Ironically, viewing the year 2020 in hindsight may bring more despair and confusion than comfort and clarity of vision. As a result, we may turn often to literature of significance and meaning to regain lost joy. The Victorian author George MacDonald wrote a children’s tale about a boy’s very encouraging experience that he allowed to cheer others by sharing his life with them. This boy from At the Back of the North Wind is the saintly Diamond who visits MacDonald’s unique vision of the magical (yet perilous) realm of Faerie. Diamond sees “the back of the North Wind” and returns forever changed owing to his personal encounters with the powerfully charming North Wind, personified as a beautiful woman with long, black hair and a pale face.[1] Diamond is materially poor, but being also ‘poor in spirit’, he is more receptive to a fairyland journey stirring him to ‘fight the miserable things’ of a fallen world around him.

Much of the emotional force of fantasy is found in a paradox, which MacDonald cleverly encapsulates when Diamond first hears North Wind whistling through a crack in the wall. The creative inversion is that inside Diamond’s room is outside for North Wind, and the outdoors is inside North Wind’s “great house . . . called Out-of-Doors.”[2] MacDonald’s technique here accords with what Inklings scholars Philip and Carol Zaleski say about fairy-story enchantment: it “is the result of applying adjectives in new and startling ways — in effect, rearranging the constitutive elements of the world — so that we have flying broomsticks or green suns or walking woods.”[3] Imagining wild Nature as North Wind’s ‘house’ and the crack in the wall as her window to the outside world is to exercise the imagination to recognize afresh the hidden, and many times forgotten, wonders of reality by seeing Creation in novel ways.

The Lady then whisks Diamond away on a marvelous escape from his lowly condition. He lives in lower-class London, amid many of the same hurdles, struggles, and simple pleasures typical of a working class family. As we will see, Diamond is exceptional in one way, but he is mostly a normal boy. Instead of being an eccentric character experiencing normalcy, he is a normal character experiencing real-life myth and mystery. G.K. Chesterton says that this literary trait is the core of what has always made stories enjoyable and engaging: “The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the centre is not central.”[4] MacDonald influenced Chesterton, so it is unsurprising that Diamond is a normal boy of humble status and ability. But this all the more makes him a prime candidate for adventures which will grow his courage and character.

Initially, Diamond agrees to accompany North Wind on some of her “work,” which makes her appear a sort of law-bound, Nature figure.[5] She does good and bad, but has always “obeyed orders” in doing her duty: a good task is escorting Diamond to her otherworldly country (the back of the North Wind) while a bad task is sinking a ship, drowning most of the crew.[6] North Wind’s behavior echoes C.S. Lewis’s observation that in MacDonald’s writing the “demand for obedience, for ‘something to be neither more nor less nor other than done’ is incessant.”[7] Despite North Wind’s ambivalent ethics, she takes various shapes, sizes, and forms of grandeur and grace to motivate Diamond’s obedience to goodness. In a way, she is a transcendental parent to Diamond, providing a vision of security upon which his formidable future joy rests.

The foundational influence on Diamond is his trip with North Wind to her country. On ships and atop a glacier — “huge masses of floating ice, looking like cathedrals” — Diamond traverses air and waves until he reaches an icy Northern shelf where he must pass through North Wind, herself.[8] Traveling through North Wind as if she were a door symbolizes Diamond’s entrance into a realm that is more deeply personal than the one he knows. He enters a heavenly place where a crystal-clear river flows on a bed of solely “pure meadow grass”; where there is no sun, but nonetheless a tranquil light fills the land; and where a mighty tree grows, revealing to climbers the actions of loved ones.[9] As MacDonald says, retelling Diamond’s experience is the toughest part of the tale because of the difficulty inherent in relating the quality of subjective experience. One cannot possibly describe the quality of a food’s flavor: it simply must be tasted. Regardless, this enlightening visit revitalizes Diamond’s courage in danger and love for others despite trials.

But how? The country at North Wind’s back does for Diamond what Lewis says MacDonald’s mythopoeia generally accomplishes: “It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions.”[10] Consequently, North Wind’s country instills in him a longing that chiefly manifests in his “trying to recall the songs the river used to sing.”[11] His longing is the closest thing Diamond feels to actually being at the back of the North Wind.[12] And thanks to MacDonald’s exceptional insight as a spiritual sage, he deftly elaborates on the causes of the indomitable joy Diamond soon possesses. We again refer to Lewis’s comments: “the author, though a poor novelist, is a supreme preacher.”[13] Critics often disparage didactic asides as subtracting from literary art. But upon examination in MacDonald’s case, they are enhancements and are even art unto themselves instead of dry digressions. MacDonald’s reflective additions buttress his narratives, providing helpful elucidation of characters’ dispositions and motivations. A prime example is the explanation that Diamond “never touched any of the flowers or blossoms, for he was not like some boys who cannot enjoy a thing without pulling it to pieces, and so preventing every one from enjoying it after them.”[14] Scientific exploration and discovery is not inherently immoral, but Diamond exemplifies a better way to interact with Creation — through eyes of innocent appreciation instead of invasive investigation.

Diamond’s lack of greed and possessiveness leaves him open and receptive to the joy of the eternal. Chesterton remarks that true happiness comes not by retaining a nice moment (which is fleeting), but by a recognition of the eternal reality of joy. Joy, in some way or another, always fills all things and positively informs and sustains one’s present experience of joy. In his characteristically pithy manner, Chesterton writes, “there is some eternal gaiety in the nature of things” and “Man cannot love mortal things. He can only love immortal things for an instant.”[15] Diamond’s view harmonizes, shown by one of his many post-North-Wind-visit songs: “But when you had lost your greedy grief, / Content to see from afar / You would find in your hand a withering leaf, / In your heart a shining star.”[16] This part of the poem, emphasizing selflessly loving nature from a distance, contrasts with the first part which details the futility of avariciously grasping at nature. Similarly, Diamond’s temporary life can always disinterestedly commerce with the eternity of North Wind and her country. She is one of those “immortal things” that Diamond can always refer to and carry with him. Through the mystical conduit of imagination and memory, North Wind keeps Diamond afloat amid his poverty and struggles. As North Wind literally lifted him, he is now also metaphorically lifted.

North Wind’s country is one avenue MacDonald uses to put fantasy to its best work: by experiencing with his senses new, wild, and surprising faces of nature, Diamond transcends the ordinary and sees “beyond the walls of the world,” as J.R.R. Tolkien once eloquently put it.[17] If the workaday experience of creation is a windowless room, the back of the North Wind transforms it into a sunroom. In the river over the meadow grass, the tree that reveals loved ones, and the glowing light of the land, Diamond recognizes similarities with ordinary nature. But simultaneously, concerning North Wind’s country, “Things there are so different from things here!”[18] It is that difference that makes all the difference in the world. A key to MacDonald’s theory is that for people to grasp meaning, nature provides necessary “crystal pitchers that shall protect . . . thought.”[19] MacDonald imaginatively uses the ‘pitchers’ — the familiar forms of creation, molded fantastically — to fashion this literary paracosm for Diamond. Its slightly altered touchstones from normal nature are somehow the trappings for that mysterious, ethereal quiddity.

Consistent with his philosophy, MacDonald reports a couple additional testimonies of trips to North Wind’s country. Alternative perspectives are valuable since “No man is capable of seeing for himself the whole of any truth.”[20] When the narrator reports the unique experience of Kilmeny (a young girl), “it seemed as the harp of the sky had rung, / And the airs of heaven played round her tongue, / When she spoke of the lovely forms she had seen, / And a land where sin had never been.”[21] Further, portraying her experience takes poetic form because MacDonald believes, “The influence of the poetic upon the scientific imagination is, for instance, especially present in the construction of an invisible whole from the hints afforded by a visible part.”[22] It should not be a surprise that a morally untainted place is the origin of Diamond’s joy, which brims over with nonsensical song and carefree courage. By showing how North Wind symbolizes death, Melody Green ties together the ideas of nonsense poetry and spiritual peace. She says, “Diamond’s ability to enjoy nonsense comes from his understanding of death.”[23] First, Diamond “dies” by passing through North Wind. He is then filled by his illuminating glimpse of the aura of deathlessness which enlivens the elements of North Wind’s country. How would a veritable vision of a mystical utopia itself not positively transform anyone who has only known a fallen world? As a result, and paradoxically, Diamond grows strong enough to be meek and poor in spirit, becoming a peacemaker to all.

In a manner of speaking, Diamond really begins to live only after having died. This is an important lesson to us all, without being another mere death/rebirth motif by which someone simply learns or experiences something new. Diamond’s ‘cup runneth over’ after his trek to the Back of the North Wind, which fills him with an inexhaustible storehouse of hope. Even after comforting a street sweeper girl (Nanny), standing up to bullies, encouraging a drunken cabman and his frightened family, caring for and entertaining the baby, preserving his father’s business when his father falls ill, and visiting Nanny in the hospital, the list continues. MacDonald’s masterful storytelling unveils how a magical journey to an enchanted land where “things go right” equips Diamond with the power to “try to get things to go right here.”[24] He can properly align his head and his heart “to fight the miserable things” since his heart is filled like a well by wonderful images and songs from that unforgettable realm.[25] After all, MacDonald says the imagination is more potent than calculation or moral training to raise a life from baseness to better things: “the imagination, seeking the ideal in everything, will elevate them [the passions] to their true and noble service.”[26] Indeed, without At the Back of the North Wind, we would be just a bit further from the good fruit of George MacDonald’s sharp insights into holiness.

Citation Information

Jason Monroe, “Fight the Miserable Things: Reflections on Joy in At the Back of the North Wind,” An Unexpected Journal: George MacDonald 3, no. 4. (Advent 2020), 131-142.

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[1] George MacDonald, At the Back of the North Wind (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), 15.

[2] Ibid., 12.

[3] Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 243.

[4] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Project Gutenberg, 2005), chap. 2, iBooks.

[5] MacDonald, North Wind, 18.

[6] MacDonald, North Wind, 94.

[7] C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald: An Anthology (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 34.

[8] MacDonald, North Wind, 101.

[9] Ibid., 109-110.

[10] Lewis, George MacDonald: An Anthology, 32.

[11] MacDonald, North Wind, 310.

[12] Interestingly, Diamond’s desire for North Wind’s country may have influenced Tolkien’s “Consolation,” in turn informing Lewis’s “Joy” (which like Diamond’s longing is a desire, not a satisfaction).

[13] Lewis, George MacDonald: An Anthology, 33.

[14] MacDonald, North Wind, 57.

[15] G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (Project Gutenberg, 2008), chap. 7, iBooks.

[16] MacDonald, North Wind, 321.

[17] J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-stories, eds. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson (London: HarperCollins, 2014), 75.

[18] MacDonald, North Wind, 107.

[19] George MacDonald, A Dish of Orts (Project Gutenberg, 2005), chap.1, iBooks.

[20] Ibid.

[21] MacDonald, North Wind, 109.

[22] MacDonald, A Dish of Orts, chap. 1, iBooks.

[23] Melody Green, “Death and Nonsense in the Poetry of George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind and Lewis Carroll’s Alice Books,” North Wind: A Journal of George MacDonald Studies 30 (2011): 45.

[24] MacDonald, North Wind, 142.

[25] Ibid.

[26] MacDonald, A Dish of Orts, chap. 1, iBooks.