I was eight when I first read The Golden Key—more than four decades ago. It is a story that I have shared with many others over the years – handing them the book, reading it out loud, listening as it was read out-loud to children and to adults. I have studied it with teachers and with colleagues, discussed it with family and friends. And still, every time I return to it, there is something new, something I haven’t seen, something over which I still puzzle or which envelopes me in epiphany. It is profoundly familiar and yet never contained: a tale that has settled deep into the most storied part of me.
Re-reading The Golden Key after a graduate course on John Bunyan in the 1990s is what returned me with new literary and theological awe to MacDonald…and I have since watched it burrow into other hearts and minds in similar ways. MacDonald explains (in his novel Adela Cathcart) that what distinguishes the true storyteller is that in their art “more is meant than meets the ear [and] I should scorn to write anything that only spoke to the ear.” A true storyteller, MacDonald’s own work pleases at the surface and yet proffers so much more to those willing to delve. For over twenty years it has been my privilege to teach and write about MacDonald, and for the past while that has included ventures to Romania, where one of the best Inklings conferences occurs biennially, and where a growing interest in MacDonald has led to translations of the ‘Princess & Curdie books,’ as well as to an illustrated edition of The Golden Key. It was in 2014 that Rodica Albu, the woman who independently translated The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in the dark years of communist Romania, became fascinated by this fairyland adventure imagined into being by C.S. Lewis’ mythopoeic mentor – and decided to translate it too. It was my privilege to write the “Introduction for Children” and the “Afterward for the Childlike” (then translated into Romanian by Professor Albu). What follows here is the English version of that introduction and afterward – perhaps of interest to other travellers into MacDonald’s The Golden Key.
If curious about the Romanian edition, with illustrations by Nicoleta Bida-Șurubaru, it can be ordered here:
Teofil Stanciu’s translation of the Curdie books – also with new illustrations – can be ordered here:
At the age of 17 C.S. Lewis wrote to his best friend about ‘The Golden Key’:
“to me it was absolute heaven from the moment when Tangle ran into the wood to the glorious end in those mysterious caves.
What a lovely idea: ‘The country from which the shadows fall’! “
‘The Golden Key’ Foreword
Did you know that somewhere very close to where you live lies the border of Fairy Land? Every once in a while a bit of the magic seeps through: you can see it in the shimmering corners of some sunsets, or when the frost scatters splintered diamonds across your window, or just inside the flower that pushes through a crack in the hard, dry pavement. Right now, between the covers of this very book, is a story of a boy named Mossy & a girl named Tangle who both crossed that border into Fairy Land – one on purpose, and one by accident – and of their subsequent adventures. Imagine discovering a colour you’ve never seen before; or suddenly being able to understand the language of squirrels, even of insects; or meeting the Grandmother of all the forest and its creatures – whose dark green hair and night-sky eyes grow increasingly beautiful the more ancient she becomes.
I won’t tell you what else happens to Mossy and Tangle on these adventures because it’s always best to step into a story oneself. But as you follow inside, be sure to bring along your Imagination, so that you can see what they see, hear what they hear, and gather in their memories. Because that’s what might make it possible for you too to one day find the Golden Key, or catch the glimmer of a guiding aëranth …
Oh! But you don’t yet know what an aëranth is, do you?
Well go! see what comes of sitting in the twilight, listening to stories that are yours by right of birth – perhaps you too will find the country from whence the shadows come.
Illustration by Arthur Hughes,
With thanks to Dave Hiatt for providing this photograph from the 1868 second edition, out of his vintage collection!
A link to the full text of The Golden Key is provided near the end of this article.
Afterword for the Childlike
“I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” GMD (1824-1905)
Stories are given to us. Sometimes by people we know, like Mossy from his aunt, and sometimes by people we’ve never met, but who have put them into a book, like George MacDonald did with “The Golden Key.” If the stories are good stories, the age of the reader doesn’t make any difference at all. Too often we forget that once upon a time most of the stories about fairies and castles and dragons and knights were meant not for children, but for everyone – especially warriors and kings and community leaders – because once upon a time more people remembered that stories make us strong, and wise, and thoughtful. Stories stretch our imaginations, cause us to ask questions, and make us wonder more at the marvelous world in which we live. Part of the reason they can do these things is because stories – good stories – aren’t necessarily easy. They demand something of the reader; they expect an effort to be made…and once upon a time the authors, the tellers, didn’t expect stories to be entered into only once, but rather many times. Each time the reader or listener returned to a story, new discoveries would be realized, greater depths arrived at, richer insights formed. A story was a life-time gift, not a one-off disposable item. Also, stories were meant to be experienced in community – even if a story was read silently, it was still expected that you would go off and discuss it with your friends and family. Better yet, you would read it aloud together with them, and then ponder it together. If it was a truly good story, writes MacDonald, the more things you would discover it to mean.
And this is the sort of story George MacDonald chose to write. Some of his stories are easier to understand than others, but all of them have layers and depths of great profundity. In many ways, “The Golden Key” isn’t an easy tale. And it certainly isn’t typical: not many fairy tales are of pilgrimages that last the characters’ whole lives – and beyond! But it is a tale of beauty, and vision, and layers upon layers that can keep challenging and changing a reader for decades. Like it did C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, and Maurice Sendak – and so many others.
MacDonald was born in Scotland, and grew up on a farm near the small town of Huntly, Aberdeenshire. He loved to explore the pine forest nearby, ride horseback in the surrounding hills, and listen to the stories of his elders: family stories, community stories, fairy stories. He also loved reading stories – whether curled up in a corner at home, under a tree in that forest, or whilst lying on the back of his horse. He read everything from the Arabian Nights, to Shakespeare, to even the Bible. He was very fortunate to grow up in a family that loved stories as much as he did – and a family that loved talking about them too – so he never made the mistake of thinking that stories were meant only for children, or were merely for leisure. He learned from a very young age, and never forgot, that stories change lives, communities, even entire nations. And so he never stopped training himself in stories. He didn’t leave fairy tales or folk tales or bible tales behind the older and wiser he grew – instead, he kept adding to the library within his memory, reading more difficult and complicated books, books from different countries and cultures, by different types of minds and philosophies – and then he would return again to the old tales, loving how much more rich they suddenly were, simply because he himself had become wiser and more knowledgeable. In an essay on Shakespeare’s similarly storied upbringing, MacDonald describes that legacy as a “golden key” found at the foot of a rainbow. This key “will open the secret doors of truth, and admit the humble seeker into the presence of Wisdom, who, having cried in the streets in vain, sits at home and waits for him who will come to find her.”
MacDonald realized that a vocation of telling stories, and introducing people to stories, and helping people to fall in love with and better understand stories, was his life desire. And so he became a Story-Teacher – one of the very first professors of English Literature in England. He taught at schools and universities, but he also gave hundreds and hundreds of public lectures on different stories and their authors, so that even people who didn’t go to school could come and learn. He and his wife Louisa and their 11 children (and sometimes friends such as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland) also turned stories into theatre performances – everything from Fairy Tales to Shakespeare, Greek classics to Bunyan, Dickens to Zola. Their audiences included orphans and widows, artists and socialists, even princesses and priests.
Obviously MacDonald became a Story-Maker as well – in addition to lectures, essays, sermons, and some anthologies, he wrote more than forty novels and collections of short stories, of multiple genres. For him one of the most important elements of being a Story-Maker is one’s knowledge of other stories. No story is without inheritance, and MacDonald believed that the more intimate one was with the great stories of the past, the richer one’s own writing would be. His ideas on this – some of which appear in perhaps his most important essay “The Imagination: Its Function & Its Culture” – had profound influence upon such authors as Chesterton, Barfield, Lewis, Tolkien, Auden, Sendak (and so many more) and they continue to shape those who study the Imagination today. Awareness of MacDonald’s conviction proves an invitation, when one returns to his writing, to begin identifying some of the inspiring sources. Although only a short story, “The Golden Key” is truly polyphonic: Classical myths, Biblical tales, Celtic and European Märchen, Bunyan, Milton, Goethe, Novalis, Coleridge…all of these and more are present – intertwined, conversing with each other, synergistically bringing forth striking new images.
What does it all mean? Well, MacDonald writes that: “A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean.” He considers it his responsibility as an author to “not so much convey a meaning as to wake a meaning. […] The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is – not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself.” So don’t worry about breaking down all the elements in “The Golden Key” to figure out what every bit means: a true story will always be more than the sum of its parts. As MacDonald writes: “A fairytale is not an allegory. There may be allegory in it, but it is not an allegory.” Instead of deconstructing, enter the adventure with Tangle and Mossy, exercise your imagination as you try to see what they see, hear what they hear, and yes, gather their memories together with your own. Let what you discover wake things up within you. Definitely mull things over: do wonder if this image has resonances of one trueness, and that image of another trueness – if, say, the Grandmother is evocative of Mother Nature? if the elemental Old Men of water, earth, and fire guard portals to a life beyond this? if the ‘land from whence the shadows fall’ is in part an answer to Plato through the lens of the author of Hebrews? All this, and so much more…but be guided by MacDonald’s words: “If there be music in my reader I would gladly wake it. Let fairytale of mine go for a firefly that now flashes, now is dark, but may flash again. Caught in a hand which does not love its kind, it will turn to an insignificant, ugly thing, that can neither flash nor fly.”
Thus first and foremost, read this tale as a child – read it with a child: the language is more demanding than is typical for 21st century children, so they may need you. And then be as the wise teachers and warriors of old, and come back to it again, and again. Identify the life-giving differences between childishness and childlikeness so central to MacDonald’s Weltanschauung, and in doing so, rediscover the rainbowed treasures to be found in the wisdom of a storied life.
 “The Fantastic Imagination,” 1893.|
 “St. George’s Day,” 1864.
 “The Fantastic Imagination,” 1893.
Within a year of The Golden Key (1866) MacDonald published both his seminal essay – already referenced – “The Imagination: Its Functions and its Culture,” and his book Unspoken Sermons I, the first chapter of which holds particular resonances to this fairytale. The essay had profound significance in the development of 20th and 21st century thinking on the concept of the Imagination; John Ruskin and C.S. Lewis are but two luminaries who claimed the Sermons the best they’d ever read. Yet because MacDonald’s themes and passions remained relatively consistent throughout his career, every work you read will better illumine those you have read before, whether fiction, exposition, or poetry.
For other short fairy-tales by MacDonald, consider the collection called The Gifts of the Child-Christ, which is a contemporary compilation of short stories of multiple genres, containing some his best known pieces such as “The Light Princess,” “The Lost Princess,” and “The Day Boy & the Night Girl.”
For children’s fantasy novels, start with The Princess & the Goblin (named by G.K. Chesterton as the one book that most changed his way of viewing the world), and its sequel, The Princess and Curdie.
MacDonald’s adult fantasies, Phantastes and Lilith, are thought by some to be the beginning of modern fantasy for adults in the English language – but do keep his penultimate novel, Lilith, for late in your reading adventures.
Some of his best-loved ‘realistic’ adult novels are What’s Mine’s Mine, Robert Falconer, Sir Gibbie, and Annals of a Quiet Neighbourhood.
MacDonald’s meditative volume Diary of an Old Soul was named by Ruskin as one of the greatest poems of the previous century. C.S. Lewis and his brother Warnie read it as part of their daily devotions.
Every essay quoted or mentioned in “The Golden Key” Afterword is found in a fascinating book called A Dish of Orts.
All of MacDonald’s writings function on multiple levels – even the (seemingly) lightest of tales has layers of intentional literary and philosophical depths for those interested in delving. Every single one serves as both introduction and invitation to the writings of many other authors.
All of MacDonald’s published writing can be found in e-text on the internet, in English.
Illustration by Ruth Sanderson. Her magnificently bewitching edition of The Golden Key is available from Amazon.
Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson is a George MacDonald scholar (PhD, University of St Andrews, Scotland) who lives on a farm in the Ottawa Valley, Canada. As a child she read MacDonald’s stories alone – sometimes under her blankets, sometimes on the back of her horse; today she also reads them aloud, with friends of all different ages from all different walks of life. More at kirstinjeffreyjohnson.com