Sunday, 19 May 2013


George MacDonald Lilith (1895)

Along with Ballantine's Clark Ashton Smith collection Zothique, this was one of a handful of titles I picked up from a charity shop several decades ago. Being in those days considerably less intelligent and without much of an attention span to speak of, I got around to just one of the aforementioned handful, then ended up giving the rest away unread. More recently, in an effort to set right some nebulously defined act of cosmic injustice that I felt certain I had committed, I bought them all again on eBay for annoyingly inflated prices probably representing karma as much as collector's value.

MacDonald's Lilith was one of those titles, a book which I have now owned twice and read once. It was famously an inspiration to David Lindsay's similarly impenetrable A Voyage to Arcturus, to C.S. Lewis with that whole mysterious allegorical land accessible via a broom cupboard motif, and to J.R.R. Tolkein according to everyone except Tolkein himself. The novel's protagonist finds himself in a mythic realm of children - distinguished by their virtuous purity and referred to as Little Ones - and giants, who turn out to be the children grown up and turned bad through worldly experience. The realm is subject to a possibly philosophical power struggle between characters representing Adam, Eve, and Lilith - Adam's wilful and hence morally ambiguous bordering on evil first wife - although as an aside it might be worth pointing out that this specific matrimonial detail does not seem to have appeared in any record prior to the eighth century and is of doubtful canonicity in Biblical terms.

As Christian allegory, Lilith seems to be about the redemption of sin, and reads very much as the musings of an author approaching his final years and subsequent reckoning with higher authorities; but with my not being much of a scholar where Biblical matters are concerned - a fact of which I am not necessarily proud, I should perhaps point out - I found it all somewhat bewildering. Much as I disliked what C.S. Lewis said in at least the last two books of his Cosmic Trilogy, I could at least follow his argument despite relative ignorance regarding certain aspects of the underlying theology, but with Lilith I was lost. Characters seem to appear and events to transpire without obvious reason or explanation so far as I could tell.

Although I'm no more an expert on literary trends of the late 1900s than I am on the nuts and bolts of that whole Christian thing, I'm reasonably informed about the Symbolist movement of the time, at least in terms of its painters. The actual prose style of Lilith is fairly rich and rewarding, providing you take it at an even pace, so I appreciated the novel almost as a series of images which could easily have drawn inspiration from Watts, Redon, Segantini and others - A.E. van Vogt let loose on the Book of Genesis, sort of. The problem here is that this sort of suspension of expectation becomes more and more difficult to maintain as the novel continually fails to deliver anything that helps one make at least some sense of what has gone before; and after two hundred fairly repetitive pages laced with just a little more sentimentality than I like, it becomes increasingly difficult to give two shits about whatever the hell MacDonald was trying to say.

I'm glad I finally got around to reading this, but it does feel like a bit of a kick in the nadgers that it turned out to be quite so lumpy after all that.

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