“You looked a raven, and I saw you dig worms out of the earth with your beak.”
“Toss them in the air.”
“They grew butterflies, and flew away.”
“Did you ever see a raven do that? I told you I was a sexton!”
“Does a sexton toss worms in the air, and turn them into butterflies?”
“I never saw one do it!”
“You saw me do it!—But I am still librarian in your house, for I never was dismissed, and never gave up the office. Now I am librarian here as well.”
“But you have just told me you were sexton here!”
“So I am. It is much the same profession. Except you are a true sexton, books are but dead bodies to you, and a library nothing but a catacomb!”
“You bewilder me!”
“That’s all right!”
Author: George MacDonald
Synopsis: When young Mr. Vane follows a ghostly personage through a mirror in the family mansion, he receives an invitation to sleep indefinitely. Upon resisting that, Vane begins a series of adventures in and out of the world—and eventually finds himself caught in the middle of Adam and Eve’s attempted reconciliation to the faithless Lilith. Vane has a part to play in the returning of Lilith to Adam’s door, but in order to do so, he must submit to the original invitation and accept even death.
Notes: In a beautiful introduction to the 2000 Eerdmans edition of this book, C.S. Lewis calls Lilith one of MacDonald’s great works, along with Phantastes, the Curdie books, The Golden Key, and The Wise Woman. “What he does best is fantasy,” Lewis says, “—fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man.”
Having managed to read Phantastes without making sense of more than a quarter of it, I was not tempted to sympathize with Lewis going into Lilith. The episodic, often confusing first half of the book took some perseverance to get through. It contained no mention of the title character—at least, not by name; it did, however, contain a lot of imagery that was difficult to comprehend beyond the Curdie-esque use of a continuum between the human and the subhuman.
A combination of things kept me reading, however. First, the striking mirror-reversal thoughts: “...the business of the universe is to make such a fool of you that you will know yourself for one, and so begin to be wise!” Second, the fact that I’d thrown my book club in the deep end of the fantasy pool by making them read this, and figured I at least ought to know what I'd gotten them into. A little beyond halfway in, I began to catch on to what Lewis meant.
MacDonald juxtaposes two stories, and it would be difficult to claim which is the primary: that of narrator Vane, who wanders the strange realm, or that of titular Lilith, who fights her one hope of redemption. Neither tale seems designed to make it easy for literary critics to explain what the book is about, exactly.
Whatever it's about, though, the story turns on the theme of obedience unto death, which is the central question of the motherhood Lilith refused, as well as being the point upon which Vane must satisfy the world into which he has journeyed. One hardly needs to look far into MacDonald’s faith to discover that it is also a rather important question Christ answered for humanity; a fact which unites both Lilith and Vane—though not explicitly—to the New Adam in their path toward redemption. In this, the characters follow something of Dante’s progression*, with Vane being guided through Lilith’s torment and purgation, followed by an ascent through paradise.
In a world full of stories designed to teach the young independence, self-reliance, the breaking of restraints and the throwing off of authority, the tale's fixation on mortal obedience is breathtaking enough. Lilith is more than that, though, as MacDonald works to reveal “the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen”. As Lewis says:
“[The mythic story] is in some ways more akin to music than to poetry or at least to most poetry. It goes beyond the expression of things we have already felt. It arouses in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having, as though we had broken out of our normal mode of consciousness and ‘possessed joys not promised to our birth.’ It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are reopened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives.”Lilith aspires to the final chapters of Revelation—and then its own final chapter is ambiguous, leaving the reader to guess at what Vane’s experience was and will be. Readers may be haunted, horrified, baffled, moved, or all of the above.
As for this reader, I sat on a blanket out in the sun with tears running down my face, feeling as close to having glimpsed a bit of the afterlife as ever I get. There are a few lines in literature that strike the very heart of the hope of ‘joys not promised to our birth’. Lewis himself wrote some of them: “How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” and “Further up and further in!” memorably. Dante wrote some, among them “A l'alta fantasia qui mancò possa”—”Here ceased the powers of my high fantasy.”** MacDonald, who already had “A great good is coming—is coming—is coming to thee, Anodos” to his credit, crowns his beautiful theme of obedience unto death with “I wait; asleep or awake, I wait.”
For all that this thoroughly Gothic story is among the darkest of MacDonald’s great fairy tales, it is yet a chink in the wall of a cavern, letting in the sunlight. And for all its strange sadness, it is inexplicably, splendidly beautiful.
Recommendation: Read it for a dark yet lovely fairy tale take on the concept of redemption, as well as interesting resolution of the mythological Lilith's story.
* would never have thought of this if Mr. Pond hadn’t mentioned it
** translation by Anthony Esolen