MacDonald’s Lilith and The Mirror of Erised

For those of you celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, here is something I “discovered” the other day that, if you are like me you will find interesting. I put the scare-quotes around “discovered” both because I wasn’t looking for it and because I suspect this is old news to many of you. If, like me, you are just waking up to the myriad and important symbolic uses of “glass” or “mirror” in scripture, hermetic epistemology, and imaginative literature, finding a tall mirror that is a passage to another world within our own in an attic is eerily reminiscent of The Mirror of Erised, which Harry finds on his first trek under the Invisibility Cloak on Christmas his first year.

Check out this very short chapter from George MacDonald’s Lilith (1895):

Chapter ii — THE MIRROR

NOTHING more happened for some days. I think it was about a week after, when what I have now to tell took place.

I had often thought of the manuscript fragment, and repeatedly tried to discover some way of releasing it, but in vain: I could not find out what held it fast.

But I had for some time intended a thorough overhauling of the books in the closet, its atmosphere causing me uneasiness as to their condition. One day the intention suddenly became a resolve, and I was in the act of rising from my chair to make a beginning, when I saw the old librarian moving from the door of the closet toward the farther end of the room. I ought rather to say only that I caught sight of something shadowy from which I received the impression of a slight, stooping man, in a shabby dress-coat reaching almost to his heels, the tails of which, disparting a little as he walked, revealed thin legs in black stockings, and large feet in wide, slipper-like shoes.

At once I followed him: I might be following a shadow, but I never doubted I was following something. He went out of the library into the hall, and across to the foot of the great staircase, then up the stairs to the first floor, where lay the chief rooms. Past these rooms, I following close, he continued his way, through a wide corridor, to the foot of a narrower stair leading to the second floor. Up that he went also, and when I reached the top, strange as it may seem, I found myself in a region almost unknown to me. I never had brother or sister to incite to such romps as make children familiar with nook and cranny; I was a mere child when my guardian took me away; and I had never seen the house again until, about a month before, I returned to take possession.

Through passage after passage we came to a door at the bottom of a winding wooden stair, which we ascended. Every step creaked under my foot, but I heard no sound from that of my guide. Somewhere in the middle of the stair I lost sight of him, and from the top of it the shadowy shape was nowhere visible. I could not even imagine I saw him. The place was full of shadows, but he was not one of them.

I was in the main garret, with huge beams and rafters over my head, great spaces around me, a door here and there in sight, and long vistas whose gloom was thinned by a few lurking cobwebbed windows and small dusky skylights. I gazed with a strange mingling of awe and pleasure: the wide expanse of garret was my own, and unexplored!

In the middle of it stood an unpainted inclosure of rough planks, the door of which was ajar. Thinking Mr. Raven might be there, I pushed the door, and entered.

The small chamber was full of light, but such as dwells in places deserted: it had a dull, disconsolate look, as if it found itself of no use, and regretted having come. A few rather dim sunrays, marking their track through the cloud of motes that had just been stirred up, fell upon a tall mirror with a dusty face, old-fashioned and rather narrow–in appearance an ordinary glass. It had an ebony frame, on the top of which stood a black eagle, with outstretched wings, in his beak a golden chain, from whose end hung a black ball.

I had been looking at rather than into the mirror, when suddenly I became aware that it reflected neither the chamber nor my own person. I have an impression of having seen the wall melt away, but what followed is enough to account for any uncertainty:–could I have mistaken for a mirror the glass that protected a wonderful picture?

I saw before me a wild country, broken and heathy. Desolate hills of no great height, but somehow of strange appearance, occupied the middle distance; along the horizon stretched the tops of a far-off mountain range; nearest me lay a tract of moorland, flat and melancholy.

Being short-sighted, I stepped closer to examine the texture of a stone in the immediate foreground, and in the act espied, hopping toward me with solemnity, a large and ancient raven, whose purply black was here and there softened with gray. He seemed looking for worms as he came. Nowise astonished at the appearance of a live creature in a picture, I took another step forward to see him better, stumbled over something–doubtless the frame of the mirror–and stood nose to beak with the bird: I was in the open air, on a houseless heath!

End of brief chapter….

Yesterday we met Harriet Vane, the woman who won Lord Peter Wimsey’s heart. Today, it is Mr. Vane, the protagonist of Lilith. To understand this ‘Vane’ as more than just an assonance with “vain,” I urge you to read Robert Trexler’s ‘Mr. Vane’s Piligrimage into the Land of Promise: MacDonald’s “Historical Imagination” in Lilith,’ chapter 3 in George MacDonald: Literary Heritage and Heirs (Zossima Press, 2008). (You’ll also want that book if you’re a Harry Potter serious reader for that essay and to understand Colin Manlove’s distinction between “subversive” and “conservative” symbolist writers (chapter 13), Rowling being the former and the Inklings for the most part, the latter.) Mr. Vane, it turns out, is the link between symbolist writers like MacDonald, American transcendentalists and writers like Hawthorne and Thoreau, and thinkers no less important than Milton, Coleridge, and F. D. Maurice.

But back to the mirrors… Two stray thoughts before asking for your comments and correction:

(1) Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and MacDonald were good friends. If you’re thinking that MacDonald takes this through the Looking Glass idea from his friend and wildly successful book about Alice’s adventures behind or within the mirror (1871), the influence was probably the other way around. MacDonald published Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women, the book C. S. Lewis said “baptized his imagination,” in 1858 and it includes this passage:

What a strange thing a mirror is! And what a wondrous affinity exists between it and a man’s imagination! For this room of mine, as I behold it in the glass, is the same and yet not the same. It is not the mere representation of the room I live in, but it looks just as if I were reading about it in a story I like. All its commonness has disappeared. The mirror has lifted it out of the region of fact into the realms of art…. I should like to live in that room if I could only get into it. (cited in The Annotated Alice, p. 144, n.5)

Both Dodgson and MacDonald are Christians, of course, and, I’m almost certain, Coleridgean in their sacramental understanding of worlds within worlds and the magic, not to mention theology of ‘reflection.’

(2) I discuss the importance of Ms. Rowling’s use of mirror and eye symbolism in The Deathly Hallows Lectures, which includes a chapter length explanation of the Mirror of Erised and the godfather mirror fragment in which Harry sees Dumbledore’s eye. If this sort of thing stretches your thinking enough to intrigue you, I recommend you purchase and read what I say in there.

While you wait for that book to arrive, of course, I hope you will do a quick compare and contrast exercise with the Lilith mirror and The Mirror of Erised. Is the only similarity the size and the unused room in which Vane and Potter discover them? What is the significance of the black frame of one and the gold edge of the other? Given what we know of Harry’s Invisibility Cloak post Deathly Hallows and Harry’s role as the “spirit” or “seeing eye” in the Harry-Hermione-Ron triptych, what are we to think of Harry’s discovery of this mirror during his first use of the Cloak? Is there a relationship between the Mirror and Harry’s palace-not-a-place King’s Cross at story’s end? If that seems far-fetched, read the next chapter of Lilith!

I look forward to reading your thoughts.


  1. From *Lilith*:

    As I was turning my ring about to catch the response of the star to the sun, I spied a keen black eye gazing at me out of the milky misty blue. The sight startled me so that I dropped the ring, and when I picked it up the eye was gone from it. The same moment the sun was obscured; a dark vapour covered him, and in a minute or two the whole sky was clouded. The air had grown sultry, and a gust of wind came suddenly. A moment more and there was a flash of lightning, with a single sharp thunder-clap. Then the rain fell in torrents.

    Really. An eye appearing in stone, a magic mirror, a crisis of identity…

  2. Wow! Thanks for the links, John. Now I’ve added something else to my list of things I must read. I’ll take a closer look later.


  3. Robert Trexler says

    Not to take anything away from the literary significance of Eve’s eyes (the mother of all), but MacDonald had the occassion to marvel on the beauty of another mother with dark, beautiful eyes for nearly 40 years – the eyes of his wife, Louisa. Greville MacDonald (MacDonald’s oldest son and biographer) says of his mother’s eyes:

    “Little reason had my mother for fearing the personal attractions of any woman, if only because of her eyes’ beauty.” and later Greville recalls when he was interviewing for a medical postion and the esteemed doctor/interviewer (who he didn’t realize had ever met his parents) suddenly burst out: “Your mother has the most beautiful eyes I ever saw on the face of a woman.” (George MacDonald and His Wife, p.139)

    And in MacDonald’s essay “A Sketch of Individual Development,” there is a remarkably beautiful passage describing an infant looking into the face of his mother as if looking into the universe. Notice the mirror reference at the end of the quotation regarding growth of consciousness and a mature life with God.

    “Looking back we can but dream, looking forward we lose ourselves in speculation; but we may both speculate and dream, for all speculation is not false, and all dreaming is not of the unreal. What may we fairly imagine as to the inward condition of the child before the first moment of which his memory affords him testimony?

    It is one, I venture to say, of absolute, though, no doubt, largely negative faith. Neither memory of pain that is past, nor apprehension of pain to come, once arises to give him the smallest concern. In some way, doubtless very vague, for his being itself is a border-land of awful mystery, he is aware of being surrounded, enfolded with an atmosphere of love; the sky over him is his mother’s face; the earth that nourishes him is his mother’s bosom. The source, the sustentation, the defence of his being, the endless mediation betwixt his needs and the things that supply them, are all one. There is no type so near the highest idea of relation to a God, as that of the child to his mother. Her face is God, her bosom Nature, her arms are Providence—all love—one love—to him an undivided bliss.

    The region beyond him he regards from this vantage-ground of unquestioned security. There things may come and go, rise and vanish—he neither desires nor bemoans them. Change may grow swift, its swiftness grow fierce, and pass into storm: to him storm is calm; his haven is secure; his rest cannot be broken: he is accountable for nothing, knows no responsibility. Conscience is not yet awake, and there is no conflict. His waking is full of sleep, yet his very being is enough for him.
    But all the time his mother lives in the hope of his growth. In the present babe, her heart broods over the coming boy—the unknown marvel closed in the visible germ. Let mothers lament as they will over the change from childhood to maturity, which of them would not grow weary of nursing for ever a child in whom no live law of growth kept unfolding an infinite change! The child knows nothing of growth—desires none—but grows. Within him is the force of a power he can no more resist than the peach can refuse to swell and grow ruddy in the sun. By slow, inappreciable, indivisible accretion and outfolding, he is lifted, floated, drifted on towards the face of the awful mirror in which he must encounter his first foe—must front himself.

    By degrees he has learned that the world is around, and not within him—that he is apart, and that is apart; from consciousness he passes to self-consciousness. This is a second birth, for now a higher life begins. When a man not only lives, but knows that he lives, then first the possibility of a real life commences. By real life, I mean life which has a share in its own existence.”

    [This essay is included in the book A DISH OF ORTS, and is available to purchase at the website for $10 dollars. The CD ROM has the complete unabridged works of George MacDonald in MS Word and PDF format.]

  4. Hey, Pat! Here is more MacDonald eye imagery from Lilith:

    A candle burned on a deal table in the middle of the room, and the first thing I saw was the lid of a coffin, as I thought, set up against the wall; but it opened, for it was a door, and a woman entered. She was all in white– as white as new-fallen snow; and her face was as white as her dress, but not like snow, for at once it suggested warmth. I thought her features were perfect, but her eyes made me forget them. The life of her face and her whole person was gathered and concentrated in her eyes, where it became light. It might have been coming death that made her face luminous, but the eyes had life in them for a nation–large, and dark with a darkness ever deepening as I gazed. A whole night-heaven lay condensed in each pupil; all the stars were in its blackness, and flashed; while round it for a horizon lay coiled an iris of the eternal twilight. What any eye is, God only knows: her eyes must have been coming direct out of his own! the still face might be a primeval perfection; the live eyes were a continuous creation.

    Seriously, I detail in Lectures how Ms. Rowling uses the eye in Deathly Hallows as an image after Matthew 6:23 “and the light of the body is the eye…” with links to the light that is in every man (John 1:9) and the light of the world and the creative, rational principle. Hard to miss the same ideas here.

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