Sunday, July 27, 2003

King of the Golden River

27 July 2003 King of the Golden River

John Ruskin
The King of the Golden River or the Black Brothers
1842, Everyman edition published by J M Dent & Co, London 1907
electric book company
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The King of the Golden River is an unforgettable childhood classic that young and old may read to reread. The plot follows the structure of a fairytale with the pesentation of three brothers who live in Stiria in the Treasure Valley where Golden River flows.

In the introduction of the original edition by Oliver Lodge comments that the story is a parable on Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Like Andersen's Snow Queen, the tale is presented with vivid realism. We know the people and their problems; we recognize their faces during our daily perambulations and their voices are familiar from previous conversations. We've seen the beggar on the street, seen the famished dog and known the stingy person who gave us not a bite to eat when our stomachs rumbled with hunger and we watched the selfish stuff their faces while we fainted. We know the abuse and the spite spat at our dog that trailed at our heels as some wretched misanthrope kicked it aside to stride arrogantly around us. We know these things intimately. They are the details that make the story ever so real and unforgettable.

Besides the characters, voices and values are real, we slide easily into a world mixed of a bit of fantasy, magic, real geogrpahy and allusion to biblical myth and Germanic lore. The story is set in Stiria, which at first glance confuses the eye, but the descriptions of mountain and vale are so convincing that we know the place to be real. Transpose the "i" for "y" and Styria magically appears, now more known for a notorious politician than rich dairy-land and vineyards, but Salzburg ought to be familiar along with the infamous Rax mountains where winds and storms descend so suddenly that even seasoned professional climbers risk their lives. By using real geography, well known for spas and mountain resorts, Ruskin introduces the Germanic romanticism with a hint of Schubert or Brahms,

"when the sun had set to everything else, and all above was darkness, his beams still shone full upon this waterfall, so that it looked like a shower of gold."

Ruskin is careful to mark the difference between appearance and reality. This is no re-invention of the Midas myth. There is no Firebird and no Golden Feather or hen to lay a golden egg. He is not interested in magic, but in something far deeper which is found in the allusion of the brothers being turned into stone pillars and the figures of the child, dog and old beggar. Here is no magic, but a search for human compassion.

He deepens the content of the story through allusion to the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah found in Genesis 19: 8-26. Lot is promised safety if he flees the evil of his environment, but his wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. A convenient term is teshuvah or repentance—making a u-turn in life from the evil we have commited. It's difficult for anyone to do whether a drug or alcohol addict suddenly abandoning an addiction to start life anew. Human nature doesn't release the past so easily. Embittered, we hang onto our anger long after the quarrel has ended. Given a slight excuse, we take it up grudges and addictions again. Lot's wife turned. Drawn back to her past, she became self-destructive. Thus the brothers are driven to self-destruction through their inability to heed warnings. The story progresses naturally without magic. Through the use of allusions and allegory, Ruskin utilizes the allusions to intensify the inner meaning of the story and to make us stop and reconsider the things we have done and left undone. he needs not point an accusing finger, for we are accutely aware as children of the secrets hidden within. The message is optimistic regarding the value of human compassion and the respect for life— a dog's, a child's and a beggar's.

It's easy to see how the apparitions appeared in Dicken's Christmas Carol, which was published three years later in 1843, but it is also transparent how the works of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm influenced English Literature with a Germanic flavor.

Illustrations by Rackham

John Ruskin King of the Golden River

John Ruskin King of the Golden River

John Ruskin books online
a teaching collection for John Ruskin


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