Apr 21 2011 3:48pm

Death and Fairyland: At the Back of the North Wind

At the Back of the North Wind illustrationAfter another brief absence from fairy tales, George MacDonald returned with a book that many people either adored, despised, were unable to finish, or found oddly comforting: At the Back of the North Wind. I had all of these reactions while reading the book—and, I will admit, this was not a book I could, or did, read straight through.

Unlike many of MacDonald’s other fairy tales, At the Back of the North Wind does not begin with a princess or prince, or a fairy, but rather with a small boy named Diamond, the son of a coachman (this is important) and lives in a drafty coach house on an estate whose wealth is paper thin. (This is also important.) Diamond has to crawl through bales of hay to reach his bed, and on a cold night, takes some of that hay to try to close the many holes in the walls. This infuriates the North Wind, who wants her window, but after some discussion, she agrees to take Diamond travelling, eventually taking him to the back of the North Wind.

MacDonald’s erudition is evident in the very few sentences, which chatter about Herodotus, as well as his mastery of beautiful language, of creating a world where winds use the tools of witches and both poets and boats can carry people over the sea. But after a time, Diamond decides that he wants to return home. And this is where the book starts to run into trouble on several fronts.

First, the digressions. I’ve mentioned these as a flaw with MacDonald’s work before, but they are particularly apparent here, with the entire plot stopping dead after a few chapters, and then digressing again,and then, digressing from the digressions. Meandering does not even begin to cover it. Here are just some of them: a full length fairy tale long enough to be treated as a separate short story (which it frequently has been); discussions on the fate of cab drivers; more terrible poetry; some chatter about angels digging up and polishing stars; some chatter about an angel horse; a conversation between a horse and an angel horse that I assumed was leading somewhere but didn’t; a few bits about Herodotus; a long story about the romance of some secondary characters, chatter about nursery rhymes, and more. Far more.

Now, large, meandering books can often be delightful, and in many of those books, the meandering is even the point, adding to the delight. And admittedly, some of these digressions in this book are meant to show just how angelic and precious little Diamond is—about which more in a minute. Some are delightful —particularly the short story about Princess Daylight (one reason it has been frequently reprinted separately from the novel). But most are, alas, outright dull. When I’m bored by a conversation between two horses, MacDonald, we have a problem. And while I have no problems with a book combining the mundane with the fairy, a book where the main character is talking with a wind should not then spend most of its time following the main character as he wanders around London being Adorably Good and Cute and Precious and then digressing even there.

Second, the moralizing. It’s not that I exactly mind comments like this:

Poverty will not make a man worthless—he may be worth a great deal more when he is poor than he was when he was rich; but dishonesty goes very far indeed to make a man of no value—a thing to be thrown out in the dust-hole of the creation, like a bit of a broken basin, or a dirty rag.

But when they appear in nearly every chapter, and occasionally on every page, the constant moralizing gets, well, wearisome. Particularly in a novel frequently dealing with some very serious moral and ethical issues indeed, show, not tell.

But more to the point, some of this moralizing leads to some questionable sections, including a rather revolting section where Diamond’s parents decide that they are really better off than their former employers (whose reckless investments directly led to the parents nearly starving to death) because the former employers just aren’t used to being poor and have no idea how to handle it, while Diamond and his parents are so used to being poor that it’s all okay, even the starving part. This, even when the former employers still managed to scrounge up enough money to be able to afford to take cabs, rather than force their small children to drive them so that the family can eat. This isn’t even the usual Christian or Victorian condemnation of the morals and supposed lack of happiness of the wealthy. And while I’d agree that poverty becomes easier to deal with when you’re accustomed to it, the generous feelings towards the wealthy family, who are, to be clear, the causes of their entire family grief, are just not credible.

I have problems with another moralizing digression as well: the story of Mr. Evans, a man who has put off marrying the woman he claims to love because he “was ashamed to marry upon a small income” and they would have to live “humbly.” This leads MacDonald to the conclusion that “he may love, but his love is but a poor affair.” Or, MacDonald, the guy is being nice enough not to want to doom his wife and potential children to the very real deprivations of poverty so ably depicted by other Victorian writers, some of whom understated the case. The marrying for money may seem materialistic, but refusing to marry without it sounds more like common sense. Mind you, since Mr. Evans follows up this noble gesture by helping to bankrupt the girl’s father by giving bad business advice, I’m not one of the guy’s biggest fans, either, but my general sense is that he shouldn’t be marrying anyone, and should certainly not be scolded for this. MacDonald, less cynical than I, or less concerned about the very real physical labor involved in 19th century housework and cooking even with the benefit of household servants (which the couple would not be able to afford), and convinced again that Love is All, wants the penniless couple together.

Both of these bits would perhaps be less annoying if it were not clear, from the text, that one of the major reasons Diamond is such a sickly little child is that even when his father has seemingly steady employment as a coachman for a wealthy household, the family still lives in poor housing, cannot save money, and the job is still not particularly steady (a few bad investments by his employer leaves Diamond’s father out of work). And this, mind you, is the sentimental portrait of the working poor (Dickens and Mrs. Gaskell were far more honest and brutal in their depictions).

Granted, tuberculosis killed the wealthy and poor alike (one victim was the brother of the Emperor of Russia, with full access to the very best of medical care available at the time) but poor nutrition and living in drafty housing has hastened the kid’s death.

And yes, death.

Because, as it slowly becomes clear, the North Wind is not really a wind at all, but rather Death. Hints of this appear early on this book (notably when the North Wind is, well, killing people, despite Diamond’s protests). And they continue to appear when Diamond returns to England, where people constantly point out how sick he has been, how easily he can become sick in the future, and, most of all, that he is a little angel child.

This was a common trope in 19th century fiction, that of the dying child who yet manages to be the bright shining light of the household, a comfort and a joy, always patient, always beloved, and a little peacemaker. Diamond is not the most nauseating example of these (that would arguably be Little Eva from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but, as I said, arguable), and here, at least, MacDonald was definitely catering to the expectations of his audience.

I imagine that this sort of thing must have been a comfort to at least some parents and grieving siblings, given the high death rate of children and young adults of the period. MacDonald himself was to outlive at least four of his children (one son died in childhood; three daughters contracted tuberculosis and died as young adults) and knew many other grieving parents.

But this trope leads to a severe problem: unrealistic children. It’s not just that sick and dying children are not necessarily going to be better behaved than healthy children (within physical limits) or sweeter and kinder, however much later memories may soften this. (Even the frequently overly sentimental Frances Hodgson Burnett of Little Lord Fountleroy fame recognized this, creating the thoroughly nasty if sickly Colin in response to one too many stories of sickly yet angelic children.) But the trope becomes especially problematic when, like Diamond, these children get out of bed and begin interacting with others and still retain their unrealistic sweetness.

MacDonald attempts to explain this away by saying that of course Diamond is different, because he has been to the back of the north wind. And certainly, a near brush with death (although Diamond does not seem to have understood how close he came to dying, or how close he later is to dying) and long term chronic illness can change people. But none of that comes close to making little Diamond—or frankly, any of the children he interacts with—at all realistic.

And yet.

Just as I was about to give up on the book and hope none of you noticed that I was skipping it, the North Wind returns to Diamond’s new bedroom in the country, bringing magic back with her. And something more. Because although she will be taking Diamond to the back of the north wind—and his death—she also brings him her friendship.

That thought, of becoming friends with death, and carrying on a conversation with her, is troubling and beautiful and, as I said, oddly comforting, all at once, not merely for grieving parents, but for anyone who has had to endure the pain of a loved one dying. And somehow, here, after saturating us with sentimentality in the rest of the book, MacDonald manages to restrain himself, and provide a conversation both beautiful and moving.

By turns lovely and lyrical, lachrymose and forcibly cheery, diffuse and pointed, and frequently cloyingly sentimental, At the Back of the North Wind manages to combine MacDonald at his very best, and his very worst. If I may, I would suggest that new readers read the first chapters, up until Diamond’s return to England (Chapter 13), then skip to the fairy tale in Chapter 28 (which has little to do with the rest of the book but is a beautiful bit of work), and then skip to Chapter 36. I suppose this is a bit like attempting to avoid the mundanities of life, and just skip to the good parts—or the ending—but this book did, after all, start off as a fairy tale.

Mari Ness is, as you might gather, rather less fond of morals than the Duchess of Alice in Wonderland. She lives in central Florida.

1. Angiportus
I'm going to have to go dig thru my journal to recall most of my responses to MacDonald's Hyperborean tale. I do recall being annoyed when someone said it was more noble to be named after a horse than a mineral. I also recall wondering why the North Wind couldn't have arranged to have rescue boats handy when having to sink that ship. Your idea that this entity is simply a personification of death answers some of that. But I can't help thinking there was more to the North Wind than that.
But as I said before, I don't remember the whole thing that well, and just hope that your as usual interesting analysis will bring out some smart readers to clear up some more things, or at least entertain me.
I can't wait to see what you have to say about the Goblin books. And while you're at it, how about Kingsley's Water Babies?
Mari Ness
2. MariCats
@Angiportus -- I am planning on reviewing Kingsley's Water Babies, but because of some scheduling things, it probably won't be popping up for awhile -- not until the fall, at least.

The North Wind is originally presented as just that, a wind, but as the story continues, she brings little Diamond to Elysium (at the Back of the North Wind) and later brings him to his death. I suppose she could also be considered the personification of tuberculosis, which is probably the disease Diamond dies from. I say probably because although MacDonald doesn't specify, that or scarlet fever are generally the two diseases used by Victorian and early 20th century writers to kill off children and young adults, mostly because those were two lethal illnesses for that age group. (To give a very small sample, tuberculosis killed off MacDonald's daughters and Keats, Emily Bronte, and Anne Bronte as they were all just starting their writing careers, and of course generations of readers either sniffled or rejoiced at the death of Beth from lingering complications in Little Women, which was based on the real life illness and death of Louisa May Alcott's sister, Elizabeth.) These were diseases Victorians knew well and could write about eloquently.

In any case, that personification could explain the capriciousness of North Wind's character -- tuberculosis was cruel, in that it struck down teenagers and adults in their 20s, but it was also sometimes considered a kinder, gentler death (generally by those not dying from it or tending the ill, mind you) and often romanticized in Victorian fiction.
3. Angiportus
Good points, even if they sour my feelings about what I had found to be an interesting character. I don't have the book at hand right now but did go back thru my journal, and one of the things I said was that I wonder if the reason so many of us find that Victorian stuff so irritating, unsettling, or what have you, is that it reminds us how far we still haven't come today in wiping out poverty and its horrid effects. For that matter, we haven't wiped out TB either.
Some fellow name of Goldthwaite did a book on children's lit back in the 90's, and he had some very interesting things to say about MacDonald's work--things I can't all remember right now, fully understand or agree with, but I'd be curious to know if anyone here has read it--"Natural History of Make-Believe".
Chris Meadows
4. Robotech_Master
It's strange just how much this review reminds me of the novel The Princess Bride. Or maybe not so strange, given that the premise of the book (mirrored into the movie) was that this was the "abridged" version of a (fictitious) fairy tale that, more or less exactly like the review says of this book, had a relatively brief set of "good parts" buried underneath vastly more pages of dross and digression. And much like the advice given in the last paragraph, the father in the story chooses to skip over that dross and just read his son the "good parts."

It almost makes me wonder whether this book was one of William Goldman's inspirations.
Mari Ness
5. MariCats
@Angiportus -- I don't object to all or even most Victorian literature -- George Eliot is one of my favorite writers, and I think Middlemarch may be the greatest, or at least one of the greatest, novels in English ever written. Dickens, Thackeray and the Brontes wrote genuine page turners even if I can't stand most of Dickens' women. I also think that many Victorian writers -- particularly Eliot -- had thoughtful observations about human morality that are still relevant today.

My objection to MacDonald here is twofold: one, instead of challenging or examining Victorian ideas of gender and class roles, as do all of the writers noted above do, here he accepts them. Which leads to objection two: much of this book, aside from the chapters I highlighted, is just boring, showing that clinging to sickly sweet concepts about dying children and the roles of women and the grateful lower classes is just not the best way to create an interesting book.

In later books, MacDonald, while still clinging to many of these ideas, does start questioning them or at least observing them, creating better books.

@Robotech_Master - I never thought of that before, but I think you're dead on here. In the unlikely event that I ever meet William Goldman in person, I'll ask.
6. Marian
Oh wow--this was the first book that I ever purchased for myself. Third grade, and I had read it so often from the library that I finally saved my pennies and bought it (This was 1964 and the paperback was probably 95 cents.) I loved it to death and had to buy another copy years later.
7. Angiportus
Okay, I hadn't read a lot of Victorian lit. But I note now that MacDonald gave his death-figure a most evocative name. It combines an invisible, mysterious, musical and powerful force felt by all, the wind, with a mysterious part of the world where daylight itself seems to work under different laws Even if you don't make it as far as true midnight-sun territory, if you are out at midnight in high summer and look north where there's a bay or low place, you will see a rainbowish band of brightness just over the horizon. In one century you'd think that was some mysterious paradise where the sun went to rejuvenate, which I suspect is the source of the Hyperborea myth; in another, you'd be tickeld enough just to know you were looking at daylight on the other side of the world. This doesn't even take into account the gender of MacDonald's powerful and deadly yet beautiful and comforting...entity. If he'd just named her/it "Death", I wouldn't have picked up the book, and I suspect a lot of other folks wouldn't either.
Agreed on the sickly-sweetness and non-rebellious lower classes.
8. Mary Fagan
I'm with Marian! I enjoyed this book since my mother had to read it to me. As a child, I wasn't in the least concerened with esoteric symbolism or arcane references. It was beautiful, mysterious, and grabbed my imagination like nothing else. What else matters?
9. mrpond47
Great write-up, MariCats. Thanks for bringing this up. I'm writing a chapter in my dissertation on this book, so I'll try to keep my comments short!

At the Back of the North Wind is one of MacDonald's most complicated and misunderstood texts. It doesn't help, for one thing, that it was originally published serially, each chapter appearing seperately, and that MacDonald felt less compunction to create a continual narrative when writing in this form. I think the biggest difficulty that we have in reading ABNW is that, frankly, we're not Victorians, and we don't realise how profound and shocking this book is.

You're absolutely right to pick up on the dying child trope. But MacDonald is in fact subverting, even deconstructing, that trope--the scene where they simply find Diamond dead on the floor, no tearful farewell and flights of angels which is the piece de resistance of the genre, is gut-wrenching and, in its way, terrifying. MacDonald spares us the image--he's not wanting to do a Flannery O'Connor, though I think he comes close--but tells us bluntly that's what happened. As a chronic sufferer from TB himself, and by 1874 having lost several close family members to various illnesses, he doesn't flinch from showing the true pain of illness and death--think of the grim assessment of the children in the hospital, that they'd be put back on to the streets before they were actually well. Which is partly what makes North Wind so compelling--a mothering, nurturing face of death, and death as a gateway to a higher reality.

Diamond himself is meant as a sort of Holy Fool--an archetype MacDonald uses throughout his writings--an innocent rarified and perfected through suffering; he's not meant as a real child per se, but as an analogue to the soul on the mystic journey. ABNW follows Meister Eckhart's threefold outline of spiritual purification, with Diamond being first cleansed through suffering, then returning to the material world as a mystical adept to teach the Way, before finally ascending to union with God at the end. Of course, being a MacDonald story, the mystical adept changes the world and teaches divine wisdom by singing nonsense songs, narrating zany dream-visions, and playing with small children...

Oh, goodness--there's so much here it's hard even to begin! Thanks again for starting the conversation. Per our earlier dialogue, I'm still planning to email you, but have been buried under correspondence and deadlines...we'll be in touch.
Pamela Adams
10. PamAdams
I didn't find Diamond annoying- I kind of liked that he went out and became a child cabby to support the family.

The character that annoyed me most was Mr. Raymond. What was his whole 'let's test Diamond's father' bit, anyway? The man is poor, but appears honest- just hire him and worrry about his moral worthiness at some other time.

There's a lovely book Take Up Thy Bed and Walk" by Anne K. Phillips. It examines death and disability in classic girls fiction. Beth March, as you can expect, has a starring role.

By the way, I believe that the Frances Hodgson Burnett book is The Secret Garden, not Lord Fauntleroy.
Mari Ness
11. MariCats
@Marian and Mary Fagan - I do agree that the beginning and end of this book are beautiful and mysterious. It's the middle that gets me.

@mrpond47 - I'm curious as to why MacDonald felt he didn't have to stick to a continuous narrative just because the story originally ran in serial format -- quite a few 19th century novels made their initial appearance this way, and part of the reason for their success was that readers desperately wanted to know what happened next. It might be an unfair comparison -- ok, it is an unfair comparison -- but take a look at The Count of Monte Cristo, which originally appeared in serial format: each and every one of its digressions, intended in part to make Dumas more money and draw out the suspense, also served to forward the story and make Monte Cristo more heroic/mysterious/utterly awesome and the villains more deserving of their fate.

I can think of a few dying children narratives in Victorian literature that didn't involve the sudden arrival of flights of angels -- although you're right, that is another annoying trope of that genre, not helped by its appearance in many stage productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin. But Beth March, probably the most famous example of the dying child, dies quietly without any angels at all/

I do agree about the concept of the holy fool, though, something I totally missed on this reading - thanks for bringing that to my attention, since it certainly does add a different reading to Diamond's adventures in London.

@Pam Adams - I guess I just found most of the London stuff annoying and dull, compared to, you know, flying around with a tempermental wind. I liked Diamond's decision to stand up and support the family; I just found his moralizing tiresome.

And yeah, I phrased the stuff about Burnett awkwardly - I meant, but didn't actually say, that after gaining fame for Little Lord Fauntleroy she dealt with the disabled child trope in The Secret Garden with Colin. But, after thinking about it a bit more, I realize she really didn't - Colin is bad tempered and sulky, not angelic, and therefore, he can't really be sick, and isn't really sick. So it goes back to the same trope, and now I wish I'd left that sentence out of the original post altogether.
12. Ellynne
I understand that "at the back of the north wind" was actually a Scottish idiom for death, so the North Wind's nature was likely in his mind from the beginning.

A lot of serial literature of the 19th century digresses all over the place. Even Count of Monte Cristo started off with a character, Franz, as the main, POV person who can vanish entirely from various adaptations without causing so much as a ripple in the plot.

I can handle that MacDonald is very interested in the moral purpose of suffering rather than addressing ways to reduce suffering as such (it probably says a bit about some of his own difficulties that he was more focused at this point on dealing with suffering than curing it. So, an angel may be sent to cause suffering (even if it's an angel in the form of a horse). A normal mortal may be a tool of providence in testing Diamond's father even while his deliberately casting himself in that role may be sinful hubris. A man who won't marry for love because of his poor-for-a-gentleman but not-all-that-poor-compared-to-Diamond's-family circumstances errs. Suffering, at least in this book, is something that happens and efforts to escape it are futile and self-defeating. Trying to escape suffering leads to focusing on/resenting it instead of seeing past it, which leads to transcendence.

Not saying I'm in full agreement, here. Just saying that's where the book seemed to be coming from.

Anyhow, a character tries to keep the woman he loves from suffering by being apart from her. But love, in MacDonald's view, is also one of the things that leads to transcendence. So, the attempt to foresee and escape suffering is, in itself, futile and also leads this character (I can't remember his name, sorry) to thwart the one thing that life has clearly given him that would help to transcend suffering, love.

Instead, he attempts to help the girl's family further distance themselves from potential suffering by giving financial advice meant to make them richer and more secure - with the result that they become poorer and endure the very suffering he was trying to protect them from.

In this light, Diamond's parents are right how their position is harder. In terms of physical suffering, yes, Diamond's family is worse off. In terms of the moral growth and transcendence brought about by suffering, Diamond's family is much further along. The once wealthy family are in greater spiritual danger without growing from what has happened.

Er, just for the record, I'd like it if MacDonald had addressed both aspects of suffering instead of the either/or deal.
Rich Horton
13. ecbatan
I haven't read At the Back of the North Wind in a very long time, but it was one of my favorite books ever when I first read it (probably age 11 or so).

I daresay most of your objections are sound -- they simply passed over me at that age.
14. william d
I can't really agree with any of your objections, except to say that a good editor might have been able to pare down the language and some of the poetry without disrupting any of the book's magic. I find the goodness of Diamond's character refreshing, and the political incorrectness in this story adds to its appeal. I really have to point out that it appears to me theat the character of the north wind seems to have gone over your head. Perhaps MacDonald having lost a very special little girl as an adolescent gave him a deeper and broader view of the meaning and purpose of suffering. Whatever the case may be, I find the north wind and Diamond two of my favorite figures in all of literature. Its true that I usually skim over Fanny's dream, but the "little daylight" chapter is fantastic.
15. John Cowan
I got this book as a small child as a Christmas present. Opening it with immense over-enthusiasm, I tore the jacket. My mother asked me if I wanted her to fix it with tape or just throw it out; I said I didn't care about it, so she threw it out. And then I cried. My memories of the book itself came from rereads much later.

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