Saturday, 4 May 2002

George MacDonald: Lilith (1895)

Edition: ClassicReader (
Review number: 1086

George MacDonald may have written pure fantasy, both for adults (Phantastes) and for children (The Princess and the Goblin), but he has been most admired for the allegory of Lilith. This picture of Christian salvation is the reason for his influence on C.S. Lewis in particular; as well as being part of the inspiration for the Narnia stories and the Ransome trilogy, it is why Lewis makes MacDonald his guide to heaven in The Great Divorce.

Lewis, of course, was also steeped in medieval allegorical writing, the most characteristic literature of that period. Though there is much in common between them and later allegories such as The Pilgrim's Progress, there are also differences, at least in English. The great popularity of this work - second only to the Bible - seems to have quenched the desire to write acknowledged allegory for many years. The main way that it differes from the medieval genre is that it is Protestant in outlook; it is all about personal faith. (It is also the direct model for Lewis' Pilgrim's Regress.)

All these are different from Lilith. Most allegories are open, with the meaning of the characters and places revealed at least in part by their names (Christian and the Slough of Despond in Bunyan, for example). Lilith, on the other hand, is a closed allegory, and MacDonald explains very little of the inner meaning of his writing. In the end, this makes it more powerful, as the allegory doesn't distract from the story (it would be almost possible to ignore it entirely), while the interested reader can try to work it out like a riddle. Many writers since MacDonald have incorporated allegorical elements into their work in this way (prominent examples including Salman Rushdie and Iris Murdoch), and in the fantasy genre it has become the norm to analyse the more literary writers in these terms. (Tolkien is an obvious example, and he tired of facile interpretations of The Lord of the Rings to the extent of adding a preface denying that the trilogy was an allegory of the Second World War.) Allegory is frequently used today, both within and without the fantasy genre, to encode the ideas of Freud and Jung rather than to send a religious message.

Like The Pilgrim's Progress, Lilith is about the salvation of the individual, here presented as a first person narrative while Bunyan is a third person one. Bunyan writes mainly about the temptations which attack someone who is already a Christian, as seen from a Puritan point of view, while MacDonald's theme is a man's progress to conversion. His narrator's story begins in the library of an English country manor, where his studies are interrupted when he sees an elderly stranger dressed in black - a man who appears to be (the ghost of) his father's old librarian, Mr Raven. It may be the raven imagery, but this opening seemed to me to be reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe. He is eventually transported to another world, the allegorical domain, where he learns about what humanity means (in the company of a group of innocent children) and meets Lilith, the original bride of Adam according to rabbinical literature, a princess both desireable and wicked. MacDonald was fascinated by this character, to the extent that in the end the novel is as much about her relationship with the Christian faith as it is about the narrator's. She is, I think, the allegorical symbol for lust and impure decadence and is the world, to use the term in the sense of (say) St Paul. It is generally easier for a writer to make evil interesting as opposed to purity (even Milton's Paradise Lost is really a tragedy centred around Lucifer); this is because goodness is usually perceived as being about refraining from particular actions rather than about positive virtues.

MacDonald's weighting of his novel towards Lilith makes it more interesting to read, but it does muddy the waters of the allegory. The novel's major flaw is a certain sentimentality, particularly in the depiction of the children, but it will remain enjoyable to most readers and fascinating to anyone interested in the history of the fantasy genre and its relationship to earlier literary forms.

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