Timothy Larsen at Marginalia Review:
Late in life, with his children raised and the battle of the bills behind him, our Scottish author returned to his early love and wrote another disorientating and uncanny “fairy tale for grown people,” Lilith (1895). Its protagonist is Mr. Vane who crosses over from the materialistic banality of his library to “the region of the seven dimensions” where he can learn how to stop being a mere “man of the world” and broaden into a “man of the universe.” Phantastes and Lilith might perplex even you—my sophisticated, time-and-space travelling readers of the universe; a generation raised on Bunyan was at its wit’s end. Beside realism, all they knew was allegory. Pilgrim’s Progress was not a hard nut to crack. One soon learns to trust someone named Hopeful, but to be wary of Lord Hate-Good; to brace oneself when asked to climb the Hill of Difficulty, but to count on having a good time in the House of the Palace Beautiful. After writing Phantastes, MacDonald was besieged with letters from readers who assumed that it was an allegory too subtle for them to grasp. Like giving up and asking for the solution to a crossword puzzle, readers appealed to the author to send them the “key” for interpreting it. MacDonald wearily explained that there was no master key – that readers were free “to take any meaning they themselves see in it.” Once again, readers have long learned to accept such a state of things, but MacDonald is the one who made it possible. It is hard to imagine a bewildering romp of a novel such as G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (1908) were it not for MacDonald.