Academic journal article Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature

Mise En Abyme and the Ontological Uncertainty of Magical Events in at the Back of the North Wind

Academic journal article Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature

Mise En Abyme and the Ontological Uncertainty of Magical Events in at the Back of the North Wind

Article excerpt

George MacDonald's novel At the Back of the North Wind tells the story of a boy's magical journey with a mysterious figure, the North Wind, who reveals to the boy his spiritual life. This novel has been categorised as fantasy, in spite of the fact that it 'has a very real setting ... which is London sometime during the middle of the nineteenth century' (Reis 1972, p. 82). Simply defined, fantasy is a story in which magical events actually take place in the story world, while they are unlikely to happen in reality, in contrast to realistic stories in which 'everything ... must conform to our sensory experience of the real world' (Attebery 2004, pp. 295-296).

In this paper, I am going to argue that the magical events in the story are not 'real' as they seem. They cannot be considered to actually take place in the story world, because their existence has the nature of ontological uncertainty. By 'ontological uncertainty,' I mean that the magical events oscillate between factual happenings and the main character's fancies. I will argue that this phenomenon is inherent in the narrative structure of MacDonald's novel and particularly in its deployment of mise en abyme, namely the mirror in the text. Keen has given a brief definition of 'the mirror in the text': it is a kind of narrative structure, which 'invites interpretation of a small part of a narrative as a focused representation of the whole in which it appears' (Keen 2003, p. 112).

Dallenback emphasises that the mutual reflexivity between narrative form and its content is the typical property of mise en abyme, which reflects narrative 'by taking as its own theme the duplication ..., this mirror of a mirror was bound, thematically, to call up other mirrors, creating multiple, infinite reflexions' (Dallenback 1989, p. 59). I will show that in At the Back of the North Wind the relation between the novel's narrative form and content is maintained in this reflexive fashion. The narrative conveys the notion that the child protagonist Diamond's successive magical adventures with North Wind represent North Wind's relation to the child. The relation between North Wind and Diamond mirrors the child's relation to the narrator of the story, which is also conveyed by the narrative. The relations among North Wind, Diamond, and the narrator are embedded within each other through narrative. In effect, this strategy blurs the ontological boundaries between these components to such a degree that the notion of uncertainty is exposed.

In this novel, the story of magical events has three overlapped sources. The first is the main child character, whose magical journey is the focus of the primary story; the second is the narrator, who reveals the child to be the source of his retelling of adventures; the third one is the complex relation between the child character and the narrator, which overturns the primary and secondary positions they occupy respectively in story-telling. The child Diamond maintains a complex narrative relation with the narrative, which produces the magical events as something between factual happenings and fancy. Their relationship involves interpretations and perceptions of what might have happened in the story world according to the two parties, and further enforces the ontological uncertainty of the magical events. In other words, the magical events are in part an epistemological product. As the relationship between the child character and the narrator is crucial, I shall take a discussion of this relationship as the point of departure.

The story is not been told in the first person. It is presented as the narrator's second-hand retelling of the child Diamond's adventures. As the story is approaching its end, the narrator concedes to us that as a tutor of a rich family, he meets Diamond, who is the page of the family. The narrator tells us: I 'gained so much of [Diamond's] confidence that he told me all I have told you' (MacDonald 1994, p. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.