The Child as Window in At the Back of the North Wind

In George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind, a child sleeping in his cozy bed at night hears the voice of the North Wind speaking to him in the appearance of a beautiful woman with dark eyes and black hair streaming in all directions. Entering through a window by Diamond’s bed, the whispering North Wind invites the boy to follow her in her travels at night. Reluctantly agreeing to leave the comfort of his warm bed to go into the cold night, Diamond finally says “Yes,” explaining, “Well, please, North Wind, you are so beautiful, I am quite ready to go with you.” Going outdoors and remembering the words of the North Wind that those who travel with their backs to the wind are never cold, Diamond finds himself transported and carried along by the force of the wind: “So she blew and she blew, and he went and went, until he found himself standing at a door in a wall….” Wondering whether he was dreaming or awake, Diamond suddenly finds himself standing on the lawn in a nightgown feeling dreadfully alone in the darkness of the night and giving the impression that he was walking in his sleep. The North Wind had suddenly disappeared. While Diamond traveled with the North Wind in the mystery of the night, he imagined that he had discovered another world, “as if he had got into Fairyland, of which he knew quite as much as anybody.” As a result of his travels in the air with the North Wind, the whole universe wears a more glorious appearance to Diamond:

A great fire of sunset burned on the top of the gate that led from the stables to the house; above the fire in the sky lay a large lake of green light, above that a golden cloud, and over that the blue of the wintry heavens. And Diamond thought that, next to his own home, he had never seen any place he would like to live in so much as that sky.

The magic of a story resembles the mystery of the North Wind. Like the force of the North Wind, the power of a good story transports the child and the adult into another world, uplifting him into a Fairyland or affording a glimpse into the heavenly world of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Just as Diamond’s travel with the North Wind renews and refreshes him when he wakes in the morning (“You shall sleep all the better tomorrow night,” North Wind reassures Diamond), a good story also revitalizes the human spirit and restores a love of life. When Diamond travels with the North Wind, the old familiar world looks fresh and radiant from the vantage point of the sky. A good story also offers a new perspective, a unique point of view, transforming the ordinary experiences of human life. Just as the North Wind blows through the window in Diamond’s bedroom, letting the heavenly realm of the sky and the stars enter through an opening, a good story provides a window into another world, letting the light of truth enter the mind as the brightness of the stars shines into Diamond’s bedroom window. Diamond’s window not only allows the wind and the light to enter from the outside to the inside but also gives Diamond the ability to look outward, upward, above, and beyond. Likewise, a good story brings a heavenly vision down to an ordinary world and leads the mind outward to contemplate the highest truths. Like Diamond’s dream—a glimpse into the mysterious world of the North Wind—a good story is an intimation of sublime truths and divine mysteries. Just as Diamond’s dream appears both unreal and real to him, a good story is both make-believe and lifelike, both “strange and familiar” as G.K. Chesterton would say.

Riding at the back of the North Wind as if he were mounted on a horse, Diamond travels to new places on each of his adventures. Once he finds himself placed in the streets of London where he befriends Nan, a destitute, neglected orphan—a strange accident that mystifies the waif: “But I can’t think how a kid like you comes to be out all alone this time o’the night.” When Diamond explains his timely appearance as an act of the North Wind’s kindness in helping Nan, the orphan’s reaction is one of disbelief at his nonsense: “She did not believe a word of it. She said she wasn’t such a flat as to believe all that bosh.” On another occasion Diamond is transported by the North Wind to a dark cathedral where he is left to wait for the North Wind’s return to take him home—an experience which teaches him courage, the knowledge that “to be left alone is not always to be forsaken.”

 

In another journey the North Wind takes Diamond to the country at the back of the North Wind where he sees icebergs, caves near the water, and floating islands of ice. When Diamond finally reaches his destination, he beholds an unfallen world, a Paradise where it is always the month of May, where the ground produces sweet fragrances, where the river channel was a pure meadow without rocks or stones, “a land of love and light” where sin had never been. As Diamond hears the music of the river, he sings the melody to himself and experiences a peacefulness and contentment that make the country at the back of the North Wind “something better than mere happiness.” In all of these travels Diamond experiences the mystery of the North Wind which comes when least expected, the kindness of the North Wind in bringing hope to the orphan child, the goodness of the North Wind in never abandoning Diamond or failing to return him home each night, and the love of the North Wind in taking Diamond to the “country” at the back of the North Wind where he glimpses the happiness of heaven. The North Wind comes to be as real to Diamond as his parents, and traveling at the back of the North Wind is as vivid to him as riding his own horse, Old Diamond. Although all these adventures occur during his sleep at night, they are not ephemeral dreams but memorable events that shape Diamond’s mind and heart, making him an angel or messenger of hope to the people in his ordinary life.

Just as a child like Diamond is a mediator between the world at the back of the North Wind and the prosaic, humdrum world of work and struggle, a story is also an intermediary between these two realms. One day Diamond and his mother notice the fluttering pages of a book on the sand, a collection of nursery rhymes. When Diamond begs his mother to read from the book, he hears delightful rhymes that remind him of the happy music of the river in the country at the back of the North Wind:

I know a river
whose waters run asleep
run run ever
singing in the shallows
dumb in the hollows
sleeping so deep
and all the swallows
that dip their feathers
in the hollows
or in the shallows
are the merriest swallows of all

When the mother complains about the “nonsense” of the poem because “it would go on forever,” Diamond interjects, “That’s just what it did,” meaning the river. When Diamond is curious about the author of the nursery rhyme and hears that some silly woman composed them for her children, he immediately concludes, “She must have been at the back of the North Wind sometime or other, anyhow.” The mysterious world at the back of the North Wind is glimpsed in the human world through the medium of nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and stories which all mirror a higher, purer world. While the orphan Nan refers to Diamond’s dreams as silliness and while Diamond’s mother describes nursery rhymes as nonsense, they deserve to be called windows, for they allow the light above to shine down in the world below, and they draw the mind up to a contemplation of transcendentals like truth, goodness, and beauty. Dreams, stories, and songs relay messages between two worlds. Thus they mediate between them in the same way that a child links heaven and earth as Diamond’s song to his sister Dulcimer clarifies:

Where did you come from, baby dear?
Out of the everywhere into the here.

Where did you get your eyes so blue?
Out of the sky as I came through.

What makes the light in them sparkle and spin?
Some of the starry spikes left in.

Diamond’s window by his bedside, his dreams of being at the back of the North Wind, the nursery rhymes he loves to hear, the songs he composes, and the baby he plays with are communicating messages between two worlds. The music of the nursery rhyme in a book originates in the river in heaven. The blessing of a child like Diamond is an angel from above. The blue eyes of the baby come from the sky.

In At the Back of the North Wind dreams reflect reality, and fairy tales are true to life. In Diamond’s dream the playful stars in the sky invite the boy to join them in their mirthful laughter: “Come up; come up. We’re so jolly! Diamond! Diamond!” As Diamond wonders how he will rise to the stars, the stars direct him to stairs which lead downward. When he descends to the bottom of the steps, little angels greet him with cries of “Now let us have fun” as they dig for stars as their recreation. Every time they dig up a star, they peep through the star-hole and observe marvelous sights through the opening before putting the star back in its place. In his dream Diamond discovers the twinkling of the stars and sees in them the merry faces and bright eyes of jocund angels laughing, dancing, and jumping as they revel in the happiness of their play. In this dream Diamond learns “what kind of nonsense the angels sing when they are merry.” The truth which this dream reveals is that nonsense, the love of play and the pure enjoyment of fun, are divine in origin. Laughter originates in heaven, and Diamond’s delight in singing rhymes to baby resembles the happiness of angels in eternity. In fact, as the story later explains, the old meaning of the word silly is “a kind of angel—a very little one.” The cheer that Diamond brings into his home, the mirth which makes the baby smile and laugh, and the happiness Diamond brings into everyone’s life he touches is derived from heaven, from the back of the North Wind. His dream is not “bosh” as Nan claims but a vision of the truth.

Children love stories for the pure enjoyment and fun they offer. Fairy tales serve no utilitarian purpose and offer no didactic instruction which proposes moral edification. They are as inherently delightful as the rhymes that Diamond sings to baby: “‘There, baby!’ said Diamond; ‘I’m so happy that I can sing only nonsense!'” This nonsense, however, does not mean untruth but a higher truth, a sense of overwhelming happiness at the gift of life which spontaneously erupts in the “nonsense” of jokes, fun, laughter, and play. Diamond asks his mother if the angels (“when they’re extra happy, you know”) ever sing nonsense and also asks her if nonsense is “a very good thing,” comparing it to “the pepper and salt that goes in the soup.” Without Diamond’s sense of humor and playfulness with his baby brother and sister, the home of his parents would be drab, bland, and flat. Without Diamond’s stories and dreams about the North Wind, Nan would never have a life of the imagination or transcend her dreary existence devoid of kindness, friendship, and hope. Diamond’s nonsense is the seasoning and spice that flavors the soup, the fun-loving spirit which infuses the world with a lightheartedness that lifts the gloom, gravity, and deadly seriousness of life which will not tolerate any “nonsense,” that is, has never been at the back of the North Wind or has any idea of the God of play or the singing of the angels. The God who created gurgling rivers, laughing babies, and singing angels is also the God who invented nonsense, the God of mystery whose wonders do not always make perfect rational sense.

Although dreams, adventures with the North Wind, nursery rhymes, and fairy tales are often labeled imaginary make-believe and silly nonsense throughout the novel (“Dreams ain’t true,” remarks Nan), their so-called nonsense represents the highest wisdom, the knowledge that man is created for heavenly happiness—a joy which the merriment of jolly babies laughing at silly rhymes intimates. Although these dreams and fairy tales appear to be utterly impractical and useless and completed divorced from reality, they play the same role as Diamond’s silly rhymes and songs to his baby brother and sister: “I make songs myself. They’re awfully silly, but they please baby, and that’s all they’re meant for.” Dreams and fairy tales have the same benefits and serve the same useful purpose as Diamond’s rhymes. They satisfy a real need, a sense of the transcendent and a glimpse of the eternal. They lift the heart and the spirit and bring them into contact with the divine, the supernatural, and the miraculous. The benefits of silliness are visible and tangible, not imaginary: a happy home in the midst of financial struggle; contented, happy babies rejoicing in the gift of life; cheer, friendship and hope in the life of a poor orphan. Dreams and fairy tales are as useful and necessary as windows which join the outside realm to the inside world, which bring heaven to earth and draw the human world to the divine world. For these reasons the North Wind, in her final conversation with Diamond, reassures him that she is not a dream and that he could not have loved a mere fancy of his imagination as he has come to love the North Wind:

You might have loved me in a dream, dreamily, and forgot me when you woke, I dare say, but not loved me like a real being as you love me. Even then, I don’t think you could dream anything that hadn’t something real like it somewhere.

Although Diamond’s dreams with the North Wind may seem ephemeral, although fairy tales may appear make-believe, and although children are silly, without them there are no windows, hence no light, stars, sun or moon beckoning from the country at the back of the North Wind—only dullness, darkness, gravity, and despair.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail of an illustration from At the Back of the North Wind painted by Jessie Willcox Smith in 1919.

Mitchell Kalpakgian

By

Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children's Literature.

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