Sunday, February 15, 2015

Book Review: At the Back of the North Wind (1871)

George MacDonald 1860s.jpg

George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a Scottish author, poet and preacher; a mentor of fellow writer Lewis Carroll, and some of his works of fantasy have become classics in the genre, and inspired other authors, like C.S. Lewis.

 

At the Back of the North Wind was first serialized in the children's magazine Good Words for the Young in 1868, and published in book form in 1871.

I have a Swedish translation printed in 1990; but realised recently that I hardly remembered the story at all, so decided to reread it in English.

At the centre of the story is a small boy named Diamond, son of a poor coachman – who also has a horse with the same name. The boy Diamond sleeps in the loft over the stable (right over the stall of Diamond the horse); and in the wall by his bed there is a knothole, through which the North Wind blows. In Diamond’s dreams (or is it more than just dreams?), the North Wind takes the shape of a beautiful woman with long hair – sometimes small like a fairy, sometimes huge and awe-inspiring like a mighty storm – sweeping Diamond away on nightly adventures, both in his own town and to a distant land, “at the back of the north wind”.

Diamond is at the same time a mystery and a joy to the people around him. Kind and helpful and trusting, and making friends whereever he goes - but also going his own ways, showing both practical initiative, and surprising people by fanciful ideas, rhymes and dreams.  He’s naive in some ways, and yet also wise and philosphical far beyond his age. Some think he’s not quite right in his head; but he never takes offense.

It is not a book easy to categorize. Take the basic setting (including poor little boy) from a novel by Charles Dickens; put it down a rabbit hole (as in Alice in Wonderland - 1865); add a good portion of classic fairy tale and fable; mix in some serious theodicy questions and answers; and serve with a sprinkle of nursery rhymes on top. It’s very much up to the reader’s taste to decide what to make of it!

I suspect that one reason I did not remember much about it (from 25 years ago) may well be that I found it somewhat “difficult”. The story also makes a lot of deviations along the way (like long nursery rhymes and whole fairy tales told within the story).

This time I also tried listening to some parts as audio, but when I got to the end I found I needed to go back and reread some parts (that I probably missed by drifting off into dreams of my own!). Some of the details deserve more attention than one might think at first. For example, there are plenty of parallells between the ‘reality’ vs. stories and dreams within the book.

It’s not a book I’d recommend as a must-read for everyone, but if (like me) you are interested in classic children’s literature and fantasy, you might find that you recognise themes and ideas also used by other authors within those genres.

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PS. I’ve blogged about MacDonald before, back in 2012 – a post entitled Once Upon A Time.

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Linking to Musing Mondays

9 comments:

  1. In some ways, this looks rather delightful. I did go to your link and I must say...the picture of him back then is quite frightening! He looks just like the pictures I have seen of Rasputin! Golly, one would never believe he wrote books like this! With wind chill today, it has been twenty below zero!! Churches were cancelled. But I guess you are used to this kind of weather. You may actually be warmer than us today, how quirky!

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    1. I think those long and "wild" kind of beards must have been the fashion in the 1800s, Ginny. :)

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  2. I think I would like this book. I read one of his novels years ago, the name escapes me, and it was wonderful since the main character was incredibly good and pure. A joy to meet him on the pages of the book.

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    1. Sounds like you might like Diamond too, Terra. :)

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  3. This sounds like a book I could lose myself in for hours. Thank you for a very good review - I like it how you describe it in the paragraph "It is not a book easy to categorize".

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    1. Thanks Meike. Knowing that you're used to reading classics and a variety of genres, I think you might like it.

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  4. It does look fascinating...I'd have to be in just the right mood, though. Thanks for sharing, and here's my MUSING MONDAY POST

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  5. Interesting post and book. Thanks for sharing.

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