Riddled: Dream-Allegory Readings from George MacDonald’s ‘Lilith’

I left the last reading (or stumbling) in Chapter IX, where our displaced homeowner has left the safety of being ‘in’ familiar surroundings in order to repent, so right himself, and accept whatever hospitality his otherworldly guide, Mr Raven, might offer.  Only, Mr. Vane (vain?) has failed in his attempt, finding himself the riddle that cannot be answered, and sets out to the land of the unliving in hopes of finding the way to life.

A mere note, Mr Raven perceives Mr Vane’s problem as being the riddle that will continue until ‘he understands himself’, which sounds rather glib.  While the repentant ever asks for help, he only in truth asks for answers where he refused the opportunity to embrace the rest offered to him.  This juxtaposition of the search for knowledge when submission of the will is required smacks too much of dualism.  Rather, our character as yet has no character and barely any characteristics for his will and knowledge are turned to himself.  The metaphysical argument being had throughout this book, is, I believe, the subtext of his inter-dream discourse with himself – reaching out and learning only as he is able to invert that will.  Seeing an anti-intellectualism in such a work would be well outside MacDonald’s purpose, so I believe there is an encounter or dialogue we too are meant to experience that we might hear something otherwise hinted to us only in our dreams.

We are provided with a momentary remark which tells us that in his dream-journey, often our wanderer would find that a single thing had many significances, or that its nature suddenly altered.  This thoroughly fits the dream aspect of Lilith, as in dreams I can often enough recall recognizing some person or place though no clear markers descried their presence, only to find these essences change wholly in character.  It is this flowing out and in which only makes sense in the dream-state: in waking I can no longer recall how such things made sense although they were truly significant at those moments of recognition.  This is that character I believe MacDonald captures so well – the purity and confluence present in dreams which is wholly inexplicable in any other reconfiguration.

Setting out in a direction, Mr Vane pursues his course guided by a bird-butterfly emanating the colours of the rainbow.  When this curious but splendid creature comes within reach, the act of grasping is enough to render it a blackened and dead book laying heavy in his hand.  The treasure of the universe, seemingly offered, is not a thing to be grasped with his hands for in the attempt nothing truly meaningful is gained to aid his journey.

A moon strange to him is enough to rouse and set Mr Vane again on his lonely sojourn.  As he traverses this place of shadowy death, encountering on the path of which are innumerable deadly phantasms whose dangers are more real than our character realizes.  Recounting these scenes, he notes that only later did he learn the protective role the moon played in guiding him to safer quarters, I wonder that this is n’t a throughly dream-like notion – often in a dream I have seemed aware of some notion I shall soon learn by means of the coming encounters in this dream.  I know not how well I have grasped the metaphysical character portrayed thus far, but this is how I think as I attempt to traverse the same steps, guided but by the words of the former visitor of these strange lands.

Coming through the stretch of land in which the dead perpetually go to the most futile of wars against one another, both sides goaded by the woman with one hand outstretched urging the fight and the other pressed against her side, there is little that stands out to me, save the horror of such purposeful futility.  As each side rails against the other, both yell The Truth! The Truth! (p. 52) until at last the sun rises and brushes all visible traces of these clashes away.  Instead, I would hurry to consider the refreshing encounter with the Giants and the Little Ones.

The Little Ones decide he belongs to the unique category of ‘good giant’ because he chooses to enjoy their fruit and will have none of that which passes for goodness amongst the enslaving (and enslaved) giant-folk.  These remarkable little people remind me something of the fairy people in Phantastes though I cannot say more at the moment – theirs is the best sort of naivete, wholesome and less-self, timeless for they do can answer nothing of time – instead drinking in the enjoyment of true discovery of others.  The differences between the giants, whose tastes and sight have become thoroughly near-sighted, recalls the Dwarfs (who are for the Dwarfs!) in C.S. Lewis’ Last Battle.  They have forgotten how to see past their own noses, or to use them to taste that which is wholesome and life-giving.

Shortly before he is forced onward, the good giant (notice the names given per stage as I attempt to trace our Mr Vane’s shifting identity) is discovered by the functional mother, Lona, of the origin of these giants.  Those children who grow in self forget their smallness and begin to eat of the horrid fruit fit for their appetites.  In short, the giants are those Little Ones for whom being little is n’t enough.  The prospect is ever the horror of Lona and the watchful older ones – those who have not become too big and know well the dangers.  At last forced on by his struggle with the giants, and with his first experience of home, the good giant is led to the edge of the valley and warned of the giant-girl who wishes harm on the Little Ones.

So, given the stumbling aspect inherent to the dream-state, our character shall surely meet with this harmful persona.  Still he wonders for what purpose he might have been led to meet the Little People and how he may yet help them.  Help any at this moment, including himself, is an unlikely prospect.  I might venture on, but my writing is already over-long for not having reached half through the book!

As ever, feel free to add your observations to this dream-discourse.

Renewed Stumblings in George MacDonald’s ‘Lilith’

Ever so strange how one reading helps another.  Just this Monday, though I have as yet noted no lunar influence, my wife and I were conversing with a friend about the early chapters of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in which Mr Lewis’ professorial character suggests an unexpected trilemma concerning the young Lucy’s unlikely claims that she has not only been to another world, but that she has spent hours and hours – a claim she cannot demonstrate.  And so, ever so similar to his musings in Mere Christianity (pp. 54-56), where Jesus must be a lunatic of immense degree, the Devil of Hell OR the less immediately obvious but ultimate conclusion: He told the truth concerning Himself and is the rightful object of worship.

As I was acquainted first with Narnia and only was dis-covered of Lewis as apologist later (and finally, perhaps more importantly Medievalist for my own sake) – it was only evident to me that the same mechanism was used by the goodly professor Digory to defend the probability, after dismissing the other choices, that Lucy was telling the truth.  I make no further point on the matter, but in Lilith find Mr Raven in conversation with our main and tellingly nameless character’s father the following (after being told that a door exists in his house which enables Mr. Raven to venture to a world where most physical and mental laws differ from ours, excepting only the moral):

“You try my power of belief!” I said.

“You take me for a madman, probably?”

“You do not look like one.”

“A liar then?”

“You give me no ground to think you such.”

“Only you do not believe me?”

“I will go out of that door with you if you like: I believe you enough to risk the attempt.”

“The blunder all my children make!” he murmured.  “The only door out is the door in!”

~Lilith (1895): pp. 38-39

As to the above, I merely wish to note such for my own reading and hope it enlivens your readings as well.

The notion of doors, however, is one I mean to pay attention to in both works.  Both MacDonald and Lewis are far too intentional about having the experiences of the Otherworld fit with the current state of the one who has entered (Lucy is curious and trusting though pensive and no harm comes to her, whereas Edmund is throughly disturbed by his disempowered state – and surprise, he is offered the promise of a kingdom which shall serve he and he alone).  Our house-owner in Lilith knows not his own house, nor how the doors may lead either ‘out’ or ‘in’ (and we have yet to learn what either of these mean in the parlance of Mr Raven).  But thus far, the character seems to me to be in some struggle with the fear of death, as well as the lack of any meaningful identity.  More may follow as the idea develops, but please feed back anything this helps you see in your own readings.

After discovering the parchment which detailed his unknown father’s (our houseowner was orphaned quite early) encounter and flight from Mr Raven, an action similarly taken by our houseowner, now is found a connection infinitely curious.  As in a dream, our character took that action which he could not resist – to flee – and is drawn immediately back to the same course.  He must seek what Mr Raven knew of his father, for his father disappeared near the time this parchment was dated and surely had great adventures.  Becoming disgusted with his actions, our protagonist must again seek entry ‘out’ by finding a way ‘in’.

Weeping I threw myself on a couch, and suddenly fell asleep.  (p. 41)

Awaking as though he has been called, he rushes to arrange the mirrors in hopes of apologizing and renewing his sojourn.  Successful in again stepping into this world (note the determination in this entering – to find what lessons he shall be taught), he attempts to retrace those steps previously taken by Mr Raven through the pine-forest (trees are immensely important in PhantastesPrince Caspian, and anything written by Tolkien).  Haply he finds his quarry, though not the way into the forest, and is met with the unhappy news that where previously he was invited to rest, his time is not.

Inquiring of his unknown father, he is told that he had been invited to rest next to his father.  Both the father and twice-great grandfather are “up and away long ago” while the great-grandfather will soon begin to stir.  Of course, though our character saw him, he did not recognize him for “he is so much nearer waking than you.  No one who will not sleep [our houseowner] can ever wake. (p. 43)”  So, it seems there is some necessary embrace of death in sleep in order to wake to the full reality!

But the grandfather has not embraced rest, but is still in the Evil Wood, fighting the dead.  This is that place where “those who will not sleep, wake up at night, to kill their dead and bury them.”

I shall end this post with the following words of Mr Raven:

“I cannot [tell our houseowner where the nearest lesson is],” answered the raven; “you and I use the same words with different meanings.  We are often unable to tell people what they need  to known, because they want to know something else, and would therefore only misunderstand what we said.  Home is ever so far away in the palm of your hand, and how to get there it is of no use to tell you.  But you will get there; you must get there; you have to get there.  Everybody who is not home, has to go home.  You thought you were at home where I found you: if that had been your home, you could not have left it.  Nobody can leave home.  And nobody ever was or ever will be at home without having gone there.” (pp. 43-44)

I cannot treat more here, but to say that clearly there is a large gap (of worlds really) between our house-owner who has no home and the raven, aware only that he is not yet ready to come and rest that he may wake!  If purposes, and therefore starting-points (or each has his Standpunkt) are so varied, the needed advice cannot yet be provided.  The house-owner must first be led nearer to his home – a home he is yet unable to recognize.  He must find the way in, and his only movements are out.  It is a sad riddle, but how like being led to faith.  As Mr Raven avers, “They will go on asking themselves until you understand yourself.  The universe is a riddle trying to get out, and you are holding your door hard against it.”


Thoughts are welcome.

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.