Lilith By George MacDonald – The Art of Myth

Author’s Synopsis: Lilith is considered among the darkest of MacDonald’s works, and among the most profound. It is a story concerning the nature of life, death, and salvation. After he followed the old man through the mirror, nothing in his life was ever right again. It was a special mirror, and the man he followed was a special man.

For the Writer: In his introduction to Lilith, C. S. Lewis’s digresses into a discussion about what constitutes great literary art. I am glad he did. Lewis’s knack for bringing clarity to difficult subjects is widely praised, and he does not disappoint in this introduction. In fact, he makes a profound observation.

He distinguishes between the art of telling in literature and the mythopoeic gift. Think of the old fables, such as The Sun and the Wind, The Fisherman and his Wife, The Hare and the Tortoise. Writers, storytellers, and dramatists have told these stories over and over again, retold in picture books, plays and anthologies down through the ages. It is the tale, proposes Lewis, and not the telling which lasts.

“In a myth,” says Lewis, “in a story where the mere pattern of events is all that matters […] any means of communication whatever which succeeds in lodging those events in our imagination has, as we say, done the trick.”  “The words,” Lewis goes on, “are going to be forgotten as soon as you master the myth.”

He is of course talking about the words of the story, the story as a whole, and not its memorable quotes, which we pluck here and there from the narrative.

Lewis, in fact, criticizes MacDonald’s writing as “undistinguished, at times fumbling. Bad pulpit traditions cling to it; there is sometimes a nonconformist verbosity, sometimes an old Scotch weakness for florid ornament, sometimes an over sweetness picked up from Novalis.” True to his proposition Lewis goes on to underline MacDonald’s distinction. “But this does not quite dispose if him (MacDonald) even for the literary critic. What he does best is fantasy – fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man.”

Let us put that commendation in perspective. At Oxford Lewis won a triple first in three areas of study and was then elected a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, where he worked for thirty years. In 1954, he became the chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge. His scholarly work concentrated on the later Middle Ages. He also immersed himself in Norse, Greek and Irish mythology. In the very least, Lewis knew the old stories as well as anyone. And in that knowledge, Lewis crowns the long and storied mythopoeic legacy with the fantasy writer, George MacDonald.

I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself. Hence his Christ-like union of tenderness and severity. Nowhere else outside the New Testament have I found terror and comfort so intertwined…[C.S. Lewis Introduction to George MacDonald: An Anthology]

Don’t you love a story that really sticks? Even with all its verbosity and diversions into whale anatomy, does not the obsession of Ahab yet haunt, or the tragedy of Oedipus make its reader swallow? In this, humble writer, be encouraged. Critics may not fete our second-rate syntax, but they cannot for long revile a story which rings of truth.

A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean.
–George MacDonald, “The Fantastic Imagination”

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