The North Wind & the Wise Imagination

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[Editor’s note: To begin Opening Week at North Wind Manor, we are delighted to share this piece from Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson on the origin and significance of the name “North Wind Manor,” the Rabbit Room’s hopes for the use and enjoyment of this space, and the legacy of George MacDonald’s extravagant hospitality.]

“I will try to tell you what I think. You musn’t suppose I am able to answer all your questions, though. There are a great many things I don’t understand more than you do.”

North Wind descended on a grassy hillock, in the midst of a wild furzy common. There was a rabbit-warren underneath, and some of the rabbits came out of their holes, in the moonlight, looking very sober and wise, just like patriarchs standing in their tent-doors, and looking about them before going to bed. When they saw North Wind, instead of turning round and vanishing again with a thump of their heels, they cantered slowly up to her and snuffled all about her with their long upper lips, which moved every way at once. That was their way of kissing her; and, as she talked to the Child, she would every now and then stroke down their furry backs, or lift and play with their long ears.

—George MacDonald, At the Back of the North Wind

In the same years that the old farmhouse now resurrected as North Wind Manor was being built on a grassy hillock in rural Tennessee, a Scottish author named George MacDonald was scribing this tender rabbity scene in his enigmatic, well-loved novel At the Back of the North Wind. Perhaps the Manor’s first occupants even knew the tale: it quickly found its way across the waters from Britain to America in the 1870s. Mark Twain’s children were among its earliest fans, having read their copy so ragged that he wrote to MacDonald for a replacement. As years rolled by, the tale continued to captivate young American readers, such as Madeleine L’Engle who later recalled the “strange mercy” that she found in the book’s language. And then somehow, accumulation of years and yellowing of pages notwithstanding, this story began to work Deeper Magic upon the hearts of a number of Rabbit Room dreamers—determined dreamers that have now, in faithfully embodied imagination, seen the farmhouse through to its next chapter of an ever-unfolding story.

In the quotation above from At the Back of the North Wind, as the moonlit rabbits gather around the novel’s titular character, North Wind attempts to answer a young child’s query: Who is she? Consistent with the book’s poetic invitation into a transcendent realm that suggests more than can be voiced in human words, North Wind offers no simple answer: “I don’t think I am just what you fancy me to be. I have to shape myself various ways to various people. But the heart of me is true.” The child has had many adventures with North Wind at this point in the tale, adventures that have shaped and impacted not just him, but through him every person that has come into his life. And yet he still grapples with the breadth of her mysteriousness—and it is only in holding together all the novel’s poems, and stories, and songs, and images, and dances, and relationships that even we as attentive readers can but catch at intimations. North Wind tells the wondering child that he must wait, and in the meantime, “be hopeful, and content not to be quite sure.”

At the Back of the North Wind is an unusual tale, for it is a tale about asking questions, and, even when not knowing the answers, choosing to choose delight, and joy, and love—choosing to choose story and song and relationship—all without denying the presence of suffering. It is a tale that invites its readers to keep asking questions (the child-protagonist never ceases doing so!), and then to keep choosing to choose that delight, joy, love, story, song, and relationship even when answers are elusive and daily existence is more-than-hard. As it often is. In this story, the child’s family struggles to put food on the table, his father loses his job, his family loses their home, and there is worry, fear, and persistently dangerous ill health. MacDonald himself knew intimately his character’s trials, as have generations of his readers. And so for those readers MacDonald crafted not a story of escapism, but rather a story of re-orienting, of re-envisioning, of continually renewed imagination—a story in which sorrow is a thread throughout, but not the whole. A story in which time-present and time-past are redolent with the resurrection goodness of time-future. A story in which childlike imagination re-envisions all of eternity.

Questions are allowed, even if unanswerable; sorrow is acknowledged and shared; grief and suffering are not denied. But neither are joy nor help nor childlike playfulness, nor hope in that which will yet be made known. And it is in the hospitality of such a space—especially when t