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.


Phantastes by George MacDonald

George MacDonald is a key figure in the development of modern fantasy. A friend of Lewis Carroll (whose Alice in Wonderland he read to his children in manuscript, and encouraged the Reverend Dodgson to publish), and an influence on the Inklings (C S Lewis first read Phantastes in 1916 and went on to champion MacDonald’s writings; Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major was the result of his trying, and failing, to write an introduction to MacDonald’s The Golden Key). As well as fairy tales for children, realistic novels, sermons, etc., MacDonald wrote two “faerie romances” for adults, one at the start of his career (Phantastes, in 1858) and one near the end (Lilith, in 1895) — though one of his most famous statements, in the essay “The Fantastic Imagination”, makes it clear he made no real distinction about age:

For my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.

MacDonald’s approach to fantasy owed a lot to the German Romantics (of whose Märchen, or literary fairy tales, de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine was his favourite), in believing that the imagination, just like the landscape was to so many Romantic artists and poets, was not just a frivolous indulgence, but a realm in which serious spiritual truths could be revealed, for, he believed:

The imagination of man is made in the image of the imagination of God.

And it’s this idea, perhaps, that most attracted Lewis and Tolkien (whose idea of “secondary creation” seems closely related), but also, I think, it’s this sort of moral seriousness that influenced David Lindsay, another reader of MacDonald. At his best (but not always), MacDonald managed to be serious in meaning without having to underline any explicit moral. As he says in “The Fantastic Imagination”:

The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is—not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself.

Phantastes cover by Gervasio Gallardo, for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series

The protagonist of Phantastes (and I haven’t found a really good explanation of the title’s meaning, nor how it’s pronounced) is Anodos, whose name means either “pathless” or “upward path” in Ancient Greek (and as he at one point in his adventures hears tittering fairies saying “Look at him! Look at him! He has begun a story without a beginning, and it will never have any end. He! he! he! Look at him!”, it’s at least the former, but most likely both). On his 21st birthday, given the keys to his dead father’s escritoire, he finds a secret compartment that holds a tiny fairy, who grows to full size and tells him he’ll be journeying to Fairy Land tomorrow. The next day, he wakes to find his bedroom half-transformed into a fairy landscape, with a stream pouring from his wash-stand and grass in place of a carpet.

What follows is more a series of episodes than a single narrative, though there is a general movement towards some sort of a moral education on Anodos’s part (this is a coming-of-age story, after all). First, there’s some slapstick with tiny flower fairies, which might come straight out of an early Disney film, but afterwards there’s horror, as Anodos is pursed through the wood by some sort of shadowy walking tree. He’s saved from that by another tree, or tree-woman, who warns him to “shun the Ash and the Alder; for the Ash is an ogre,—you will know him by his thick fingers; and the Alder will smother you with her web of hair”. Later, he finds a woman encased in alabaster, though she runs away when he frees her, and when later still he thinks he’s found her again, it proves to be the deceptive Alder, who looks beautiful from the front, but behind is “hollow, as if made of decaying bark torn from a tree”. After this, he acquires a living shadow, which casts a disillusioning, cynicising darkness on everything it passes over. He finds temporary release in a Fairy Palace, which seems to represent the world of art, both as escape (Anodos spends time sampling other, very real-seeming worlds through the palace’s library) and redemption (he finds, again, his alabaster woman, shrouded by his shadow, and realises he can free her by singing).

Cover by Jim Lamb for 1981 Eerdmans edition

The story seems to consist of a constant shuttling between states of darkness (entrapment by the Alder, disillusionment by the shadow) and visions of light or beauty (the alabaster woman, the fairy palace), with Anodos coming to learn of his own powers as a poet (his singing), while also being genuinely disillusioned that he might be some sort of knightly hero. He finally accepts this and becomes the squire to a genuine knight, but in the end finds a capability that this knight, because of his purity, lacks: having been corrupted by his contact with evil, Anodos is better at spotting it, and when the knight is taken in by the apparent holiness of a church that is actually sacrificing its young worshippers, Anodos realises it is evil, and fights against it. (Something that can’t help making me think of MacDonald’s own background. He was, initially, a minister, but couldn’t bring himself to preach the Calvinist idea that only a predestined elect would go to Heaven. His wages were cut in half, and he soon gave up on a church career.)

MacDonald’s primary motive in Phantastes seems more to have been following the whims of his imagination, and exploring this faerie realm to see what it could teach him (and his readers). He wrote the book in part under the patronage of Lady Byron (mother to Ada Lovelace, and a mathematician in her own right), and although Phantastes was not a critical or popular success when it came out, it did earn him some recognition, and led to a lifelong career as a writer.

John Bell illustration from an 1894 edition

To me, Phantastes is one of the founding texts of modern fantasy, standing in the same relation to the genre as The Turn of the Screw, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dracula, and Jekyll and Hyde do to modern horror. Like them, it has the feel of illustrating the findings of twentieth century psychology a good half century before they were discovered. The difference with Phantastes, though, is that its story is too messy for it to make the same impact as those seminal horror novels and stories. With Phantastes, the fundamental story of psychological growth reads almost in pure Jungian terms — Anodos is drawn on by his quest for the anima-like “Alabaster woman”, who has, like the seed of his own psyche, “the face that had been born with me in my soul”, while fleeing his Jungian shadow, which at one point is literally his shadow — but that story has to be sought amidst a welter of wonders, side-stories, and diversions. In story terms, Phantastes resembles the tangled, sometimes-treacherous fairy wood Anodos himself tramps through, and it feels as though the story is something that emerged from those tangles as MacDonald went along, rather than something he told intentionally.

MacDonald, like Jung, had faith in the imagination as a self-healing realm of inner meaning. As he says in his long essay, “The Imagination, its Functions and its Culture”:

If the dark portion of our own being were the origin of our imaginations, we might well fear the apparition of such monsters as would be generated in the sickness of a decay which could never feel—only declare—a slow return towards primeval chaos. But… a wise imagination, which is the presence of the spirit of God, is the best guide that man or woman can have… For the end of imagination is harmony. A right imagination, being the reflex of the creation, will fall in with the divine order of things as the highest form of its own operation…

And it’s his taking the imagination seriously that makes him so important as a fantasist in the modern tradition, and lifted him above the twee, imitative fairy tales of his day. Phantastes might read more like an experiment in imagination than a polished masterpiece, but it is nevertheless a significant work.