Lilith by George MacDonald

Notes and Questions by Dale Nelson

This study guide is much longer than those for the other books we read this semester. It is not meant to turn anyone off, but as an optional source of possible help as you read Lilith. One approach: dip into the study guide only at points when you are particularly puzzled or need additional information, and go through this guide after you have finished the book and have formed some opinions of your own, and want to explore the book further.

Page references are to the 1994 reprint of the 1981 Eerdmans edition.


Epigraph ("Off, Lilith!") -- attributed to the Kabbalah, works of Jewish mysticism and tradition.


Extract from "Walking" by the American writer Henry David Thoreau (1817-62), author of Walden and "On Civil Disobedience." This extract plays with a fanciful notion of "cohabitancy" (notice his "as if" in the fourth sentence). The "family" of which Thoreau writes is probably written about to help him suggest a brief but enchanting effect of horizontal sunlight shining into woods. Yet he plays with the notion for its own sake, too--what if two different sets of beings could exist in the same "space"? What if our "common world" of three dimensions could share "space" with some other world(s)?

Rays of level, setting sunlight appear right away in chapter 1. Mr Vane, the narrator, sees rays shining onto the portrait of his old ancestor Sir Upward. What/who does Vane see next?


The opening of chapter 1 implies that questions of identity --who one is-- will be important for the book's meaning. The narrator's parents are dead and he knows little about his ancestors, yet he keeps coming back to think of them as he begins to inhabit this ancestral manor.

(p. 5) "my mental peculiarities" -- I don't think we should read this as "mental oddities," or worse, "mental illness." I think the narrator is simply saying that he is not going to sketch for us his various personality traits any further than he just has.

Soon (on p. 21) the Raven will tell Vane that he isn't much of an individual yet!


(p. 6) Ptolemy et al.--early scientists and/or mathematicians. However, it is striking to see Dante (1265-1321), the famous Italian poet who wrote the three books of the Divine Comedy, in this list.


(p. 10) "up the stairs to the first floor" -- English convention numbers the floors of a house beginning with the ground floor, then first floor (our second floor or story), etc.


(p. 11) mirror -- MacDonald was a friend of the mathematician C. L. Dodgson (1832-98), who under the name Lewis Carroll wrote Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and (note the title) Through the Looking-glass (1871). Dodgson/Carroll was an enthusiastic early amateur photographer, by the way, and photographed MacDonald and members of his family. MacDonald's mirror- entry to another world could be borrowed from Dodgson, who was still living when Lilith was written and published.

Mr. Vane says he was "nowise astonished." Not being astonished by something astonishing was often taken as a sign that one was dreaming, in the 19th century. In MacDonald's novel Wilfred Cumbermede, the narrator writes, "That I was dreaming is plain from the fact that I felt no surprise at seeing her" (his dead great- grandmother). But is Vane dreaming? We may hesitate to put a label to the nature of the experiences Vane will have. If in some sense he is dreaming, the story may be a "dream-vision" (authors have used this idea for many centuries), in which the "dream" is a disclosure of deep truth (not even just truth about one's individual personality , but of the real truth about things). Except for the modern European and American culture that we live in, all cultures, as far as I know, have accepted the idea that dreams may reveal universal truth in symbolic form. However, there is also recognition that dreams may lie. The Greeks had the idea of dreams from two gates. True dreams come through the gate of ivory, false ones through the gate of horn (see The Odyssey). The passages about arranging the mirrors and so on hardly seem to fit the idea that "this is all a dream."

One thing we can be sure of -- MacDonald really wants us to get involved with this story about what it is to be a human being, what evil is, etc. He wants us to glimpse that we are "embedded in a much vaster and more mysterious system of truth" than we normally realize, as helpful critic David Robb recognized.


(p. 14) Identity theme. How would you have responded to Mr. Raven's statement, "'Tell me who you are--if you happen to know.'" Note Vane's response.

On p. 28, the Raven will introduce our narrator as "Mr. Vane." Is this maybe the Raven's own name for him, then, and not his own?

Vane sounds like "weather vane," which is something that constantly shifts its position as the wind blows now this way, now that--it's not steady, it has no will of its own (compare p. 80 top).

Vane also sounds like "vain" --which can mean both "stuck up, conceited" and "futile, ineffective."


Ravens are important in myth and folklore. In Norse mythology, two ravens, Hugin and Munin, brought Odin news. Ravens are thought of as wise birds. A famous ballad is "Twa Carbies." Ravens are connected with death (since they are carrion eaters).

In the Old Testament, however, we read that the patriarch Noah released a raven from the Ark after the Flood (Genesis 8:7), before releasing a dove; and ravens brought nourishment to God's prophet Elijah (1 Kings 17:4ff.).


(p. 15) Suggestion: Keep a running list of references to "home" as you read Lilith.


(p. 17) "Some dreams..." This may be a good statement to apply to Lilith itself.


(p. 20) Mr Raven (the librarian) says he is a sexton -- a gravedigger at a church cemetery.


(pp. 21-2) Vane is in the Region of the Seven Dimensions, but also still in his own house. p. 22 -- Note that our commonsense ideas about time as well as those about space are defied here.

Readers will get to know pretty well the landscape of the strange world that Vane enters.

H. G. Wells wrote a letter to MacDonald (24 Sept. 1895) in which he praised Lilith. He too was fascinated by the idea that "assuming more than three dimensions, it follows that there must be wonderful worlds nearer to us than breathing and closer than hands and feet."


(pp. 24ff.) On one "level," Mr. Vane is walking with Mr. Raven past a church, into the sexton's house, and thence into a graveyard. What Vane sees is much stranger than these ordinary words would suggest! The hawthorn tree that is a gnarled old man -- this is very much like William Blake's account of the thistle that was an old man (see the letter of 22 Nov. 1802 that he wrote to his patron Mr. Butts, printed in Life of William Blake by Gilchrist , pp. 158-60; attached to these notes). MacDonald's scholarly biographer Rolland Hein says that "The presence in MacDonald's writings of ideas very similar to Blake's is so noticeable that MacDonald must have had some early acquaintance with his work." MacDonald owned a copy of Gilchrist's Life of Blake (published in 1863, thirty years before publication of Lilith). MacDonald's personal bookplate was taken from a Blake design (Hein, George MacDonald: Victorian Mythmaker, pp. 119-20.)

MacDonald was an outstanding imaginative writer in his own right, but he was also, consciously, an heir of the Romantics of the late 18th and early 19th century, particularly of the German poet Novalis (1772-1801) and the English poets Blake (1757-1827), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), and William Wordsworth (1770-1850).


(p. 25) The Raven tells Vane that Vane cannot help but be puzzled, so if Lilith is puzzling you, you are in good company, and (so far) that may be intended by George MacDonald. On p. 35, Mr. Raven will tell Vane that at this stage of Vane's awareness, there is danger that Raven's words would mislead Vane if Raven tried to answer all Vane's questions.


(p. 30) bird-self, beast-self, etc. -- The identity theme again. Raven is implying that the ordinary person, such as Mr. Vane, is not a true self at all, but a multitude of disharmonious, incompatible "selves," each with its own demands.

In Dante's Inferno, we encounter damned thieves who lose their human form and take on that of serpents.


(p. 31) Mara's kittens -- This is the first mention of the cat-woman and her cats; we will meet her later on, and Vane will have an unpleasant encounter with her cats.

Vane and Raven are almost the only adult males in this book. Four of the most important characters are women. One important character is a Shadow.

Last few paragraphs of chapter 6 -- It is really important that here, practically at the beginning of his experiences, Mr. Vane is told that he must willingly "surrender" himself to "sleep." He must trust the wise Mr. Raven; he must yield up his own inadequate ideas about life (and death). He agrees to do so--but does Vane keep his promise? See next chapter.


(p. 32) Beatrice -- the young woman with whom Dante fell in love, an experience which transformed his life by revealing something of the glory of divine love.


(p. 34) Note the woman in repose whose palm is hurt, and the king-like man near her. At the end of the book, we will learn who they are.


(p. 35) "...if here two things, or any parts of them, could occupy the same space, why not twenty or ten thousand? --But I dared not think further in that direction." Blake's poem "Auguries of Innocence" speaks of "infinity in the palm of your hand." On p. 45, MacDonald may have his narrator, Vane, paraphrasing that line.


(pp. 38ff.) Chapter 8 -- Earlier we saw how a mirror may become a door opening onto another dimension. This chapter is a manuscript that "opens a door," figuratively speaking, into the past of Mr. Vane's family.

First paragraph of the manuscript: "I know the outspread splendour a passing show ... it may... be lifted to reveal more wonderful things." A statement kindred to Plato's idea that this sensory, visible world, because it is constantly changing, is less real than the underlying world or realm of the changeless Ideas from which the sensory world derives such reality as it has. (Must this concept lead to a disparaging, though, of the world of everyday experience? Or may this idea suggest that our everyday world points beyond itself to greater realities?)

The manuscript is important to Mr. Vane in corroborating his own experiences. (He's not going mad, etc.)


(p. 40) "As for moral laws, they must everywhere be fundamentally the same."

This is an extremely important statement. Lilith is crowded with bizarre, grotesque, or beautiful scenes and persons. It can seem like a riot of the imagination. But hold on to the idea that moral laws are the same in any world Vane may find himself in, and you will not become totally bewildered.

MacDonald wrote an essay, "The Fantastic Imagination," which contains this statement: "The laws of the spirit of man must hold, alike in this world and in any world he may invent... In physical things a man may invent; in moral things he must obey."

Therefore, MacDonald is saying, no fantasy writer dare invent a world in which, say, betraying a child is a good thing. That would violate the law of love, of respect for innocence, of the necessity of trust between people if a human society is to exist. What would be other examples of moral laws that are the same in all worlds? How did you decide what other examples to give?


(p. 47 top) Notice that Vane says the "scene of activity" really was happening, was actual -- yet, even so, it might simultaneously be a "metaphysical argument." Therefore Vane's experiences should be understood as ones he is having, physically -- which means he could be in danger of bodily harm. But also his experiences are spiritual ones, at the same time. "Mr. Vane's experiences and his spiritual education exactly coincide" (critic W. H. Auden, in his short essay "George MacDonald" in Forewords and Afterwords).

A few paragraphs back, Mr. Vane shows that, so far, he hasn't learned very much. Raven has told him that he is "'not true,'" not a real person yet -- but Vane asks Raven to direct him to "'some of my kind.'" So Vane is still vain! Raven points westward and says that beings like Vane are in that direction. Too bad for Vane that he isn't sharp enough to realize that it would be better for him, then, to travel eastward and seek beings unlike himself (a good point from critic Richard Reis). Note how whiny Vane sounds when he complains about being "'hardly treated.'" Put it together: if Vane travels instead in the direction of beings like himself, then what he and we will see, including ugly monsters in a bog, must be somehow clues to Vane's own inner nature!


(p.47) Vane sees a beautiful little creature and his immediate desire is to possess it (greed). Note what happens when he succeeds. William Blake wrote, "He who binds to himself a joy / Does the winged life destroy / But he who kisses the joy as it flies / Lives in Eternity's sunrise."

What does the beautiful flying thing turn into when Vane seizes it? (Do you think MacDonald would make a connection between the "cemetery" that Mr. Raven showed Vane [chap. 7] and the library with which the book begins???)

Another interpretation of this incident is possible, though--that Vane, who has been stumbling as he followed the beautiful thing, would have done well to read the book--perhaps he might have found guidance there. Was the creature trying to help him when it sank towards him? Did he miss a chance to profit by a good book??

On p. 48 middle, by the way, notice that Vane has had an important insight: he exists -- yet he himself is not the author of his own existance. Later in the book a character will refuse to acknowledge the implications of the fact that we have not caused ourselves to be. Here, Vane notes that he exists, whether he wants to be or not.


(p. 50) Who is this beautiful woman? Why is her side discolored? She literally dis-integrates before Vane's terrified eyes. If she is made up of "parts" each of which goes its own way, that may remind us of the "beast- selves" within that are not in harmony (p. 30).

She appears in the next chapter, egging on two groups of fighters against one another, challenging the masculinity of the warriors.


(p. 53) Lilith could be considered a rather subversive book. It has already attacked "commonsense" ideas about who we are; the ordinary sorts of answers we give to the question of who we are obviously would not impress Mr. Raven. Now we see a hideous battle between ghosts and skeletons that seems to throw all imaginable human wars into question. "Hail Britannia! Britannia rule the waves! Britons never will be slaves!" Hmm!

This beautiful woman seems to have power over all of the combatants. Throughout the book, whenever we meet this woman again, observe her will to power, how she uses her beauty to seduce or to dominate, etc.


(pp. 56ff.) Is there no alternative to growing into a Bag, one of the ugly, stupid, greedy giants, except not to grow at all?

We'll learn more about why the LIttle Ones don't grow later on.


(p. 61) No, you didn't miss something; Vane has not mentioned somewhere how it is that he came to know Lona's name. Perhaps he "just knew."


(p. 64) "firsters"--The Little Ones have no word "parents." They do not know where babies come from.


(pp. 67-8) "I ought to be doing something!"

One of the chief ways that people take on a sense of being a person or having an identity is by "doing something." In America and Europe, at least, if you ask someone who he/she is, the response will usually be his/her personal name plus his/her work. There are other possible answers! Is Vane's itch to do something, such as teach the Little Ones mathematics or how to write down their spontaneous music, based on a sense of their needs?

P. 71 bottom -- The point about philanthropy is excellent, but is Vane ready to live up to it? (The Victorian era in which MacDonald lived was a great age for philanthropic projects. This was before our own age of numerous government agencies providing a variety of social services. MacDonald was a good friend of Victorian social reformers such as F. D. Maurice (Christian Socialism), John Ruskin, and Octavia Hill. He participated in various philanthropic efforts himself that were designed to improve the lot of the working classes, etc.)

Vane is right that the Little Ones are not growing or developing; on p. 76, he hears an explanation, from the Cat-woman.


(p. 69) "'moles and squirrels'" -- the stupid, selfish giants cannot see things the way they really are. Evil people and good people do not have the same perceptions, and just make differing choices. Rather evil ones are impaired from seeing things as they are.


(p. 74) The identity theme again. Important passage!


(p. 75) Bulika is Lilith's city. It is also a stingingly satirical version of Victorian Britain. Notice that the woman says Bulika is "'self-satisfied,'" echoing Raven's criticism of our world (top of p. 14). "The Prince of the Power of the Air" is a name for satan, in the Bible (Ephesians 2:2).

We will be seeing that Lilith combines in herself associations of greed for wealth (Bulika sounds like Victorian capitalist industrialism), sexual manipulation, and emotional slavery.


(p. 77) A veiled woman again -- cf. Ayesha in Haggards's novel She:: A history of Adventure (1887).


(p. 78) Mara and the white panther -- this cat is not the same as the spotted leopardess we will encounter.


(p. 80) -- Contrast this unveiling with Ayesha's.

Mara is naked. The idea seems to be that she is expressing outwardly her inner destitution, as she sorrows. In Isaiah chapter 20, verses 2-3, the prophet goes naked as a sign of the disaster that will come upon Egypt. In Russia and Greece, "holy fools" have sometimes gone naked as a sign of their abandonment of wealth, of their rejection of the false values of society, and their complete dependence upon God.

Mara sorrows, profoundly and unselfishly. Her nakedness is not self-advertisement, intended to entice others, or a self-pleasing admiration of her own beauty.

In the Old Testament book of Ruth, chapter 1 verse 20,

"Mara" means "bitterness," not so much bitter anger but severe sorrow, which is felt by Naomi, whose two beloved sons have died young.

As we read on, we'll see that Mara is associated with sorrow and even with pain, and yet she is good.


(p. 83) Our Mr. Vane is changing! He tells us here that he has preferred books to people, and we already know that he formerly liked to weave abstractions in his mind (p. 5)--apparently more than anything else. Now hear him! On the next page, and on p. 102, we will see that he is beginning to learn that one can hardly have a real identity without love!


(p. 85) Ironic, isn't it? The "story of life" (ordinary worldly life) is performed as a dance of the dead!

But consider what kind of a life these dead had led. (Are we different?)


(p. 86) In Dante's Divine Comedy, the poet sees that, in hell (the Inferno) the damned are punished in a way that fits their sins. Here, those who had made their faces masks, outward looks hiding their inner selfishness, have those faces gruesomely "unmasked"!


(p. 87) Sidney -- Sir Philip Sidney (1554--1586), who lived about the same time as Shakespeare, one of MacDonald's favorite poets.

"glode" - a past tense for "to glide," on the analogy of stride-strode.


(p.89) "'out on your bones'" is a typographical error-- it should read "'out in your bones,'" that is, he's making fun of her for being out while dressed too casually.

"'Probably, my lord of Cokayne!'" also spelled Cockaigne, etc. A proverbial Never-Never Land where plenty of food and drink are available without effort and people can lie around eating and drinking all day. Attached is a 1567 engraving from the work of the Flemish artist Peter Breughel the Elder. The three lazy figures are a scholar, a peasant laborer, and a soldier. A roast pig trundles along with a knife at the ready if you'd like a slice. A goose, plucked and cooked, lays itself on a platter. The mountains at left may be made of pudding.

In MacDonald's story, then, the lady is, in effect, reproaching her lord for being a worthless boozer who is useless to the world. Here, marriage has become a hellish relationship, mostly because of the sensuality of the man. Contrast the marriage of the sexton and his wife.

This chapter is macabre, but it is also farcically funny!


(p. 94) On the previous page, Raven told us the skeletons are in hell. Here, though, he speaks as if the passage of centuries could make a difference. This is a clue to MacDonald's interpretation of hell. He proposed it was a miserable, agonizing state of existence, worse than anything imaginable in this earthly life, and that this wretched state could last for ages. Yet he believed that those in hell could eventually be saved out of their self-chosen misery.

Earlier (p. 11), we wondered if Vane was "nowise astonished" because he was dreaming. Here, though, he is "wondering," yet never surprised. Is he developing a childlike openness to learning from experience?


(p. 95) The Raven's warning will, of course, be forgotten! However, he is optimistic on behalf of Mr. Vane, despite the possibility of Vane not heeding him.


(p. 96) This woman is Lilith. Her hair is black as night. On p. 50, the woman's hair is golden in the moonlight, yet this is Lilith, too. (This black-haired woman has the tell-tale stain on her left side, like the woman Vane saw by moonlight -- pp. 50, 102.) Lilith can also appear in forms other than woman.


(p. 98) Mr. Vane, who had been so self-centered, here recognizes a duty towards someone else.


(p. 99, 7 lines from top) "we" is a typographical error for "was."


(p. 102) Vane realizes that one cannot "ripen" apart from other souls. See #35 above.


(p. 106) Lilith deceives Vane. Next page--note her pride. She says she had been in a trance there. It looks like she doesn't want to admit that she owes Vane anything for saving her life by his nursing (and his unwitting giving of his blood to her during her vampire- bites). We might wonder if she is lying to him here too, about this "trance," as well as about the leech-snake. Wasn't she, in fact, about to die? Or was she in some sort of trance, perhaps that enabled her to send out forms or "emanations" of herself by some magic? (We have seen her egging on a battle, and so on.) Or perhaps both are true--she was in a trance AND she was dying? See #57 below.


(p. 109) Lilith is consumed by pride, but here she does seem willing to make no further use of Vane. She is not humble enough to thank him (p. 108), but here she seems angry with him because he persists in following her (when she would be willing to let him go). In "Lilith A," the first draft of the book, MacDonald makes it more plain that she is sparing Vane because he saved her life.


(p. 110) Vane says "'I will be your slave!'" Fascinated by Lilith's dazzling beauty, Vane would submit to a relationship that would dehumanize him. Here the fault is his; Lilith is not trying to captivate him with her beauty. Indeed, she turns her face from him and walks from him, having warned him of "consequences" if he persists.

This is important for our understanding of the femme fatale idea as it is used in Lilith. MacDonald wrote the book at a time when numerous painters and authors were intrigued by the idea of the beautiful temptress who dominates and destroys men while their own hearts are untouched by love or even decency. (Machen's "Great God Pan" contains one of these; artists as different as Edvard Munch and Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted "goddesses" of this type. Of course, Haggard's Ayesha is another femme fatale.)

Yet here, we must focus on the responsibility of the male. MacDonald is not a misogynist.

And-- make no mistake, Lilith is evil, yet here she forbears to make a victim of Vane. (If she felt herself to be really in need, it would be different.) We may wonder if her recent experience of suffering and dependence on another person has temporarily, at least, softened her hard heart. Suffering is an important theme in Lilith (it becomes much more so as the novel continues). MacDonald believed that suffering was (a) the inevitable consequence of evil living and (b) something that could help the sufferer towards inward purification. See #65 below.


(p. 111) Mara disrobed as an expression of her sorrow. Lilith disrobes preparatory to turning into a snake.


(p.118) This Shadow is satan.


(pp. 125-6) Keep the two leopardesses distinct in your mind as you read. The spotted leopardess is evil; the white leopardess is good.


(p. 127ff.) Lilith at her most seductive.


(p. 129) Lilith's bare-armed garment would have seemed more deliberately alluring to Late Victorians than it probably does to us. Note, though, that the silver mail would have a scaly, serpentine appearance!


(p. 129) Hybla and Hymettus-- places in the classical Greek world; Hymettus was famous for honey.


(p. 130) Lilith speaks of her "ripening" as an ever- greater enhancement of her attractiveness (not of a growth in wisdom or goodness that might, indeed, accompany a glorified body [for a different use of "ripening," contrast #46 above]), and contrasts it with the short-lived beauty of mortals. She sounds a little like Ayesha here--right? In this long speech, she is exerting herself to captivate Vane utterly, enthralling him with her present beauty, the promise of even greater beauty as she "ripens," and a Vane-flattering (and dishonest) explanation of her earlier behavior towards him, culminating in a "confession" that he has won the contest between them--what a tactic for appealing to the male ego!

When she says there are things she cannot explain, because he is not yet able to understand them, she sounds like the Raven. But while the Raven wants Vane to learn, to grow, Lilith is just mixing in enough of the truth to entice Vane and (a) put his suspicions of her to sleep while (b) leading him on with the hint of knowledge that she could give to him if he commits himself to her utterly.

The "'savage dwarf people'" Lilith refers to are the Little Ones who charmed Vane with their innocence and love. Here again we have MacDonald's theme that evil people cannot see things as they are. See #30 above.


(p. 131) The moment of supreme temptation for Vane. Lilith "offers" him all her charms as his by right.

We saw Lilith moving her arms in a powerful display of her beauty before (p. 107). On p. 54, her outstretched arm seemed to keep a savage battle going.


(p. 132) It's an old idea that witches cannot cross water, or that magic is defeated by it. Lilith accidentally revealed that, though she bounded across water in her spotted leopardess form, when she struck the opposite shore it was as a woman. Then Vane found her, near the point of death, and saved her life.


(p. 133) Here Lilith is a succubus, a night-spirit in the form of a woman that preys on sleeping men, and a vampire.

Shortly before Lilith was published, the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch painted The Vampire (included in this study guide). It is a bitter expression of woman's "love" as a harmful force brought to bear upon weakened man.


(p. 136) Hecate: goddess of witchcraft.


(p. 136) Vane needs to learn that one must not always act according to pity. On p. 138, he will once again act out of pity towards Lilith, and this will put the Little Ones in peril again!

Today we hear about "tough love." MacDonald is driving at something similar, but more far-reaching.


(p. 137) Vane has been in Lilith's brain. The images he sees, he (and we) have seen before: the skull-headed dancers (p. 87), the fight in the Evil Wood (p. 54), the dis-integration of Lilith (p. 50). Lilith's claustrophobic palace contrasts with Mara's house of open door and unglassed windows (chapter 15).


(p. 139) Vane's emergence from a basin of water is reminiscent of a Jewish folktale, "The Scholar Who Fell Into the Water."

A scholarly jew sets out on the road to Egypt, to learn magical arts there. He scoffs at an innkeeper he meets who claimed to know magic-no thanks, but he wants breakfast. The innkeeper gives the scholar a bowl of water to wash with, and the scholar bends over and falls in. He finds himself in a stormy sea and is rescued by sailors. In their country he becomes a ruler, but in time the country is invaded and the scholar takes refuge in a cave. Suddenly he notices a bowl of water. When he bends over to wash his face, he sees the innkeeper reflected. The innkeeper reproaches the scholar for taking so long at his bathing and tells him to come eat his breakfast. The scholar stays with that innkeeper to learn magic from!


(pp. 140ff.) This chapter, halfway through the book, provides something of a review of Vane's experiences so far. How well has he been doing?


(p. 141) "'stupid philanthropists'" -- see also p. 71.

Note that Raven says the Little Ones have not grown because they cannot cry. (See #49 above.) If human beings cannot grow spiritually without sorrow and repentance (not the same thing as self-pity, by the way), then it sometimes may not be in their best interests that life should be easy and comfortable. But do not take this statement too far. It is not saying that those who can help, should leave the needy to suffer. Raven's harshness is directed at stupid philanthropy, not philanthropy in itself.


(pp. 144ff.) Raven reads from the mysterious manuscript book. This appears to be a poem that, if not written by Lilith herself, was written from her point of view.

The verses are not easy to understand, but here is a tentative commentary:

First stanza ("'But if I found...'"): The idea here seems to be that Lilith originally was an immaterial being (i.e. an angel) who took physical substance (embodiment) from "'a man,'" i.e. Adam; however, this could also symbolize the weakness of any man, and any woman, to unhealthily love himself or herself by flattering imaginations.

Second stanza ("'In me was every woman'"): Lilith did not conceive of this embodiment as something that would enable her and the Man to live together in love. To her this meant just that her power over him would be enhanced. Lilith exults in her superiority (as she conceives it) to all possible women who could ever be.

Third stanza ("'For I...'"): Here it sounds like she could conquer the man even while she was immaterial. The brain suggests the man's imaginative fantasies; the spine (so important for the nervous system, etc.) might suggest to us a man's senses.

Fourth stanza and fifth stanzas ("' For by his side...'" and "'A song...'"): As a "discarnate" (bodiless) being, she only thought, and it seems that the form she took on somehow emerged from the man's own longing--almost as if she were unreal, a man's fantasy woman. If the man is Adam, MacDonald would mean for us to think of Adam having a wholesome longing for companionship.

(In Genesis, God says "It is not good for the man to be alone" before making Eve, which opens up the possibility of two beings growing into mature love, including a holy sexual love. MacDonald believes people truly need each other--children need parents, wives need husbands and husbands need wives, etc.)

Lilith would be perverting this healthy longing for companionship, when she comes into Adam's life, by giving him back "'nothing'". If the man in the poem is men in general, any man, MacDonald would mean us to think of the danger all people have of preferring some unreal, ideal erotic idol to a flesh-and-blood spouse with his/her own needs and faults. This note must not become an essay, so suffice it to say that MacDonald's writings time and again testify to his belief that marriage is a divinely- appointed means of grace by which people learn to give up their selfish orientation out of love for their spouse. It is probably fair to say that MacDonald was as plain- spoken as he could be about the blessing of physical love between husband and wife (incidentally he and his Louisa had eleven children). He also held that in marriage, two wills must become one in a "sacrificial" love. MacDonald would have greatly appreciated the discussion of marital relations in 1 Corinthians chapter 7, verses 3-5, Ephesians chapter 5, verses 21-33, etc. (MacDonald was a pastor at one time in his life, and often preached as a layman later on.)

Stanza six ("'Ah, who...'"): Lilith can imagine "love" only as a relationship in which one person enslaves another. For Lilith, sexuality is no "means of grace," deepening the loving commitment between wife and husband, but a powerful force by which one ego dominates another.

Stanzas seven-nine: Here it sounds like Lilith was dismayed when she took on bodily form, perhaps because now she could die. Lilith tends to be either fearful of death or to deny it. Death is a theme of Lilith.

Stanzas ten and eleven ("'Hideously wet...'"): This section seems obscure; it seems mostly to refer to Lilith, having become a woman, dying. But even before she had that experience, "hideously wet" may be meant to suggest only that, a bit pathetically, Lilith was disgusted by having sensory perceptions, now that she was an embodied being and not a bodiless intelligence. Of course, MacDonald himself affirmed the goodness of the physical world, and would hardly be disgusted by wet hair! Note that here Lilith's hair is golden (as on p. 50).

The remaining stanzas seem to contrast the enjoyment she soon, if not immediately, took in her own physical beauty after she became Adam's consort (how she had bathed luxuriously, anointed herself, etc.) with the later horror of corruption as her body decayed. The last stanza ends with her wish that she had remained a bodiless intelligence.

C. S. Lewis's chapter on Eros in his book The Four Loves is an excellent discussion of love and sex.


(p. 147) Raven's comments are much more straightforward than the verses. He tells Vane that God had brought him (he is Adam) an angel to be his wife. This is the legend of Lilith, of course; but Lilith refused to live as Adam's wife in a loving, mutual marriage. Her lust was for power. She birthed one child (this will turn out to be Lona, who acts as the "mother" of the Little Ones), whom she fears and hates.


(p. 148) Lilith hates Eve. Adam explains that Eve "'plunged herself and me in despair'" (the Fall of Man, described in Genesis 3)--but they both repented. "'Her groaning, travailing world'" is this earth of ours (Romans 8:22).

Lilith, despite Adam's heartfelt entreaties, refuses to repent (p. 149).

This is a good place to list the chief characters of the book and their varying forms:

Mr. Vane

Mr. Raven--also an old librarian, a sexton; he is Adam, the first-created man

Eve--Adam's wife, the sexton's wife, the first-created woman

Lilith--Adam's first wife, a fallen angel; appears as a beautiful woman with golden hair (pp. 50, 146) or black hair; also appears as spotted leopardess, as giant leech or worm, as snake (pp. 98, 111; scale-dress, p. 129); as vampire (pp. 110, 133), as grey Persian cat (probably gray because black and white are blended together)

Mara--appears as a veiled or unveiled woman and as a white leopardess; guardian of children; she is Eve's daughter (p. 207)

Lona--the girl-woman who "mothers" the Little Ones; she is the daughter of Adam and Lilith, although at this point in the story Vane does not know that yet

The Little Ones--the children, the Lovers; they have childish names such as Odu, Sozo, etc.

The giants--also called the Bags, suggesting both bagginess (i.e. a graceless, shapeless appearance) and (maybe) moneybags

The people of Bulika, especially an unnamed mother

The Shadow--the devil


(p. 149) Adam tells Lilith that God, Who made Lilith, will cleanse her if she repents. But we will see that Lilith denies that God made her. Lilith is always concerned about power, and she cannot conceive that acknowledging that she was a created being would not take away her supremacy.

MacDonald would say that it is the height of absurdity for people to live as they, in fact, do live, namely as if they had created themselves and were "beholden" to nobody for their existence.


(p. 151) "'death of her former body'" -- I'm not sure when this is supposed to have happened; presumably sometime on this earth.


(p. 152) A famous 20th-century physicist said the universe is not only stranger than we think, but stranger than we can think. Vane's statement "'you are constantly experiencing things...'" says something similar.

Everyday familiarity and our self-centered habits get us used to things and we think we understand them, and we take them for granted; actually, we are surrounded by wonders; the beginning and end, and the essential nature, of anything, end in mystery. Think of Mr. Raven's riddles when he and Vane have their first dialogue. These really are questions for each of us, too. And how is it that creation is so fitted to us, and at the same time other than us?

The best response to reality is not dull complacency or greedy exploitation of it, but a frequently-refreshed sense of wonder, humility, or gratitude. Science is legitimate as far as it goes, but knowledge that comes from describing and measuring things must not supplant a real awareness of the mystery of creation, including our own selves (and others'). No process of accumulation of "scientific facts" is a fully adequate response to the universe. A healthy imagination does not replace reality with ego-flattering daydreams; rather, it refreshes our wonder in the presence of creation as it is, and our sense of its value. Imaginative literature can do this for the rightly-disposed reader. It can help us to perceive that we ourselves are within a realm of great dangers and joyous possibilities. That is perhaps the chief justification for reading fantasy or other forms of literature, including the realistic.

(Incidentally, I don't think that all fantasy has the potential to benefit us in this way. Some works of fantasy that do are read in this course. Also some that --in my opinion--do not, but are more just clever inventions--I am thinking of Dunsany's stories here.)

This is another study guide note that must not turn into an essay, but I will mention that the point in the preceding paragraph is central to J. R. R. Tolkien's unsurpassed essay on literary fantasy, which has the somewhat misleading title "On Fairy-Stories." For the right role of the sciences, and the necessity of the humanities, E. F. Schumacher's A Guide for the Perplexed may be helpful.


(p. 154) "'it is hard to kick against the goad'" is an allusion to Acts 9:5 and 26:14. Mr. Raven is saying that Lilith is struggling against God, Who presses her to repent--the "tough love" idea again.


(p. 156) meed--a reward.

Here Vane is told flat out that he is being tempted. It's the stupid philanthropist's temptation, to meddle in the lives of others, acting supposedly out of compassion, but (if one only knew) really acting out of disguised selfishness. Vane admits he has been a fool so far, yet he refuses to heed the Wise Old Man's warning. Vane knowingly breaks his promise! Still he declines to die, which he needs to do so that he may live (p. 157).


(p. 158) tornado--in British usage, not a twister or funnel cloud, but simply a very high wind.


(p. 165) Here we see that Lona is the daughter of Adam and Lilith, beautiful like her mother, but childlike (that is, innocent) and mother-like at the same time.


(p. 167) The word for transformation from caterpillar to butterfly means "repentance."


(p. 168) It is clear now that Lilith is a vampire. The beauty of which she is so proud is retained not naturally, but by preying upon infants and children.

On a literal level, this is gruesome fantasy, but symbolically it could refer to any adult or society that furthers its selfish desires at the expense of cherishing the lives of babies and children.

William Blake's famous poem "The Chimney Sweeper" (attached) comes to mind. The sweeps were liable to cancer.

In MacDonald's lifetime, children could be subjected to brutal working days in mines, etc., or had to sweep streets (this was an era of horse traffic, remember), scavenge for rags to sell, even--an extreme example-- collect dog feces from streets and kennels, which could be sold as "pure," used in leather-dressing to draw out moisture. (See Henry Mayhew's vLondon Labour and the London Poor; Dickens's Bleak House has Jo the ragged crossing-sweeper.)

What of our society? Can our consciences be clear about the question: Do we neglect or exploit our children for self-centered reasons? The question is not about physical child abuse; that exists in our society as in all societies, and hardly anyone would justify it. The question is: are children, in fact, neglected or exploited by attitudes, assumptions, habits, practices of our society that seem to most of us to be normal or unquestioned?


(pp. 172-3) It seems that, now that Vane has become used to this strange alternate world, his attitude towards it is less and less one of wonder, and more and more one of commonplace selfishness! He is no longer a spectator or disoriented questioner; although he still has not answered the Raven's riddles, Vane has gone on to form political and commercial schemes about this new world. The Spanish conquistadors were interested in transporting New World gold back to Europe, and Vane contemplates getting Bulikan jewels to Victorian England!!

Oh--on the subject of riddles. In our commonplace outlook, riddles are trivial--kid stuff. In myth, fairy tale, and even modern fantasy, they are often matters of life and death importance. Think of the Greek myth about the riddle of the Sphinx--a riddle about identity:

"Which creature has four feet in the morning, two at midday, and three in the evening?"

Oedipus answered rightly: "Man -- who in infancy crawls on all fours, in maturity walks on two feet, and in old age leans on a stick." (This defeated the Sphinx, which had been eating those who could not answer her riddle.)

Remember the fairy-tale that is found in differing forms in many places, but is best known to us as "Rumpelstilskin"--if the queen didn't correctly name the malicious creature, her child would be forfeit.

Or think of the central "Riddles in the Dark" chapter in Tolkien's The Hobbit -- wherein Bilbo Baggins has a riddle contest with the wicked Gollum.


(pp. 173-4) The selfish and even absurd attitude just described seems to co-exist with an idealistic love for Lona. Perhaps this love is genuine as far as it goes, but is not mature. Indeed, given Vane's spiritual state, how could he love maturely?

Was he right not to tell Lona who her mother was?

Earlier, the Little Ones and Lona seem to live in an Edenic innocence. Like Adam (Genesis 2:19), they gave names to the animals (p. 167). But now there is a suggestion of loss of innocence, as Vane and then Lona make clothes for one another. The Little Ones have lived on the fruit of their garden-like homeland; now the idea is that they would live in a city.


(p. 175) In the strategy of the Bulikan woman, the mother-love of the Bulikan women has a part to play. Calculating this way seems rather questionable.


(p. 177) I'm a bit puzzled by Vane's statement that it would damage the Little Ones in their moral character if the invasion was called off. I think that what MacDonald wants is for us to see how poor Vane's judgment is, that he reasons in this fashion.


(p. 179) So the kingdom that Vane imagines being set up after the Little Ones should conquer Bulika would have a slave economy!


(p. 181) A Little One dies in this "crusade" against Bulika.


(p. 185) Lilith deals out death to her own daughter, and herself becomes deathlike again.

The intensity of these scenes prepares us for what is to come ahead.


(p. 188) It is possible that the Little Ones running when the Shadow (=satan) descends upon them reflects the way a herd of pigs rushed down into a lake when they were possessed by demons cast out of a miserable man by Jesus (St. Mark, chapter 6). Odu's words suggest that in its deepest essence, human nature is not evil, but evil is alien to it. Yet while the Little Ones appear to be innocents, the same cannot be said of Mr. Vane.


(p. 189) gaoler: jailer (and pronounced "jailer")-- British spelling.


(p. 190) A personal note: I think the scene here in which the Little Ones dance with the ghosts is one of the most perfect moments in fantasy literature.


(p. 196) Here is the holy severity of Mara; she will have no "pity" that leaves Lilith in her evil.

It might seem that MacDonald is open to the idea of torturing people "for their own good" if we took these words out of context. It might seem that there is an element of religious fanaticism in MacDonald. But remember that Mara, symbolically, "is" repentance, grief for one's evil. Also, the next chapter, although it is unpleasant, shows that the suffering Lilith undergoes is built-in to her being what she is. Mara will be distressed (pp. 198-199) by Lilith's anguish although she knows it is necessary. The suffering Lilith must undergo to lead her to repent is more like the suffering a heroin addict undergoes in withdrawal ("cold turkey") than it is like the popular idea of the suffering people experienced at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition. But Mara is the one who insists Lilith must "go cold turkey."


(p. 196) The bread and water of Mara's house might suggest Isaiah 30:20 in the Old Testament. There, the prophet says that God will give Israel "the bread of adversity" (hard times) and "the water of affliction" to lead them away from their idols and back to Himself.

Contrast #97 below.


(pp. 198ff.) See note #88 above.

This whole chapter is right at the center of the meaning of the book. Lilith's defiance at the beginning of her night in Mara's house shows how intimately mingled evil and illusion are in her. She says, for example, that "'no one ever made me.'" This of course is a colossal delusion, since only God is Uncreated.

(Stepping outside the book for a moment, we might try to connect Lilith's attitude to the self-contained individualism in our own society.)

The burning worm that enters Lilith suggests Jesus' description of the misery of those in hell "where their worm dieth not" (St. Mark 9:44, 48).


(pp. 201-202) "'Her torment is that she is what she is'" --this is a key to MacDonald's understanding of hell. "'She is herself the fire in which she is burning.'"

Basically, MacDonald believed that hell was a "purgatory," a state of unimaginable suffering experienced by those who reject the truth for as long as they reject it. MacDonald's "The Consuming Fire" in his Unspoken Sermons, Series 1 and "The Last Farthing" in Series 2 give an account of this idea.

Lilith now sees the corrupt being that she is and is horrified and filled with self-hatred, but she blames God, not herself, for this. Mara tells Lilith that she, Lilith, has made herself this way, while God wants only to restore Lilith to what He intended her to be.


(p. 203) Lilith says, "'My power to take manifested my right.'" A friend of mine pointed out that this sounds like the view of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who influenced the ideology of the Nazi Party.


(p. 205) Lilith's clenched hand resembles a paw. Of course, she was not created this way; the paw is an outward expression of the thing she has become.

Those who have read MacDonald's classic children's book The Princess and Curdie may remember a similar idea. In that book, the hero can grasp someone's hand, and judge their inner, spiritual state by whether he feels a human hand--or the claw or paw of an animal.

Jacob Boehme (died 1624), a visionary writer whose writings interested MacDonald for many years, wrote that pride, love of self, enjoyment of others' misfortune, and gossip are "hooves and horns of the devil" and signs of a"heap" of beasts within a sinner's heart (On True Repentance in The Way to Christ).


(p. 206) "'None but God hates evil and understands it'" is one of the most often-quoted sayings from Lilith.


(pp. 207-8) Water comes to the dry land; Lilith weeps. This is a wholesome weeping, however, indicating that Lilith has come through her terrible night with the possibility of spiritual restoration. Mara's house is a place of bitter anguish, but she earlier said one stays there only for a night--it is a necessary, but temporary, stopover. "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning" (Psalm 30:5).


(p. 212) "Stygian lily" -- refers to the River Styx, a river in the land of the dead in Greek mythology.


(p. 213) bread and wine -- suggests the Eucharist or Sacrament of the Altar in Christian faith (St. Matthew 26:26-28; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 11:23-34).


(p. 215) Lilith shows concern about the children, not just herself, a sign of the change that has occurred in her spirit.

On this page, we see that Lilith is not the proud and cruel queen she had been. However, she cannot conceive of death with hope -- she believes it will mean "going to the Shadow."


(p. 216) Eve corrects Lilith, compassionately. Her statement that the Shadow (=satan) is under her heel is an altered paraphrase of Genesis 3:15, where God says that the seed (child) of the woman will crush the head of the snake, a statement often taken by Christians as a prophecy of Christ's victory over the devil. Christ was "struck" by the devil when He was crucified, but in His resurrection, He overcame the devil.


(p. 217) Don't be confused here by the language about being dead and being alive. Adam and Eve mean, basically, that one must die in order to live again with eternal life. One must die physically, but especially one's old spiritual self must die. On physical death, see 1 Corinthians 15. On spiritual death and rebirth (through Baptism), see Romans 6:3-6.


(p. 218) An expression of MacDonald's hope that even the devil could be saved. This view has never been widely accepted by Christians, but one finds occasional expressions of such hope in persons such as Origen (third century A.D.) and some later mystical writers.


(p. 218) "'You may think you are dead...'" C.S. Lewis, creator of Narnia and a great admirer of MacDonald, cited this statement with particular acclaim. "This has a terrible meaning, specially for imaginative people," he wrote. "We read of spiritual efforts, and our imagination makes us believe that, because we enjoy the idea of doing them, we have done them. I am appalled to see how much of the change which I thought I had undergone lately was only imaginary. The real work seems still to be done. It is so fatally easy to confuse an aesthetic appreciation of the spiritual life with the life itself--to dream that you have waked, washed, and dressed, & then to find yourself still in bed" (letter to his friend Arthur Greeves dated 15 June 1930).


(p. 218) Cutting off Lilith's hand--this should remind us the words of Jesus, that it is better to lose a hand or an eye, if they cause us to sin, than with foot, hand or eye to enter hell (St. Matthew 5:29-30, 18:8-9). These examples all relate to His statement: "What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" (St. Mark 8:36). Just as Jesus said that whoever gives up family, etc. for the sake of His Kingdom shall receive a hundredfold (St. Matthew 19:29), Lilith, having surrendered her deformed "paw," is already beginning to receive a "'true, lovely hand.'"


(p. 218) Lilith fled when she saw the sword of the angel that was placed as guardian to prevent sinful man from returning to Eden (Genesis 3:24).


(p.222) Here at last, Vane does not yield to temptation. This sequence is presented almost in summary form, which should not lead us to miss its importance.


(p.225) It's interesting that Vane is the one "asking riddles" now.

William Law: an eighteenth-century mystical writer much appreciated by MacDonald, who refers to him in other writings also. If you are curious about Law, I recommend a selection from his writings, edited by S. Hobhouse.


(p. 228) The poem is given in full in the fantasy that MacDonald wrote at the beginning of his writing career, Phantastes, chapter 22:

Thou goest thine, and I go mine--
Many ways we wend;
Many days, and many ways,
Ending in one end.

Many a wrong, and its curing song,
Many a road, and many an inn,
Room to roam, but only one home
For all the world to win.

A Celtic band called The Waterboys recorded an arrangement of it, emphasizing the laborious journey that ends at last--and then jubilation.


(p.229) See note #18 above.


(p.230) Here MacDonald suggests the sleep of death before Resurrection Day. Vane's mention of lying naked on a snowy peak sounds like Gandalf's experience, in The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien, after he dies fighting the evil spirit called the Balrog (see The Two Towers, chapter 5).


(p.231) chiliads -- thousands of years.


(p.232) cenotaph -- mausoleum.


(p.233) dulcet -- sweet.


(p.235) "in a glass darkly" -- 1 Corinthians 13:12, St. Paul's famous expression of our present only partial knowledge.


(p.236) Vane returns to his earthly home, apparently. Or does he? P. 238 will make us not so sure.


(p.239) One of the greatest medieval Christian mystics, Julian of Norwich, wrote of a vision in which she received assurance that, despite appearances, "All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well."


(p. 240) The Day of Resurrection begins to dawn.


(p.241) "'expectation of the creature'" -- from Romans 8:18-19: "I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God." MacDonald would have read with interest C.S. Lewis's sermon on this theme, "The Weight of Glory."


(p.242) "'not too much at once thought'" -- "thought" is a typographical error for "though."


(p.243) The growing things show him the "indwelling idea" that each manifests. This sounds like the idea of "signatures" in the writings of Boehme (see #93 above). For Vane, now, visionary perception is permanent, and/or the outward world that he sees is transfigured.

"microcosm and macrocosm" -- this is a very old idea, which became very important for writers important to MacDonald such as Boehme and various Romantic poets. Here, the universe, all creation, has become home to Vane because he and it have the fulfilment of their redemption. The medieval mystic John Tauler wrote of those who live lives of prayer, "Thus they go in and out, and yet remain at all times within, in the sweet silent ground in which they have their substance and life."

His consciousness ever expanding: This is the life of holy love. He is ever more able to participate in the joy of other beings and to recognize the divine creativity and love that has given them being. This is the opposite of the selfish, power-oriented lovelessness of Lilith when we saw her in Bulika--think of her in her dark, "claustrophobic" brain-room, surrounded by shadows of her own mind, not glorious realities such as Vane is now meeting.

The dynamic idea of eternal life that MacDonald is suggesting here can be found in the New Testament, such as where St. Paul speaks of being changed "from glory into glory" (2 Corinthians 3:18). Mystics such as St. Gregory of Nyssa (The Life of Moses) developed the idea that life in heaven is not a static, unchanging perfection. The classical Greek idea of perfection was that it must be unchanging, because, they reasoned, as long as something is changing, it has not yet "arrived" at a stable state of resolution. However, St. Paul and St. Gregory offer the concept of heavenly life as one of ever-greater receptivity to the overflowing abundance of God. This idea is presented in C. S. Lewis's "Weight of Glory".

MacDonald deliberately links his book with Dante's, here at the end as he did at the beginning (see notes #4, #17 above). A good way to look at Lilith is as a fantasy novel consciously patterned after Dante's Divine Comedy. In the Comedy, Dante is a mortal man who has strayed from the truth and is conducted by Virgil through hell and purgatory before he enters heaven. In Lilith, the Dante figure is Mr. Vane, and Mr. Raven is something of a Virgil to him. Vane sees beings in hell, such as the dancing spectres or the skeleton husband and wife. A critic has pointed out that Lilith in her city Bulika resembles Dante's Lucifer in the center of hell. The "purgatory" aspect of Lilith is represented not so much by a place, but by the suffering and learning that various characters undergo as they are purified. In the final pages, Vane has a glimpse of heaven before (perhaps) returning to our world, a wiser man living by hope and faith.


(p.244) "He who dived in the swirling Maelstrom saw none to compare with them in horror..." A reference to Edgar Allan Poe, author of "The Descent into the Maelstrom" and Arthur Gordon Pym.

Is the Bad Burrow, in the Region of the Seven Dimensions, a physical manifestation of the evil minds of people in our world of three dimensions?


(p.246) "The desert rejoiced and blossomed as the rose"-- Isaiah 35:1.


(p.247) "Nothing in this world is more than like it."
What do you make of this remark?


(p.248) "'I saw my white pony, that died...'" MacDonald believed, or at least seriously entertained, the idea that animals also would have their place in heaven.


(p.251) "'If a man die, shall he live again? All the days of my appointed time will I wait till my change come'" --Job 14:14. An expression of hope of Resurrection.


(p.252) Visions come to him without his seeking, and he does not try to possess them; contrast #23 above.

Novalis: See note #13 above.

© Copyright 1997 Dale Nelson.

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