Lilith by George MacDonald

In Phantastes and Lilith, Gollancz, 1962, 237 p. First published 1895. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Phantastes and Lilith cover

A Mr Vane (no first name is ever provided) inherits a country pile and very soon finds it is visited by a strange apparition. This is the house’s long ago librarian, a coated gentleman who from the front appears to be a raven and has the ability to move through mirrors – taking Mr Vane with him.

This mirror world at first appears strange merely in an Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland kind of way. The librarian/raven is prone to whimsical verbal contortions as in, “‘No one can say he is himself, until first he knows that he is and then what himself is. In fact nobody is himself and himself is nobody,’” but the milieu soon develops a darker aspect in the creatures Mr Vane encounters. Seemingly dead bodies, animated skeletons (one of whom expresses a deeply misanthropic view of wedlock in a conversation, where its expostulation, “‘This can’t be hell!’ is rejoined by another’s, ‘It must: there’s marriage in it!’”) Then there are Little Ones, who if they are not careful how they eat turn into giants. These giants capture Vane and might persecute the Little Ones but somehow manage to forget their origins and remain blind to them. Visiting a city called Bulika, whose princess wishes to kill all babies to forestall a prophecy of her demise, becomes a goal of Vane’s sojourn. Her existence is bound up with two leopardesses, one spotted, one white, which feature prominently from then on.

After Vane meets the librarian/raven’s wife the couple’s identities are revealed to be Adam and Eve. Adam bestows on Vane some cryptic warnings. Vane’s rescue and revival of a comatose – to all intents dead – woman leads to complications as this turns out to be Lilith, Adam’s former wife and the same princess who blights the existence of all who live under her sway. I say live, but there is some doubt as to whether these creatures are in fact alive or dead or indeed in some other state. After that it all got a bit mired in philosophical ramblings. Not my cup of tea at all.

The book’s 19th century origins are indicated by archaisms like wafture (of wings,) dropt (dropped,) wrapt (wrapped,) glode (glided,) clave (cleaved,) and staid (stayed.)

I would say this is firmly of its time. As an insight into the religious preoccupations of a late Victorian it is no doubt illustrative. It doesn’t much illuminate the human condition, though, and would not reach my 100 Best Scottish Books.

Pedant’s corner:- Shakspere (the 1895 spelling of Shakespeare I assume,) narow (narrow,) “against walls of its cage” (against the walls,) ne’re (1895 spelling of ne’er?) “fast as could” (as fast as I could?)

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