The Lilith of George MacDonald


In C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we learn that the White Witch is a descendant of “Adam’s first wife . . . Lilith.” The certain influence on Lewis in this suggestive genealogy was his beloved George MacDonald, whose novel Lilith first appeared in 1895 and was part of a nineteenth century vogue for the demoness.

“I knew that I had crossed a great frontier,” Lewis famously wrote of his experience reading MacDonald’s much earlier book Phantastes, published in 1858 and often considered to be one of the first modern fantasy novels. Having appeared four decades later, Lilith is not exactly a sequel to Phantastes, but it is clearly intended to open out onto the same moral universe as the first book, and perhaps to involve the same family. The protagonist of Phantastes is a young man with the curious name of Anodos, a Greek word that can mean “upward.” The protagonist of Lilith is the scion of a family in possession of a strange library, in which hangs a portrait of his ancestor, one “Sir Upward.”

In Lilith, Sir Upward’s descendant, a man named Vane, discovers that his library and his house—and above all the mysterious librarian Mr. Raven, who appears and disappears among the shelves and passages, and sometimes shows up as an actual raven—all offer passage to another dimension.

Vane crosses into this otherworld, eventually taking up with the “Little Ones,” a group of delightfully innocent children who never age, and that are being threatened by the mysterious princess of a forboding city. Vane seeks to protect the children, and unravel the mystery of the princess—the gist of the novel’s plot.

Except that MacDonald makes clear that the plot is, in some sense, a long detour away from Vane’s true mission, which is to die. Die, that is, in the Christian sense that allows one to wake into eternal life. Mr. Raven is revealed to be the biblical Adam who, with his wife Eve, repeatedly invite Vane to go to sleep until the end of time in their cold, marmoreal home, explaining that this is, finally, the only real way to achieve his goals.

Vane keeps missing the point, getting distracted by his desire to act in the world, and so deferring the sleep that will bring him to true awakening. Yet at the book’s end, the characters he is attempting to save or to thwart all take their place in the beds of Adam and Eve’s house—with the poignant exception of Vane, whose time has not yet come.

This Christian apprehension that the seeming life of the world is merely a kind of death, but that death can be the awakening into true life, is, as it was in Phantastes, the structuring idea of Lilith. Yet Phantastes, published when MacDonald was not yet 35, is nevertheless rather more focused on the life of the world, or on one young man and his erotic and spiritual life in the world. Anodos at the end of Phantastes does die in order to be reborn, yet his main struggles in that novel have to do with desire, jealousy, and depression, all given powerful if sometimes cryptic fantastic form.

Lilith, by contrast, published by the septuagenarian author, is far more focused throughout on the Christian apprehension of worldly life being spiritual death, and vice versa. And MacDonald plays this theme in a variety of variations, from gothic horror to a Hoffmann-like uncanny to quaintly comic episodes with a pair of quarreling skeletons. At a few points we even seem to be in the literary territory of the Weird Tale, as when we witness a “horrid brood” of monsters confined to the bottom of a hellish lake:

Coiled in spires, folded in layers, knotted on themselves, or “extended long and large,” they weltered in motionless heaps–shapes more fantastic in ghoulish, blasting dismay, than ever wine-sodden brain of exhausted poet fevered into misbeing. He who dived in the swirling Maelstrom saw none to compare with them in horror: tentacular convolutions, tumid bulges, glaring orbs of sepian deformity, would have looked to him innocence beside such incarnations of hatefulness–every head the wicked flower that, bursting from an abominable stalk, perfected its evil significance.

No wonder H. P. Lovecraft mentions Lilith in his famous essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” attributing to it “a compelling bizarrerie all its own.”

But it is not only that Lilith focuses more consistently than Phantastes on the theme of death and (eternal) life, but that the novel is less bound up with the anxieties and desires of the male protagonist. To be sure, Vane is the narrator and his actions and peregrinations have a decisive effect on what happens in the novel. Nevertheless, his function in many ways is to be a witness in the book to a drama not his own: the drama of Lilith.

Cover of the 1969 Ballantine Adult Fantasy series edition of Lilith.


MacDonald’s Lilith, as in Jewish folklore, is Adam’s first wife. She is an angel, now fallen, whose nature is defined by her will; by her proud insistence on autonomy; by her original bodilessness which let her act on Adam’s soul as the image of his own desires, as all women and none; and by her contempt for mortal bodies that restrict and decay.

This last aspect, her desire to be independent of the processes of life and death, of procreation and mortality, is most important. Adam tells Vane that Lilith did not want to conceive children with him: “she counted as slavery to be one with me, and bear children for Him who gave her being.” In MacDonald’s tale, Lilith gave birth to a single daughter, which she thought evidence of her status as a goddess, seeing the child as her independent creation rather than a joint product of two parents thereby bound into a chain of generations. When she saw that Adam would not worship her, she fled and took up with Satan, “the great Shadow” who “made her queen of Hell.”

Lilith’s attitude toward her daughter, and toward children and motherhood in general, is one of implacable hostility stemming from fear and pride. “The one child of her body she fears and hates, and would kill,” says Adam, “asserting a right, which is a lie, over what God sent through her into His new world.” Lilith rejects the relation of parenthood toward time and mortality, the condition in which we acknowledge the finitude of our own lives and invest in the continuance of generations beyond ourselves. “The birth of children is in her eyes the death of their parents,” says Adam, “and every new generation the enemy of the last. Her daughter appears to her an open channel through which her immortality—which yet she counts self-inherent—is flowing fast away.”

As many critics have observed, MacDonald’s Lilith is bound up with perceptions and anxieties regarding the changing role and status of women in the late nineteenth-century. Yet she is not simply one of the nineteenth century’s visions of demonic female sexuality. Certainly, she is a combination of imposing beauty and monstrousness. Vane is captivated by her (“she had struck me dumb with beauty”) yet “was simultaneously attracted and repelled: each sensation seemed either.” And, indeed, Lilith frequently assumes the form of a huge leopard, and at one point in the book we even see her body disaggregate into a bunch of snakes.

Yet it is important to note that the novel rarely portrays Lilith as overtly sexual. Vane is enthralled by her, but even at the moment when she proclaims (deceitfully) that she will give herself to him (“My power, my beauty, my love are your own: take them”) nothing happens and the interaction is rather less sensual than we might expect even from a Victorian novel.

If anything, Lilith is a figure of sexual self-control, of aversion to bodily contact and union. Her femininity resonates with that described by the scholar Hera Cook in The Long Sexual Revolution: English Women, Sex, and Contraception, 1800-1975 (2005). Cook finds that during the course of the nineteenth century women responded to their loss of economic control in industrializing society, and the resulting increase of sexual control exerted upon them by men, by cultivating an ethos of sexual abstinence and fertility control.

Avoidance of sex and indifference to pleasure became features of Victorian femininity, Cook argues, both within marriage and without. Pregnancy out of wedlock was socially and economically devastating for women, childbearing was frequently a death sentence, child mortality common, and the tacit acceptance of male patronage of prostitutes and extra-marital relations meant for wives the threat of infection with venereal disease. Women responded to all these factors with a reliance on abstinence as a means of mitigating risk.

The shocking modernity of MacDonald’s Lilith is that it portrays in fantastical form the spiritual logic of an entire society that follows Lilith in her rejection of parenthood and exaltation of the self. Lilith despotically rules the city of Bulika, whose origins are explained as follows: “The people of Bulika were formerly simple folk, tilling the ground and pasturing sheep. She came among them, and they received her hospitably. She taught them to dig for diamonds and opals and sell them to strangers, and made them give up tillage and pasturage and build a city.” Now “the people never did anything except dig for precious stones in their cellars. They were rich, and had everything made for them in other towns.”

When Vane enters the city, he finds it a place that enshrines indifference to the poor and contempt for the weak and needy: “to the citizens of Bulika, as to house-dogs, poverty was an offence! Deformity and sickness were taxed; and no legislation of their princess was more heartily approved of than what tended to make poverty subserve wealth.” As one commentator has noted, MacDonald draws here on midrashic depictions of Sodom as a society of inverted values in which wealth-accumulation and self-sufficiency are everything, therefore need and weakness turned into crimes. MacDonald of course intends this as a critique of the injustices of Victorian society, Bulika of a piece in this way with the London of David Copperfield or Oliver Twist.

But MacDonald adds a particular focus to this critique in that he sees such a polity as both based upon and reinforcing an aversion to parenthood and childrearing. As one character says of Lilith: “She does not care about her country. She sends witches around to teach the women spells that keep babies away, and give them horrible things to eat. Some say she is in league with the Shadows to put an end to the race.”

Indeed, for all Bulika’s cruel lack of hospitality and indifference to the poor, its most striking aspect is that it is a city almost entirely devoid of children. Its women do not want to give birth, and why should they? When they do, a ravenous leopard—Lilith in animal form—inevitably appears to prey on the blood of the infant. Children are, after all, the very definition of society’s most needy, and presuppose an expenditure of resources that is economically irrational in post-agrarian societies. Bulika is a vision of a society that measures everything in brutal economic terms, and moreover has based its values on the metric of individual lifespan over generational continuity, and rejects the vulnerability necessary for deep connections of love, sex, and family.[1]

1864 photograph by Lewis Carroll of MacDonald with two of his eleven children.

What is perhaps most unsettling about the novel is that it describes aspects of our world today even more acutely than those of late Victorian Britain. The wariness about childbirth that Cook sees in the Victorian period was at least understandable for the health risks it posed to mothers. But today we see an even more pervasive and more extreme cultural denigration of natality, childrearing, and family life, and an even more fanatical and narrow conception of human life as whatever serves the ever more insulated individual.

MacDonald’s fantasy may be dark, yet in recent years we have seen a demonic willingness to sacrifice children, their health and wellbeing, for the putative sake of a desiccated conception of life that his Lilith would have approved of enthusiastically.


Given the chance to repent for the evil she has done, the myriads she has murdered, Lilith justifies her actions like a true modern, by appealing to her authenticity and autonomy as an individual:

I will do as my Self pleases–as my Self desires. . . .I am what I am; no one can take from me myself! . . . 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!

One of the ironies MacDonald builds into his critique of this modern cult of the individual is that Lilith, far from being independent and self-sufficient, is a literal parasite: she is a vampire who feeds on the blood of others. Moreover, when Vane first comes face to face with her, she is helpless, weakened nearly to death, and it is only Vane’s painstaking ministrations over many days—a parallel in miniature to childrearing—that restore her to health. Yet once having returned to her former power, she despises Vane.

In the ultimate perversion of the interdependence of parent and child, Lilith finally kills her own daughter, an act which again reduces the mother to a corpse-like weakness, a literalization of the spiritual confusion of death for life that defines her existence. Captured and unrepetenant, she is handed over to the novel’s most intriguing character apart from Lilith: Mara, the daughter of Adam and Eve.

Known as the “Mother of Sorrows,” MacDonald’s Mara is an enigmatic figure. She often appears with veiled face and is linked with the moon. She conjures white leopards that attempt to thwart Lilith’s hunting of infants. “Some people,” Mara tells Vane, “take me for Lot’s wife, lamenting over Sodom; and some think I am Rachel, weeping for her children; but I am neither of those.”

The character is clearly linked with Mary as the Mater Dolorosa, but it seems to me that MacDonald may have also drawn from the Jewish conception of the Shekhinah, the divine presence in the world that shares the travails of God’s people in the world. In the novel, Mara embodies a suffering that humanizes, in contrast to Lilith’s infliction of suffering on others in order to avoid her own. Mara helps effect Lilith’s repentance by bringing her to consciousness of the ghastly lie her existence has been.

MacDonald and his wife Louisa, 1901.

Before taking up this development and the book’s conclusion, though, I want to note how carefully MacDonald circumscribes the occult elements in his book. After all, MacDonald is writing at the height of the late Victorian occult revival, and his book makes use of kabbalistic motifs and characters. Yet occult practice only makes a brief appearance in the middle of the book when Adam uses a mystical tome and drawn signs and figures in order to reveal and then banish an avatar of Lilith that has snuck into “our” world. Such magic, even as allegory for spiritual change, is secondary to the process by which Mara exposes Lilith to the awful truth of her choices.

The process is agonizing for Lilith, and the weak-willed Vane is several times tempted to come to Lilith’s “rescue.” Though I believe there are similar Christian legends regarding Satan, I think I recognize in Vane’s impulse of misplaced mercy toward the bound Lilith traces of the Jewish legend of Joseph della Reina, a fifteenth-century mystic who was said to have successfully bound both Asmodeus and Lilith in order to force the coming of the messiah, until he took pity on their suffering and so allowed them to escape.

Here, though, Lilith is plunged by Mara into “the hell of her self-consciousness . . . the knowledge of what she is.” As Lilith refused to soften her ego through repentance, she now must endure the torture of unmediated self-awareness, which leads her to self-loathing, and thence to an utter despair that she might ever merit the love of God. Only shattered in this way does she finally begin a process of true repetenance.

Even then, she cannot on her own take the final step of unclenching her hand which grasps the waters of life she has stolen from the world. She must, in the end, ask Adam to cut off her hand with a sword—which he does. She can then finally go to sleep in the house of Adam and Eve in the hope of waking one day, healed and redeemed, while Vane goes out into the wilderness and buries her severed hand in the parched earth to make it bloom with life again.

It is a violent act, but it is necessary for both Lilith’s reconstruction and the world’s. And it intriguingly parallels the two sleeping figures Vane sees in his first sojourn in the house of Adam and Eve, a woman with a wounded hand, and a man whose hand is “almost closed, as if clenched on the grip of a sword.” Vane learns at the end that they are his own mother and father. Evidently, they too lived a life that involved some measure of wounding and pain. Yet MacDonald’s alternative is Lilith’s inhuman, empty fortress of self.

[1] The town of Hagsgate in Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn is a sister city of both Bulika and the midrashic Sodom.

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