Thursday, February 22, 2018

Rainbows, Fairy Tales and The Golden Key

I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. --Genesis 9:13

The Golden Key
On Quora someone recently asked for suggestions of other stories like The Little Prince, that wonderful gem by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The book that immediately came to mind was George MacDonald's The Golden Key. In fact, in my previous readings I've found the book so heart-warming that I felt compelled to take it off the shelf and read it again.

It had been a number of years, but I never forget the scene in which Tangle encounters the Old Man of the Fire. I won't spoil it, but the feeling one gets while reading this scene is similar (for me, at least) to that sense of the transcendent that occurs when the trapezoidal and diamond pyramid-like structures appear during the hallucinatory light-show culmination in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Ezekiel's strange visions of fire and wheels within wheels and the four living creatures (Ezekiel 1).

On the other hand this story, The Golden Key, is not like either of these other than it has a powerful way of making you feel that you were in the presence of something otherworldly, and in this case something so sublime, so beautiful, almost magical... in some ways like Oz, except with no witches.

It is a beautiful story, and helped serve as a perfect antidote to some of the painful stories in the news right now, and a recent loss that many of us have shared.

George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a pioneer of fantasy writing as well as a friend and mentor to Lewis Carroll. His influence was extensive, including the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and W.H. Auden, who wrote the afterword for this volume that I have. While reading The Golden Key I could see some interesting parallels to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (The boy here finds a golden key as opposed to a ring, and goes on a quest.) Likewise, elements of Lewis' Narnia books are foreshadowed.

From a review by reader named named Charles:
This is a very famous book, not quite children’s fairy tale and not quite adult allegory—or rather, it’s both, and more. As fairy tale and as allegory, it has so light a touch as to be ethereal, combined with a feeling of enormous substance. There is, for child or adult, little obvious moral, yet the reader is left with a feeling of transcendence. Quite an accomplishment in what is really just a short story, and doubtless why the book is still famous today.

Auden, in his Afterword makes an interesting observation about the book, which struck home with me on a few levels. He stated that it is a mistake to attempt to interpret the elements of the story as symbolic in one way or another. Rather, there is something uplifting and rewarding in simply experiencing the world which MacDonald created, to enjoy its beauty, to feel it rather than interpret it.

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Fairy Tales by Oscar Wilde
While we're on the subject of fairy tales, it seemed worthwhile to note this collection by Oscar Wilde, who is better known for his witty plays and his one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. I stumbled upon my copy at the Midway Book Store in St. Paul, which 35 years ago was a great source of treasures... and may still be to this day. (Rare books and collectibles were upstairs.)

At one time I sketched out a treatment for a 32-page picture book based on his tale "The Nightingale and the Rose," which touched me at the time. His story "The Happy Prince" has been turned into an illustrated book now. In the back of the book are a number of shorter pieces which he calls Poems In Prose, but which nowadays we'd label Flash Fiction.

One of these, titled "The Disciple," is an exquisite gem. It begins, "When Narcissus died, the pool of his pleasure changed from a cup of sweet waters into a cup of salt tears, and the Oreads came weeping through the woodland that they might sing to the pool and give it comfort."

Somewhere Over the Rainbow
This past year I somehow discovered Eva Cassidy, perhaps through Pandora, and her stirring version of Sting's Fields of Gold.

More recently I've been listening to her album Simply Eva, and one of the songs here is a rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" that really goes straight to the heart. According to the RIAA this song was the number one song of the century, Judy Garland's signature song after bringing it to the world as Dorothy in the wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Somewhere over the rainbow way up high
there's a land that I heard of once in a lullaby.
Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue,
and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.

Someday I'll wish upon a star
and wake up where the clouds are far behind me,
where troubles melt like lemon drops
way above the chimney tops, that's where you'll find me.

Somewhere over the rainbow bluebirds fly.
Birds fly over the rainbow, why then, oh, why can't I?

If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow,
Why, oh, why can't I?

music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg

This is a live version of Eva performing the song, performed in 1996, the year she died of melanoma.


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Perhaps the Golden Key we're all looking for is beauty. We see it in rainbows, but it's also in the world around us as well, though too often shrouded by shadows and mist. If we could but have eyes to see afresh. George MacDonald's little story was probably conceived with this end in mind.

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