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Lilith by George MacDonald
George MacDonald, a nineteenth century Scottish writer and pastor, is most well known for his charming children's stories, such as The Princess and Curdie and At the Back of the North Wind. Despite the seeming innocence of these stories, MacDonald's tales tend to harbor deeper meanings about the nature of man and his salvation. Lilith, a Romance is one such story. It is not a children's fairy tale, nor is it the optimistic romance adored by fans of Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters. It is an allegory dealing with death and true wisdom. Beneath the veneer of a well written, provocative tale is a message containing controversial theological topics, such as universal redemption, and a redefining of the way we think of ourselves.
Lilith begins by introducing us to the hero of the story, Mr. Vane, a rich, well educated bookworm. One day, Vane meets Mr. Raven, a man who happens to have been Mr. Vane's great-grandfather's librarian, who also manifested himself as a raven, a sexton, death, and Adam, creation's first man. Mr. Raven takes Mr. Vane into another dimension and to his home and wife (Eve) and tells him that there is a bed prepared for him. In other words, it is time for Mr. Vane to die. But Mr. Vane runs away from the couple, for he is afraid of death. After a series of adventures, Mr. Vane meets Lilith, Mr. Raven's first wife who became corrupted by her own beauty. After Lilith kills Lona (her daughter and Mr. Vane's love), she finally submits to Adam and sleeps in his house (in other words, dies). Mr. Vane, in turn, decides to sleep in Adam's house and lies down beside his parents and Lona.
A prevailing theme in MacDonald's story is wisdom. Mr. Vane, the hero, is an educated man from Oxford. He has read thousands of books and is the owner of a large private library that occupies the first story of his mansion. However, throughout the story, he acts foolishly and soon learns that book knowledge is not what he should have been seeking in life. When questioned by Mr. Raven, Mr. Vane cannot definitively say who he is, because he is unaware of his own identity. Mr. Vane's focus on books, and learning only what science could teach him, caused him to lose focus on what was truly important in life - helping and caring for other people. Tragically, his worldly intelligence veiled the identity of his true self.
An example of his foolishness can be seen the first time Mr. Vane sees a living book. He is walking in the woods in the dimension that Mr. Raven had led him into, when he sees a butterfly shimmering in different colors. It is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. As the butterfly flutters above his head, Mr. Vane lifts his hands and captures it. Then, its light goes out, and it dies. In its death, the butterfly becomes a book. This makes Mr. Vane realize that his books are just shadows of knowledge. The true knowledge died when it became a book, and only its skeleton remained. And, to find out what true knowledge is, you would not examine its vessel, but you would examine the idea itself, and what it was before it was written down.
George MacDonald is not implying that books are evil. Instead he is saying that books can distract us from what is truly important. As Mr. Vane put it, “[h]itherto I had loved my Arab mare and my books more, I fear, than live man or woman” (page 55). Books are good, but they should not replace our love of mankind. Displacing philanthropy with knowledge would have been a concern by the end of the nineteenth century. George MacDonald witnessed the Industrial Revolution and its distressing effects. People became more obsessed with worldly knowledge than with helping others. Their learnedness made the people of the Industrial Revolution lonely and foolish, and as a result of their foolishness, the people were unaware of their loneliness. This is the sentiment George Macdonald is trying to capture in Lilith.
Another prominent theme in Lilith is death. This appears to be the most obvious theme, since one of the main characters is Death himself. However, MacDonald describes death in three different ways: death gives us life, death is peaceful, and all people will gain redemption at some time before or after death. He acknowledges that death is feared, and will be feared until people become enlightened.
The first point about death that MacDonald makes is that only in death can we truly live. When Mr. Vane runs away from Mr. Raven's house, he is not “living,” for he does not know what “life” is. He must sleep before he can know what it is to live, for only after death can he understand life. This may seem paradoxical, however, it fits into MacDonald's Christian view of an afterlife. After death, the Christian believes that people either spend eternity in heaven or in hell. MacDonald's point reflects this idea in the sense that true life does not come until we enter the afterlife.
MacDonald's second point is that death is not something to be feared, though people are frightened of it nonetheless. Instead, death is more like sleep. In Lilith, Death's house is not a Hades filled with fleshless skeletons and musty coffins. Instead, it is full of couches occupied by sleeping people. The somnolent are not decaying; instead they seem to be in pristine health. MacDonald seems to regard people's fear of death as a part of being “ready” to die. If you fear death, then you are not ready to die. For example, when Mr. Vane first found out that Mr. Raven was Death, he ran away from Mr. Raven in fear. When he thought about it, however, Mr. Vane saw his foolishness and tried to gain admission into Mr. Raven's house. But he could not, for it was not yet his time. MacDonald seems to believe that not only is death peaceful, but that it is only peaceful when your time to die has come.
MacDonald's third point involves a controversial theological subject – universal redemption, the idea that ultimately all people will go to heaven. When Mr. Vane was wandering around in the woods after he had been refused from Death's house, he happened upon a cotillion being held in the ruins of a palace. The dancers were not living people but “[t]hey were skull fronts! - hard, gleaming bone, bare jaws, truncated noses, lipless teeth which could no more take part in any smile!” (Page 85). These were the dead who refused to enter death's house and partake of their peaceful sleep. They were the damned, people that a Christian would consider bound for hell after death. However, these skeletons were not suffering, instead they were obtaining redemption. Every night a little more flesh was added until they were fully restored. Once they had become fully human, then they could partake in the peaceful slumber in Death's house. MacDonald does not believe that any man is eternally sentenced to hell, but instead hell is a way of cleansing those yet unfit to enter heaven.
Lilith is a beautiful story, filled with symbolism and adventures that both baffle and delight the mind. At times it can be confusing and full of paradoxes, and its message controversial, but below all of it remains a story of a man who finds himself to be a fool. Once he discovers his foolishness, then he can embark on his pathway to wisdom. It also impresses beautiful images onto our brain, images of love, happiness, and tranquility. Lilith is a book that once read, is not easily forgotten.
MacDonald, George. Lilith, a Romance. WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 2000.