“Lilith” By: George MacDonald
I’ve been on a George MacDonald kick lately. Right now I’m reading “At the Back of the North Wind”, the third of his books I’ve read in the past couple months. It helps having his complete works on my Kindle. They’re addictive for their powerful imagery. Once I finish one, I can’t help but pick up another. Few authors speak so deeply to me. As I wrote how “Phantastes” “slayed me”, with its imagery in a previous book review, I didn’t think he could out do himself in another. I probably will sound like a broken record, but “Lilith” is even better than Phantastes for its literary power.
“Lilith,” published in 1895, is the story of the aptly named Mr. Vane and his travels through a fairy world in which he learns to be fully human. As I’ve come to realize through reading MacDonald, his fairy worlds are the place where, through his characters and stories, he contemplates the complexities of real life in all its metaphysical glory. In Mr. Vane’s adventure, he meets a tribe of people so pure and simple and small in size that he names them the “Little Ones.” As his paternal instincts kick in, he discovers that their ability to grow has been stymied by the evil witch princess named Lilith, and her hoarding of all the waters in the country. He sets out on a mission to help the little ones grow by fighting the princess for the return of the rivers of the land.
But MacDonald always has another story going on underneath what seems to be the primary plot line. Mr. Vane, who is terrified of death because he doesn’t understand it, spends much of his life and the lives of others trying to escape it. With guides, some of who turn out to be Adam and Eve, he finally learns the true meaning of life, death and redemption.
And yet, the story isn’t only about Mr. Vane. Lilith (Side note: Lilith is in actuality a female demon from Jewish folklore) is on a path to her own salvation. The chapter on her salvation and redemption is amongst the most powerful pieces of literature that I’ve ever been consumed by. Lilith, a woman who has prolonged her life through feeding on the lives of countless others, is brought before her judgement after Mr. Vane captures her and brings her to a woman named Mara, who seems to possibly symbolize Mary the mother of Christ. Here, I quote at length the beginning of her redemption, starting with words from Lilith herself:
“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 will not compel me to anything against my will!”
Mara speaking: “Such a compulsion would be without value. But there is a light that goes deeper than the will, a light that lights up the darkness behind it: that light can change your will, can make it truly yours and not another’s–not the Shadow’s. Into the created can pour itself the creating will, and so redeem it!”
“That light shall not enter me: I hate it!–Begone, slave!”
“I am no slave, for I love that light, and will with the deeper will which created mine. There is no slave but the creature that wills against its creator. Who is a slave but her who cries, ‘I am free,’ yet cannot cease to exist!”
“You speak foolishness from a cowering heart! You imagine me given over to you: I defy you! I hold myself against you! What I choose to be, you cannot change. I will not be what you think me–what you say I am!”
“I am sorry: you must suffer! But be free! She alone is free who would make free; she loves not freedom who would enslave: she is herself a slave. Every life, every will, every heart that came within your ken, you have sought to subdue: you are the slave of every slave you have made–such a slave that you do not know it!–See your own self!
She took her hand from the head of the princess, and went two backward paces from her.
A soundless presence as of a roaring flame possessed the house–the same, I presume, that was to the children a silent wind. Involuntarily I turned to the hearth: its fire was a still small moveless glow. But I saw the worm-thing come creeping out, white-hot, vivid as incandescent silver, the live heart of essential fire. Along the floor it crawled toward the settle, going very slow. Yet more slowly it crept up on it, and laid itself, as unwilling to go further, at the feet of the princes. I (Mr. Vane) rose and stole nearer. Mara stood motionless, as one that waits an event foreknown. The shining thing crawled on to a bare bony foot: it showed no suffering, neither was the settle scorched where the worm had lain. Slowly, very slowly, it crept along her robe until it reached her bosom, where it disappeared among the folds.
The face of the princess lay stonily calm, the eyelids closed as over dead eyes; and for some minutes nothing followed. At length, on the dry, parchment-like skin, began to appear drops as of the finest dew: in a moment they were as large as seed-pearls, ran together, and began to pour down in streams. I darted forward to snatch the worm from the poor withered bosom, and crush it with my foot. But Mara, Mother of Sorrow, stepped between, and drew aside the closed edges of the robe: no serpent was there–no searing trail; the creature had passed in by the center of the black spot, and was piercing through the joints and marrow to the thoughts and intents of the heart. The princess gave one writhing, contorted shudder, and I knew the worm was in her secret chamber.
“She is seeing herself!” said Mara; and laying her hand on my arm, she drew me three paces from the settle.
Of a sudden the princess bent her body upward in an arch, then sprang to the floor, and stood erect. The horror in her face made me tremble lest her eyes should open, and the sight of them overwhelm me. Her bosom heaved and sank, but no breath issued. Her hair hung and emitted sparks; again hung down, and poured the sweat of her torture on the floor.
I would have thrown my arms about her, but Mara stopped me.
“You cannot go near her,” she said. “She is far away from us, afar in the hell of her self-consciousness. The central fire of the universe is radiating into her the knowledge of good and evil, the knowledge of what she is. She sees at last the good she is not, the evil she is. She knows that she is herself the fire in which she is burning, but she does not know that the Light of Life is the heart of that fire. Her torment is that she is what she is. Do not fear for her; she is not forsaken. No gentler way to help her was left. Wait and watch.”
It may have been five minutes or five years that she stood thus–I cannot tell; but at last she flung herself on her face.
Mara went to her, and stood looking down upon her. Large tears fell from her eyes on the woman who had never wept, and would not weep.
Thus begins the story of Lilith’s judgement, redemption, and salvation. This passage, as beautiful as it is, has even more profound meaning on the realities of life if read within the full context of MacDonald’s story. One reviewer of Lilith wrote: “MacDonald writes from his own deep experience of radiance, from a bliss so profound that death’s darkness itself is utterly eclipsed in its light.”
I can’t help but agree. It’s impossible to understand how MacDonald is able to write from such a profound place of understanding and love, unless he dwelled there himself. The images he paints in “Lilith”, do indeed equal or outdo the power of those in “Phantastes.”