Tuesday, July 15, 2014


JOHN RUSKIN IS BEST KNOWN as a highly influential 19th century art and architecture critic most famous for his three-volume treatise The Stones of Venice (1851-53). It seems natural then that his children's book, his only work of fiction, would appear on We Too Were Children. That's what WTWC is about after all, a towering writer not known for his children's work. However, The King of the Golden River was published in 1850, fifty years before WTWC's 20th century requirement, making it ineligible for inclusion. Which is why I'm happy to sneak Ruskin in the back door, as the fifth of the books I've covered in Macmillan's 1962 series of fairy tales with introductions by esteemed authors.

RUSKIN'S TALE IS INTRODUCED by Elizabeth Bowen. Bowen, who went on to win the John Tait Black Memorial Prize for her 1968 novel Eva Trout, or Changing Scenes, was already a literary grande dame when she contributed to the Macmillan series. Her bio reads:
Elizabeth Bowen has published five books of non-ficiton (including a memoir of her Dublin childhood), six collections of short stories and eight novels...In the Birthday Honours List of 1948, Elizabeth Bowen was created a Companion of the British Empire.
Bowen's inclusion in the Order of the British Empire, the first order of chivalry to admit women, is testament to the regard with which her work was held.

Her introduction to Ruskin situates The King of the Golden River in the fairy tale tradition. "You may notice that while no good fairy stories are ever at all the same, many of them have something in common." In Ruskin's case, the fairy tale trope is three brothers, of whom the elder two are reprehensible and the youngest is fair and good.

There's no princess, Bowen admits, but there are fairies of a sort, "an odd-looking, fussy, bossy pair of old men." They are the South-West Wind, Esquire, who destroy the brothers' farm after the elder two show him no courtesy, and The King of the Golden River, who rewards the youngest brother for his generosity.

After addressing the story, Bowen draws attention to the story's setting. "The King of the Golden River (unlike many fairy stories) is not set in a quite imaginary land. This marvelous region of beauties, perils and mysteries is a real one, to be found on the map--Styria, a province of Austria." Bowen explains, "[Ruskin] gloried in natural scenery...He loved to breathe pure air (far from his dim-lit study) and sought it through travel and mountaineering." These life experiences find their way into the story.

Bowen does not go into any of the historical facts surrounding the composition of the story, which was written by Ruskin at age twenty-two for the twelve-year-old Effie Gray. Ruskin later married Gray, but never consummated the marriage, which was annulled six years later. Those details, while fascinating, wouldn't have been appropriate in a children's book, on the off chance any child were to actually ever read the introduction.

Regardless of how he came to write it, Ruskin clearly had fun in the composition. The story is five chapters long, much longer than a typical fairy tale. It does have a bit of moralizing, but Bowen is quick to say, "Don't, however, form the idea that John Ruskin 'preached' when he gave us The King of the Golden River. On the contrary: you are about to discover an exciting, semi-magic adventure story, with some eeriness but also some sturdy comedy."

Ruskin's story is easy to come by having been printed and illustrated many times, but as far as I know, Bowen's introduction has not been in print since the Macmillan edition. I've included the entire thing below. Click on the images to read.

FOR PREVIOUS ENTRIES on the Macmillan series see:

Tales of the Brothers Grimm translated and introduced by Randall Jarrell
Tales of Ludwig Bechstein translated and introduced by Randall Jarrell
Tales of Oscar Wilde introduced by John Updike
Tales of the Arabian Nights retold and introduced by Jean Stafford

For more of Sandro Nardini's beautiful art from The King of the Golden River, see my Flickr set. If anyone knows anything about Nardini, please let me know. I've been unable to find anything about him.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

No comments:

Post a Comment