The Golden Key by George MacDonald

(This was originally posted over at the Castalia house blog)

George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a Scottish poet, author and Christian minister. His fantasy novels made him a household name in his day, but he is now far less well known than the writers he inspired and influenced, despite their numerous and enthusiastic praise of his pioneering work. Those writers include Ursula K Leguin, Lewis Carrol, G.K. Chesterton, W.H. Auden, Mark Twain, Madeleine L’Engle and he was a childhood favourite of Tolkien, though as an adult Tolkien did not view MacDonald’s work so favourably. Perhaps his most enthusiastic and vocal fan, and the author through which I and many others have rediscovered MacDonald is C.S. Lewis, who not only publically declared MacDonald to be his master, and made him his guide through heaven in The Great Divorce, but also put together a collection of his sayings, entitled George MacDonald: An Anthology. So what is it about MacDonald and his work that made him so influential, and yet so forgotten now (apart from the usual generation gap)? I won’t be providing any detailed analysis, merely giving my own impressions as a fan of Lewis and Chesterton trying to slowly catch up with the classical education he missed out on as a boy.

I will start with his one of his most famous short fairy tales, “The Golden Key” first published in 1867, then next time I’ll look at the novel that is widely credited with launching the fantasy genre, Phantastes (1858) then return one more time for one of his later works, The Princess and The Goblin (1872) and its sequel The Princess and Curdie (1875). Don’t expect me to compare these works with other stories of his, these will be all I have sampled so far. Feel free to suggest other works to look at later when I have some more reading time available (an increasingly valuable resource nowadays), but this series will be limited to these three instalments.

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“The Golden Key” is quite unlike modern books (at least the ones I have read), one small quotation may help to sum up the kind of adventure it takes you on:

“But in Fairyland it is quite different. Things that look real in this country look very thin indeed in Fairyland, while some of the things that here cannot stand still for a moment, will not move there.”

This is what reading “The Golden Key” was like for me, and I expect many others; there is little in the way of narrative tension or character depth and it has a rambling, dreamlike plot (which is most likely why Tolkien grew to dislike his work as an adult). It is more a series of moments of wonder and purity that stay with you long after having put the book down, images and concepts that spark your imagination and gently transform you, such as fish that gracefully swim through the air and happily sacrifice themselves to grant their eaters the power to understand the creatures of the forest. After doing so the fish is rewarded by being transformed into an aeranth, a small angelic creature. Then there is wading knee-deep through layers of magnificent shadows that fall from somewhere high up in the sky; meeting ancient figures – the more ancient, the more youthful their appearance and behaviour seem to us; time flowing at very different rates; magnificent glimpses of a much wider world whose beauties cannot be fully put into words.

The story follows two children, who are given the nicknames Mossy and Tangle (we never discover their real names), who find their way into the forest of Fairyland for different reasons, Mossy chases the end of a rainbow in search of the titular golden key that his great-aunt told him about, eventually finding it, while Tangle runs from a home in which she is neglected, to escape the tricks of some mischievous fairies.

They are guided individually by the air fish to the house of a beautiful woman that calls herself Grandmother, who has lived for thousands of years, but doesn’t have time to grow old. Mossy asks her where the lock is that the golden key opens, she doesn’t know and so sends them to the Old Man of the Sea to find the answer. On the way they pass through the layers of shadows and become determined to find the land from where the shadows fall.

To describe the rest of the plot would be to spoil it, it is a relatively short work and available online for free in various places via project Gutenberg, among others. Though this story is definitely aimed at children, it has many beautiful concepts for adults to mull over and enjoy and a wonderfully uplifting ending – I am glad to have read it and expanded my horizons a little, and in my opinion it makes for a very good introduction to MacDonald’s work (at least the amount I have read, if you like this, you’ll most likely like his other work). Give it a read and refresh your mind.

Next week I’ll be looking at Phantastes, discussing the influences I could see on the authors I know and giving some of my own thoughts as to why he fell out of favour.

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