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.

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".