The Raven’s Trail: Lilies




Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany

Lots of flowers  have the word ‘lily’ in their name, like water lily or peace lily. However, such names are colloquial and, while often visually descriptive, rarely refer to the actual genus. True Lilium grow from bulbs, where their nutrients are stored for seasonal dormancy. They have long narrow leaves which grow along the stem. They have large, prominent trumpet shaped flowers and can come in a range of colours and patterns, including white, orange, striped and spotted varieties. Stamen, covered in pollen protrude from the centre of the flowers and are often bright orange and very powdery to the touch.  Lily pollen can be fatal if ingested by cats, so take care if you bring lilies into your house.


Lilies in Folklore and Mythology

Lilies have been used in mythology for thousands of years: a villa in Crete has images of lilies believed to be from 1580 B.C. Within Greek mythology lilies come from where the milk of the goddess Hera spilled on the earth. A similar origin tale for the lily claims that lilies grew where the tears of Eve fell as she was expelled from the garden of Eden.


Deatail from window at St Michaels Church in East Teignmouth, Devon

In christian mythology the white Lily is heavily associated with the Virgin Mary and so symbolizes purity. The image above shows the archangel Gabriel telling Mary that she is pregnant with Christ, while presenting her with a white lily. The french fleur-de-lis is a highly stylised representation of a lily, associated not only with the purity of the Virgin Mary it is also supposed to symbolize the trinity due to its three petals.

Lilies in George MacDonald’s Fantasy

At the beginning of chapter four of Phantastes, for instance, we are told that, of all the wild flowers and foliage, Anodos ‘particularly noticed’ the ‘dazzlingly white flowers’ of some tall lilies.  Moreover, while reference is made to the plant in Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie, At the Back of the North Wind and The Lost Princess; or, the Wise Woman, there is a delightful passage in Cross Purposes , one of MacDonald’s early fairy tales for children, in which a fairy describes the lilies as smiling and ‘dreaming themselves into a child’s sleep.’  For MacDonald, lilies are a prominent feature of the landscape of Fairyland.


Liliy image detail from George MacDonald The Light Princess and Other Tales 1891

Lilies are seen as a domesticated flower shown mixing with wild flower species in this passage from The Princess and the Goblin:

The garden was a very lovely place. Being upon a mountain side, there were parts in it where the rocks came through in great masses, and all immediately about them remained quite wild. Tufts of heather grew upon them, and other hardy mountain plants and flowers, while near them would be lovely roses and lilies, and all pleasant garden flowers. This mingling of the wild mountain with the civilized garden was very quaint, and it was impossible for any number of gardeners to make such a garden look formal and stiff.

This trail has been developed by Rebecca Langworthy with editorial assistance from Derek Stewart, Mark Patterson and Oliver Langworthy.

Further Resources

For a wealth of information about lilies visit the North American Lily Society

For information on the appearence of Lilies in mythology and literature see Lilipedia

The full text of  Phantastes is available here 1894phantastes

The full text of Princess and the Goblin is available here princessgoblin00macd

The full text of The Princess and Curdie is available here princesscurdiemacd

The full text of At the Back of the North Wind is available here 1919Northwind

The full text of The Lost Princess; or, the Wise Woman, is available here doublestory00macduoft

The full text of Cross Purposes is available  as part of a large collection of MacDonald’s tales here lightprincessoth00macd

Free audio book versions of these texts are available via LibriVox, follow the links below

Phantastes here

The Princess and the Goblin here

The Princess and Curdie here

At The Back of the North Wind here

The Lost Princess, or The Wise Woman (also known as A Double Story ) here

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George MacDonald’s Scotland is Supported by The Research Institute of Scottish and Irish Studies   The University of Aberdeen the British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS):