"In My End Is My Beginning": The Fin-Negans Motif in George MacDonald's at the Back of the North Wind

By Persyn, Catherine | Mythlore, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

"In My End Is My Beginning": The Fin-Negans Motif in George MacDonald's at the Back of the North Wind


Persyn, Catherine, Mythlore


As waters haste unto their sea,
And earth unto its earth,
So let my heart return to thee,
From whom it had its birth.
The Vicar's Daughter

I died a mineral and became a plant.
I died a plant and rose an animal.
I died an animal and I was man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
Yet once more I shall die as man, to soar
With the blessed angels; but even from angelhood
I must pass on. All except God perishes.
When I have sacrificed my angel soul,
I shall become that which no mind ever conceived.
O, let me not exist! for Non-Existence proclaims,
'To Him we shall return.'
Jalal-uddin Rumi

The friendliness of death is something of a leitmotif in MacDonald's work: "friendly, lovely death [is] the midwife of heaven" (Paul Faber 180) or "only more life" (Golden Key 32), and in our end is our beginning since "we shall be carried up to God himself" (Annals 410). Understandably, the comfort book At the Back of the North Wind is informed with the same confident faith: as North Wind tells Diamond, "it will be all right in the end. [We] will get home somehow" (43). However willing one may be to take MacDonald's word for it, it is even more thrilling to realize that this fin-negans motif is also secretly present beneath the surface, and actually built into the very structure of the book.

The first step towards an understanding of that structure is the discovery of North Wind's lunar identity. (1) With it, a number of references become visible, most importantly Apuleius's Transformations, where the lunar goddess Isis plays a major role, and the Greek death myths evoking the post-mortem journey of the soul in which the Moon also plays a crucial part. (2) At the Back of the North Wind is all at once a modern Metamorphoseon Liber relating the initiation of a Lucius-Diamond under the aegis of an Isis-North Wind, and a modern death myth. There is no contradiction there since the initiation process simply anticipates the final destiny of the soul. The near-homonymy of the Greek verbs [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (to die/to be initiated) was perceived by the Ancients as evidence of the identity of the two experiences (Plutarch, De facie 943b).

For MacDonald as for the Ancients the final destiny of the soul is "to close the everlasting life-circle" (Sermons 3:21), to join the central fire of which it is a spark. The symbol for this central fire being the Sun, the Moon as intermediary between the Earth and the Sun is the necessary stage on the soul's journey, whether it is 'falling into generation' (our birth), or 'returning to the homeland' (our death). (3)

This journey Home or Transformation being also the goal of the Great Work (4)--to whose three stages (Nigredo, Albedo, and Rubedo) the anonymous first horse, old Diamond, and Ruby, are a transparent allusion--the book also proves to be an alchemical cryptogram. This is hardly surprising when the paramount importance of the Moon in alchemy is remembered, and when all of the above (alchemical quest, Greek myths, transformation stories) are understood for what they probably are: various languages expressing a unique spiritual reality, various retellings of a unique and eternal story. As such, they are in no way incompatible with MacDonald's Christian belief, and they provide the author in him with picturesque metaphors, or translations, as it were, of his own beloved text. For some readers, this characteristic "blend of pagan and Christian mysteries" (Willard 68) is part of MacDonald's appeal.

In MacDonald's outlook--the outlook of "an outspoken rebel" against Calvinist theory (Robb 16)--all souls without exception are destined to that glorious solar future. All the protagonists are accordingly traveling toward that On-fire, that Em-pyrean of Dante's Divine Comedy--yet another version of the same text. While some are swift, others are loitering and sluggard. The Nanny who prefers Jim to Diamond and stumbles on the way is representative of (an as yet) unregenerate humanity--like the Papageno and Papagena of Mozart's initiatic Magic Flute. …

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