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.