inally, an almost lyrical treatment of child death which avoids sombreness without descending into such banality. At the Back of the North Wind was also written for children by an active churchman touched by current controversies. Yet MacDonald never deviates from his purpose, to address that "apparently universal shrinking from annihilation" which he comments wryly on in one of his novels for adults, Wilfrid Cumbermede (412). Like Dickens he gets behind the pale face on the pillow: the young hero's fantastic excursions are also, we gradually realize, the wanderings of a sick child's mind; Diamond's hazy presentiments, hopes and fears are externalized with haunting delicacy. The choice of imagery in which they are externalized is novel, not only in detail but in general conception, and the effort to make sense out of mortal suffering without either minimizing or escaping from it is perhaps as successful as it could be.
Diamond's adventures are instigated by another mysterious female force: the biting but seductive, and fundamentally benign, North Wind. There are some echoes here of Andersen's "The Wind's Story"; but MacDonald's narrator has the clear purpose and presence which Andersen's lacks. She blows through the knot-hole in the flimsy wall of Diamond's hay-loft bedroom (there is the same hopeful association with the manger that Kingsley made, when Tom was approaching death), and appears to the coachman's son as a sublime woman's face with flowing dark hair. We know that MacDonald had been cheated of maternal love (see Raeper 32-33), just as we know that Kingsley's obsession with cleanliness was symptomatic of his guilt about his strong sexual drives (Chitty 220-21). For both writers, the feminine principle has tremendous, disturbing, ageless allure, and a close connection with death. But instead of splitting it up into the gnarled, schoolmistressy Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid, the cosily cuddling Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby, and so forth, MacDonald keeps all its facets in the one powerful apparition of the North Wind. The gain is in the richness of the figure itself, and in the honesty and poignancy of what it communicates to the young.
In Diamond's first conversation with her, the North Wind reveals herself as both utterly uncompromising and comfortingly dependable. Warning the child against the duplicitous appearances of this world, she also warns him of her own fearsomeness, but reassures him of its beneficent purpose. Although her words are simple, she conveys a little more than the child can understand, and enough to warn us that here is another young hero who is not going to be passively refined by the progress of his illness:
"Well, please, North Wind, you are so beautiful, I am quite ready to go with you."
"You must not be ready to go with everything beautiful all at once, Diamond."
"But what's beautiful can't be bad. You're not bad, North Wind?"
"No; I'm not bad. But sometimes beautiful things grow bad by doing bad, and it takes some time for their badness to spoil their beauty. So little boys may be mistaken if they go after things because they are beautiful."
"Well, I will go with you because you are beautiful and good too."
"Ah, but there's another thing, Diamond. What if I should look ugly without being bad — look ugly myself because I am making ugly things beautiful? What then?"
"I don't quite understand you, North Wind. You tell me what then."
"Well, I will tell you. If you see me with my face all black, don't be frightened. If you see me flapping wings like a bat's, as big as the whole sky, don't be frightened. If you hear me raging ten times worse than Mrs Bill, the blacksmith's wife —you must believe that I am doing my work. Nay, Diamond, if I change into a serpent or a tiger, you must not let go your hold on me, for my hand will never change in yours if you keep a good hold. If you keep a hold, you will know who I am all the time, even when you look at me and can't see me the least like the North Wind. I may look something awful. Do you understand?"
"Quite well," said little Diamond.
"Come along, then," said North Wind, and disappeared behind the mountain of hay.
Diamond crept out of bed and followed her. (16-17)
From this point on, MacDonald explores the possibility of a trusting co-operation with this awesome but benevolent force. As in Andersen's story, ships are tossed, windows blown through, and fortunes changed appropriately. Between the bouts of illness which coincide with his excursions with the North Wind, Diamond puts to good use the lessons he learns from her —"To try to be brave is to be brave" and "All kindness is but justice" (70). With surprising energy, he rescues a little street-sweeper and her crippled friend, and valiantly supports his family when his father (now reduced to being a London cabbie) gets sick himself. In other words, like the North Wind, the delicate but game little boy very actively becomes an instrument of God. At the end, the North Wind comes to Diamond as a friend, gazing at him with her intense blue eyes; he is not alarmed as the chill of death finally creeps over him.
Writing on this most frightening of subjects, MacDonald has softened the hard edges of the religious tract with the piquancy of the fairy tale, and trodden the line between candour and reassurance skilfully. The 'older readers' whom he addresses in this novel may feel the 'softening' has gone too far, and find Diamond's virtue cloying. But At the Back of the North Wind is still being reprinted for children (in Puffin Classics): either this is a very rare example of "publishing inertia" (Hunt 77), or there really are some children who are "profound in metaphysics" (as the narrator believes in MacDonald's fantasy ), and who are still moved by an account of dying as an exhilarating process of learning, and of death as an initiation into ultimately unguessable joys.
Last modified 24 July 2007