A review by Rich Horton
Looking for a book to cover this week, and not wanting to dip again into my trove of Ace Double reviews, and not quite finished with my latest Old Bestseller, I figured I'd cover a couple of lovely children's fantasies by the great George MacDonald.
George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a Scottish clergyman of the latter part of the 19th Century, rather Universalist in his views, a significant influence on C. S. Lewis (to the extent that Lewis made him a character in The Great Divorce), and the author of several excellent children's fantasies, and some fine work for adults as well. My favorite of his books has long been At the Back of the North Wind. Other fine children's work includes The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie (the first of which was made into a (so-so) animated movies a few years ago), and Lilith is a fine adult novel. Phantastes, which I have not read, also has a reputation as a good adult fantasy. As with Lewis, most of his work is at least partly Christian allegory, or at any rate heavily imbued with Christian themes, though MacDonald could be much stranger than Lewis.
In the late 1960s, Maurice Sendak illustrated a couple of shorter MacDonald children's stories (about 10,000 words apiece). These were The Light Princess and The Golden Key. Thus these aren't really forgotten: indeed MacDonald has settled into a fairly established place in the canon of 19th Century religious fantasists. The Light Princess is very light-hearted and funny, while The Golden Key is a mystical and lovely fairy tale.
The Golden Key is the story of two children, a boy and a girl, who live (not together) on the border of Fairyland. The boy has been told that at the end of the rainbow he can find a golden key -- it is not to be sold, and no one knows what door it may open, but it will surely lead somewhere wonderful. One day he sees a rainbow, and decides to follow it into Fairyland, where it seems the end of it might be -- and there he finds the golden key. Meantime, the girl, much mistreated, wanders into the forest of Fairyland, following a strange owl-like flying fish. Soon she meets a beautiful, ageless, woman, and she learns that she and the boy must journey together, looking for the keyhole into which the golden key will fit. Their journey is long (though the story is short), and quite wonderful. They meet some strange and wise old men, and encounter many beautiful and curious sights. At last, of course, they find the doorway with the keyhole.
The ending is unexpected and quite moving and beautiful. It is tempting to try to analyze this story -- is it an allegory of marriage? or the story of a joint journey to salvation? Perhaps, though, as W. H. Auden suggests in an essay published as an afterword to this edition, it is best to simply let yourself be absorbed by the story, to enjoy its lovely and haunting images.
The Light Princess is the tale of a princess who is cursed by a mean, jealous, witch so that she has no gravity. The book is full of puns, so MacDonald makes much both of her weightlessness, and the lack of gravity in her character. Naturally her parents are upset and try to have her cured, but to no avail (although the efforts of a couple of Chinese philosophers to provide a cure are rendered amusingly). However the Princess is quite happy with her "light" state (of course it is in her nature to be always happy). In the way of things, a Prince appears, and falls in love with the Princess. Then the witch realizes that her curse has failed to make the Princess unhappy, so she takes further steps, which are thwarted by the selfless behavior of the Prince, and which result in the Princess recovering her gravity: not an unmixed blessing, but one which her new maturity allows her to realize is best in the long run.
This is a delightful story, told with just the right mixture of whimsy and mildly serious moral comment. The characters are lightly and accurately drawn (the Princess` parents and the Chinese philosophers in particular, are delightful), and the story is predictable but still quite imaginative, with a number of nice touches to do with the Princess` weightlessness.