Monday, April 5, 2010

Guest Post: The apples they dapple; the cherriest cherries - George MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind

This is so exciting. As part of the Scottish Literature Reading Challenge, Wuthering Expectations is delighted to feature it's first ever guest post.  Please welcome The Mother of the Amateur Reader.


I am not a literary scholar, just a retired elementary school librarian who reads books for the enjoyment I receive from them, not looking for hidden meanings and symbols.

My book for Amateur Reader’s Scottish challenge is At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald.  This was MacDonald’s first novel for children.  It appeared in monthly installments in Good Words for the Young, a children’s magazine published in London, beginning in November 1868, and was published as a book in 1871.

This fantasy takes place in Victorian Britain and is about little Diamond who was named after his father’s favorite horse.  Little Diamond sleeps in a bed in the hay loft above old Diamond’s stall.  One night little Diamond is visited by the North Wind.  He travels with her and they become friends.  Eventually little Diamond gets to the back of the north wind, returns home, and life as he knew it is changed.

As I was reading the story, I wondered why the north wind?  The north wind is very harsh.  MacDonald shows us two sides of the north wind.  One side is very destructive and the other side is very gentle.  In an afterword, Peter Glassman writes that At the Back of the North Wind is based on MacDonald’s religious beliefs.  The North Wind represents the will of God and faith in Him.  Even though the North Wind causes many to drown when she sinks ships, it will eventually result in good.  The story shows many examples of the moral and social values of the period.  Just like North Wind, the inequalities between the well-to-do and the very poor show two very distinct sides.

It is interesting to note that even as MacDonald was influenced by the writers who came before him, he also influenced writers who came after him such as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.  I have also learned that Madeline L’Engle, one of my favorite authors for young readers, gives him credit for influencing her writings.

Now I leave you with a sampling of the many nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and songs found throughout the story.  This is from “Little Boy Blue” which takes up almost six pages of the book. It’s not the “Little Boy Blue” that I learned.

Little Boy Blue lost his way in a wood.
Sing apples and cherries, roses and honey;
He said, “I would not go back if I could,
It’s all so jolly and funny.”

He came where the apples grew red and sweet;
“Tree, drop me an apple down at my feet.”

He came where the cherries hung plump and red:
“Come to my mouth, sweet kisses,” he said.

And the boughs bow down, and the apples they dapple
The grass, too many for him to grapple.

And the cherriest cherries, with never a miss,
Fall to his mouth, each a full-frown kiss.


Me again:  Thanks, mom!  All week, the fantasies of George MacDonald.


  1. Welcome Mother of AR! Nice analysis.
    When writing a paper about C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L'Engle's Christianity portrayed through fantasy, both regularly mentioned MacDonald's style as something they admired and Pilgrim's Progress as allegory to be avoided. I never could figure out exactly what makes one clearly symbolic piece of writing allegorical and another not.
    Any help?

  2. die geneigte LeserinApril 5, 2010 at 9:09 PM

    If your story has a weary traveler who meets a kind lady in the woods who takes him in and gives him food and drink, shares some kindly words of wisdom, and sends him on his way, that's symbolism. If the weary traveler meets Dame Fortune who gives him the Bread of Fortitude and the Milk of Hope and sends him on to the Path of Perseverance, it's allegory and as annoying as all get out.
    Allegories tend to make everything concrete they reduce a great deal (this one thing = that one idea).

  3. That's my understanding, too. In the best of MacDonald the allegorical meaning - heck, the Christian meaning - is never quite pinned down. As with Lewis or L'Engle, a marvellous sense of mystery is retained.

  4. I don't like allegory either, always thinking of what J.R.R. Tolkien says about it in his preface to The Lord of the Rings. How many other literary styles have fallen that far out of favor, I wonder.

  5. Part of the thrill of George MacDonald is that a lot of the meaning cannot be made completely obvious. The mystery is a necessary part of the final effect.

    But other styles at a low ebb - oh, there are so many. Courtly verse, heroic epics, didactic epics, verse drama, ballads, long poems about farming. I know, everything I have mentioned is poetry.