Mis-hap or Stumblings: Readings in George MacDonald’s ‘Lilith’

As far as debts go, my reading owes ever so much to the e’er so well known C.S. Lewis (if over-quoted in favor of items he never would ‘ve backed – such is the lot of the popular, doomed to being misunderstood) but few debts are so dear as that which led through Lewis to the goodly Irishman MacDonald.  I think I never truly breathed faerie nor so happily mis-happed before feeling its metaphysical pull.

Lilith and Phantastes are ever welcome traveling companions (although a companion, etymologically, is one who shares bread with the fellow traveler) as are MacDonald’s rather bumbling protagonists. But these uncanny mis-haps, these unreflective seeings, lend to the strength of the dream-quality of both books.  No other works to date present themselves so immediately to my senses, nor demand such reflective responses.

Some samplings for those considering or already reading Lilith:

Often the main character in a MacDonald work will have some education, often some relation to Oxford.  In Lilith, these studies are mere backdrop to an otherwise unremarkable life.  The character quickly forgets his own name when first he stumbles through the mirror and is none the worse for it.

Books!  Often a vast library sets the home base for whatever may occur.  In three paragraphs the ‘fine library of his ancestors’ is introduced and its age hints at future wonders for the reader (as well as the only significant occupation for its proximal owner).  We come to find that this particular collection has served and continues to serve for the haunt of one Mr. Raven.

One day our narrator is able to follow this shadow through previously unknown passages to find the mirror, which we soon find is a ‘door out’ where previously he had only experienced ‘doors in’ (p. 12).  Upon mis-stepping so as to gain a better view, our character finds himself in the open air – “behind me: all was vague and uncertain, as when one cannot distinguish between fog and field, between cloud and mountainside. (p. 11)”

Mr. Raven provides further enlightenment (which is more confounding for our bewildered narrator) in telling, “the more doors you go out of, the farther you get in! (p. 12)”  A door is supposed to keep the unwanted out and allow the desired in, but here we are considering doors whose ‘whereness’ is considerably less clear.  The machinations may be inconsistent, or rather, we may not understand them.  Understanding our surroundings is turned on its head when we are told, “The only way to come to know where you are is to begin to make yourself at home. (p. 13)”

Something in me loves that line.  Misunderstanding is a frightening thing when one is not at home.  The possibility of ‘doors in’ and ‘doors out’ is unwelcome until we are able to ‘well come’ – to embrace that which is of a nature frightening.  It is not that ‘whereness’ is flimsy, it is that we are and our understandings are.  I write this in an unfamiliar place I (and my wife) are trying to make home.  It ‘s quite funny how the mind struggles to settle where it will endure anything when it ‘s home.  Perhaps this is the sense in which “the more doors you go out of, the farther you get in!”

Home is the only place you can go out and in.  Hm…

One more ‘aroma of an idea’ before moving on…  Mr. Raven presents the unanswerable: “Who are you, pray?”  At this moment, the narrator finds that no answer he can give will suffice.  Should he give his name he is only explaining a relation whose source cannot be demonstrated.  Worse, he does not know himself at all so that he can provide no ‘what’ or ‘who’ to his questioner.

The questioner’s lesson (yet to be learned in full) is that “no one can say he is himself until first he knows that he is, and then what himself is. (p. 14)”  Reflection should easily dismiss any solid notion of either assertion.  The cogito ergo sum gives us no notion of what ‘to be’ or ‘I’ truly mean.  Ironically, this is not skepticism, but merely an acknowledging that the words we use (and the understandings we hold) fail to hold that which we expect from them.  Their solidity is purely derivative.  The solidity that is does not falter because our words fail, but the comfort of our words may well be lost.

It now dawns on our protagonist that perhaps he is dead.  In a sense this seems the likely deduction, but I would think it represents moreso the terror of death or separation.  He falls through into the garret chamber in which the mirror was housed and retreats from the unfamiliar upper rooms of the house in a full horror.  But it is most surely the fear of death, or the realization of how dead he already is, that grips him and now robs him of the familiarity previously he assumed with himself.

It is this state which the main character wakes from in the morning, on which note I shall put myself to bed.

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4 responses to “Mis-hap or Stumblings: Readings in George MacDonald’s ‘Lilith’

  1. Fantastic discussion on some of the key elements of the book. Are you only part way through now for the first time, or are you rereading it? At any rate, I should be very interested to read your thoughts on the rest of the novel as they come, for Lilith (like Phantastes) is exquisitely fascinating and challenging. Bewildering, too, but in a good way. I reviewed it here, but I’m not sure I launched into as detailed a discussion as you have here. Thanks again, and keep up the analysis!

  2. David, thanks for joining the discussion. I quite liked your synopsis. In truth, in my writing I am both incapable of synthesizing such a work and I feel if I were successful that I somewhat might rob the true reading (although it’s an invaluable exercise from the reviewer’s perspective). I prefer to pick and choose; it’s both easier to defend and easier to respond to, either in the positive or negative.

    This is my third reading, I believe. I might prefer ‘Phantastes’ slightly (perhaps because I understand it less), but both are indescribable journeys. I actually haven’t progressed further as yet in this reading since the posting as my wife is nearing her first completion of the work. We had an excellent discussion of the role names play in the early portions. So, selfishly perhaps, I’ve halted my progress. In all likelihood I’ll start again from scratch to see if I recognize the same threads I feel I’ve found in this and previous readings.

    Again, thanks for stopping by and for the encouragement. I’m appreciative of the pleasure afforded in reading your thoughts. Mine are directed towards different purposes, but I’m always happy to meet another soul bewildered by similar thoughts or thinkers! Cheers (and I pray your patience on the following MacDonald thoughts shall be rewarded)!

  3. A few classes cancelled this week, so I ‘ll begin posting on ‘Lilith’ again by tomorrow at the latest. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Thanksblogging « The Warden's Walk

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