By Their Works Ye Shall Know Them

In our increasingly all-present welfare state, we must realize that working for our daily bread is not a necessary evil but a means to ensuring man’s dignity and humanity.

In Lilith, the theological-mythical epic tale by George MacDonald, a traveler from our world steps through a magical mirror in the dusty attic of his ancestral home to discover a whole other world. This other world, populated by many magical and mysterious beings, including a talking raven, is ruled by the evil witch-queen Lilith. Those who have read the Chronicles of Narnia will recognize Lilith: she serves as the inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ White Witch, just as MacDonald’s magical mirror is the forerunner for Lucy Pevensie’s wardrobe.

MacDonald’s mythic imagination lit the creative fires in the hearts of both a young C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. If you are familiar with any book by either of those two great stars of Christian fantasy, you will find many echoes, partial scenes, and similar characters peppered throughout George MacDonald’s brilliant, if less well-executed, stories.

I have MacDonald and Lilith on my mind these days, perhaps because we just moved into an old, rambling farmhouse of the sort where, in a surprise secret cupboard or shadowy attic corner, you might just stumble into a magical land. And while Lewis’ portals to Narnia typically allow only child visitors, I can hold out hope that somewhere in this old house I could be transported like Lilith’s Mr. Vane to a landscape from MacDonald’s mythology.

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But perhaps the reason is more somber, for we already find ourselves in the land of the evil Lilith. Lilith, according to extra-biblical Jewish mythology, was Adam’s non-human first wife, and the ancestress of monsters, such as Beowulf’s Grendel, according to our medieval Christian myth-weavers. In the world on the other side of MacDonald’s mirror, Lilith rules a city where women refuse to be mothers and men refuse to be fathers. Against Lilith and her vile city comes an army of “The Little Ones” (led by Lilith’s own abandoned daughter, Lona) seeking parents to love them.

Lilith’s evil city is marked by a self-centered rejection of proper, healthy work. This manifests itself differently for men and women. The women of the city become frighteningly active—even bloodthirsty—in defense of a lifestyle free from the God-given labor of bearing and raising their children. The children who do manage to be born must be swiftly hidden away by Lona, otherwise Lilith’s monsters devour them. The city is left childless—or—in the increasingly popular jargon of our own world, “child-free.”

The men of this evil city, by contrast, have been freed from earning their daily bread by Lilith’s system of governance, essentially a magical version of endless hand-outs, irrespective of authentic need, combined with a cultural devaluing of honest labor. MacDonald was no stereotyped hard-boiled social miser who did not believe in serving those truly in need. But he also recognized something that our increasingly all-present welfare state does not: working for our daily bread is not a necessary evil but a means to ensuring man’s dignity and humanity. 

This is especially true of men. In Lilith’s city, the women, liberated from their God-appointed work of mothering, have become grossly mannish and violent—leading the brutal defense of the city against the innocent crowd of children who invade in search of mothers and fathers. The men, by contrast, slaves to their laziest appetites, have been rendered churlishly passive and enervated.

In Laborem Exercens, John Paul II explains that 

man must work, both because the Creator has commanded it and because of his own humanity, which requires work in order to be maintained and developed. Man must work out of regard for others, especially his own family, but also for the society he belongs to, the country of which he is a child, and the whole human family of which he is a member, since he is the heir to the work of generations and at the same time a sharer in building the future of those who will come after him in the succession of history.

In other words, men weave themselves into the past and the future by means of their work—they build upon the work of their fathers for the sake of their children. In doing so, men also unite their labors to build and cultivate their local society and nation. Lilith’s city, as is increasingly true in ours, has no authentic human community because she has eliminated the need and desire for men to work, just as, by eradicating the motherly instinct in women, she has cut the natural ties that bind past and future, and so destroys the present. Men weave themselves into the past and the future by means of their work—they build upon the work of their fathers for the sake of their children. Tweet This

In our post-2020 world, the Great Resignation has disproportionately affected young, able-bodied men—both college educated and blue collar. Of all the people opting to just stay home and not work, even with increasing labor shortages and job openings, these young men seem most susceptible. Paired with this, as the midterms showed us, women have activated to an unnatural level to ensure that their “freedom” from children is protected. We need no magical mirror to enter Lilith’s world. She sits on the throne of our city already.

Lilith attempts to eliminate from her city the very things that God uses to punish Adam and Eve for their disobedience—the sweat of Adam’s brow and the pain of Eve’s childbirth. Instead of reversing the Fall, however, she reduces man and woman to monsters. We see those monsters steadily increasing in the streets of our own city on this side of MacDonald’s mirror. 

It is easy to over-focus upon the connection of our labor to the punishments given to Adam and Eve (who both make an interesting and significant appearance in Lilith). Too often, we forget that pain and sweat were only added to labors that were already commandments to our pre-fallen parents. Faithfully carrying out the labors proper to us as man and woman is the best way back to glory, both on a social level and on an eschatological one. The Holy Family, after all, is comprised of a man whom we know mostly in terms of the sweat of his brow and a woman who is characterized, first and foremost, by being a mother.


  • Mary Cuff

    Mary Cuff is an independent scholar, wife, and homeschooling mother. She holds a PhD in American literature from the Catholic University of America and has published in the Southern Literary Journal, Five Points, Mississippi Quarterly, and Modern Age. She teaches online high school classical rhetoric courses at Homeschool Connections.

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