I enjoy a book that poses ideas and metaphors, and gives me something I can think about. But after I have read a thoughtful book, my thoughts get a bit muddled until I jot them down; typing up thoughts on a book catches the myriad of ideas sparking around my brain like disconnected fireflies and mashes them into something that can actually give some light. This post is me thinking through Lilith, trying to take the fireflies and turn them into a florescent bulb, like the ones that pop up over a cartoon character when they go, “Aha!” If you have read George McDonald’s phantasmal fantasy book, and loved it so much you really have no plan to change your ideas on his book, I suggest you move on before I raise your ire. I don’t have very many good things to say about the book. If you haven’t read it yet, and are definitely planning on reading it, I suggest you move on before I spoil the surprise. Because there were a good many surprises. And a number of good quotes. And one chapter near the end that was really quite lovely when Lilith finally began her path to redemption. But even that chapter was couched in creepiness and confusion. However, if you want to know more about this remarkable book, read on.
But let me make two short disclaimers before I dive into it. I thoroughly enjoyed George McDonald’s children stories. His Light Princess is one of my favorites, as is The Princess and the Goblin, and the Princess and Curdie. I hope this post doesn’t come out as bashing an author, I only mean to point out his weaknesses. I love the truth, and would hope someone would do the same for me if I ever go wandering off into error. The other short disclaimer is even shorter; I didn’t understand half of this book. So if you have read it, and have a clearer understanding of it, please tell me what it was about! Write me a long comment, and tell me what I missed, and what Mr. McDonald was actually trying to say.
Lilith begins with a ghost story. And it doesn't improve very much as the tale moves on. A phantasmal fantasy is a very good description of this work. It is filled with phantasms. From the first strange person gliding about through closed doors in the library, the eye suddenly looking out of a necklace, a myriad of skeletons in varying states of decay, variations of people dropping dead, or showing up where you know they are not supposed to be, and even a vampire-like ‘white leech’ that was truly nasty… it stayed very similar to a ghost story throughout the work. I don’t like ghost stories. I don’t like phantasms. Only God can make alive, and when something is dead, it is dead. At least in any world except heaven or hell, and stories that divert into heaven or hell should make it clear that that is what is happening. Here throughout the work skeletons live. People die and get up again. Specters float. People show up where you know they cannot be by any law of logic except the bodiless flitting about of the soul. Souls don’t flit unless God sends their bodies with them in the Spirit. Or unless Satan is the one sending them along; there are other powers in the world beside God, people, and those delving into fantasy novels would do well to remember it.
Now to be fair to Lilith, by the end of the book at least I got a faint idea that some of the spectral-showing-up-where-they-oughtn’t-to-be was precisely from Satan; called The Shadow in the story, a rather vague yet frightening thing that I think is supposed to be that dark power. Also to add in a measure of fairness, some of the skeleton parts were used to point out good, fairly Christian ideas, a few of which I even found useful in their thoughtfulness. But that doesn’t clear the work of its downright creepy flavor. From beginning to end it has a sort of spectral horror mixed in and out of it that no Christian ought to be dealing out to readers. If you have a point to make, that is wonderful! I love it when an author manages to include thoughtful, good ideas! But there are thousands of ways you can go about it, and Mr. McDonald took the wrong way. It is a dangerous thing to be mixing with the creepy world that springs directly from the enemy’s camp. And it is a very dangerous thing to be pulling unsuspecting people into that enemy camp by offering them a good story from a ‘Christian viewpoint,’ and then filling it to the brim with the ghostly.
In the work as a whole, another problem arose that fits neatly under the ‘creepy’ heading. There were a lot of analogies drawn and points made throughout Lilith, it was a very thought-evoking metaphoric sort of work. But there was one main overarching point that was obviously supposed to be linked to the Christian idea of death and resurrection. This is decidedly one of my favorite doctrines in the Christian faith. How can it not be? This is our hope, this is what we live for, and what our eyes are focused on when we die; Christ lives, and we will live with Him, and nothing (NOTHING) can every change that. It is powerful. It is beautiful. Creepy? No. When people die, they are dead in this world, and alive with Christ in heaven. That is it. Now, let me explain the metaphor as laid out in Lilith (at least as far as I understood it).
It began close to the beginning with some of the conversations between the main character, Mr. Vain, and a character with many names and surprises, called mostly Mr. Raven. The conversations themselves had confusions and issues that I will get to in a little while, but one of the main things discussed was an idea that you could not understand things rightly until you died. You had to die, to sleep the sleep, before you could live and really begin to understand. This is fairly biblical. There are several passages, passages I love, that deal with the idea of the old man dying so that the new man might live and begin to understand God’s ways and serve Him aright. Romans 6 comes immediately to mind, with many passages on how we are buried with Christ that we might live with him, and the correlation to sin no longer reigning in our bodies and righteousness now being a distinct duty and possibility. So far as that goes, it is biblical and good. A little creepy? Yes. Mr. Vain didn’t understand it at all, and as he was the one telling the story it came out pretty creepy. But at least that I understood for the most part. Well, then we go on a bit and get to another scene; Mr. Raven takes Mr. Vain to his house, where he meets the lovely (though slightly odd) lady of the house, and they offer him the hospitality of their place. “You must sleep” they keep saying, and I’m beginning to go, “Whaaa…?” Then they take him to a coffin shaped door, which when he follows them in he realizes it is a crypt filled with the dead who are ‘sleeping.’ Stone cold people lying all over the place on couches ‘sleeping’ with minute descriptions and many times reiterating that they are dead. Yes, this is getting much, much creepier, and less and less biblical. It’s freezing in the place and Mr. Vain is getting scared. No kidding, I’d be freaking out too, dude. Mr. Raven and his wife point to a couch (very aptly and fully described, I might add) and tell him this is where he must ‘sleep.’ All will wake up when they are ready to wake, which might be tomorrow, or a thousand years from now, but when they are ready they will wake and go their way. But first they must ‘sleep.’ Mr. Vain bolts, and I for one was glad of it, though it was obvious this was not what he was supposed to do. The metaphor is reiterated again and again, it is one of the major themes of the book. Eventually Mr. Vain does ‘sleep the sleep’ and lays down on the couch, where he goes into a kind of animated sleep world that is neither real nor fake, and has several adventures, and it is extremely difficult (impossible, really) to tell what is real and what is a dream.
Is anyone else disturbed by this?! Christianity is not a land of sleeping dreams, or of sleepers at all. Christianity is the world of the AWAKE.
“And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer then when we believed.”
“Ye are all the children of the light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober.”
There are other passages I could find to drive this home, but these two were ones that just jumped out at me right away. It is not biblical to lie in a sleep like death for years while you grow younger or get well or atone or whatever else you are supposed to be doing in this creepy frozen crypt. We are to be a vigilant, awake people, manning our battle stations and praising our God. This is not biblical, people.
“We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.”
To be dead, for a Christian, is to be present with the Lord. When we die, we do not go into a sort of animated sleep. We go to Christ. When we die we live. Period. There is no intermediate section. And when (as I thought the metaphor was talking about at the beginning of the book) we lay down our old selves to die, it is to become awake IMMEDIATELY. It is not to lie around dreaming of this and that and acting in our sleep. It is to be fully awake for the first time, finally able to live and work for Christ. All I could guess about this strange situation was that it was a kind of soul-sleep, or purgatory, both of which are cultish and not true Christian doctrines. Creepy? You had better believe it. But it is more than that. It is wrong. This is not a Christian teaching. Think about it for a minute; if you win a convert with the idea that he has only to lay down and put his old self to death and then he will exist effortlessly in a kind of dream world until Christ decides he is ‘ready’ (whatever that means) and wakes him up… you have lied to him. Christianity is not an effortless existence where things happen to us in a dream. It is real. And it is hard work. It is a fight, a hard, bloody, sweat-filled, endless fight, until the race is won and we are at once alive with Christ. Are you beginning to glimpse how dangerous and wrong this idea is? And this is one of the major themes (pretty much THE major theme) of Lilith.
The book ends (ends, mind you) with this quote; “Novalis says, ‘Our life is no dream, but it should and will perhaps become one.’” I firmly believe, with all my heart and hope, and Scripture to back me up, that my life is no dream and will only become more real as Christ draws me on and makes me more like Himself.
Just one more thought on this particular idea. If Mr. McDonald wanted a creepy Christian metaphor to go along with the rest of the creepy flavor of his book, he could have picked one. How about this soundly biblical idea; we are dead until Christ makes us alive through regeneration. The unconverted are walking, talking, breathing dead. They are the real zombies. Acting for Satan, unable to fully change without the Spirit’s enabling power, they are dead corpses. But then the Spirit breathes on a man, and suddenly he is alive. Made complete, and whole, he is alive and can suddenly see with spiritual eyes. How’s that for creepy? But it is a sound biblical metaphor, and would have been real and much more powerful then this bizarre soul-sleep existence of Lilith. Especially with the excellent way George McDonald forms his prose and draws a reader in while stating ideas that anyone else would make exceedingly dull. He could have made a real, biblical, Christian impact with creepy zombies, if he was trying to go for creepy. (DISCLAIMER: I am not advocating a Christian zombie book. Zombies are voodoo and anything but Christian. Don’t write one.)
SPOILER ALERT: skip to the next point if you think you will ever read Lilith.
Mr. Raven (aka The Librarian, the Sexton, ect.) is revealed as Adam a little over halfway through the work. Yes, the Adam from the beginning of the world. We also learn that this nasty character Lilith (aka The Princess, the White Leech, ect.) was Adam’s first wife. She went after power, or something (I didn’t really get the explanation of it to be perfectly frank), and then God gave Adam his second wife Eve, who was human. Wait, what? Ok, this raises about a hundred little red flags. I will only point out a few here.
Why is Adam flitting around from world to world, walking through closed doors and looking out of jewels in necklaces? It is never explained. He ought to be firmly and happily ensconced in heaven. But by that point I was getting used to the unexplained oddities of the book and just sort of shrugged my shoulders to the idea of Adam changing periodically into a raven and tending a vast burial ground that seems to stretch all over several worlds.
Then we have the strange implied thought that Adam was around for who knows how many ages before Eve showed up, and was married to someone who was not human. This implies the idea that Adam himself is not really human. So what is he supposed to be?!
But the real issue is more simple, and more harmful. Lilith is alive, and so is Eve. This means, at best, that there is divorce and remarriage before the fall of the world. No. A hundred times no! God made one man for one woman, and the world was perfect at that point. There was no sin. There was no imperfection or sadness. Do you think divorce is a painless, perfect thing? I should hope anyone reading this knows better. I have no idea what George McDonald was thinking to make this the plotline of his book. Why make it Adam and Eve at all, it could have been Jubal-Cane, or some other obscure Old Testament person that no one knows about and he could invent whatever he wanted! No, this is taking a real historical couple and twisting it into something that never was, and that God certainly would never have condoned before the fall. We have a real historical record of Adam and Eve. We know how they were created, we know they were created for each other, and for God’s glory. And we know what happened after that. To add in a whole new set of nasty, bizarre, hazy circumstances is a simple lie to his readers. And it isn’t a particularly white one either.
So now you know quite a few serious faults with Lilith. But there is one more that really got to me more than any of them. It was an existential flavor combined with serious reality-shifting, made alive by truly well-written prose that drew you in and made it seem real.
Probably the best way to describe this for you is to explain the feeling I had whenever I would put the book down after a fairly prolonged period of reading. I had the urge to go touch a piano or chair and feel the solid wood under my fingers, just to assure myself it was real.
In Lilith, the beginning is fairly mundane and solid. It opens with a young man reading in his library, and gives a few descriptions of his personality and habits. Then this old scrawny librarian, with features that remind one of a kind of bird, and who apparently showed up on occasion in the young man’s great grandfather’s time, begins to walk about the library; including though solidly closed up doors. Well, Mr. Vane follows him on one occasion, and finds an old garret with a mirror that reflects different light then the rest of the room, and walks through the mirror into another world. So far it is very strange, but just kind of like a lot of odd fantasy books. But then things begin to happen. In one of the early conversations with this librarian (who turns into a raven on occasion) we find that Mr. Vain no longer remembers who he is. He says he, “did not know myself, did not know what I was, had no grounds on which to determine that I was one and not another.” A little later he states the raven, “saw through accident into entity.” The conversation goes on like this;
“Calling me a raven, or thinking me one, you allowed me existence, which is the sum of what one can demand of his fellow beings. Therefore in return, I will give you a lesson: - No one can say he is himself, until first he knows that he is, and then what himself is. In fact, nobody is himself, and himself is nobody.”
Here’s another quote for you; “Existence precedes essence.” Know who said that? Jean Paul Sarte, the premier existentialist, and it is what Mr. Raven and Mr. Vane are discussing. Now Mr. McDonald valiantly tries to tie this in with an unbeliever’s sort of ‘waking up’ into realizing who he is in Christ, and who God created him to be, versus who he is when he is just sort of existing on his own devices. But that does not cure this of being pure existentialism. And it is not a single occurrence in this book, it is intertwined with many conversations and happenings and ideas within the pages of this work. Don’t get me wrong, there is a distinct Christian flavor in parts of Lilith. The chapter near the end where Lilith finally gives in and begins to repent and be redeemed is really very lovely (though still a little creepy at parts) and gave me the pretty solid idea that I will meet George McDonald in heaven. But the existential flavor throughout the book is just as strong, or even stronger.
And then there’s the reality-shifting. I haven’t made a great study of existentialism so don’t take this as definite fact, but I believe there is an idea contained in it that things are not always as they seem and laws and logic and such like are sort available for us to create with them what we wish. In any case, whether Mr. McDonald gets this from his existential leanings or from somewhere else, there is a definite toying with the way God made creation. Mr. Vain wanders out into the garden and suddenly finds he is not in his garden, he is in another world. He strolls about in this new place, and finds Mr. Raven in his raven form digging up worms and throwing them in the sky where they become butterflies. (Quick anacoluthon; as I understood it, this was actually an interesting metaphorical relation to sinners [worms] becoming more then they are when made new by Christ [butterflies] and had a few good lines to it; though it was still bizarre.) Mr. Vain talks a little and keeps strolling about. He passes a rose bush at one point, and Mr. Raven calmly informs him this is actually his piano in the other world. The cook’s daughter is playing on it, and if he listens closely, he can hear some of the music. Mr. Vain duly leans forwards and hears a little strain of music from the rose bush… or piano… or whatever the thing actually is, at this point we really don’t know. Such things happen from time to time. A little later in the book, The Princess asks Mr. Vain to climb a palm tree and pick her the flower at the top. He begins to climb it, and the scene begins to get wilder and scarier, and suddenly he is drowning, and then he manages to scramble out of his fountain in his back garden. Somewhere in between starting to climb a palm tree and getting to the top, the thing becomes a fountain spraying water and nearly kills him. The implication is that a thing you think is one thing might be something else entirely in another world AT THE SAME TIME. So how are you to know you are looking at a piano and not a rosebush?! Maybe it’s my practical German strain coming out, but this really disturbed me. A thing is what it is. A bookshelf is a bookshelf. I can put my book on it and it stays sitting on the solid wood until I move it. A flower is a flower. It produces seeds after its own kind and grows more flowers. A piano is a piece of wood and strings and ivory that makes beautiful music in the hands of some, and loud discordant plunking noises in the hands of a three year old. And the three year old doesn’t suddenly scream that they have been pricked by a rose thorn when they thought they were playing the piano.
Yes, the Bible clearly states that here we see things 'as through a glass darkly' and we will see things differently when we are made new. But God made the world real. He made the laws of logic, and instilled gravity and the other laws of nature into all of the universe. He is a God who loves order. Just read a science textbook, or go take a walk in a meadow and touch a few of the different substances (grass, tree bark, flowers, water, dirt). It is always the same. It doesn’t shift or change or exist somewhere else as something else.
Several times while reading through this book, I sat it down and thanked God that reality was the solid, real thing He made it; and not the shifting, uncertain, creepy, dreaming thing of Lilith.