Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Golden Key

The impression I held from my childhood reading of “The Golden Key”, by George MacDonald, was that of a gorgeous fairytale, a whimsical story of a boy and girl in search of the lock that would turn with their golden key.

When I read the story aloud to my children, however, I was amazed by the depth of its meaning. The story is so obviously about the Journey of Life, and the continuation of that Journey with Death; Growing Old Together, the Passage of Time, the Relativity of Age and Youth, and Love. Like all great fairytales, it unlocks the questions children unconsciously ask about Life. It gives them quiet answers, disguised by delightful characters, but doesn’t bludgeon them with it.

Mossy, so named because he would read in the moss until it seemed he would grow mossy, lives at the edge of Fairyland. His great-aunt tells him that he can find the golden key at the end of the rainbow. She does not know what the key is for. That would be his job to find out. One day he finds the key.

MacDonald leaves Mossy there and brings us to Tangle. He does not divide up his 78-page story into chapters. Sometimes his characters sleep – at which time I would take a break in my reading – then they get up and continue with their journey.

The fairies are disgusted with the household that is bringing up Tangle. It is a slovenly house, and fairies hate messes. The child is unkempt and disused. The maids fail to brush her hair and hence call her Tangle. The fairies decide to teach everyone a lesson by chasing Tangle out of the house.

Tangle winds up at her fairy godmother’s house. “Grandmother” summons her fish-bird to bring a boy who is sitting at the end of the rainbow. Mossy, who holds the golden key, will be a trustworthy companion for Tangle. Together they are sent to find the lock that will turn with the golden key.

The years pass by. They walk through the Valley of Shadows – I see now it is the Valley of the Shadow of Death – and are not fearful. They realize the key must unlock the Land from where the Shadows Fall, and make it their life’s journey to find that Land.

In the course of events they lose each other, and each separately run into the Old Man of the Sea, who appears as a middle-aged man. Then they meet the Old Man of the Earth, who is supposed to be even older, but appears as a young man. Finally they meet the Old Man of the Fire, who is supposed to be ancient, but appears as a baby. He shows them the way to the Land of the Shadows.

Now they are old and beautiful. They find the sapphire-encrusted lock and go up a stair that goes out of the earth, into the rainbow, and up to the Land of the Shadows.

What a delicious read. I highly recommend this book for all ages, zero through one hundred or so.

I recommend purchasing the single volume illustrated by Maurice Sendak (creator of "Little Bear").
You can read the entire text at:

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