Monday, March 10, 2008

George MacDonald

The Golden Key
by George MacDonald
Recommended Age: 10+

A boy named Mossy hears tell of a golden key that can be found at the end of the rainbow. One evening at sunset, he crosses into fairyland and finds that key—only to become involved in a much longer quest, to find the lock that it opens. A girl named Tangle runs away from her sad home and is adopted by a fairy grandmother, who is served by feathered fish that swim through the air. Years pass in moments, characters age backwards and forwards, and a young couple—now together, now separate—seeks out the meaning of the mysteries that gather around them—time, love, life, death...

But beware of putting too fine an interpretation on it!

The Sunburst edition of this slender book by the author of The Princess and the Goblin comes with atmospheric illustrations by Maurice Sendak and an afterword by W. H. Auden, which cautions: “To hunt for symbols in a fairy tale is absolutely fatal. In The Golden Key, for example, any attempt to ‘interpret’ the Grandmother or the air-fish or the Old Man of the Sea is futile: they mean what they are. The way, the only way to read a fairy tale is the same as that prescribed for Tangle at one stage of her journey”—and then Auden quotes the part of the story where the Old Man of the Earth opens a trapdoor which goes down into darkness, and says, “You must throw yourself in. There is no other way.”

I hope you will spare an hour or so to throw yourself into this original fairy story. It reminded me vaguely of Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince (which I’m still not sure I like) and again, it reminded me of Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major (which I deeply, deeply love). Obviously I still have a lot of thinking to do over this fascinating, moving story! For what MacDonald lacks as a writer, in terms of turning just the right phrase or putting together just the right paragraph, he more than makes up in creating images that will haunt your imagination far beyond the brief time it takes to read them.

The Princess and the Goblin
by George MacDonald
Recommended Age: 10+

George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a Scottish Congregationalist minister whose tolerant views caused him so much trouble that he switched to a career in writing. Even so, it wasn’t until late in his career that he began writing stories for children, which are mainly what he is remembered for today. To MacDonald’s eleven fairy-tale-loving children, we owe not only the pleasure of reading their father’s books, but perhaps even Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories, which were read to the MacDonald children before they were published, with encouraging results.

But enough about the author. You’ve come here to find out about the book, I hope. It’s well worth finding out about, and it grieves me that I did not find it much sooner. The Princess and the Goblin is an adorable story full of classic fairy-tale gestures as well as original enchantments. The Princess Irene, on the one hand, is a paragon of princessly virtue; but she is also a spirited heroine who has strange adventures that lead her into dark and dangerous places in order to help herself and others. On the other hand, there is the miner’s son Curdie Peterson, who is a fine enough lad to be sure, but one who isn’t always perfectly nice to the princess. Together, and aided by a mysterious “grandmother” whom not everyone can see, and a magic ring attached to an invisible thread, and other wonderful things, the two children thwart a plot by the goblins that live under the mountain.

The story is enchanting enough by itself; but equally enchanting is the sense of a tale being told out loud. At one point, MacDonald pauses in his narrative to have a facetious discussion with his illustrator about how to draw a picture of the princess. Later, he refers to the king’s minstrel “chanting a ballad which he made as he went on playing his instrument,” and for a moment it seems as if the author had made himself a part of the story. And in between flights of fantasy — some of them breathtakingly mysterious, others almost teasing in their silliness — MacDonald slips in passages in which characters converse like real people, and weaves through everything a gentle lesson about the difficulty of believing and the unbearable feeling of being disbelieved.

Let me share this little scene with you:
‘Please, king-papa,’ she said, ‘will you tell me where I got this pretty ring? I can’t remember.’

The king looked at it. A strange beautiful smile spread like sunshine over his face, and an answering smile, but at the same time a questioning one, spread like moonlight over Irene’s.

‘It was your queen-mamma’s once,’ he said.

‘And why isn’t it hers now?’ asked Irene.

‘She does not want it now,’ said the king, looking grave.

‘Why doesn’t she want it now?’

‘Because she’s gone where all those rings are made.’

‘And when shall I see her?’ asked the princess.

‘Not for some time yet,’ answered the king, and the tears came into his eyes.
This book has a sequel called The Princess and Curdie, and still other delights from the pen of George MacDonald are in store for anyone who seeks them.

The Princess and Curdie
by George MacDonald
Recommended Age: 10+

The sequel to The Princess and the Goblin begins with a taste of the sort of disappointment that, in real-life stories, often follows the “happily ever after” ending. Curdie, the miner’s son, no longer has the Princess Irene to protect or the goblins and their bizarre creatures to fight against. He doesn’t whistle or sing any more, he no longer spends much time looking at beautiful animals and plants, he is not such a good son to his parents, and he has stopped believing in the magic that he had a brush with in his previous adventure.

He is, to say the least, a big disappointment... until Princess Irene’s “great great grandmother,” the magical lady that lives in the dove tower of the king’s house in the mountains, confronts Curdie with his shortcomings. After a few tests of his faithfulness, that mysterious young-old lady gives Curdie a special gift and sends him on a mission.

Curdie, at first, does not know what his mission is about—only that he is to go to the capital city, present himself to the king, and find out how he is needed. On his way, Curdie is befriended by a bizarre and ugly creature (formerly a pet of the goblins). He is menaced by dangerous birds, wicked townspeople, and the corrupt and treasonous servants and courtiers in the king’s palace. When he finally reaches Irene and her father, he finds out that the king is being drugged and that his courtiers are plotting to overthrow him.

With very few people to count on, Curdie must rely mostly on his wits, his courage, his boundless energy, some ugly friends, and his mattock (which is like a pickaxe combined with a hammer). Of course, the brave and thoughtful young princess is also a great help. But before the danger is over, a very small group of people will have to fight against a huge army...

MacDonald had a background as a minister, so it should come as no surprise that his fairy tales are influenced by religious ideas. There is, indeed, a touch of moralizing in this tale — or at least, the virtuous hero and heroine are strongly contrasted with the villainous people of the capital city—yet at the same time, it is a very quirky and unorthodox kind of moralizing, which even casts a moralistic preacher as a villain!

There are also passages that strongly tempt one to adopt an allegorical interpretation — for example, this character stands for God, and that scene represents the conversion experience, etc. Yet if it is an allegory, it isn’t a very straightforward one & eventually you are forced to conclude that the characters stand for nothing but themselves.

It is, after all, a very inventive fairy tale. Through haunting and captivating images and scenes, it explores the concepts of loyalty, courage, honesty, discretion, and accepting people who are different from you. It views people as either getting better or growing worse, and it warns against judging them based on how they are right now. It is populated by marvelous creatures and also very recognizable human characters — many of them despicable. It recognizes the good that a rare, grace-filled person can do... and the tendency in the average, not-very-good person to turn all that good into badness again. Very few fairy tales have endings like this book, which goes beyond the “happily ever after” to what, alas, could be realistically expected to happen AFTER “ever after.”

Every fantasy writer builds his or her world on some philosophical foundation or other. I think MacDonald demonstrates that a fantasy can be built on a Christian worldview without being “about” Christianity in any way. Nothing else. So I recommend reading this book—and pinching yourself every time you find your mind asking, “What religious doctrine does this represent?” Remember: it’s a fairy tale!

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