My, but it’s been a minute since I did a book review. That’s not to say I haven’t been reading (my goodness, have I been reading) but I just haven’t really transferred that here. I’m behind on my Goodreads reviews, too, if that makes anyone feel any better.
Nope. Makes me feel worse. *sigh*
But anyway, a friend of mine loaned me his copy of George MacDonald’s Lilith and said he really wanted to know what I thought of it. This friend—actually, I don’t think I’ve mentioned him before. I’ve only known him about a year, but he’s become super important in my life as a friend and brother in faith. We’ll call him Mr. Honest, since I already have an Evangelist in my friend group. Anyway, Mr. Honest is a huge MacDonald fan and recommended this to me.
I will say this first: ain’t no imagination like Victorian imagination. The basic plot of this book is that the main character, Mr. Vane, inherits this dusty old English mansion (like you do) and is rattling around inside it until one day he follows a crow that may also be a human into another world through a mirror. In the other world, Mr. Vane encounters monsters and a house of dead people and a band of children and mean giants and a city where the queen is trying to kill any kid who is born and it’s just trippy as all get-out in an apocalyptic fantasy sort of way. Here’s a way to categorize this: Lilith was the thing that shaped C.S. Lewis’s molding of the world(s) of Narnia, including how you get in and out. Knowing that made this book much better for me because it was kind of like meeting your best friend’s parents and exclaiming, “Ohhhhhh, that’s where you get that from!”
It’s also beautiful because MacDonald knew what he was doing with language. Yes, he gets lost in his own tangents and phrases sometimes; he was a stuffy Victorian academic sort, after all, and I say that as a stuffy academic myself. (His job was actually being a Presbyterian minister, but they were pretty similar at that time.) Put on your Philosopher’s Hat when reading this, because it for sure is demanding that you think. For instance:
“You have, I fear, got into this region too soon, but none the less you must get to be at home in it; for home, as you may or may not know, is the only place where you can go out and into. There are places you can go into, and places you can go out of, but the one place, if you do but find it, where you may go out and in both, is home.” (15)
Or also this:
“At the same time you are constantly experiencing things which you not only do not, but cannot understand. You think you understand them, but your understanding of them is only your being used to them, and therefore not surprised at them. You accept them, not because you understand them, but because you must accept them: they are there, and have unavoidable relations with you!” (152)
Being that MacDonald was a pastor, this is absolutely drenched in Christianity. It’s in the title. Lilith is, by the old tales, Adam’s first wife—yep, Adam as in the First Dude. MacDonald takes on the idea that she was also the first fallen because she refused to go along with the divine plan of populating the world and so she becomes the villain under the power of the Shadow and Eve is introduced as the bestest woman evar.
And here’s a huge part of where I depart from this book: it is SO OUTRAGEOUSLY SEXIST. I mean, I get the idea of judging people by their own time periods; I’m a historian, after all. But even by Victorian standards this is fierce. There are a ton of female characters, which is super awesome because usually there aren’t really any at all. There’s Lilith, and Lona, and Mara, and Eve, and some side characters, and actually there are more female characters than male. Bully for MacDonald, truly, but every single one of them is judged by their maternal ability.
I’ve mentioned a few times before that I don’t have kids and have no plans to have any, so the idea that my worth as a woman is defined by my ability to give myself over to young humans is really, really hard for me to stomach. Lilith’s sin is pride, pride in the fact that she decided she wanted to be in charge of everything, that she wanted to be God. But it gets put into language of her sin being a denial of motherhood, and that is not at all a sin. At. All.
Also, there’s some wonky Lolita-esque shit that goes on with Mr. Vane and Lona, who is basically a motherly teen that watches the band of
Lost Boys Little Ones who care for Mr. Vane when he gets captured by the mean giants. Mr. Vane develops a crazy crush on her and talks about how beautiful she is, especially toward the end of the book, and not only is it iffy because she’s probably 15 tops but more because his description of her beauty is always couched in language of how maternal she is. And that’s bullshit, because women who are crap at working with children can still be beautiful for a million other reasons.
So the final summary is this: this is fascinating as an adventure into fantasy land, and it’s really neat to read if you’re a fan of Narnia. I would love to see it rewritten by a modern writer because it has good bones, as a friend of mine says. But it is just too jarringly male for me to really like on its own. Glad to have read it, but dang did I take this a whole different direction than Mr. Honest expected—different viewpoints matter, and I’m pretty sure MacDonald never once thought about a woman’s when writing this adventure of “saving” Lilith from her poor choices.
Rating: 2.5/5 stars