I just finished reading "Lilith" by George MacDonald. I have some thoughts."Man dreams and desires; God wills and broods and quickens."
George MacDonald is a famous Scottish author, poet, and minister, and is one of the greatest writers of Christian fiction in the world. He wrote in the late 1800s and is widely considered to be the first fantasy author in history, predating Tolkien and Peake and Dunsany by a significant margin. His influence on those authors, as on many more, is substantial. "Lilith" is one of his best known works, alongside "Phantastes" and "The Princess and the Goblin." It took me about a month to read it as I had deliberately slowed my pace down to savor the book, as it does not benefit from tearing through the story on a first read.
"Lilith" is a allegorical novel in the same vein as the Narnia series: broad parallels can be made between the physical condition of the Secondary World that MacDonald presents and the spiritual condition of the Primary World --our own world-- from which he drew his inspiration. It follows a Mr. Vane who stumbles through a magic mirror into a world of oddities and unpleasantries, where he does not seem to fit nor even have a purpose in living. The first half of the book recounts Vane's dim exploration of the world, while the second half constructs his experiences into something resembling a plot.
As a work of fantasy, I'm not sure how I feel about the book. As a work of theology, I'm really not sure how I feel about the book.
It's easy to forget how much modern authors have to benefit from drawing on prior writings. Tolkien's goblins, for example, were largely inspired by those found in another of MacDonald's works: "The Princess and the Goblin." Even the Professor borrowed, though in borrowing only made those goblins the more wonderful; but with MacDonald we see a genuine sub-construction whose equal may never be seen again. I've mentioned only some of the authors who MacDonald inspired, but I'm not sure there's a single fantasy author alive today who doesn't owe something to him. It's easy to see his handprint in nearly any book written today, right down to the entire idea of sub-construction in the Secondary World.
"Lilith" was written in 1895, and is considered to be one of the first fantasy novels. (We're distinguishing fantasy from legends and mythologies, which I think is fair.) For the time and the place in which it was written, I think the construction and imagineering of the book is marvelous. It is extremely visual, often overpoweringly so, and though the world was 'weird' it never lacked vividity nor vision. The first half of the book is incredibly confusing despite all this, and I had no idea what was going on until the second half slotted it all together. And even then, I always felt one or two steps behind the protagonist (and the author). I always felt that there was a great secret taking place, and I was the only one not privy to it. I suspect the book will benefit greatly from a reread.
Though the two men never met, C.S. Lewis cites MacDonald as his greatest spiritual and literary mentor, saying that "I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him." It shows. The book, while not entirely theologically accurate by my reckoning, does one thing marvelously: it is enamored with the image of the Christian God as a relentless pursuer of men, One who yearns for the redemption of every created being. If MacDonald suffers in theology, his is a suffering of over-love for God and creation; he cannot seem to imagine that God is not great enough to contradict Himself and save humanity despite itself, and though we may get caught up in the finer points I find myself unable (or unwilling) to disagree. If a heresy, it is a beautiful one; if a lie, then a comforting one.
It suffers from the optimistic heresy of universal salvation, although Crisis Magazine gently corrects the reader who gets too hung up on that: "Understood correctly, [Lilith] is a book about the individual soul instead of about the universe, and here MacDonald's thesis is absolutely unshakeable: the living man or woman... always has the opportunity to repent, and is constantly being offered this opportunity by a merciful God through the very hardships and difficulties that this life is made of."
The whole of the book is enveloped in the motif of dreaming, and of life and death. It presents us as all subservient to the inevitable will of God in our lives, which is salvation. The characters who represent good possess equal measures of tenderness and severity, developing an image of God closer to scripture than any I've encountered elsewhere. This is no Aslan, who we must be told is not a tame lion; there is no clear allegorical substitute for God in this story, but if his servants are any indication then he is as fierce as he is gentle.
In addition to Lewis and Tolkien, George MacDonald was also an influence on Lord Dunsany, Robert Howard, Mark Twain, T.H. White, E. Nesbit, Peter Beagle, Neil Gaiman, and Madeleine L'Engle. That's quite a list. Those who squabble among whether it was Tolkien, Howard, or Dunsany who invented the fantasy novel are all forgetting their grandfather, who paved the way for their efforts.
For those of you who know me well, MacDonald was to those men and women what Patricia McKillip is to me: a great teacher and unmet friend. He is one of the great forgotten pillars of the world of literature, and after reading him I can see why.
"Lilith" is a phenomenal book and I can't wait to acquire and read some of his others, especially "Phantastes" and "The Princess and the Goblin." Right now I'm reading "To Green Angel Tower", the conclusion to Tad Williams' series Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. Seeing as A Song of Ice and Fire is concluding its television run in the next month, it felt fitting to finish reading the series that inspired it. I'm enjoying both D&D's show and Williams' series quite a bit, and can't wait to finish them both up.