fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review George MacDonald At the Back of the North WindAt the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald

The Meaning Will Come with the Thing Itself…

George MacDonald wrote hundreds of stories throughout his lifetime (not surprising considering he had eleven kids!), most of which were fantasies that drew on a rich variety of sources: mythology, fairytales and Biblical mysticism. Credited by C.S. Lewis as the main inspiration behind The Chronicles of Narnia, MacDonald’s dreamy little tales (especially this one) are a strange blend of frustrating ramblings and sublime imagery. Love it or hate it, At the Back of the North Wind encompasses the best and worst about MacDonald, the Victorian Era, and even children’s literature itself.

Named after his father’s favourite horse, Diamond is the son of a coachman, and lives above the stable in the hayloft. As the story begins, Diamond is visited by a mysterious but beautiful woman who introduces herself as the North Wind. Inviting him to join her on her night-time journeys, Diamond soon becomes intimately acquainted with the being, unraveling certain aspects of her enigmatic characteristics and even visiting the land that exists behind her back — a place that she herself is barred from.

The visit endows Diamond with an unearthly quality of goodness and innocence (MacDonald is constantly defending Diamond’s angelic conduct with the fact that he’s been to the back of the North Wind), allowing his mere presence to positively improve and enrich the lives of those around him, including his family, his employers, and acquaintances from both the upper and lower classes. Although most tend to think that Diamond is touched in the head, the young boy has utter faith in the North Wind and her claims that everything will eventually turn out for the best. As a Congregationalist minister, MacDonald truly believes in this theology, and ensures that whatever seems like misfortune or tragedy in the plot is eventually revealed to be unexpectedly fortuitous in one way or another.

At the Back of the North Wind was originally written in serialized form, with each chapter published periodically in magazines, and so the story can feel a little choppy at times. There is no clear sense of a structured plot or story-arc, instead it is quite episodic — one chapter can be about Diamond’s virtuous deeds in London, another can be fully devoted to a fairytale that a character is telling, or a dream that a person has had. At times you can tell that MacDonald is just making it up as he goes along, which makes for a fresh, but sometimes frustrating read. I like to have the sense that an author has a clear sense of where they’re going with their plot and characters, and often parts of MacDonald’s work can appear random or meaningless.

Of course, this is almost certainly due to the time period in which it is written. MacDonald was a contemporary of Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, the first children’s book to be written for pure entertainment purposes (in fact, it was MacDonald’s children who were among the first to read Carroll’s manuscript and encourage him to publish it). If there are any kinks in MacDonald’s storytelling, it was probably because he was one of the forerunners in writing children’s fiction — there were few prototypes on which to model his own work. Understandable, but still a little annoying when slugging through several long and not-very-good poems inserted needlessly into the text (you have my permission to skip them).

There are other aspects of Victorian culture at work in the story: a fascination with the poor and the sick (both encompassed in the character of Nanny, a young sweeper), the growing trend of philanthropy at work amongst the upper-classes (as seen in the frequent visits to the children’s hospital), a preference for country life than that of the city, and a sense of mysticism and spirituality throughout. And then of course there’s Diamond himself. The Victorians were in love with the idea of the Child as a God-Like Being (witness any one of Wordsworth’s poems) and Diamond is no exception. He is, quite simply, perfect. This means that some readers will find him endearing, enlightening and inspirational, and others will find him sanctimonious, irritating and totally unbelievable as a character. For what it’s worth, I like Diamond, even when MacDonald takes his character to its inevitable end — Diamond is too good for this earth, and the Victorians loved a good death scene (see Little Nell in Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop).

Although most children will be put off by the strange, dreamy pacing of the novel (better to start them off with MacDonald’s most popular children’s book The Princess and the Goblin), older readers will be fascinated by MacDonald’s creation of the North Wind and the theology that he delicately works into the story — a theology that only occasionally slips into preaching. There’s plenty here to be intrigued by, certainly enough to make it worth the reading, but be prepared for some randomness, shaky plotlines and Victorian melodrama (though on second thought, that last one just may be a bonus feature!)

At the Back of the North Wind — (1871) Publisher: A Victorian fairy tale that has enchanted readers for more than a hundred years: the magical story of Diamond, the son of a poor coachman, who is swept away by the North Wind — a radiant, maternal spirit with long, flowing hair — and whose life is transformed by a brief glimpse of the beautiful country “at the back of the north wind.” It combines a Dickensian regard for the working class of mid-19th-century England with the invention of an ethereal landscape, and is published here alongside Arthur Hughes’s handsome illustrations from the original 1871 edition.


  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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