Preliminary Notes on the Riddle of Self in Lilith, Part I

I came to Lilith late in my reading of the works of George MacDonald. I don’t remember the date or circumstances of my first reading; I do remember clearly an incident that sealed my impressions of finishing the book. I stepped outdoors somewhat in a daze, partly from the amount of reading I had done to complete the last section, and partly from the sheer power of the final chapters. It was a quiet, sunny morning. The first sound that I heard was the croaking of a raven in a tall tree in the yard. It gave me chills.

Since then, that raven’s croak has been as much of a portent to me, as much an announcer of doom, as the raven in Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem was to its protagonist. Yet it is a different kind of fate that it announces: “a divine fate which they cannot withstand, because it works along with the human individuality which the divine individuality has created in them.” (George MacDonald) What better description of this fate can I give than simply to continue the passage from the sermon “The Consuming Fire” from which I just quoted:

“The wrath will consume what they call themselves; so that the selves God made shall appear, coming out with tenfold consciousness of being, and bringing with them all that made the blessedness of the life the men tried to lead without God. They will know that now first are they fully themselves. The avaricious, weary, selfish, suspicious old man shall have passed away. The young, ever young self, will remain. That which they thought themselves shall have vanished: that which they felt themselves, though they misjudged their own feelings, shall remain— remain glorified in repentant hope. For that which cannot be shaken shall remain. That which is immortal in God shall remain in man. The death that is in them shall be consumed.”

In some ways, this could stand as a fitting summary of the plot of Lilith, in particular, of its deep treatment of the theme of self knowledge. What is the fate that the raven’s croak announced to me? I am fated to lose what I think of as myself–but, mercifully, to gain it its place a knowledge of my true self.

The reading of Lilith, whenever I undertake it, has an effect on me, not unlike the effect of many of George MacDonald’s other fantasies and novels, that I can only describe as admonishing. I come away feeling chastened. This is especially true of Lilith. I’m not sure how I could avoid this effect, except through dishonesty. Inescapably, it reminds me of my fate–my divine fate–and warns me against fleeing from it.

What I am attempting to write here is not a scholarly paper on Lilith. Other people have done this; I am not at present qualified to do so. Instead, this is what the title suggests: preliminary notes I make for myself on a single thread that runs through the story from beginning to end. Lilith is as complexly layered as the world of the seven dimensions in which it takes place. It should be understood that I am not attempting to suggest a definitive interpretive scheme for the story. I am interested, instead, in making connections that are especially meaningful to me right now. These connections center around a riddle–the riddle posed to the protagonist by Mr. Raven at the beginning of the story:

“Tell me, then, who you are—if you happen to know.”

“How should I help knowing? I am myself, and must know!”

“If you know you are yourself, you know that you are not somebody else; but do you know that you are yourself? Are you sure you are not your own father?—or, excuse me, your own fool?—Who are you, pray?” (Lilith, Chapter III, “The Raven”)

To his own surprise, Mr. Vane finds himself completely unable to answer this:

“I became at once aware that I could give him no notion of who I was. Indeed, who was I? It would be no answer to say I was who! Then I understood that I did not know myself, did not know what I was, had no grounds on which to determine that I was one and not another. As for the name I went by in my own world, I had forgotten it, and did not care to recall it, for it meant nothing, and what it might be was plainly of no consequence here. I had indeed almost forgotten that there it was a custom for everybody to have a name! So I held my peace, and it was my wisdom; for what should I say to a creature such as this raven, who saw through accident into entity?”

Indeed, MacDonald has, at this early stage of the story, already thrown Mr. Vane into a state of existential dislocation that he describes elsewhere in his sermon “The Word of Jesus on Prayer”: “I am shut up in a world of consciousness, an unknown I in an unknown world.” Indeed, it quite literally takes being thrown into an unknown world to make Mr. Vane aware that he is unknown to himself. We will have more to say about this shortly.

It must be confessed that MacDonald has set his hero (antihero?) up for this lack of self-knowledge from the start. Indeed, we ourselves know very little about his prior history at the beginning of the story: MacDonald rushes through the preliminaries in the space of a mere two paragraphs, leaving Vane almost as much a blank slate at the outset as possible.

This makes me wonder about a possible interpretation of the main character’s name. There are many, and quite possibly the name could be intended to function with multiple layers of significance. Association with the word “vain” seems inevitable. Indeed, Mr. Vane will have to confront his own conceit later in the story as a flaw that costs him disastrous misjudgments. Yet MacDonald has not set up Vane at the beginning as an unusually conceited person–his distinguishing characteristics, if he has any, almost lie in what he is not. This makes me wonder if the association with “vain” is more directly through the Latin vanus, in its etymological sense of “void of reality”. Vane is an empty character at the outset, one without content, or really without significant material for self knowledge.

MacDonald deprives Mr. Vane of the opportunity of self knowledge in at least two ways. First, he cuts him off from the community of his parents and ancestors who gave him his nature:

“My father died when I was yet a child; my mother followed him within a year; and I was nearly as much alone in the world as a man might find himself.

I had made little acquaintance with the history of my ancestors. Almost the only thing I knew concerning them was, that a notable number of them had been given to study.” (Chapter I, “The Library”)

Notwithstanding this, Vane’s ancestors, at least his patrilineal ancestors, will play a prominent role in the story. We learn that his father, whom he longs to know, is worthy of his emulation; his grandfather, not so. His great-grandfather is a sympathetic character, barely mentioned, but his great-great-grandfather, Sir Upward, seems to exercise the redeeming influence in the family line. Mr. Raven, the protagonist’s guide, is represented as having been this Sir Upward’s friend and librarian. 

There are two brief connections to make here before going on. First, there is an obvious parallel with MacDonald’s earlier story The Princess and the Goblin, in which Princess Irene’s great-great-grandmother is present in the house and watching over her. The second connection is with Phantastes. There are many parallels between Mr. Vane and Anodos, but in Lilith the Anodos-title (anodos is literally “upward journey” in Greek) is applied to the protagonist’s great-great-grandfather.

The point, however, at the outset, is that Mr. Vane has been deprived of any knowledge of his forbears, from his parents back, and that, separated from the community of those who gave him his nature on earth, he has had little opportunity to know himself. This is the first way that MacDonald has, in a sense, set up Vane to be confounded by the riddle of who he is. The second way is by depriving himself of the chance to define himself through his actions in the world. The story picks up when Mr. Vane has just completed his studies at Oxford. He has spent almost his entire life so far at school. When not at school, we find out later that he has been bookish and solitary. Apart from his love of horses, he has had little defining contact with other living beings. He has had plenty of intercourse with ideas, but has not put any of them into practice. He represents his chief interests as of a theoretical nature:

“I had myself so far inherited the tendency as to devote a good deal of my time, though, I confess, after a somewhat desultory fashion, to the physical sciences. It was chiefly the wonder they woke that drew me. I was constantly seeing, and on the outlook to see, strange analogies, not only between the facts of different sciences of the same order, or between physical and metaphysical facts, but between physical hypotheses and suggestions glimmering out of the metaphysical dreams into which I was in the habit of falling. I was at the same time much given to a premature indulgence of the impulse to turn hypothesis into theory. Of my mental peculiarities there is no occasion to say more.” (Chapter I, “The Library”)

Vane quickly recognizes that this lack of practical experience is a handicap to his self-knowledge:

“I had never yet done anything to justify my existence; my former world was nothing the better for my sojourn in it.” (Chapter IV, “Somewhere or Nowhere”)

His attempts to remedy this in the new world swiftly end in disaster, but this mercifully conducts him to his divine fate. For now, it is enough to note that in this second way also, by not allowing him time to make anything of himself in the world, MacDonald has deprived his character of the opportunity of self-knowledge.

Surely this is intentional. Vane, with is peculiarities, is not an Everyman, nor is he quite a tabula rasa, but he has been placed in prime position to receive the realization that he knows nothing of himself to give himself the existence of an individual–that his self has no content, that he is a vanum, an empty thing.

This realization is mediated through a temporal-spatial dislocation: he is thrust into a world of which he does not understand the laws, or the relation of the things in it to himself. In his desire to get home (physically), he is confronted by Mr. Raven with the disturbing assertion that he has never been at home, even in his own world, and that he cannot be shown the way back home; to find it he will have to go through himself. Mr. Raven’s statements about the concept of home and being at home are some of the most profound and paradoxical in the whole book; they bear directly on the riddle of selfhood.

“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. There is more in it than you can see now, but not more than you need to see. You have, I fear, got into this region too soon, but none the less you must get to be at home in it; for home, as you may or may not know, is the only place where you can go out and in. There are places you can go into, and places you can go out of; but the one place, if you do but find it, where you may go out and in both, is home.” (Chapter III, “The Raven”)

This seems like a deliberate echo of Jesus’ words in John 10: “I am the door. If anyone enters through me, he will be saved; he will go in, and will go out, and will find pasture.” It also seems like an echo of classic medieval mystical theology, with its emphasis on going inward to the place where the light of God shines in the human spirit, and then going outward to meet God in ecstatic contemplation. Indeed, Jan van Ruysbroeck, the eminent fourteenth-century Flemish mystical writer, developed an elaborate and brilliant treatise from the simple words in Matthew 25, “Behold the bridegroom comes; go out to meet him,” in which he describes at length both the inward and outward movements.

In contrast, Mr. Vane, like most of us, is decidedly not at home in himself or in the world. It is sometimes difficult to follow the complex and deliberately paradoxical weaving of out and in that we find in Mr. Raven’s cryptic statements:

“I never saw any door!” I persisted.

“Of course not!” he returned; “all the doors you had yet seen—and you haven’t seen many—were doors in; here you came upon a door out! The strange thing to you,” he went on thoughtfully, “will be, that the more doors you go out of, the farther you get in!”

“Oblige me by telling me where I am.”

“That is impossible. You know nothing about whereness. The only way to come to know where you are is to begin to make yourself at home.”

“How am I to begin that where everything is so strange?”

“By doing something.”


“Anything; and the sooner you begin the better! for until you are at home, you will find it as difficult to get out as it is to get in.”

“I have, unfortunately, found it too easy to get in; once out I shall not try again!”

“You have stumbled in, and may, possibly, stumble out again. Whether you have got in UNFORTUNATELY remains to be seen.” (Chapter III, “The Raven”)

This requires some thought, and Mr. Vane does not attempt to conceal his irritation at Mr. Raven’s style of utterance. Nevertheless, even with my fragmentary sense I gather the idea that Mr. Vane is locked within himself, and therefore outside of the universe. Going out of himself will result in his penetration into reality. But what, then, is this condition of being at home, and being able to go in and out freely? The clue, I think is provided by the song of Mother Eve:

    “Many a wrong, and its curing song;

        Many a road, and many an inn;

      Room to roam, but only one home

        For all the world to win!”

 (Chapter XLII, “I Sleep the Sleep”)

That this home is the Father’s heart is constantly reiterated in the sermons. It is a unique position. Only in this place outside of ourselves, and inside the Father’s heart, do our selves become no longer a prison, but a place where we can go in and out at will. We have to be turned inside out in order to be at home–we have to go through ourselves:

“Mr. Raven,” I said, “forgive me for being so rude: I was irritated. Will you kindly show me my way home? I must go, for I have an appointment with my bailiff. One must not break faith with his servants!”

“You cannot break what was broken days ago!” he answered.

“Do show me the way,” I pleaded.

“I cannot,” he returned. “To go back, you must go through yourself, and that way no man can show another.” (Chapter IV, “Somewhere or Nowhere”)

Mr. Raven refuses to give Mr. Vane a roadmap, and this is reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s insistence that the way must be trod by the solitary individual, even if it is, in a sense, the same way for all:

“As for the knight of faith, he is assigned to himself alone, he has the pain of being unable to make himself intelligible to others but feels no vain desire to show others the way. The pain is the assurance, vain desires are unknown to him, his mind is too serious for that. The false knight readily betrays himself by this instantly acquired proficiency; he just doesn’t grasp the point that if another individual is to walk the same path he has to be just as much the individual and is therefore in no need of guidance, least of all from one anxious to press his services on others. Here again, people unable to bear the martyrdom of unintelligibility jump off the path, and choose instead, conveniently enough, the world’s admiration of their proficiency. The true knight of faith is a witness, never a teacher, and in this lies the deep humanity in him which is more worth than the foolish concern for others’ weal and woe which is honoured under the name of sympathy, but which is really nothing but vanity.” (Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, “Problema II”)

Mr. Raven more than once alludes to this problem of unintelligibility:

“Then,” I said, feeling naked and very worthless, “will you be so good as show me the nearest way home? There are more ways than one, I know, for I have gone by two already.”

“There are indeed many ways.”

“Tell me, please, how to recognise the nearest.”

“I cannot,” answered the raven; “you and I use the same words with different meanings. We are often unable to tell people what they need to know, because they want to know something else, and would therefore only misunderstand what we said.” (Chapter IX, “I Repent”)

Kierkegaard’s words about a foolish concern for others’ weal and woe can sound rather heartless, and certainly Mr. Raven, at least temporarily, is perceived that way by the protesting Mr. Vane. But Kierkegaard is incisively probing the selfish motives of a false philanthropy–something MacDonald will have a lot to say about in Lilith–and Mr. Raven (or, more properly, as he is revealed to be, Father Adam) reposes in the quiet confidence that God is able to bring all his children home in his own way.

Despite his refusal to hand over the roadmap, Mr. Raven does lead Mr. Vane directly home to his cottage, and show him his destined place of rest. It is Vane’s initial (and later repeated) refusal to accept this rest that wildly complicates the plot. But before we explore this, it is vital to hear out the continuation of the passage we just quoted from Chapter IX:

“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 at 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.”

“Enigma treading on enigma!” I exclaimed. “I did not come here to be asked riddles.”

“No; but you came, and found the riddles waiting for you! Indeed you are yourself the only riddle. What you call riddles are truths, and seem riddles because you are not true.”

“Worse and worse!” I cried.

“And you must answer the riddles!” he continued. “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.”

This is arguably one of the most brilliant passages in the entire story, and certainly one of the most profoundly philosophical. Beginning with the paradox, “Home is ever so far away in the palm of your hand,” he develops the categorical imperative: “Everybody who is not at home, has to go home.” And when Mr. Vane objects to his riddling speech, he turns the full force of the riddle back on him: “Indeed you are yourself the only riddle.”

This, then, is the statement in Lilith of the riddle of self. This is a deeply existentialist picture of the human situation, enough to convince me that MacDonald should be regarded as a brilliant existentialist thinker, or, more properly and somewhat paradoxically, a Platonist existentialist thinker. This is not to deny the essentially biblical roots of what he is saying, or ashamed of his theology, to try to “elevate” it to philosophy. Kierkegaard is himself well on guard against that cowardly move! Yet a penetrating and coherent account of all reality must be, in simple justice, called a philosophy, and if people will sneer because God is at the center of it, they must be allowed to do so.

What makes this, in my mind, such an existentialist passage is its insistence on the individual’s responsibility to give meaning to their own existence, to answer the riddle that it poses. No one can do it for us, and evasion of the task can only be in bad faith. 

“And you must answer the riddles!” he continued. “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.”

Yet evasion is the path that Vane chooses, and the theme of bad faith runs throughout the story. Mr. Raven identifies it in Mr. Vane even before he refuses to sleep in his house:

“One must not break faith with his servants!”

“You cannot break what was broken days ago!” he answered. (Chapter IV, “Somewhere or Nowhere”)

This comes to a head later in the story when Mr. Vane actually breaks his word to his guide in his second refusal of hospitality.

“Mr. Vane,” croaked the raven, “think what you are doing! Twice already has evil befallen you—once from fear, and once from heedlessness: breach of word is far worse; it is a crime.” (Chapter XXXI, “The Sexton’s Old Horse”)

In a powerful confrontation in the same chapter, Mr. Raven (Adam) identifies cowardice at the root of all Mr. Vanes mistakes:

Eyes flashed through the darkness, and I knew that Adam stood in his own shape beside me. I knew also by his voice that he repressed an indignation almost too strong for him.

“Mr. Vane,” he said, “do you not know why you have not yet done anything worth doing?”

“Because I have been a fool,” I answered.


“In everything.”

“Which do you count your most indiscreet action?”

“Bringing the princess to life: I ought to have left her to her just fate.”

“Nay, now you talk foolishly! You could not have done otherwise than you did, not knowing she was evil!—But you never brought any one to life! How could you, yourself dead?”

“I dead?” I cried.

“Yes,” he answered; “and you will be dead, so long as you refuse to die.”

“Back to the old riddling!” I returned scornfully.

“Be persuaded, and go home with me,” he continued gently. “The most—nearly the only foolish thing you ever did, was to run from our dead.”

The whole scene deliberately echoes the words of Isaiah:

“For thus saith the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel; In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength: and ye would not.

But ye said, No; for we will flee upon horses; therefore shall ye flee: and, We will ride upon the swift; therefore shall they that pursue you be swift.” (Isaiah 30:15,16)

Mr. Vane literally flees on a swift horse, with the words of Mr. Raven ringing in his ears:

“Go, then, foolish boy!” he returned, with anger in his croak. “Take the horse, and ride to failure! May it be to humility!”

Catastrophe is at that point not far off. But it is precisely the divine fate that we began with, as described in “The Consuming Fire”: “Escape is hopeless. For Love is inexorable.”

Indeed, although the chief result of Mr. Vane’s chivalrous exploits seems to be in getting his true love killed, her parents (Adam and Eve) seem remarkably unperturbed:

“You are good indeed, father Adam, mother Eve, sister Mara,” I said, “to receive me! In my soul I am ashamed and sorry!”

“We knew you would come again!” answered Eve.

“How could you know it?” I returned.

“Because here was I, born to look after my brothers and sisters!” answered Mara with a smile.

“Every creature must one night yield himself and lie down,” answered Adam: “he was made for liberty, and must not be left a slave!”

“It will be late, I fear, ere all have lain down!” I said.

“There is no early or late here,” he rejoined. “For him the true time then first begins who lays himself down. Men are not coming home fast; women are coming faster. A desert, wide and dreary, parts him who lies down to die from him who lies down to live. The former may well make haste, but here is no haste.”

“To our eyes,” said Eve, “you were coming all the time: we knew Mara would find you, and you must come!” (Chapter XLII, “I Sleep the Sleep”)

So much of what lends the story its power and poignancy is its embodiment of the words of Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Things do go wrong–dreadfully so–in the story, but Adam and Eve never doubt the final outcome.

Mr. Vane, then, is bound by his divine fate. He can run, but not hide. He exhibits bad faith throughout the story, but the representatives of God’s mercy are still waiting to welcome him with open arms in his repentance. What we need to do now is look more closely at his evasion, and the reasons for it. Why does he–why do we–find it so difficult to face up to the riddle posed by individual existence?

Leave a comment