Lilith by George MacDonald

Cover by Jim Lamb

After Phantastes, published when he was in his early thirties, George MacDonald’s Lilith came out in 1895, when he was 70. Phantastes was a coming-of-age novel, and written by a man who, like its protagonist Anodos, was still finding his way in life — having abandoned his initial career as a minister, and now starting to make his living as a writer. Lilith is still a novel about the quest for the authentic self, but it’s no longer about that initial, coming-of-age moment of self-discovery; it’s about redemption for one’s failings in life, and a reconnection with the innocence of childhood.

It begins with its protagonist, Mr Vane, spending his days reading in his family’s library, where he encounters the mysterious figure of Mr Raven, who appears to have been popping into the lives of Vane’s family for some time. (He knew Vane’s forefather, Sir Upward, whose name makes me think of Anodos from Phantastes, one of the meanings of whose name is “upward path”.) Raven shows Vane how to access another world through a mirror in the attic, a world which is not so much a different physical location as a place that exists alongside, and in the same space, as ours, “In the region of the seven dimensions”:

I was in a world, or call it a state of things, an economy of conditions, an idea of existence, so little correspondent with the ways and modes of this world—which we are apt to think the only world, that the best choice I can make of word or phrase is but an adumbration of what I would convey.

Events there are that much more self-evidently meaningful:

While without a doubt, for instance, that I was actually regarding a scene of activity, I might be, at the same moment, in my consciousness aware that I was perusing a metaphysical argument.

Mr Raven, who seems to mix the roles of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat and David Lindsay’s Krag, is full of paradoxical-sounding but vaguely threatening advice, all of which turns out to be literally true in this parallel realm, if only Vane could understand him, and which is ultimately directed at redeeming Vane’s soul. The trouble is, Raven seems to be saying that the only way to truly live is to die, and he even has a place in his cellar among all the other dead people waiting for him:

“None of those you see,” he answered, “are in truth quite dead yet, and some have but just begun to come alive and die. Others had begun to die, that is to come alive, long before they came to us; and when such are indeed dead, that instant they will wake and leave us. Almost every night some rise and go. But I will not say more, for I find my words only mislead you!—This is the couch that has been waiting for you,” he ended, pointing to one of the three.

Cover by Gervasio Gallardo

Vane decides not to “die” just yet, and instead sets out into this strange new world. He meets a group of parentless forest-dwelling children, who speak in that awful baby-speak so many Victorian children’s writers forced into their young characters’ mouths. Nearby, there’s a race of stupid giants — and as the children also call Vane a giant, it’s obvious these are in fact merely adults. Some of the children occasionally grow into stupid giants, others remain children. Vane wants to help these children grow up properly, without the risk of turning into stupid giants, and so journeys to the city of Bulika, ruled by a princess who doesn’t allow any children in her land, as there’s a prophecy that a child will one day kill her. This princess is in fact the vampire Lilith, Adam’s first wife who left when he said he’d never “obey and worship” her, and who has turned her realm into a waterless desert whose selfish people love only riches. (George MacDonald seems to have regarded wealth as the greatest of sins: “But with God all things are possible: He can save even the rich!”) Vane’s attempts to save the children and overcome Lilith’s evil are closely entwined with his own need to redeem himself and, finally, lie down in Mr Raven’s room and “die” so that he may, mysteriously, live.

Lilith is an odd mix of at times cutesy Victorian fantasy and at others dark, almost existential, psychology. Of the children in the book, J B Pick, in The Great Shadow House (a study of Scottish authors with a metaphysical bent), says:

“The problem is not merely that MacDonald is sentimental about children — that’s common enough in Victorian writers — but that sentimentality is essentially an evasion of reality by wishful-feeling, and its all-pervasiveness casts doubt upon the author’s ability to think straight on other issues.”

He goes on, however, to praise the “intense psychological penetration” of the cornered Lilith’s resistance to being redeemed. Redemption, in this world, requires the renunciation of the self — or, at least, of the willed self — as symbolised by the sleep of death, and Lilith is at first too obsessed with being the person she has made of herself, dark though it is, and not the person she was made (by God) to be. But this self-willed identity is, in the novel, a state of life-in-death:

She knew life only to know that it was dead, and that, in her, death lived. It was not merely that life had ceased in her, but that she was consciously a dead thing. She had killed her life, and was dead—and knew it.

There are moments where Vane himself feels the sort of dread the Existentialists of the 20th century would write about:

Then first I knew what an awful thing it was to be awake in the universe: I was, and could not help it!

And also the sort of idea Hermann Hesse presented in Demian, that a human being is not a finished thing, but an experiment, or a process, always in a state of becoming:

I saw now that a man alone is but a being that may become a man—that he is but a need, and therefore a possibility.

As a result, although MacDonald is clearly writing about a Christian redemption achieved through giving oneself up to God — and returning to the unconvincing, innocent state of his over-cute children — it nevertheless brings in a psychological complexity that means it’s far from presenting it as an easy, simple, or painless thing to do.

Lilith has a mixed feel. On the one hand, there’s the obvious joy Vane takes in the children, which can’t help but make me think of the grandfatherly MacDonald allowing himself to be piled on, and have his beard tugged by, his no-doubt numerous grandchildren (he had, after all, eleven children, so could easily have had a small army of grandkids); on the other, there’s a sense of still, even at the end of life, trying to find a solution to the riddle of oneself, and the burden that being, and willing, bring to the life of a human soul. As Mr Raven says, at one point:

“Indeed you are yourself the only riddle. What you call riddles are truths, and seem riddles because you are not true.”

As a fantasy, I found it a lot less enjoyable than Phantastes, even though its story was more focused. (It still had its bizarre episodes that did little to help the plot except add wonders and horrors, as in the land where monsters and wild animals burst out of and back into the ground, or the ruined castle where skeletons dance at night.) It seems, to me, that MacDonald never wrote enough of this sort of adult fantasy to really hone the form, but nevertheless had a natural feel for how to make serious use of his imagination.

MacDonald’s two adult fantasies were both early entries in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series (Phantastes coming out in April 1969, Lilith in September the same year), their contents perfectly suited to those flower-powerishly innocent Gervasio Gallardo covers, with their mix of childlike wonder and fairy-tale strangeness. But there’s definitely a darker element there, too, and at its most potent in Lilith’s resistant struggle to being redeemed in Mr Raven’s life-in-death House of Bitterness. This comes across as a little too genuine to be merely MacDonald’s invention, but more likely something he felt, to some degree, himself.

The Palace of Morgana by John Sterling

cover art by Richard Dadd

I first heard of the early-19th century writer John Sterling through Brian Stableford’s Dedalus Book of British Fantasy: The 19th Century, which included one of his tales, “A Chronicle of England”. Introducing it, Stableford said:

“Sterling would surely have become one of the leading writers of his day had he not died so young, and he might well have become the most important nineteenth century fantasy writer; his prose fantasies are more various and more adventurous than any other contemporary work.”

“A Chronicle of England” paints a delightful, fairy-haunted picture of England in the days before it received its first human inhabitants. The constant battles between the semi-substantial, light-loving fairies, and their brothers, the thunderous, brutal giants, often feels like a poetic allegory of England’s changeable weather — sunny one moment, cloudy the next — particularly when, at one point, the giants open a great cave to unleash a mist upon the land. The story certainly felt different in the richness and poetry of its fantasy elements compared to the other writers in the anthology, and I wanted to find out more.

Sterling was born in 1806 and died of tuberculosis in 1844. During his short life he’d been co-proprietor of the literary magazine The Atheneum, a disciple of the elderly Coleridge, and a friend of Thomas Carlyle. He wrote novels (Arthur Coningsby, published in 1833; The Onyx Ring, serialised from 1838 to 1839), poetry, and numerous essays, plus enough short fantasy stories to fill a slim volume. His shorter writings were mostly collected in a two-volume, posthumous Essays and Tales in 1848 (which you can find at archive.org), and these contain almost all of his fantasy output. (His novel Arthur Coningsby also contains some easily-separable stories, as told by its characters, some of which are published on their own in Essays and Tales, but I found two more of a fantastical nature that merited being collected as tales in their own right.)

cover by Murray Ewing

Once I’d sought these out, cleaned up the text, and assembled them together for my own reading, I thought I’d put them out as a book, because, although the Essays and Tales are freely available as a PDF, I think the fantasy tales are worth issuing on their own, and in a more readable form.

Are they worthy, though, of Stableford’s high praise? It’s impossible, of course, to tell if Sterling really would have become one of his age’s most important writers, but his fantasy stories certainly show signs of developing in a unique direction. Aside from an attempt at Orientalism (“The Caterpillar”), which at least has the virtue of ending with a humorous moral to its tale of what happens to a young woman who thoughtlessly flicks a caterpillar off her arm, Sterling’s early tales published in The Atheneum were mostly set in or around the world of Ancient Greek myth. “Zamor”, for instance, is a sort of Vathek-in-miniature, providing three glimpses into the life of Alexander the Great, first as a carefree but ambitious boy, then as a world-conqueror granted a glimpse of the afterlife horrors awaiting all world-conquerors, and finally as a broken man haunted by that terrible vision. Perhaps the best tale of this period is the poignant “The Last of the Giants”, in which a fifteenth-century man, wandering among wild mountains after a shipwreck, gets a privileged but mournful glimpse of the titular creature.

The Arthur Coningsby tales are slighter but see an opening out in the sort of fantasy Sterling wrote. “The Crystal Prison”, for instance, is about a man punished by being imprisoned in a crystal sphere, in which, wherever he looks, he sees only his own face (an idea also used, if I recall rightly, in “The Hell of Mirrors” by Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo in 1926), and “The Sons of Iron” is a sort of early robot fable, about men made of metal who spend their lives making more men out of metal.

Portrait of John Sterling, by J Brown

Near the end of his life, Sterling began publishing a series of stories under the shared title “Legendary Lore” in Blackwood’s Magazine, and it’s here his writing really shows the promise Stableford alluded to. “A Chronicle of England” and “The Palace of Morgana” (a virtually conflict-free idyll about bright young things flitting around the grounds of a paradisal palace, amusing themselves with displays of magic — Stableford calls it “a uniquely delicate prose poem”) have left the world of Classical Greece for a fantasy that seems to owe more to the Shakespeare of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. The fantasy in these two tales is poetic and playful, strange and wondrous. Also published in Blackwood’s was “The Suit of Armour and the Skeleton”, a dialogue between two relics in an old church, one of whom (the suit of armour), despite being hollow, is rather full of himself, for having once been worn by a somewhat brutal duke, while the skeleton, of humbler origins, proves to have a more down-to-earth and inclusive outlook, as well as a greater claim to be on display in the church. The title and form both reminded me of Clark Ashton Smith’s prose-poem dialogue, “The Corpse and the Skeleton”, which has a similarly satirical (though more darkly cynical) flavour.

If these three, the best of Sterling’s tales, point the way to how his work might have progressed had he lived, he’d certainly have deserved Stableford’s praise. Ralph Waldo Emerson wanted to get Sterling’s works published in the US, and Carlyle, Sterling’s friend and literary executor, wrote a book on his life, but today he’s mostly forgotten. I’d like to imagine though, that, had the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line continued, it might one day have had a Sterling volume such as this. (I was aiming for something of that feel with my cover.) His language is often poetic and archaic (and I like it all the more for that), and he may rely, on occasion, on certain Romantic clichés (most of his heroines are unworldly, innocent types devoted to their ageing, widowed fathers, but have a longing to witness strange and sublime sights), but if you like classic fantasy, I think there’s something to enjoy in them.

The Palace of Morgana and Other Fantasy Tales is now available on Kindle, ePub and in paperback (and, of course, you can read most of the tales in Essays and Tales at archive.org).