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 baffled. 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 the 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…”