The River's Song


I simply love the writings of George MacDonald. Very high on my list of favorites is "At the Back of the North Wind", which I just finished reading out loud to Jessica. As I already mentioned I read from a chair in the kitchen. Jessica performs her sacred alchemy of turning vegetables palatable and succulent. Numi scavenges for scraps and takes a nap (though I'm sure he's really listening). Nothing beats that.

The book (published in 1871)  is written in MacDonald's classic, verbose prose. Yet the wordiness sets a mood of propriety and exactitude without pompousness. It draws more meaning from simple actions and descriptions as though there were more meaning intrinsic to the normal things in life. Frequent and sometimes cheeky asides from the witty and honest narrator wrap you in the relaxed atmosphere of storytelling. The characters sweep you away with their humanity. They are diversely heroic, common, otherworldly, and raw with human foibles and suffering.

The hero of the story, a young boy named Diamond, is visited and befriended by the mysterious North Wind. Though North Wind is used to appearing in many guises, the one Diamond likes best is that of a pale, beautiful, tall woman, with black, undulating hair that ebbs and flows in the heavings and whisperings of the air like Mucha macaroni. North Wind is the true Mother, the rustling Holy Spirit, dutiful and bellicose and enigmatic, and loving, oh, so loving. She loves Diamond with the agape of God. She touches that part of me that weeps at C.S. Lewis' Aslan.
Upon his request she takes Diamond to the land at her back. The river there teaches him songs, if not to his ears then to his head, and throughout the rest of the story he is found singing. He sings such nonsense: fragments of angel songs, buffooned nursery rhymes, lullabies to the moon, diddles for the enjoyment of infants. He gains the nickname "God's Baby", on account of being "touched in the head". Yet he cannot come into contact with anyone without them becoming surprised, humbled, or insulted by his honest, childlike view of the world. He reminds me of Dostoyevsky's Prince Myshkin.

Diamond's world is full of wonder. Rustling leaves and beautiful dreams become hints and promises and spiritual food. The laughter of babies become the potent weapon against despair and shame. Hard work and and an open heart, toast and tea, wrestling with metaphysics and reality, social conventions and organized religion. However I do not find doctrine here. Rather I find hope. It is a beautiful picture of grace in the real world, of Jesus, god-man and brother by adoption. Here are characters that make me want to stand still and listen to what songs the river has for me, and then to sing those songs wherever the wind takes me.
Last Tuesday I gave one of my favorite quotes from "North Wind". Here's another in the form of a prelude and fugue, sung by Diamond to his baby sister, Dulcimer:

Where did you come from, baby dear?
Out of the everywhere into here.
Where did you get your eyes so blue?
Out of the sky as I came through.
What makes the light in them sparkle and spin?
Some of the starry spikes left in.
Where did you get that little tear?
I found it waiting when I got here.
What makes your forehead so smooth and high?
A soft hand stroked it as I went by.
What makes your cheek like a warm white rose?
I saw something better than anyone knows.
Whence that three-cornered smile of bliss?
Three angels gave me at once a kiss.
Where did you get those arms and hands?
Love made itself into hooks and bands.
Feet, whence did you come, you darling things?
From the same box as the cherubs' wings.
How did they all just come to be you?
God thought about me, and so I grew.
But how did you come to us, you dear?
God thought about you, and so I am here.

A. Hughes
"You never made that song, diamond," said his mother.
"No, Mother. I wish I had. No, I don't. That would be to take it from somebody else. But it's mine for all that."
"What makes it yours?"
"I love it so."
"Does loving a thing make it yours?"
"I think so, Mother- at least more than anything else can. If I didn't love baby (which couldn't be, you know), she wouldn't be mine a bit. But I do love baby, and baby is my very own Dulcimer."
"The baby's mine, Diamond."
"That makes her the more mine, Mother."
"How do you make that out?"
"Because you're mine, Mother."
"Is that because you love me?"
"Yes, just because. Love makes the only myness," said Diamond.
If you have a desire to get more of this wonderful story, read it online courtesy of the Baldwin Project here.

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