The House of Death


This summer I have been reading books like The History of the GulagThe Complete Russian Course, and Music of Silenced Voices. As fascinating as these books are, I've been overdue for a break, a mid-summer vacation book of imagination, relaxation, and inspiration. Look no further than George MacDonald!

Lilith was written in 1895 when MacDonald was in his early sixties. As a Romance of over 250 pages it takes some commitment, but I managed to storm through the last 200 in a marathon reading binge yesterday. Part of me wishes that I could have read at a slower and more steady pace, pondering the jewels of wisdom and beauty that MacDonald strews egregiously through every page. He's one of those authors that you'd like to underline passages of particular worth and mystery. The only problem is that most of the book would be underlined at that point! And in the end it's the impression of the whole, the overall Gestalt, which gives a greater, humbler, and more quiet pleasure. It's an amazing experience, a fascinating creation of individual episodes, but strung together with a brilliant Zusammenhang of concepts, images, words, sounds.
C.S. Lewis's introduction names MacDonald the nineteenth century master of myth-making, of creating stories that go beyond the exact words and quotes, but end up a vital part of you. MacDonald hovers between "the mythopoeic and the allegorical." Mythological allusions abound, such as Lilith, the mystical first wife of Adam who is associated with mirrors and empty love, and Mara a witch who induces nightmares, can turn into a cat, and has etymological ties to the Greek word for death. Allegorically we have a Dostoyevskian conversation between skeletons and a House of Bitterness and of Death. It's Grimm's fairy forest filled with wolves and monsters next to Bunyan's Celestial City with life lesson asides. But he's not Grimm or Bunyan, he's just MacDonald. Hard to explain, a joy to read!
This book certainly holds the seeds of so much fantasy literature. C.S. Lewis admittedly takes from him and in this story especially: 1) a large, English manor with doors to another world from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 2) living jewels from The Silver Chair, 3) the prevalence of Adam and Eve, and 4) awe-inspired heaven scenes from The Last BattlePerelandra, and The Great Divorce. L'Engle's baptized science as well as Abbott's scientific postulate for holiness peeks through in MacDonald's Mr. Raven explaining the seven dimensions. Even Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever owes much to MacDonald's use of dream states, the impression and influence of the moon, and the flavor of the march on Bulika and the chamber of Lilith's mind. (Donaldson's world has no God and therefore is simply a nightmare of insanity for six books, a panoply of useless, ceaseless human misery.)
Donaldson does however bring up an important point for reading any MacDonald. What is the moral of the story? He was a preacher after all. What is his sermonly advice for getting me through the weekdays? I am often tempted to read him that way. At the Back of the North Wind fills me with such a longing desire to  imitate, to follow in Diamond's footsteps. Even The Light Princess and Photogen and Nyctaris suggest heroes to emulate. But MacDonald, remarkably, isn't that sort of preacher. Even a straightforward hero story like Princess Daylight or the middle of Lilith doesn't work that way. All potentially doctrinal morals are weakened by the confusion and wonder of the fantastic. The discord cannot be solved. Mr. Vane is the discord and his actions and inactions only add to it. Yet whereas Donaldson would have us wallow in destructive, post-modern atrophy, MacDonald has one lasting moral to his story: the Creator and the created, their relation and their separation. The hero must return to the Creator, that is not be the hero, that is die... It is not a theme that works for a sci-fi/fantasy thriller. Yet it is most satisfying. My words cannot adequately express it. You'll have to read it yourself.

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