Little Ones are, of course, played with full Victorian idolisation of childhood, and prior to the arrival of our protagonist, are intimidated by the evilness of giants (adults). But don’t worry. Their innocence eventually wins through against the corruption of our evil antagonist. They just needed some help.
So far as the philosophy of the text goes, here we are on interesting ground. You see, in contrast to Lewis, MacDonald was a Christian Universalist. He believed that, eventually, everyone would repent their sins, and enter salvation. As such, the book is essentially a case-study on whether the mythical Lilith herself can be saved – and, at the risk of spoiling a 128 year-old book, that is eventually what happens, though not without much wailing and gnashing of teeth. The key theme is articulated by Adam (yes, that one: he spends some time earlier moonlighting as a librarian called Mr Raven), when he tells our protagonist that Evil cannot be killed, except insofar as it is replaced with Good.
MacDonald’s Lilith is thus a case of a redeemed fantasy villain, in a setting where she is not contrasted with a irredeemable villain. Something quite rare in the subsequent genre, I think – even Darth Vader’s eventual turn is set against the irredeemable Emperor. Here? Lilith lives an unpleasant existence, sucking blood and hating her daughter with Adam, until she is finally overthrown and led into repentance. There is no such end for Jadis, Ayesha, or the Lady, while Morgoth, Sauron, and Saruman merely spit on the chance to repent. Albeit, repentance in this case means joining the sleepers in the House of Death.
And that brings us to the theme of Death. Specifically, how in Lilith (the book) it is merely the pathway to capital-l Life. Not something to be feared at all, but rather to be welcomed, a means of ascending to that which is real.
MacDonald arguably strays into over-egging this particular pudding, after the manner of Lewis in The Last Battle, and he also gets into similar territory with one of his other novels, At the Back of the North Wind (1871). But, to be fair, he does at least introduce a couple of caveats into this religious thanatophilia. Firstly, there’s a scene where a despairing old man seeks Death, only to be turned away from the House because he doesn’t actually want what is there – he really just doesn’t want to live. And secondly, while our protagonist in-universe joins his loved-one in this peaceful slumber, the conclusion of the novel involves him waking up back in Our World. He decides against seeking the portal again, and is satisfied to wait for his appointed time.
In short, MacDonald argues one ought to accept Death, but not seek it. It’s rather a shame MacDonald’s prose-writing is so verbose and melodramatic, because as a thematic discussion of a human universal, it’s one of the more intelligent ones in the genre. Far more so than J.K. Rowling’s effort in Harry Potter.
So yeah. George MacDonald, nineteenth century pioneer of speculative fiction. While I do think Lilith is his masterpiece, the book has enough flaws that it can make reading it a chore. I have previously noted that MacDonald and Morris are more interesting for whom they influenced than for their literary works themselves… and as much as I admire MacDonald’s creativity and his meaningful engagement with themes, that is a conclusion that has only strengthened with my read of Lilith.
This makes me so happy. I’ve read At the Back of the North Wind a couple years ago & just finished The Princess and the Goblin, but I didn’t know this book existed. Something new for the TBR! Seems more my vibe than the previous two, but I could be wrong
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This one actually reminded me of Star Trek, of all things. Specifically, Lona reminded me of Miri.
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