Fairy gloom

September 14, 2007

The Golden Key (1867)
George MacDonald (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1984)
85 p. First reading.

This small book is my first exposure to the writing of George MacDonald. Well, that’s not strictly true, for some years ago I did pick up his novel Lilith, but as I quickly put it down again — whether from absentmindedness or disinterest I don’t recall — this is the first of his books that I have read through. He comes highly recommended by people whom I respect, most notably C.S. Lewis. This edition of the story has a blurb on the back from J.R.R. Tolkien praising it as a tale “of power and beauty”, and W.H. Auden contributes an appreciative afterword.

I can’t help noticing that each of those endorsers — C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and W.H. Auden — are customarily called by a collection of initials followed by a surname. Perhaps the story is possessed of a magical property such that only persons so called can truly enjoy it? This, I admit, is pure speculation.

The story is an allegory. A young boy, Mossy, ventures one day into the woods in search of the rainbow’s end, where, he has been told, he will find a golden key. He succeeds in finding it, but having done so he must set out on a quest for the corresponding lock, not knowing what he will find behind it. This seems to me a good premise for a story. He is joined by a young girl, Tangle, though for much of their journey they are separated. I suppose I don’t want to give away too many plot details, on the off chance that somebody reads this and I ruin their day.

I’ve said that the tale is an allegory, but I’m somewhat at a loss to say what it is an allegory of. The quest for the lock may represent the journey of life; but what, then, is the key? The story is replete with phantasmagoric details that beg for interpretation but fail to suggest anything to me. What am I to do with a flying, feathered fish which, when boiled, delivers itself of a fairy sprite?

Some of the imagery is quite striking, and MacDonald does succeed, I think, in conjuring a sustained mood. This atmosphere is mysterious and aweful, but also, at the same time, I found it remote and murky. It was the opacity of the symbolism that left me feeling an outsider, enchanted but malnourished.

I suppose that in the end I didn’t care much for the story, but perhaps one day I’ll give it another try.

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5 Responses to “Fairy gloom”

  1. abellio Says:

    Try comparing it to Plato’s story of the cave in the Republic.

  2. cburrell Says:

    That’s an interesting suggestion. I did, in fact, think of Plato’s cave at the point in the story — perhaps it’s the point you’re thinking of as well — when Mossy and Tangle cross a wide, desolate expanse, seeing shadows of invisible beings cast on the ground around them. I thought it one of the best scenes. But, still, I don’t know what to make of it, nor do I see how it connects with other scenes.

  3. abellio Says:

    Let me read it again. It has been awhile.
    As I remember the whole thing was an evocation of transcendent reality present in the everyday world, and told of the search or quest to open up (hence the key) the interior place, to awaken the heart, the high point of the soul that gives access to divine presence in man. But as I say, it has been awhile and I may be adding my own thoughts.
    While I here, let me also say that I enjoy your blog, and think you are a good writer and have intelligent things to say. I particularly enjoyed your reveiw of Brideshead, thought it well written and insightful. I wish you much happiness in your recent engagment.

  4. cburrell Says:

    Those are very thoughtful remarks about the story. I suspect that you are on the right track. Certainly there is a sense of solemn momentousness in the telling, and whatever MacDonald is aiming at, he’s aiming high. Again, the difficulty for me was the distance between the broad gesture at existential import and the bizarre details of the story.

    I humbly thank you for your complimentary remarks about my page. I extend my sincere appreciation to anyone who takes the time to read.


  5. [...] Tolkien was asked to write an introduction to a new edition of George MacDonald’s fairy tale The Golden Key. By way of clarifying a proper understanding of Faery, he thought to work into the introduction a [...]


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