Over the last three months, I read five George MacDonald novels, all fantasies, all good. Phantastes (1858) and Lilith (1895) are fantasies for adults - and note the range of dates, what a career. At the Back of the North Wind (1871), The Princess and the Goblin (1872), and The Princess and Curdie (1883) were written for children. I've also tried a couple of shorter fairy tales, "The Light Princess" (1864) and "The Golden Key" (1867). So that's what I'm working with.
My favorite, easily, was At the Back of the North Wind, which is why I suggested it to my mother. It's such a richly weird book, full of peculiar dissociations and jagged edges that are beyond rational understanding but somehow make sense within the novel. MacDonald was a real visionary writer, although a gentle one. I'm comparing MacDonald to Arthur Rimbaud, who pursued a "disordering of the senses" by means of absinthe and sex and impulsive behavior. MacDonald has his own way of disordering the senses, using more ordinary means.
Nursery rhymes, for example. Diamond, the boy at the center of the novel, travels to the back of the north wind (meaning, he nearly dies), as first mentioned by "an old Greek writer" (although "I do not think Herodotus had got the right account of the place"). When he returns, he appears to have received the gift of visionary poetry. My mother included a bit of a reworked "Little Boy Blue" from the extraordinary Chapter 20, "Diamond Learns to Read," which is retold so that Little Boy Blue leads a group of forest animals in a battle against a snake. Every MacDonald novel I tried has a variation on that idea.
Here's a bit of Diamond's vers libre:
for old Diamond's a duck
they say he can swim
but the duck of diamonds
is baby that's him
and of all the swallows
the merriest fellows
that bake their cake
with the water they shake...
baby's the funniest
baby's the bonniest
and he never wails
and he's always sweet
and Diamond's his nurse
and Diamond's his nurse
and Diamond's his nurse (Ch. 16)
I've skipped some of it - it's about a page long. He's singing to a baby, the only person likely to understand his poem:
When Diamond's rhymes grew scarce, he always began dancing with the baby. Some people wondered that such a child could rhyme as he did, but his rhymes were not very good, for he was only trying to remember what he had heard the river sing at the back of the north wind. (Ch. 16)
A good passage to test the book. The reader who does not feel a bit of the chill of the north wind at the end of that sentence might be better off somewhere else.