February 21, 2017

The Golden Key

        The Golden Key is a long short story by George MacDonald, first published in 1867.  I first encountered it at age 9 in a collection of four fairy tales by MacDonald, all strange and wonderful, allegorical and mysterious, mythical and beautiful.  The Golden Key tells the story of a boy called Mossy and a girl called Tangle, and how they spend a lifetime and longer searching for the land above the rainbow.  It clearly means something, but what it means is not easily pinned down.  You can’t map out the allegory and say “This stands for that, and this for that…” yet it is certainly a story about more than ordinary travels.  It is about light, holiness, suffering, and joy.  C.S. Lewis said of MacDonald’s writing that “the meaning, the suggestion, the radiance, is incarnate in the whole story.”
         As a nine-year-old I wasn’t analyzing the deeper meanings.  I was simply basking in the magic.  I enjoyed the kind, thoughtful characters travelling through wonderfully beautiful and mysterious settings, having adventures that certainly weren’t thrill-packed action sequences, but which really caught at my imagination.  The word that best describes MacDonald’s fairy tales is “numinous.”  The dictionary gives three definitions for numinous: spiritual or supernatural; surpassing understanding, mysterious; and arousing elevated feelings of virtue.  I didn’t know the word numinous at age nine, but even then I definitely felt that MacDonald’s stories exemplify all of these definitions.
        A new edition of The Golden Key has just been published, featuring copious illustrations by Ruth Sanderson.  As a story involving a magical rainbow, The Golden Key includes beautifully color-rich descriptions, and yet it’s also a story very much about light and shadow.  So maybe it’s appropriate that Sanderson’s illustrations are done on scratchboard, a medium that, like relief printmaking, is all about carving the light out of the dark.  This weekend at Boskone 54 I met Sanderson briefly, as her display in the art gallery was adjacent mine, and her display was primarily an exhibition of her illustrations for The Golden Key.  What a treat to be able to look up close at the originals of her detailed, meticulous, magical pictures!

[Pictures: The End of the Rainbow, scratchboard by Ruth Sanderson from The Golden Key by George MacDonald, 2016; 
Tangle descending from the Old Man of the Sea, scratchboard by Sanderson;
Aëranth and owlfish, scratchboard by Sanderson (All images from Golden Wood Studio.com.)]

1 comment:

  1. P.S. Sanderson's work will be on exhibit in the Needham Public Library for the month of March, so if you're in the neighborhood of Boston and want to see her work in person for yourself, come on by! Sanderson will be speaking at the library on March 11 at 2:00.

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