Goodreads: At the Back of the North Wind
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.
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.