At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald

At the Back of the North WindINFORMATION

Goodreads: At the Back of the North Wind
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1871

SUMMARY

The poor son of a cabman, Diamond never dreams that the hole in the wall will allow the entrance of the North Wind–a being who appears to him as a beautiful lady and takes him on journeys across the globe as she goes about her appointed tasks.  But his lovely experiences become fewer as he grows and soon he must face the hardships of everyday life.  But one who has been at the back of the North Wind never can forget the beauty there, or the promise of joy to come.

Review

George MacDonald’s classic fantasy contains elements of the sentimental, featuring a young protagonist (Diamond) who goes on a spiritual journey with the North Wind and returns refined–a pale-faced boy not of this world, who sings to his baby brother, cares for the poor girl who sweeps the street crossing, and inspires drunken men to reformation through his kindness and gentleness.  If ever there were a cult of the child, MacDonald seems to be one of its most fervent members.  And yet, somehow, MacDonald’s work never does seem to feel overly sentimental or moralizing or silly.  Instead, it seems to capture that beauty and that childlike wonder similar stories could not.

Much of the first half of the story engages with philosophical questions about the nature of evil–why does the North Wind, an agent of God, sometimes cause destruction?  Why does she appear as a frightening beast to some individuals but a beautiful lady to Diamond?  Does seeming harm sometimes actually result in good?  Young Diamond cannot understand all that the North Wind tells him–and, indeed, the North Wind admits often that she does not fully understand God’s plan, either, though she knows she must obey–but he accepts her words with childlike faith.  He is clearly meant to be a model for the reader, who might grapple with the same questions but also ultimately have to admit he or she cannot understand everything.

The second half of the story sees the North Wind as a character fade from view, though her influence remains always in evidence.  Having seen the country at the back of the north wind, Diamond becomes a changed individual, determined to lessen misery wherever he finds it and convinced that pain will ultimately be replaced with joy.  So he goes through life a model child, so convinced of his morals that others call him simple simply because he is good.  Concerned with worldly cares such as hunger, illness, and death, many cannot fathom why Diamond would share what little he has or help others when he might advance himself instead.

All this seems very didactic, and MacDonald even inserts an authorial voice from time to time to tell readers what the lesson of the story is, lest they missed it.  And yet, somehow the book never feels preachy.  I think it is too convinced of its own message; MacDonald is not just telling people to be good–he is utterly convinced that goodness exists and that people can find it.  And, what is more, he illustrates the goodness and beauty he believes in, and invites readers to participate in it.  It’s as if he’s hearing a far-off echo of a secret message and he’s trying to share it.

It is not difficult to understand why so many people love this story or why it has become a children’s classic.  Many books try to engage with the ugliness of life and succeed, but it is far more difficult to represent the beauty and joy of life.  MacDonald does not shy away from depicting the dirty and coarse parts of life, but his ultimate message exclaims that the purer things outshine the others.  And that kind of hope is a rare gift indeed.

4 starsKrysta 64

10 thoughts on “At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald

  1. David says:

    Great write-up! I’ve had this book for awhile but incredibly haven’t read it yet. I love and yet lament my reading backlog! Perhaps I’ll try to move this one up a bit, though. MacDonald is definitely a preacher (that was his occupation, after all), but I agree that he manages to do it so sincerely, and believes in the beauty of his story so intensely, that the preaching not only works, but becomes essential to the story’s impact. That’s how I felt about “Phantastes” and “Lilith.” I’m glad you felt it worked in this book, too.

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    • Krysta says:

      As far as George MacDonald goes, I’ve only read The Princess and the Goblin and the sequel besides this book, but I feel like I ought to correct that. He writes beautifully and I can see why C. S. Lewis liked him. On the bright side, however, not having read a book yet means you still have the delightful anticipation of reading it for the very first time!

      Liked by 1 person

      • David says:

        Huzzah to that sentiment! Likewise, I have the two Princess and the Goblin books but haven’t read them yet. The anticipation is a sweet thing, to be sure. Yet with Phantastes and Lilith, it was even better when that anticipation was transformed into experience-based appreciation! They’re difficult books to review, though. I managed it for “Lilith,” but would have to reread “Phantastes” carefully before I could hope to review it.

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          • David says:

            Yeah, I feel that sometimes. There are some books that are talked about so much that I simply don’t know what more I can add to the conversation. “The Lord of the Rings” is like that. I love discussing it, but reviewing it? Not sure I could! Also with Harry Potter, which I just finally read for the first time. I don’t idolize it like some — I don’t think it’s truly on the level of LOTR or Narnia in its power — but I do like it quite a bit; I just don’t know what I could say in a review to add to the conversations about it. The plots also get so complex that it’s hard to pass judgment on them simply because it’s hard to keep them all straight! I think I prefer to review good books that most readers don’t really know about. Or certain older classics that are brilliant but becoming forgotten.

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            • Krysta says:

              Yes, it does feel funny to review something like Harry Potter. Technically a review tells someone if they should read a book or not, but it seems most people have already read Harry Potter anyway. (And my unpopular opinion is that the world building is phenomenal but the prose and characterization could use work. Now I must hide from all the HP fans.)

              I really like the diversity on your blog, though. It’s nice to see older and lesser-known works being featured.

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  2. mez_blume says:

    I totally agree with you- reading MacDonald, one doesn’t feel preached at. Rather, I always feel I’ve gone on a journey with the character & come away with a new outlook on life & beyond. His are the sort of stories that imbed themselves in the heart & stay with you forever.
    Lovely review!

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