George MacDonald - Lilith (1895)
- Donald Smith
- 1 January 2005
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
George MacDonald has good claim to be the originator of fantasy as a genre with CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Philip Pullman and JK Rowling among many others who owe a debt to the Aberdeenshire minister turned fantasist. Lilith is the first text to employ the idea of going through a mirror into another world though this other reality is not a neatly allegorical alternative. Moreover, these otherworlds may operate by different rules, as the narrator observes: 'I was lost in a space larger than imagination, for if here two things or any part of them could occupy the same space, why not 20 or 10,000?'
The narrator moves through a succession of surreal landscapes encountering the talking raven, evil wood, white leopardess, house of death and more. Each is vividly clear but imbued with ambiguity. What is the reality status, and the moral or spiritual quality of these events? For MacDonald these questions are always intertwined and in Lilith he pushes at the boundaries of literature because he has little interest in conventions or canons. For him, imagination is a doorway to the inner life. CS Lewis struggles to define Lilith as 'fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic', but the effect of reading MacDonald is dreamlike; he is, in the true sense of the word, 'uncanny'.
Lilith is a figure of myth - Adam's first wife and a fulcrum of the narrator's ambiguous journey. Tensions of human/animal, good/evil, body/spirit, and angel/vampire play through the text, finally emerging in a violent conflict. From this, Lilith moves onto an openly spiritual plane. As the narrator reflects: 'The darkness knows neither the light nor itself; only the light knows itself and the darkness also.' MacDonald begins the tale with a terse epigram from the Kabala: 'Off Lilith!', and ends it with Novalis: 'Our life is no dream, but it should and perhaps will become one.'
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