George MacDonald and the Salvation of Lilith

I scrambled to find the right words. How to explain to my old friend Frederica Mathewes-Green the theme of George MacDonald’s great fantasy novel Lilith? But the words would not come. Well, perhaps that’s not quite true. Words came, but they hardly made sense and certainly did not convey the profundity and depth of the story. I read Lilith for the first time last spring. It did not take me long to realize that this was a story unlike anything I had read before, so I made the decision to just read it through, without pausing to wonder what was going on or what symbolized what. Just enjoy the story. After this initial reading, I knew I was going to have to reread it, but this time more slowly and attentively. And so about six weeks ago I began my meditative perusal, one or two chapters a day. I think this was a good approach for me. Yet even still, I could not find the words to describe the story to Frederica. I finally just advised her to read a couple of MacDonald’s fairy tales (“The Golden Key,” “The Wise Woman,” and “Photogen and Nycteris” are three of my favorites) and then, if she was still interested, to tackle Lilith. But be prepared, I warned, for a very different kind of literary and spiritual experience: theology becomes mythopoeia; eschatology, a fairy tale.

Lilith is a story of redemption—the redemption of the protagonist Vane but also the redemption of the evil princess Lilith. In some ways she reminds me of the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, desiring power and dominion above all else. Yet there are also differences. Lilith possesses a seductive, erotic attraction that Jadis does not have. She is a succubus who feeds on her victims to maintain her beauty and power. Revisioning Kabbalistic tradition, MacDonald portrays Lilith as an angelic being, given by God to Adam as his first wife. “Her first thought,” Adam tells Vane, “was POWER; she counted it slavery to be one with me, and bear children for Him who gave her being.” After giving birth to a daughter, she fled Adam and eventually ensnared the heart of the great Shadow, thus becoming the queen of Hell. Since that time she has sought to destroy her daughter, who, it is prophesied, will be her doom. “Vilest of God’s creatures, she lives by the blood and lives and souls of men. She consumes and slays, but is powerless to destroy as to create.”

Adam offers her the forgiveness of God: “Repent, I beseech thee; repent, and be again an angel of God!” “I will not repent,” she retorts. “I will drink the blood of thy child.” Her rejection of the Good is firm, obdurate, adamantine. She will not surrender. Can there be redemption for such a creature?

Lilith has a narrative counterpart, Mara, Lady of Sorrow and daughter of Adam and Eve. At one point she is referred to as the Magdalene, yet a strict identification seems inappropriate. Given her love of children and authority over evil, Orthodox and Catholic readers will immediately associate Mara with the Blessed Virgin Mary; but Eve is described in the book as the Mother, so again a strict identification seems inappropriate. Perhaps the best we can say is that Eve and Mara incorporate elements of the Theotokos.

Lilith is taken captive by Vane and brought to Mara for final deliverance. “I must do what I can,” Mara declares, “to make her repent.” Her words suggest a kind of coercion, perhaps even physical violence; yet if what Lilith endures is properly described as violence, it is violence of a special kind, a violence that she brings upon herself as she seeks to deny her true self. Mara’s role is simply to restrain her while she suffers the revelation of God. Lilith must learn the one necessary truth—she did not create herself and cannot will her nonexistence. As long as she believes that she is an autonomous, independent, self-sufficient being, she remains a slave to the Shadow. The conversation between Lilith and Mara is illuminating:

“Will you turn away from the wicked things you have been doing so long?” said Mara gently.

The princess did not answer. Mara put the question again, in the same soft, inviting tone.

Still there was no sign of hearing. She spoke the words a third time.

Then the seeming corpse opened its mouth and answered, its words appearing to frame themselves of something else than sound.—I cannot shape the thing further: sounds they were not, yet they were words to me.

“I will not,” she said. “I will be myself and not another!”

“Alas, you are another now, not yourself! Will you not be your real self?”

“I will be what I mean myself now.”

“If you were restored, would you not make what amends you could for the misery you have caused?”

“I would do after my nature.”

“You do not know it: your nature is good, and you do evil!”

“I will do as my Self pleases—as my Self desires.”

“You will do as the Shadow, overshadowing your Self inclines you?”

“I will do what I will to do.”

“You have killed your daughter, Lilith!”

“I have killed thousands. She is my own!”

“She was never yours as you are another’s.”

“I am not another’s; I am my own, and my daughter is mine.”

“Then, alas, your hour is come!”

“I care not. I am what I am; no one can take from me myself!”

“You are not the Self you imagine.”

“So long as I feel myself what it pleases me to think myself, I care not. I am content to be to myself what I would be. What I choose to seem to myself makes me what I am. My own thought makes me me; my own thought of myself is me. Another shall not make me!”

“But another has made you, and can compel you to see what you have made yourself. You will not be able much longer to look to yourself anything but what he sees you! You will not much longer have satisfaction in the thought of yourself. At this moment you are aware of the coming change!”

We might well describe Lilith as the ultimate libertarian: she is free, so she thinks, as long as she is free to make herself, to assert her independence from absolute reality, to be absolute reality. “What I choose to seem to myself makes me what I am. My own thought makes me me; my own thought of myself is me. Another shall not make me!”

At this point traditional theology has long believed that God stands impotent before the resolute assertion of the creaturely self. What more can he do than summon to repentance? God knocks at the door, but if the creature refuses to open it, God is defeated. But MacDonald sees more deeply and hopes more truly.

Lilith speaks again:

“No one ever made me. I defy that Power to unmake me from a free woman! You are his slave, and I defy you! You may be able to torture me—I do not know, but you shall not compel me to anything against my will!”

“Such a compulsion would be without value. But there is a light that goes deeper than the will, a light that lights up the darkness behind it: that light can change your will, can make it truly yours and not another’s—not the Shadow’s. Into the created can pour itself the creating will, and so redeem it!”

“That light shall not enter me: I hate it!—Begone, slave!”

“I am no slave, for I love that light, and will with the deeper will which created mine. There is no slave but the creature that wills against its creator. Who is a slave but her who cries, ‘I am free,’ yet cannot cease to exist!”

God is not restricted to being a being external to the creature. His uncreated Light knows no such boundaries. The Creator wills the salvation of every rational being. As Adam later tells Vane: “Every creature must one night yield himself and lie down: he was made for liberty, and must not be left a slave!”  Precisely as the transcendent source of being, God is able to work in the immanent depths of persons to make known the truth of their being and thus liberate them for life eternal.

The redemption of Lilith takes place in four stages:

(1) The fire of God enters her. It takes the form of a worm that creeps out of the hearth—“white-hot, vivid as incandescent silver, the live heart of essential fire.” Penetrating into her heart and soul, it reveals to Lilith the self she was created to be. Vane desires to rescue her from her torment but Mara stops him:

“You cannot go near her,” she said. “She is far away from us, afar in the hell of her self-consciousness. The central fire of the universe is radiating into her the knowledge of good and evil, the knowledge of what she is. She sees at last the good she is not, the evil she is. She knows that she is herself the fire in which she is burning, but she does not know that the Light of Life is the heart of that fire. Her torment is that she is what she is. Do not fear for her; she is not forsaken. No gentler way to help her was left. Wait and watch.”

Lilith throws herself on the floor, weeping, yet still defiantly resolute in her self-assertion. She now knows that she did not create herself, but she blames God for what she has become.  She cries out for annihilation. “I will not be made any longer!” she inveighs. “Unmake yourself, then,” says Mara. “Alas, I cannot! You know it, and mock me! How often have I not agonised to cease, but the tyrant keeps me being! I curse him!–Now let him kill me!” Lilith has been forced to acknowledge a fundamental truth of her existence: she is not her own Creator—and this fact has become her torment. Orthodox readers will no doubt be reminded of the famous words of  St Isaac the Syrian: “I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love.”  Yet Lilith remains firm in her rebellion and hatred of God. The struggle for her salvation must continue.

(2) After further struggle Lilith begins to cry. These are not tears of repentance, however, Mara explains to Vane, but rather tears of self-loathing. They are helpful only if they lead the sinner to the merciful embrace of the Creator: “Self-loathing is not sorrow. Yet it is good, for it marks a step in the way home, and in the father’s arms the prodigal forgets the self he abominates. Once with his father, he is to himself of no more account. It will be so with her.” And yet still Lilith refuses to repent. She will not admit her evil.

(3) And now Lilith endures the final consequence of her rebellion. God gives her that which she believes she desires—escape from self, world, God; nothingness, the absence of life and love … the outer darkness.

Something was taking place in her which we did not know. We knew we did not feel what she felt, but we knew we felt something of the misery it caused her. The thing itself was in her, not in us; its reflex, her misery, reached us, and was again reflected in us: she was in the outer darkness, we present with her who was in it! We were not in the outer darkness; had we been, we could not have been WITH her; we should have been timelessly, spacelessly, absolutely apart. The darkness knows neither the light nor itself; only the light knows itself and the darkness also. None but God hates evil and understands it.

Something was gone from her, which then first, by its absence, she knew to have been with her every moment of her wicked years. The source of life had withdrawn itself; all that was left her of conscious being was the dregs of her dead and corrupted life.

She stood rigid. Mara buried her head in her hands. I gazed on the face of one who knew existence but not love—knew nor life, nor joy, nor good; with my eyes I saw the face of a live death! She knew life only to know that it was dead, and that, in her, death lived. It was not merely that life had ceased in her, but that she was consciously a dead thing. She had killed her life, and was dead—and knew it. She must DEATH IT for ever and ever! She had tried her hardest to unmake herself, and could not! she was a dead life! she could not cease! she must BE! In her face I saw and read beyond its misery–saw in its dismay that the dismay behind it was more than it could manifest. It sent out a livid gloom; the light that was in her was darkness, and after its kind it shone. She was what God could not have created. She had usurped beyond her share in self-creation, and her part had undone His! She saw now what she had made, and behold, it was not good! She was as a conscious corpse, whose coffin would never come to pieces, never set her free! Her bodily eyes stood wide open, as if gazing into the heart of horror essential—her own indestructible evil. Her right hand also was now clenched—upon existent Nothing—her inheritance!

But with God all things are possible: He can save even the rich!

At that moment, Lilith yields. “I cannot hold out. I am defeated.” All of her illusions have been shattered. She is no longer capable of denying the truth.

(Read MacDonald’s reflections on repentance and the outer darkness in his unspoken sermon “The Last Farthing.”)

(4) Yet there remains one final thing that must be done. Lilith’s left hand is clenched upon something that does not belong to her. We are not told what this thing is, though we do learn that it becomes the source for the renewal of the world. Perhaps it is not an object at all (life?). Yet try as hard as she might, Lilith finds herself powerless to open her hand. All she can do is acknowledge her impotence: “I have no power over myself; I am a slave! … Let me die.”

Mara now speaks to her the words of assurance that Lilith could not hear until this point: “A slave thou art that shall one day be a child! Verily, thou shalt die, but not as thou thinkest. Thou shalt die out of death into life. Now is the Life for, that never was against thee!” Mara embraces Lilith and kisses her on the forehead. Misery departs from Lilith’s eyes, and she weeps tears of gratitude. Yet her hand remains clenched. She must be taken to the House of Death and given over to the care of Adam.

Lilith lies down on the bed of rebirth, yet she is unable to sleep. “Lilith, you will not sleep, if you lie there a thousand years, until you have opened your hand, and yielded that which is not yours to give or to withhold,” Mara tells her. Lilith assures her that she is trying with all of her strength, but to no avail. She begs Adam to cut off her hand with the sword entrusted to him by an angel. “I heard him who bore it say it would divide whatever was not one and indivisible!” Adam consents. He severs the clenched hand from her arm. Lilith gives a single moan and falls fast asleep.

Mary MacDonald dreaming of her father and brother

Thus begins Lilith’s interior healing and transformation.  She must dream … and forget … and having forgotten remember, as she awaits her awakening “in the morning of the universe.”

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15 Responses to George MacDonald and the Salvation of Lilith

  1. brian says:

    Wonderful article, Father, and a nice analysis of the depths at which conversion occurs. So much more realistic than the surface deliberations of the rational ego that circumscribe the limits upon which so much contemporary evangelism is pitched. One has to touch the heart, the wholeness of the man. Debate and a certain kind of ordered argument just doesn’t reach far enough. George MacDonald exhibits the richness of the baptized imagination. More than programs to appeal to youth or efforts to address problematic issues of the day through political action — and these are legitimate, to a degree — the Church needs poets and artists to open the heart to the many dimensions of an infinite destiny.

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    • Connie says:

      Brian, another great comment, as usual. “… the Church needs poets and artists to open the heart to the many dimensions of an infinite destiny.” Yes, yes, yes!

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  2. Tom Talbott says:

    You may have thought of yourself as struggling for the right words to express what you wanted to say here, Father, but you have in fact outdone yourself with this one. Reading it brought genuine tears to my eyes.

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  3. Connie says:

    “At this point traditional theology has long believed that God stands impotent before the resolute assertion of the creaturely self. … God knocks at the door, but if the creature refuses to open it, God is defeated. But MacDonald sees more deeply and hopes more truly.”

    I am so grateful to George MacDonald for plumbing the deeper depths – and to you, Fr Aidan, for presenting so clearly the hope that really is our only true hope, that God can and does find a way to bring to Truth every one of His creatures that He loved into creation.

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  4. Thank you so much for this beautiful article. I am compelled to dig through my library and read again this book I haven’t opened in close to 40 years. I will be interested to observe my own reaction to the story after decades of living., and I am so glad I’ve carted all my George MacDonald books with me through four household moves.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, Victoria. I hope you enjoy your reread of the book. I suspect you will find it more satisfying than you did 40 years ago.

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  5. Nicholas says:

    Beautiful, Father. You’ve inspired me to read some George MacDonald. But I’m very curious about the hand and what that represents.

    Also, if anyone is interested, the Kindle edition, readable on any computer or smartphone, of Lilith is free on Amazon.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      On my first read I read it on my Kindle. As you note, you can’t beat the price! But I bought the book for my second read, as I wanted to be free to mark it (I use Book Darts) and go back and forth as I tried (usually unsuccessfully) to connect the dots.

      Thank you for your kind words, Nicholas.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Regarding the hand, the first thing that came to mind was Matt 5:30: “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.” Given that the hand is clenched on “something,” I take it as a symbol for Lilith’s pathological possessiveness. Mr Vane will later take the clenched hand and bury it, from which comes the waters that regenerate the “region of the seven dimensions.”

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  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I certainly found Lilith more satisfying on finally partly rereading, partly LibriVox listening, to it again after some 25 to 30 years.

    In between I’ve read and brooded over Charles Williams’s 1925 poem “Lilith” (later published in Heroes & Kings) and his play with Lilith (“Lily Samile”) in Descent into Hell, and his passing comments on the exegesis of Genesis 2:6 with respect to Lilith, and also a bit about Lilith and Jewish demonology thanks to Gershom Scholem (especially in Kabbalah (1974), working with his Jewish Encyclopedia contributions), and a lot of Tolkien.

    MacDonald seems unique in portraying Lilith “as an angelic being, given by God to Adam as his first wife” – not just as a being capable of human-angelic procreation (Jewish demons are thought to collect and use shed semen procreatively) – but as intended wife and mother (cf. the marriage of Thingol and the Maia, Melian, in Tolkien).

    But he portrays Adam’s marriage with Eve as equally – and, through Mara, especially – remedially proper.

    But what (to borrow a word from Tolkien) is his ‘storial’ theology of marriage, here? There seems a proper (if not originally intended or necessary) bigamy. Is this a sort of imaginatively retrojected ‘Pauline option’, with Lilith’s apostasy so breaking their union that he can properly ‘put her aside’ (who has so radically ‘put herself aside’ in so many ways) and marry the Eve created from and for him?

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  7. Mike H says:

    Just finished Lilith. Binge reading when the opportunity presented itself took about two weeks…..which was MUCH too quickly. It deserves a slower and more meditative read, but my reading list is just SO long. I’ll have to come back to it.

    What a unique book. It’s so rich with imagery and symbolism that to try to “interpret” all of it would seem to rob it of it’s power. Lewis must have been impacted by this one – I can see some Narnia and some Great Divorce here.

    Anyway, thanks for this post. Definitely inspired me to read the book for myself.

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