C. S. Lewis called George MacDonald his “master.” Lewis repeatedly said that he never wrote a book where he did not quote MacDonald. And though I’ve never written a book, I’d call Lewis “my master.” He is the author I constantly refer back to. So, like a good student, I’ve tried to read the books my teacher recommended. This has led me to read many of MacDonald’s fairy tales, which I’ve relished. I’ve read and reread the Curdie books. I’ve even recently found one of his Scottish novels, unabridged and unedited and trudged my way through the thick brogue. But Lilith I’ve avoided for years. This is due largely to the description on the back of the book. This book is a “journey into the nature of evil.” George MacDonald’s children’s fairy tales have given me weird dreams. What in the world would his description of evil be like?
So, I finally decided to delve into this book that defies genre. It is a fairy tale, a horror story, and an allegory. W. H. Auden said that the best of MacDonald is “equal to or superior to Poe.” This is the book that must have made him say that. Ghosts and skeletons do battle. A raven is a librarian who is also a sexton who watches over a graveyard of dead who sleep waiting to awaken to life. Two different women can turn into leopardess, one white and one spotted, and they are constantly fighting each other in this form.
This is not the book to teach plot structure. Truthfully, I felt I was a good 100 pages into before I found the plot. There’s a sense where you want to sit MacDonald down and ask him if he ever considered editing and revising his work. But if he did, if he made his work more normal, more consistent with the idea of story structure, he would lose what he created.
He created a work that could be read year after year and be new every time. He created a series of images and symbols that can be analyzed and debated and applied in a hundred different ways. He created a work that’s meandering plot allows the reader to live in this world and experience it with the narrator, perhaps even more than the world of Narnia or Hogwarts. It is a world that is hard to escape.
This is not a book for everyone. It is not an easy, quick read. Its audience is certainly adults, but not even every adult. You need to enjoy and revel in its complexity. You need to enjoy a philosophical, even a metaphysical quandary. You need to be okay with not “getting it” at first. But if you are prepared to wrestle with ideas like the statement “A man is as free as he chooses to make himself, never an atom freer,” or the concept that “You doubt because you love truth,” if you are prepared to go on a journey with an unclear ending, then don’t avoid MacDonald’s Lilith. It may be a look at the nature of evil, but that means it is also a look at the nature of goodness.
I always have other teachers ask me how I have time for this kind of reading. Young adult novels they can understand. After all, I need to stay up on what my kids are reading. A Jane Austen or some other gentle read they understand. It’s like a relaxing bath, a vacation from life. But how do I find time to read this kind of confusing, allegorical work full of morality and philosophy? I do because I must. I must keep challenging myself or I’ll forget what my students are experiencing when they are struggling to understand a text they’re reading. And I must remember why I love reading. It connects to me other people and other ideas. Or as the narrator of Lilith says: “I sighed--and regarded with wonder my old self, which preferred the company of a book or pen to that of a man or woman, which, if the author of a tale I was enjoying appeared, would wish him away that I might return to his story. I had chosen the dead rather than the living, the thing thought rather than the thing thinking!"