C.S. Lewis And Lilith: What Does Blending Myths Do For You?


Last fall, I was reading The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe aloud to my wife. We reached the passage in chapter 8 when the beavers are explaining the nature of things in Narnia, when we hit a snag. I read this.

_________
“That’s what I don’t understand, Mr. Beaver,” said Peter. “I mean isn’t the Witch human?”

“She’d like us to believe it,” said Mr. Beaver, “and that’s how she is trying to call herself Queen. But she’s no Daughter of Eve. She comes from your father Adam’s first wife, Lilith. She was one of the Jinn. On the other side she comes from the giants. No, there isn’t a drop of real human blood in the Witch.”
_________

My wife stopped me. She was frustrated. She was confused. She couldn’t understand where this Lilith reference came from, and it annoyed her immensely.

Curious for details myself, I looked it up and found that Lilith was a type of female demon in Hebrew literature. “Lilit” was originally used to mean “night monster” or “screech owl.” In Isaiah the term is used in a listing of animals. Medieval Jewish mysticism popularized the idea that Adam had had a wife before Eve, who was created out of dust at the same time he was. She wouldn’t submit to Adam, left the Garden Of Eden, and started dating angels and what not. Lewis has her mating with a Jinn or genie.

Personally, I like these sorts of things. I love mythology mash-ups that create entirely new fantasy realms. My wife, on the other hand, was not satisfied by this information. She was more annoyed to hear this alternative version of the popular Biblical account. The idea of changing the foundation story and even adding new cast members was disruptive rather than inventive.

By all accounts, Tolkien felt the same way about his friend’s books. While they agreed more than most on many things, the flavors of the two men’s writings show clear distinctions in their personal tastes in how myths and fairie should be approached. Lewis was constantly getting creative energy from smashing together ideas from various sources for new sensations. The man was an omnivorous reader and you can see shadows of thousands of older ideas in his fiction works.

Tolkien also finds much inspiration for his work in the great pieces he cherishes. Gandalf is occasionally a mirror of the older, more obscure mythical creations Tolkien loved. The big difference is really the level of perceived coherency and the depth of pursuit. Tolkien, like many others, seems to find the willful suspension of disbelief in Lewis too great. He is equally enamored by magic and dragons and even silly children’s stories, but mixing characters from preexisting universes seems too much to be enjoyable for him. What is Father Christmas doing in Narnia? How did the descendant of Lilith, the original mother of our world, end up as the Queen of Charn?

I can understand these frustrations well. I find The Magician’s Nephew to be the most satisfying of the Narnian books in large part because it ties so many origin stories and loose ends together in such a neat fashion. Lewis writes like many authors, so that the stories can feel almost stunted at times in their openings and closes. Everyone is suddenly rushed into alternate realities at break neck speeds.

On the other hand, a large part of what makes Tolkien’s legendarium so fulfilling and believable is the expansive way in which so much untold backstory is expanding in every direction. Tolkien himself was constantly fleshing out his worlds throughout his lifetime. Perhaps he thought pulling so directly from previous material was too quick and cheap, unsatisfying to him as a creator and suspicious in others.

There is something enjoyable in both the whimsical adventure of being swept away by foreign magic and in the adventure of fulfilling a long forgotten destiny in a mythical world of unspeakable beauty and impending evils.

Which one thrills you more?

 

_________

Further Reading

 

C.S. Lewis’ Literary Essays

Dave Eggers On The Fear Of Publishing

Jules Feiffer Encouraged Us To Fail

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4 comments

  1. I love The LOTR and The Chronicles of Narnia for different reasons. The LOTR definitely has more world-building and the characters are more developed, but they were also written for a different audience than The Chronicles of Narnia. The LOTR were written for adults whereas The Chronicles of Narnia were written for children. The Chronicles of Narnia remind me a lot of E. Nesbit’s works.

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    1. I recently finished The Enchanted Castle by Nesbit and I was struck more than before by just how much Lewis sounds like her. I know he read her a lot and it seems that she might have been his most direct inspiration as far as Narnian tone goes…

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  2. I had forgotten about the White Witch’s genealogy. It’s interesting because I was doing a search to see what CS Lewis thought of George MacDonald’s book Lilith (Lewis was a great admirer of MacDonald) but I’m not sure he was an admirer of Lilith. But obviously he put some parallels into his work. But MacDonald redeemed Lilith and MacDonald’s universalism seems essential to his work and Lewis was not a Universalist.

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    1. I think it’s safe to assume that Lewis had a deep appreciation for MacDonald’s Lilith and probably only included the reference in Narnia because of that work. Lilith is a bizarre and fascinating work, probably the single most unique fantasy story I have ever read. It has both an unrivaled exploration of interdimensionality and the afterlife and because the plot rambles in an unforeseeable but ultimately, I think, agreeable direction.

      I think the redemption of Lilith was a fascinating central point to that novel and probably MacDonald’s whole point in writing it. I’m not sure what Lewis thought about how well he proved his point, but The Great Divorce seems to imply that he trusted MacDonald’s motivations enough to assume any misconceptions would be ironed out in the end, seeming to conclude that a lot of the theological knots we try so hard to tease out are too big for our brains. I agree.

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