I was an unsuccessful, nonachieving child at school, unappreciated and unloved by teachers and peers alike. My real world was my solitary life, in my little back bedroom that looked out onto a courtyard and the windows of other apartments. There, I ate with my feet on the desk and a book on my chest and was completely happy. It was there that I met George MacDonald, the nineteenth-century Scottish novelist (Lilith, Phantastes, Sir Gibbie) and children's book writer (The Princess and the Goblin, At the Back of the North Wind).

MacDonald's name sometimes brings up an image of easy comfort, of a world where everything is going to be beautiful as long as we are loving, of a kindly God who never chastises the beloved children. But that image is a false one. Although this prolific writer indeed had a loving heart, his fiction shows that he also had a realistic view of the complexity of human nature.

MacDonald's own health was precarious. Late in life, his lungs hemorrhaged—and not for the first time—and everything seemed dark. And then he began to write his fantasies.

Above all, it was these fantasies that opened up for me a wider world. The curtain is often pulled aside when things are most difficult or painful, for it is during these times, I have learned, that Christ is closest to us. "The Son of God suffered unto death," MacDonald wrote, "not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like his."

The wise woman is always prominent in his work. North Wind (in At the Back of the North Wind) has to sink a ship, and she explains to young Diamond, "I will tell you how I am able to bear it, Diamond: I am always hearing, through every noise, through all the noise I am making myself, even, the noise of a far-off song. ...

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