Book Review: Lilith

Imagine your spiritual experience as a fantastical world.

I find this to be a cathartic and highly entertaining excercise. I can imagine my hand-clasped, grit-teethed struggles over sin or loneliness as a tumultuous landscape of sharp-jawed mountains and valleys pocked by caves. Or my days of solace and hope as strange silent gardens, like those in fairy tales, with voices in the air and wondrous fruit on elvish sized trees. My hopes, my desire, become flitting birds and butterflies of outlandish blues. Virtues, mine and God’s, well, I’ve always imagined them as tall, lithe companions with a light on their faces that doesn’t fade at dusk. As to my vices and those of the sullied world, they are a troupe of brutes and fiends with leering eyes and misshapen bodies, who all know my name far too well.

If you could take that sort of imagined world, add a smidgen of creative genius, an author with a soul “closer to the spirit of Christ than any other encountered,” and weave a story about a young man plunged into an epic journey through that soulish land, you’d have something approximating the brilliant spiritual fantasy of George MacDonald’s Lilith.

The tale itself is simple; a wealthy, leisured young man inherits an old estate and in its library discovers a presence he didn’t expect. A form, alternating between a huge raven, and a tall, raggedy-coated old man seems to haunt his house. In following this specter one day, the young man forays up to the attic and stumbles into another world. There, he meets Adam and Eve, who become his guides on a journey to his own salvation. In his quest, he encounters Mara, the Lady of Sorrow, Adam’s daughter, and eats the bread of her house. He takes refuge with the Children, a band of innocent, fairy-like little ones who never seem to grow up. And then, he finds Lilith, the dangerously lovely and utterly evil first wife of Adam. The incredible quest of the book is to explore how the most evil being in the world can be brought to repentance. The journey is the quest for redemption, but it leads, every step of it, through the mercy of pain.

Lilith is typical of George MacDonald’s unique spiritual fantasy in that the author takes the stuff of our spirits, the journeys toward salvation, the mercy of God that each of us will encounter in this life, and fleshes it out in faces and forms of fantastic imagination that somehow manage to bring God and all his goodness close as breath. Lilith (and Phantastes, it’s informal prequel) are not books to be easily explained, or lightly read, but they are stories that will shape the way you perceive God. In a way that no sermon ever could, they will present God’s mercy as a story, a song, they will show you how pain can be woven into the happiest of endings.

I don’t find this book easy to explain. (I’ve rather avoided writing this review because of it.) It’s a bewildering world, but the story, the light, and the grace are clear. C.S. Lewis himself, literary critic and verbose commentator, merely said after reading Phantastes that it had “baptized his imagination.” I suspect he couldn’t find more words. It’s enough though. When you enter a MacDonald world, you recognize mercy and goodness, love and grace as the powerful, beautiful things they are. Lilith is a world of a book- you taste it and touch it and find yourself face-to-face with some strange creature that you suddenly recognize as yourself. I find my soul sight clarified after reading MacDonald. In keeping with Lewis, I won”t say much more.

So go. Experience this world of a soul and story, look for yourself within it, look for mercy and pain and innocence to suddenly take form and speak to you through the characters of the books. And when you’ve read it, come tell me what you think. Maybe you’ll have more words than I did.

(And if you have read it, please, speak!)

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Book Review: Lilith

  1. sarah…you said it so well…”I don’t find this book easy to explain.”

    and yet…there is so much goodness wrapped in this story. so much truth. so much beauty. so much reality.

    but how to describe it? all i know is that after my first step into George MacDonald’s world, well, i have yet to leave it. he has impacted my life in a way that no other writer has.

    and you see…i still have not said anything specifically about Lilith:) it has been quite a few years since i last read it. i am thinking i need to journey with Mr. Raven and the others once again!

    oh!! here are a couple of quotes from Lilith that i jotted down when reading it about 6 years ago…

    “when a heart is really alive, then it is able to think live things.” (mr. raven)

    “the only way to come to know where you are is to begin to make yourself at home.” (mr. raven)

    “there is no slave but the creature that wills against its Creator.” (mara)

    “man dreams and desires; God broods and wills and quickens. when a man dreams his own dream, he is the sport of his dream; when Another gives it him, that Other is able to fulfill it.” (mr. vane)

    sorry to ramble on so:) i don’t think i had any more words than you did, but i enjoyed remembering my initial journey into this place…Lilith.

    thanks for a beautiful review of this beloved book and author!

  2. I read Lilith this year and it was not an easy read, but a rewarding one. I love MacDonald and all he offers, but much of his writing is deep and difficult for me. I find myself treasuring his books, but leary of entering them. They require something of me, and though they reward my efforts with abundance, I leave feeling as if I’ve bounced off the surface of their depth.

    One things sticks with me from Lilith, though: the frustration with Mr. Vane’s refusal to lie down and sleep, as Mr. Raven urges him to do.

    We struggle so much with making our lives, and lose so much of what God offers in the life he wants to give us. Obviously, Mr. Vane’s stubbornness reflects my own. Though I long to rest fully in the death of Christ to experience the bounty of his life, my instinct for self-preservation and fear of the mysterious depths prevent me.

    Thanks for stirring these thoughts again.

  3. This is one of my very favorite books. To this day, I cannot read the last few chapters without having to struggle to see the words through tears.

    The scene near the end when (possible spoilers) the hand is cut and taken to the desert and becomes a vast wellspring is one of the most beautiful images ever and I just love, love, love the kinetic energy of the final chapter when we’re taken into the city and finally up the mountain to the headwaters of the river of life, the throne of the Ancient of Days.

    It’s all just staggeringly beautiful. I can’t say enough good things about this book.

  4. Lillyput90

    Hi Sarah, Happy New Year! Over the last year I have been reading great literary works and on your recommendation I read “At the Back of the North Wind” by George McDonald. I’m really sad to say this but it didn’t really connect with me. It was interesting and enjoyable but I didn’t get the same feeling that I do when I read Lewis or Tolkien. Is Lillith any better? I read some reviews and it sounded quite creepy. What do you think?

  5. Terri

    Sarah,

    Thank you for your thoughtful encouragement to read George McDonald’s Lilith. It sits in my McDonald collection waiting to be read. I love McDonald’s fantasies and always come away spiritually enriched and deepened. This may have to be my first read of 2010!

    Blessings to you in the new year!

  6. Pamela

    Hi Sarah…I was recommended to you blog by Anne Beckner. My daughter is an avid reader and just finished the Kiki Strike series of books. She is 11 . She has read all the Harry Potters, Benedict Society’s, Eragon, Inkheart, on and on…I feel like I am running out of ideas for her but I know this isn’t possible. She has deep soul. Is Lilith too adult for her…? She loves fantasy/magic/mystery….and most of the young adult books on the shelves at Barnes and Noble look, how can I put it….shallow? Any thoughts? Thanks! Pamela Cole

    • Lillyput90

      Pamela, I would definately reccomend C.S. Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia” and Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”

  7. Rachel Marohn

    Dear Sarah,
    a happy new year to you! This book sounds wonderful- will have to read it. I just wanted to let you know that I am praying for your family’s ministry, that it will be richly blessed this year. It was a blessing to our family in the past, concerning homeschooling. I remember seeing you speak when you were only 13 or so! Can’t remember where! I no longer do facebook, but wanted to give you my email (don’t have your new one) in case you ever get a free moment. 😉 I’m living far away in Oregon, but want you to know that we really were blessed by your family. Keep fighting the Good fight!
    In Christ,
    Rachel- rachel.marohn@gmail.com

  8. Sarah

    So glad you all love this book too.

    A.S.P.- That part about the hand being buried and becoming a place of springs truly is beautiful. Echoed, I think, in C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” when the angel helps a man detach a burden, a lizard (I think, it’s been awhile) from his back, and it becomes a white horse that bears him deep into the beautiful land.

    Lillyput90- So sorry you didn’t enjoy Back of the North Wind! I understand, I truly do, there’s a strangeness to the spiritual imagery G. MacD. creates that can be either beautiful or just eerie. He’s not to everyone’s taste. If you didn’t like North Wind, I don’t think you’d enjoy Lilith as it is Lilith is sorta like a North Wind for adults. If you ever give him another try, let me know. You might enjoy some of his non-fantastical fiction as it has some of his great spiritual insight without the fantasy elements.

    Pamela- I agree with Lillyput90, Tolkien and Lewis are pretty much the fathers of fantasy. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and of course, The Chronicles of Narnia are classics. I also would recommend The Great Divorce by Lewis, and also, his Space Trilogy, though that might be better when she is older. Last suggestion is the Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander. Though I haven’t read these personally, they come so highly recommended, I put them in my book on kid’s lit. Hope that helps!

  9. Hmm. I feel like a dunce because I highly disliked Lilith. This coming from someone who was so moved by The Back of the North Wind…so I think it was just me! I found Lilith really disappointing; it was hard for me to get it all in my mind’s eye, move with the character, feel it all…you know. Perhaps I need to try it again in another season (of nature or of life).

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