One of our objectives at The Works of George MacDonald is to showcase writing, art, and music inspired by the Scotsman. In this post, Michael Gailey tells us about how he discovered MacDonald, and the novel Lilith and other of MacDonald's works inspired.
I discovered MacDonald, like many, through C.S. Lewis in my early twenties. The first works I read were his short stories, beginning with The Gray Wolf. A few paragraphs in I realized that I was reading a Christian author’s story of a werewolf — a story that invoked pity more than fear — and a penetrating sense of the cold dampness and misery of a broken soul. I was shaking as I read it. No author had ever affected me so, and I knew what Lewis meant by the “baptism of my imagination.” PHANTASTES was next, and then LILITH. I had not yet lived long enough to understand either, but reading them stirred in me a longing to capture just a glimpse of what MacDonald had seen — my second-hand feelings from reading his stories were not enough to satisfy the thirst he had awakened. My book is not an academic criticism of MacDonald’s writing, nor a deconstruction, analysis, and repackaging of MacDonald’s themes. It seemed to me that MacDonald opened doors, peered into them, and then entered — and I followed him. Some rooms he did not venture far into (or if he did, he did not describe well what he saw) — those were the most curious rooms to me.
But my life was busy and I had my wife and children to provide for. I left off reading MacDonald and wondering about his mysticism and pursued a career — a droll and tedious occupation. And then something happened to me, which I won’t elaborate on here, but it changed me. I began to dream both night and day. Clear intuition, before an absent faculty, became the norm and guided me through my daily tasks leaving me time to ponder. I reveled in thought, exploring the Dichotomy of Passion and Reason (Paul’s apt description of the law of his flesh that makes war against the law of his mind); The Kingdom of God — who are the slaves, hirelings, servants, brothers, friends, and heirs? The Seven Dimensions and the Ten Senses, which I had discovered in two cryptic passages in MacDonald’s LILITH and was now beginning to understand — not as metaphors, but as a distinct paradigm of spiritual perception; yes, second sight, but also second hearing (which MacDonald features in THE PORTENT), second smell, second taste and second touch as well! I had a good friend, an attorney, with a brilliant mind and a near photographic memory (he had memorized the Bible and could recite any passage on call) and we spent hours in intense discussion; my intuition and his intellect playfully sparring. It was a very exciting time!
Then I had a dream that stopped me cold; I thrashed on my bed and woke in terror as I tried to escape the nightmare. Upon waking the dream did not fade as usual, but kept replaying whenever my mind was not otherwise occupied. Here is the dream:
No one had ever seen the top of the mountain, the explanation being it was always shrouded in cloud and mist. In ancient times a few men ventured to climb the mountain, but none had ever returned. (Whether they had been consumed by ravening wolves going to, or coming back; or whether they had been lost on the mountain's face, no one could say.) This seemed to me a curious fact, and I formed a resolve to climb the mountain myself for two reasons: first, I simply wanted to be above the obscuring mists, where vision was clear; and second, I wanted to see what it was the mists obscured -- namely, the top of the mountain.
To this end I set out with a companion. When we reached the mountain's base, we felt it best to lighten our loads by leaving behind all unnecessary items. The going was quite difficult due to the steep grade, and the pathless, rocky terrain.
When we reached the height of the mountain where the clouds began, the lack of visibility became a real problem. We could see no more than a few feet in front of us and before long our slow progress halted altogether. It appeared we had come up against a sheer cliff. How high it was I couldn't guess. The cliff was, by all appearances, unscalable without proper equipment (which we did not have), and other routes seemed an even less possible alternative.
I examined the face of the cliff minutely. I placed my body flat against it, and searched for a handhold with my fingers. Lo and behold, I found one! (Though no such hold was visible to the naked eye.) Groping with my other hand, I found another hold a little higher up. I discovered I was able to find footholds in similar fashion. Greatly encouraged by my initial success, I began scaling the cliff using nothing but my bare hands and my wits. Before going far, I called down to my companion to join me, and explained to him the technique which made the ascent possible. He was soon in tow, and, although we made good progress, night had fallen a goodly time before we reached the top. Fortunately, we soon found ourselves above the cloud level and bathed in light from a nearly full moon and countless stars.
As I reached the top of the cliff, I discovered the natural cut of the rock was altered. Indeed, the very top of the wall was fashioned into the shape of a horse, which must be mounted and dismounted before going any farther. Upon mounting the stony steed, I found it formed a battlement; beyond was a courtyard where I beheld a grisly scene that made me shudder from head to toe. Lying in all manner of unnatural positions were scores of corpses of men. I saw none were newly dead; still I was quite shaken, and I whispered to my companion to remain silent, for I did not know whether I witnessed the scene of an ancient battle, or whether this was the gruesome fate of those who reached the top of the cliff. I noticed though all were ancient, their dress varied greatly. Some were clad as great warriors and fighting men, others were robed in simple cloth as wise men. Clearly, they had all suffered the same fate: a spear thrust into the face.
The tone of the dream was so ominous and foreboding I could only think it a warning, but a warning of what? For days I could think of nothing else. I prayed. I fasted. Clueless and at wit’s end, I let my Bible fall open and read the passage before me:
The horseman lifteth up both the bright sword and the glittering spear: and there is a multitude of slain, and a great number of carcases; and there is none end of their corpses; they stumble upon their corpses: Because of the multitude of the whoredoms of the wellfavoured harlot, the mistress of witchcrafts, that selleth nations through her whoredoms, and families through her witchcrafts.
— Nahum 3.
This was the answer to the dream — I knew it — it described the scene in my dream exactly! But, who was this wellfavoured harlot, the mistress of witchcrafts? At the time, I did not read commentaries or ask anyone’s opinion. I searched the Bible for harlots and I found them — and the Mother of Harlots too. I knew who the Father of Lies was, but who was Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots, the great seductress? Lilith.
There are many sources available to study and reflect on Lilith; here are a couple of interesting quotes that lover’s of the Inklings may recognize:
“'… her they called Lilith. And she was one of the Jinn. and on the other she come of the giants. No, no, there isn’t a real drop of human blood in the Witch.”
“That’s why she’s bad all through, Mr. Beaver,' said Mr.s Beaver.”
— C.S. Lewis, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe
“... But when the sun of the mountain struck on the people of illusion it struck on all their past lives and they lived at last in the starvation they had sought. Religion or art, civic sense or sensual desire, or whatever had drugged the spirit with its own deceit, had been drawn from them; they stared famished at the dry breasts of the ancient witch."
— Charles Williams, Descent into Hell
Lewis depicts her seductive enslavement technique through the addictive turkish delight given to Edmund, and Williams expands her methods of operation to include any sort of compulsive deceit. But MacDonald is different — he is the only one who regards her with compassion — and so perhaps he sees her more intimately. I write as though she is not a mythical archetype but a living spirit, and perhaps she is — I really don’t know. To even consider such a being, whatever she is, requires a different paradigm, a new wineskin, as Jesus said, and I found such a paradigm in MacDonald’s hint about the seven dimensions.
Lilith is a central theme in THE FIRE WITHIN, and I develop The Seven Dimensions and the Ten Senses as well as a means of imagining such a horror. Like MacDonald, I take a closer, more intimate look at Lilith, but unlike MacDonald, in the end, I do not see her redemption; rather, I come to Lewis’ conclusion: “… she’s bad all through.”
Attached is a chapter from the middle of the book where the spirit makes an appearance. It is the most explicit chapter, called Apples of Sodom (this does not refer to homosexuality, but a plant described by Josephus as "externally of fair appearance, but turning to smoke and ashes when plucked with the hands.”) This chapter was also a dream. Actually, several of the chapters are dreams. I wrote them down as I had them and later realized that together they formed a story if I rearranged the sequential order. So, was born THE FIRE WITHIN.