Everyone who has traveled a long distance with children knows the universal question: “Are we almost there?” I confess to wondering this as I reread George MacDonald’s children’s tale, At the Back of the North Wind. An experienced reader, I kept trying to recall the plot and to predict the wind up. After awhile, I succumbed to the magic and let that rational self drift away with the tale.
One of the delights of reading MacDonald’s children’s books is that ability to draw me back into childhood to read with younger eyes and ears and imagination, just to enjoy the consequent refreshment that comes with that pleasure. Of course, it is impossible to read with the full innocence and wonder of my childish mind; still, it is fun to try because I simultaneously have my adult perspective and that has its rewards too. Life’s experience helps me to gain insights I would never have been aware of or interested in as a child. A young reader could care less about the author’s views and opinions. As an older reader, I find myself trying to discern the author’s intentions and meanings constantly.
My child delight in MacDonald’s tales is worth noting, and I will get back to that shortly, but first, here are the things my adult side could not help taking note of and marking, a few tidbits that encouraged and affirmed my faith:
“What’s the use of knowing a thing if you know it only because you are told it?” the North Wind asks the little boy, Diamond.
Another time, she says to him, “If there’s one thing that makes me more angry than another, it is the way you humans judge things by their size.”
During one flight together, he expresses fear of falling and she says, “’But I have a hold of you, you foolish child.’ ‘Yes, but I can’t feel comfortable.’ ‘If you were to fall and my hold of you were to give way, I should be down after you in a less moment than a lady’s watch can tick and catch you long before you hit the ground.’”
“Trying [to be brave] is not much.’ Yes it is, a very great deal, for it is a beginning, and a beginning is the greatest thing of all. To try to be brave is to be brave. The coward who tries to be brave is before the man who is brave who is made so and never had to try.’”
“It is not good at all, mind that Diamond, to do everything for those you love and not give them a share in the doing. It’s not kind. It’s making too much of yourself, my child.”
And when his mother fretted because they were on their last bit of bread, Diamond expresses his trust for their provision so that his mother concludes, “He hasn’t to eat for tomorrow as well as for today so that what is not wanted can’t be missed.”
“Diamond began to feel a sort of darkness spread over his own mind, but at the same moment, he said to himself, ‘This will never do. I can’t get into this. I’ve been to the back of the north wind; things go right there, and so I must try to get things to go right here. I’ve got to fight the miserable things. They shan’t make me miserable if I can help it.”
“To try to make others comfortable is the only way for us to get right comfortable ourselves and that comes partly of not being able to think so much about ourselves when we are helping other people. For ourselves we always do pretty well if we don’t pay them too much attention. Ourselves are like little children who will be happy enough so long as they are left to their own games, but when we begin to interfere with them and make them presents of too nice playthings or too many sweet things, they begin at once to fret and spoil,”-- a bit of wisdom spoken by Diamond in conversation with his mother on another day.
And some more advice of North Wind, “Some people don’t know how to do what they are told. They have not been used to it and they neither understand quickly nor are able to turn what they do understand into action quickly. With an obedient mind, one learns the rights of things fast enough, for it is the law of the universe, and to obey is to understand.”
“'I think,’ said she, after they had been sitting silent for awhile, “that if I were only a dream, you would not have been able to love me so. You love me when you are not with me, don’t you?’ ‘Indeed I do,’ answered Diamond, stroking her hand. ‘I see, I see! How could I be able to love you as I do if you weren’t there at all, you know. Besides, I couldn’t be able to dream anything half so beautiful all out of my own head, or if I did, I couldn’t love a fancy of my own like that, could I?”
I doubt if these things would have spoken to me about life’s struggles when I was a child who had not had many of them, for children read for the pure pleasure of the thing. For our children, MacDonald’s flights of fancy are an invitation to be as free as the north wind.
“A child,” MacDonald’s son wrote in his biography of his father, “No more grasps intellectually it’s exalted symbolism than he reflects upon form’s relation to its indwelling idea when he runs to his mother with a primrose because of its beauty. Certainly the book can be read and enjoyed on two levels: that of a child for its marvelous story, and that of the adult for its deeper message.”
The first children’s fantasy fiction writer, MacDonald was influential in C. S. Lewis’s life and one of those he credits with his eventual conversion to Christianity. What a powerful influence children’s fiction can have on both adults and children.
Maybe the childish part of myself recognizes one of the greatest gifts for a child this book has to offer. Though children grow weary of travel, they do not grow weary of stories. I remember weeping when certain beloved stories ended, or reading slower and slower as I neared the end, which is why I begged them to be read again, or when I was older, flipped back to page one to enjoy them once more. To be lost in a tale as a child is the bliss of being lost and always found. It is the bliss of continuous delight, extending without end. That is the special nature of At the Back of the North Wind, it rambles and meanders, has a maze of episodes without much purpose, includes lengthy ditties and fairy tales within the tale so that you almost forget the main characters’ existence. It is the perfect bedtime book to be enjoyed for months with many, many short chapters and an endless reintroduction of the adventures and episodes of Diamond’s little life. And even at the end, lets go of the main character without his ever needing to grow up and face the cold and hard realities of adulthood. In that way, it is similar to Peter Pan’s “Never Never Land.”
Adults travel through life, wishing it never to end, knowing there is an ending; for children, childhood is what they wish never to get to the end of. MacDonald didn’t forget that desire. For believers, this is part of the enchantment of our faith as well. Our story started a long time ago, is still going on, and even when it eventually reaches its closing chapter, is going to be yet the beginning of a never-ending real living in the story.
For the joy of reading,