John Ruskin's The King of the Golden River exemplifies the literary fairy tale, a form which, like the literary ballad, imitates the anonymous products of popular or folk tradition. Ruskin's tale, which he wrote in 1841, two years before he began Modern Painters, tells of Hans and Shwartz, two selfish, evil brothers whose greed costs them their Edenic Treasure Valley and then their lives, and of the third brother, Gluck, whose generosity and self-sacrificere restore the valley's fertility. One coldwinter evening when Gluck is minding the house, a fairy visitor arrives and demands entrance:

It was the most extraordinary looking little gentleman he had ever seen in his life. He had a very large nose, slightly brass-coloured, and expanding towards its termination into a development not unlike the lower extremity of a key bugle; his cheeks were very round, and very red, and might have warranted a supposition that he had been blowing a refactory fire for the last eight-and-forty hours; his eyes twinkled merrily through long silky eyelashes, his moustaches curled twice round like a corkscrew on each side of his mouth, and his hair, of a curious mixed pepper-and-salt colour, descended tar over his shoulders. He was about four-feet-six in height, and wore a conical pointed cap of nearly the same altitude, decorated with a black feather some three feet long. His doublet was prolonged behind into something resembling a violent exaggeration of what is now termed a "swallow tail," but was much obscured by the swelling folds of an enormous black, glossy-looking cloak, which must have been very much too long in calm weather, as the wind, whistling around the old house, carried it clear out from the wearer's shoulders to about four times his own length. [span class="book">Works , I, 316]

When the cruel, avaricious brothers return home, they expectedly order their strange visitor, who turns out to be South West Wind Esquire, to leave. At the stroke of midnight, the brothers are awakened by a tremendous crashto discover that their room is flooded. "They could see in the midst of it an enormous foam globe, spinning round, and bobbing up and down like a cork, on which, as on a most luxurious cushion, reclined the little old gentleman, cap and all. There was plenty of room for it now, for the roof was off" (1.323).

The morning light reveals that their precious valley, whose riches they never shared, has been transformed into a desert of red sand, and so, not having learned their lesson, they decamp for the nearest city where they set themselves up as cheating goldsmiths. Failing to prosper, they soon melt down all their hoarded gold until they have only Gluck's mug which an uncle had given the little boy. "The mug was a very odd mug to look at. The handle was formed of two wreaths of flowing golden hair, so finely spun that it looked more like silk than metal, and these wreaths descended into, and mixed with, a beard and whiskers of the same exquisite workmanship, which surrounded and decorated a very fierce little face, of the reddest gold imaginable, right in the front of the mug, with a pair of eyes in it which seemed to command its whole circumference" (1.326-27). Placing the mug in the melting pot, the brothers leave for the alehouse and instruct their younger brother to watch over the pot. While gazing out of a window at the desiccated remains of his beloved Treasure Valley, Gluck is astonished to hear the melted gold singing, and when on its orders he decants it, out jumps a golden dwarf a foot and a half high — the King of the Golden River, who had been enchanted by an evil spell. The grateful King thereupon rewards Gluck by telling him how to make his fortune: "'Whoever shall climb to the top of that mountain from which you see the Golden River issue, and shall cast into the stream at its source three drops of holy water, for him, and for him only, the river shall turn to gold. But no one failing in his first, can succeed in a second attempt; and if any one shall cast unholy water into the river, it will overwhelm him, and he will become a black stone"' (1.331). Predictably, the two brothers, who try to cheat each other, turn themselves into black stones, whereas Gluck, who gives his last holy water to an old man, a child, and a dog (all of whom turn out to be the dwarf king in magic guise), is rewarded again by the King of the Golden River with three drops of dew. When sprinkled on the source of the river, they transform the desert valley once again into an earthly paradise.

Although Ruskin uses the fairy tale to enforce the moral that selfishness is evil and destructive, its chief point is one central to his entire career as a critic of art and society — namely, as he put it in Unto This Last (1860), that "THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration" (17.105). Nonetheless, his later statements about fantasy and imagination suggest that the understanding of these ideas is at most a secondary experience and not the primary one he intended. According to his lecture "Fairy Land" in The Art of England (1884), fantastic or fairy art is "the art which intends to address only childish imagination, and whose subject is primary to entertain with grace" (33.332). For him, such an aim is an extremely important one.

Ruskin has all too often been mistakenly thought to espouse a crude didacticism, in part because he advances so emphatically the notion that beginning artists should present visual truth. But, in fact, as he several times urges in Modern Painters and his other writings, the most valuable, most educational, most moral function of art is simply to be beautiful. He can take such an undidactic approach to the arts because his theories of beauty assume that beauty is a divinely intended pleasure the enjoyment of which is itself a moral and spiritual act. Similiarly, when he writes of fairy literature and art for children, he opposes its vulgarization by didactic intent because he believes that excercising the young imagination is itself a most valuable purpose. Appropriately, Ruskin begins his lecture on fairy art by announcing that he will take on Dickens' Gradgrind, the archetypal utilitarian educator who wanted children to learn facts and suppress their imaginations. Like Dickens, Ruskin works within a moral and philosophical tradition which held that feeling and imagination play- and should play- crucial roles in moral decision; so that to develop the imagination is to develop a mature human mind. Ruskin therefore tells his audience that "it is quite an inexorable law of this poor human nature of ours, that in the development of its healthy infancy, it is put by Heaven under the absolute necessity of using its imagination as well as its lungs and its legs;- that it is forced to develop its power of invention, as a bird its feathers of flight" (33.329).


Landow, George P. "And the World Became Strange: Realms of Literary Fantasy" The Georgia Review, 33, Number 1 (Spring 1979)" 12-14.

Ruskin, John. The King of the Golden River in Works . The Library Edition. Eds. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. 39 vols. London: George Allen, 1903-1912.

Created before 2000
Last modified 30 April 2024