Back of the North Wind

Discussions of theology, philosophy, religion and life inspired by the writings of George MacDonald (and perhaps others such as CS Lewis) posted by "recovering fundamentalists".

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I am a "recovering fundamentalist". The trick is to figure out how not to throw out the Baby with the bathwater. I learn through dialogue, and so invite commentary on my posts to Back of the North Wind.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

More on Obedience

From this evening's reading with my son in The Princess and Curdie: MacDonald's "Wise Woman" figure in this book is giving Curdie (a miner's son) his mission. Curdie is responding to her:

'But where am I to go, ma'am, and what am I to do? You have given me no message to carry, neither have you said what I am wanted for. I go without a notion whether I am to walk this way or that, or what I am to do when I get I don't know where.'

'Curdie!' said the princess, and there was a tone of reminder in his own name as she spoke it, 'did I not tell you to tell your father and mother that you were to set out for the court? And you know that lies to the north. You must learn to use far less direct directions than that. You must not be like a dull servant that needs to be told again and again before he will understand. You have orders enough to start with, and you will find, as you go on, and as you need to know, what you have to do. But I warn you that perhaps it will not look the least like what you may have been fancying I should require of you. I have one idea of you and your work, and you have another. I do not blame you for that - you cannot help it yet; but you must be ready to let my idea, which sets you working, set your idea right. Be true and honest and fearless, and all shall go well with you and your work, and all with whom your work lies, and so with your parents - and me too, Curdie,' she added after a little pause.

It seems to me that the Wise Woman (the Princess / Great-great-grandmother) figure---who if not actually divine, is a divine servant---is telling Curdie to do the part that he knows what to do: start heading towards Court. He doesn't know what he's going to do once he gets there, but he now knows enough to do what he has to do today and tomorrow. And she tells him that as he obeys her, he will understand better what he has to do.

Her final admonition to Curdie stands on its own and could be an admonition to any person at any time anywhere: and admonition and a blessing in one.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Why an Afterlife?

I plan to write a bit about George MacDonald's perspective on what might come after this life. But first, I thought I'd ask the gentle reader:

Why do you want an afterlife?

What are you hoping for, what would you want to accomplish in an afterlife? If enough of you comment, I'll provide my own comments as well.

Monday, September 27, 2004

North Wind: My Favorite Book (part I)

At the Back of the North Wind has several pieces that captivate me. I'll try to write about these in parts, so the reader (and writer) isn't overloaded all at once. Some of the pieces include: a story of redemption, my favorite poem, an illustration and understanding of this feeling of longing, the figure of the "Wise Woman", and pictures of faith and goodness.

Let me start with an example of faith, goodness and redemption. Little Diamond is a gentle boy of perhaps eight years or thereabouts, named for his father's horse. His father is a cabbie, and they live in a rough section of London in the 1800's. One night (like many others) Diamond hears the neighbor cabbie come home drunk, making a row with his wife and their baby. Diamond gets up, enters the apartment where the baby is crying, the wife is sobbing and the cabbie sitting in a drunken stupor. "It was very miserable altogether." MacDonald goes on:

Now the way most people do when they see anything very miserable is to turn away from the sight, and try to forget it. But Diamond began as usual to try to destroy the misery. The little boy was just as much one of God's messengers as if he had been an angel with a flaming sword, going out to fight the devil. The devil he had to fight just then was Misery. And the way he fought him was the very best. Like a wise soldier, he attacked him first in his weakest point -- that was the, baby; for Misery can never get such a hold of a baby as of a grown person. Diamond was knowing in babies, and he knew he could do something to make the baby, happy; for although he had only known one baby as yet, and although not one baby is the same as another, yet they are so very much alike in some things, and he knew that one baby so thoroughly, that he had good reason to believe he could do something for any other. I have known people who would have begun to fight the devil in a very different and a very stupid way. They would have begun by scolding the idiotic cabman; and next they would make his wife angry by saying it must be her fault as well as his, and by leaving ill-bred though well-meant shabby little books for them to read, which they were sure to hate the sight of; while all the time they would not have put out a finger to touch the wailing baby. But Diamond had him out of the cradle in a moment, set him up on his knee, and told him to look at the light. Now all the light there was came only from a lamp in the yard, and it was a very dingy and yellow light, for the glass of the lamp was dirty, and the gas was bad; but the light that came from it was, notwithstanding, as certainly light as if it had come from the sun itself, and the baby knew that, and smiled to it; and although it was indeed a wretched room which that lamp lighted -- so dreary, and dirty, and empty, and hopeless! -- there in the middle of it sat Diamond on a stool, smiling to the baby, and the baby on his knees smiling to the lamp. The father of him sat staring at nothing, neither asleep nor awake, not quite lost in stupidity either, for through it all he was dimly angry with himself, he did not know why. It was that he had struck his wife. He had forgotten it, but was miserable about it, notwithstanding. And this misery was the voice of the great Love that had made him and his wife and the baby and Diamond, speaking in his heart, and telling him to be good. For that great Love speaks in the most wretched and dirty hearts; only the tone of its voice depends on the echoes of the place in which it sounds. On Mount Sinai, it was thunder; in the cabman's heart it was misery; in the soul of St. John it was perfect blessedness.

Later, Diamond and his father have a conversation about friends, prompted by his father's comment that " these hard times a man wants as many friends as he's ever likely to get." This leads to Diamond counting all the friends they have. To his father's surprise, he includes the drunken cabbie:

"There's mother, first. and then baby, and then me. Next there's old Diamond -- and the cab -- no, I won't count the cab, for it never looks at you, and when Diamond's out of the shafts, it's nobody. Then there's the man that drinks next door, and his wife, and his baby."
"They're no friends of mine," said his father.
"Well, they're friends of mine," said Diamond.
His father laughed.
"Much good they'll do you!" he said.
"How do you know they won't?" returned Diamond.
"Well, go on," said his father.
"Then there's Jack and Mr. Stonecrop, and, deary me! not to have mentioned Mr. Coleman and Mrs. Coleman, and Miss Coleman, and Mrs. Crump. And then there's the clergyman that spoke to me in the garden that day the tree was blown down."
"What's his name!"
"I don't know his name."
"Where does he live?"
"I don't know."
"How can you count him, then?"
"He did talk to me, and very kindlike too."
His father laughed again.
"Why, child, you're just counting everybody you know. That
don't make 'em friends."
"Don't it? I thought it did. Well, but they shall be my
friends. I shall make 'em."
"How will you do that?"
"They can't help themselves then, if they would. If I choose
to be their friend, you know, they can't prevent me.

and Diamond continues, after his father laughs about how useful Diamond's friends could possibly be:

"But I don't quite understand, father: is nobody your friend but the one that does something for you?"
"No, I won't say that, my boy. You would have to leave out baby then."
"Oh no, I shouldn't. Baby can laugh in your face, and crow in your ears, and make you feel so happy. Call you that nothing, father?"
The father's heart was fairly touched now. He made no answer to this last appeal, and Diamond ended off with saying:
"And there's the best of mine to come yet -- and that's you, daddy -- except it be mother, you know. You're my friend, daddy, ain't you? And I'm your friend, ain't I?"
"And God for us all," said his father, and then they were both silent for that was very solemn.

Of course, Diamond's prediction that his friends next door (the cabbie who drinks, and the cabbie's wife and baby) may do him some good proves true later. Diamond's father is taken ill, so little Diamond takes big Diamond (the horse) and tries to earn fares. It's rough work and as he tries to feed his horse, Diamond finds himself accosted by toughs who mean him harm...

...and Diamond found himself in a very uncomfortable position. Another cab drew up at the stand, and the driver got off and approached the assemblage.
"What's up here?" he asked, and Diamond knew the voice. It was that of the drunken cabman.
"Do you see this young oyster? He pretends to drive a cab," said his enemy.
"Yes, I do see him. And I sees you too. You'd better leave him alone. He ain't no oyster. He's a angel come down on his own business. You be off, or I'll be nearer you than quite agreeable."
The drunken cabman was a tall, stout man, who did not look one to take liberties with.
"Oh! if he's a friend of yours," said the other, drawing back.
Diamond got out the nose-bag again. Old Diamond should have his feed out now.
"Yes, he is a friend o' mine. One o' the best I ever had. It's a pity he ain't a friend o' yourn. You'd be the better for it, but it ain't no fault of hisn."

But the finale to this whole little thread is a brief sentence describing the drunken cabbie which MacDonald throws in almost as an afterthought, but which to me is laden with significance:

Indeed, he was never quite so bad after that, though it was some time before he began really to reform.

George MacDonald was charged by the deacons of his church with heresy for, as CS Lewis describes it, expressing "belief in a future state of probation for heathens". Some have labelled George MacDonald a Universalist, but this is much too simple, and also, inaccurate. I intend to write more about this in future posts. But meanwhile, this little sentence of MacDonald's, given the content of some of his other writing, implies to me that the "some time before he began really to reform" may not have been all within the span of the cabbie's life on earth. Diamond has started the cabbie down a new road, which will lead someday (God knows when) to something everyone will recognize as a "new creation".

Friday, September 24, 2004


My son and I just finished George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin and are now reading The Princess and Curdie. From tonight's chapter:

"Do better, grow better, and be better."

Thursday, September 23, 2004


The theme that I read in George MacDonald perhaps more often than any other theme is obedience. MacDonald writes that the only way to truly understand the Universe is to obey -- to follow its rules, God's rules -- to follow your conscience.

I always find myself immediately objecting, "But, obey whom? In what? How am I supposed to know what's right?" And as a recovering fundamentalist, I no longer have recourse to that easy answer: "Just do what the Bible says". I gave that up when I read Psalm 137:

"Blessed is he who dashes all their little ones against the rocks."

MacDonald will not let me off the hook for a moment. His immediate answer:

"Do what you already know you should do. Once you have done that, you will learn what else you have to do."

And of course, he's right -- there's plenty of obvious things to work on, without having to judge more abstract and tricky morality issues. It reminds me of that saying attributed to Mark Twain:

It's not the parts of the Bible that I don't understand that trouble me, it's the parts that I do understand.

Mark Twain meant it another way, but spoke more truly than he knew. (See MacDonald's comments on Wordsworth!) I do understand enough to trouble me until I obey.

Here is an example from George MacDonald's Donal Grant:

"He is a well-meaning man," she said to herself, "but dreadfully mistaken: the Bible says believe, not do!"

The poor girl, though she read her bible regularly, was so blinded by the dust and ashes of her teaching, that she knew very little of what was actually in it. The most significant things slipped from her as if they were merest words without shadow of meaning or intent: they did not support the doctrines she had been taught, and therefore said nothing to her. The story of Christ and the appeals of those who had handled the Word of Life had another end in view than making people understand how God arranged matters to save them. God would have us live: if we live we cannot but know; all the knowledge in the universe could not make us live. Obedience is the road to all things--the only way in which to grow able to trust him. Love and faith and obedience are sides of the same prism.

[Emphasis mine.]

Monday, September 20, 2004

A Liberal (cont'd)

Continuing in George MacDonald's The Seaboard Parish, ch 24: the main character,
Parson Walton, is discussing with his friend, a medical doctor, one of
Wordsworth's poems: the "Ninth Evening Voluntary". The dialogue starts with Doctor Turner:

"...But you don't agree with Wordsworth, do you, about our having had an existence previous to this?" He gave a little laugh as he asked the question.

"Not in the least. But an opinion held by such men as Plato, Origen, and Wordsworth, is not to be laughed at, Mr. Turner. It cannot be in its nature absurd. I might have mentioned Shelley as holding it, too, had his opinion been worth anything."

"Then you don't think much of Shelley?"

"I think his feeling most valuable; his opinion nearly worthless."

"Well, perhaps I had no business to laugh at it; but"---

"Do not suppose for a moment that I even lean to it. I dislike it. It would make me unhappy to think there was the least of sound argument for it. But I respect the men who have held it, and know there must be something good in it, else they could not have held it."

MacDonald goes on to analyze what might be good in Wordsworth's poem, even if he disagrees with Wordsworth's intent. MacDonald concludes:

"...To interpret in this manner what Wordsworth says, will enable us to enter into perfect sympathy with all that grandest of his poems. I do not say this is what he meant; but I think it includes what he meant by being greater and wider than what he meant. Nor am I guilty of presumption in saying so, for surely the idea that we are born of God is a greater idea than that we have lived with him a life before this life."

This illustrates exactly that "liberality" that George MacDonald was referring to in my earlier post: MacDonald is seeing the "good and true" in someone who differs from him.

Little Diamond and North Wind

Little Diamond and North Wind
Originally uploaded by donalgrant.
An illustration by Jessie Wilcox Smith for George MacDonald's _At the Back of the North Wind_. Little Diamond asks if North Wind is ill.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

The Kind of Liberal I'd Like to Be

George MacDonald describes, in The Seaboard Parish, ch 23, a somewhat different kind of liberal than is common either in current theological or political circles:

"...Yes. But that was not what I meant by liberal. It is far easier to give money than to be generous in judgement. I meant by liberal, able to see the good and true in people that differ from you--glad to be roused to the reception of truth in God's name from whatever quarter it may come, and not readily finding offense where a remark may have chanced to be too sweeping or unguarded."

CS Lewis once wrote that Christians have the advantage over atheists, in that atheists have to believe that the majority of the world is mostly or all wrong in their belief about God, while the Christian can (and should!) accept that the majority of the world has something to offer, some light to shine, on our understanding of God.

The Christianity in which I was raised would admit that the rest of the world knows something about God, but I think it would be very difficult for them to admit that there may be ways in which the rest of the world understands God better than Christians do. But that's the liberality that MacDonald embraces here, and also to which CS Lewis subscribed.


I intuitively believe that once someone has to raise his voice while making an argument, there's a good chance that the one making the argument has left reason behind. I tend to listen less when someone else is yelling. Here is what George MacDonald has his main character say to a member of a Methodist congregation, in The Seaboard Parish, ch 23:

"...I venture just to suggest that the nature of the preaching to which the body you belong to has resorted, has had something to do, by way of a reaction, in driving the church to the other extreme."

"How do you mean that sir?"

"You try to work on other people's feelings without reference to their judgement. Any one who can preach what you call rousing sermons, is considered a grand preacher amongst you, and there is a great danger of his being led thereby to talk more nonsense than sense. And then when the excitement goes off, there is no seed left in the soil to grow in peace, and they are always craving after more excitement."

"Well there is the preacher to rouse them up again."

"And the consequence is, that they continue like children--the good ones I mean--and have hardly a chance of making a calm, deliberate choice of that which is good; while those who have only been excited and nothing more, are hardened and seared by the recurrence of such feeling as is neither aroused by truth nor followed by action."

(MacDonald goes on to laud the work of the Methodists and the Wesleyans, even though he is here criticizing some of their preaching style.)

I guess this isn't just about "yelling", but about any kind of emotional manipulation in the context of a sermon. But then again, my outlook is really distorted by years of "just one more chorus of 'Just As I Am'". It's a caricature, but I lived through it.

MacDonald's Novels

I'm reading through _The Seaboard Parish_, the sequel to _Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood_. I'd read the "modernized" version of these about 18 years ago. "Modernized" seems to mean "taking all of the commentary" out of the novel, and leaving only the narrative. The originals are much more worthwhile reading.

I believe what makes George MacDonald great is not just what CS Lewis wrote, in his introduction to his anthology of George MacDonald, George Macdonald: An Anthology : 365 Readings, that George MacDonald was a great inventer of myth. George MacDonald gives sermons about the only way I can tolerate them: in context. What's important about his novels is not the story. George MacDonald's stories are just a vehicle for delivering his sermons in context.

I think what I'll try to do here is pick out some of these little sermons and write about them. And invite the reader to write about them as well.

George MacDonald publisher

Here's a link to a family that has been providing a service to the
world by publishing George MacDonald books in nice type and good
bindings. They also provide (for free) some of his work as online

Johannesen Family Publisher

They're really nice folks, too!

Favorite George MacDonald Poem

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
for the nests they bake
with the clay they cake
with the water they shake
from their wings that rake
the water out of the shallows
or the hollows
will hold together
in any weather
and so the swallows
are the merriest fellows
and have the merriest children
and are built so narrow
like the head of an arrow
to cut the air
and go just where
the nicest water is flowing
and the nicest dust is blowing
for each so narrow
like head of an arrow
is only a barrow
to carry the mud he makes
from the nicest water flowing
and the nicest dust that is blowing
to build his nest
for her he loves best
with the nicest cakes
which the sunshine bakes
all for their merry children
all so callow
with beaks that follow
gaping and hollow
wider and wider
after their father
or after their mother
the food-provider
who brings them a spider
or a worm the poor hider
down in the earth
so there's no dearth
for their beaks as yellow
as the buttercups growing
beside the flowing
of the singing river
always and ever
growing and blowing
for fast as the sheep
awake or asleep
crop them and crop them
they cannot stop them
but up they creep
and on they go blowing
and so with the daisies
the little white praises
they grow and they blow
and they spread out their crown
and they praise the sun
and when he goes down
their praising is done
and they fold up their crown
and they sleep every one
till over the plain
he's shining amain
and they're at it again
praising and praising
such low songs raising
that no one hears them
but the sun who rears them
and the sheep that bite them
are the quietest sheep
awake or asleep
with the merriest bleat
and the little lambs
they forget to eat
for the frolic in their feet
and the lambs and their dams
are the whitest sheep
with the woolliest wool
and the longest wool
and the trailingest tails
and they shine like snow
in the grasses that grow
by the singing river
that sings for ever
and the sheep and the lambs
are merry for ever
because the river
sings and they drink it
and the lambs and their dams
are quiet
and white
because of their diet
for what they bite
is buttercups yellow
and daisies white
and grass as green
as the river can make it
with wind as mellow
to kiss it and shake it
as never was seen
but here in the hollows
beside the river
where all the swallows
are merriest of fellows
for the nests they make
with the clay they cake
in the sunshine bake
till they are like bone
as dry in the wind
as a marble stone
so firm they bind
the grass in the clay
that dries in the wind
the sweetest wind
that blows by the river
flowing for ever
but never you find
whence comes the wind
that blows on the hollows
where dip the swallows
alive it blows
the life as it goes
awake or asleep
into the river
that sings as it flows
and the life it blows
into the sheep
awake or asleep
with the wooliest wool
and the trailingest tails
and it never fails
gentle and cool
to wave the wool
and to toss the grass
as the lambs and the sheep
over it pass
and tug and bite
with their teeth so white
and then with the sweep
of their trailing tails
smooth it again
and it grows amain
and amain it grows
and the wind as it blows
tosses the swallows
over the hollows
and down on the shallows
till every feather
doth shake and quiver
and all their feathers
go all together
blowing the life
and the joy so rife
into the swallows
and have the yellowest children
for the wind that blows
is the life of the river
flowing for ever
that washes the grasses
still as it passes
and feeds the daisies
the little white praises
and buttercups bonny
so golden and sunny
with butter and honey
that whiten the sheep
awake or asleep
that nibble and bite
and grow whiter than white
and merry and quiet
on the sweet diet
fed by the river
and tossed for ever
by the wind that tosses
the swallow that crosses
over the shallows
dipping his wings
to gather the water
and bake the cake
that the wind shall make
as hard as a bone
as dry as a stone

it's all in the wind
that blows from behind
and all in the river
that flows for ever
and all in the grasses
and the white daisies
and the merry sheep
awake or asleep
and the happy swallows
skimming the shallows
and it's all in the wind
that blows from behind

George MacDonald, At the Back of the Northwind, published 1871.

First Post

i'm brand new to this concept of blogging. i have no idea where this will go, but i'm a big George MacDonald fan, whom i came to know via CS Lewis. Thus the title of the site (and also my own internet name).