The Pierpont Morgan Library
in New York (now glorified as a ‘Museum & Library’) holds among its treasures a small manuscript miscellany compiled, written, and illustrated by the ten-year-old John Ruskin in 1829. He gave it the title of The Puppet Show or amusing characters for children and it consists of a page-by-page series of drawings, mostly copied from book illustrations with texts invented by the youthful author. Some fifteen of these texts are accompanied by drawings which are very creditable copies of the etchings that George Cruikshank made for the first English translation of the Grimm brothers’ German Popular Stories (1823-6). Later in life Ruskin would refer to these tales as ‘my favourite old stories’ and would estimate the etchings as ‘unrivalled in masterfulness of touch since Rembrandt’.
should be sufficient to confirm his love of fantasy tales (as well as his gifts as a draughtsman) so that when, in 1840, a young lady of thirteen years besought him to talk to her about fairy tales he forthwith decided to invent an example for her. She was Euphemia Gray, the Effie Gray whom he would disastrously marry eight years later, and he fulfilled his promise in 1841 while on a recuperative stay at a physician’s house in Leamington Spa.
The King of the Golden River, or the Black Brothers,
which was the outcome, carries the sub-title: ‘a legend of Stiria’. That cod-origin refers to a mountainous part of eastern Austria which Ruskin seems never to have visited and the topography of the story owes more to his delight in the French and Swiss Alps. By naming the three brothers who are the leading participants in the ‘legend’ Hans, Schwartz, and Gluck Ruskin enhances the Teutonic flavour although the naming of characters is an infrequent practice in the tradition.
is the bi-partite structure of the story with calamity followed by redemption. The drama is initiated by a visit to the brothers’ farm by the South-West Wind Esquire. They farm in the fruitful Treasure Valley whose fertility comes from the Golden River, so-called because of the way its upper falls catch the light of the setting sun. Unfortunately though, Hans and Schwartz are selfish and brutal characters and thanks to their maltreatment of their unknown guest they bring disaster upon themselves and devastation to their land.
Moving to a city
on the other side of the mountains they seek to restore their fortunes by turning goldsmiths (drinking up the profits as they go). This leads to Gluck’s encounter with the King of the Golden River through whom the age-old motif of task fulfilment is introduced. As tradition demands, the wicked are defeated by their own selfishness and Gluck the virtuous (Glück = fortunate, or lucky) succeeds and restores the Treasure Valley to its former glory.
We do not know
what Effie thought of this story and it remained as a manuscript for ten years up to the all-too brief period before Effie fled to the arms of Ruskin’s friend Millais. It was published for Christmas in 1850 (dated 1851) by George Smith, who was also in the process of publishing the five massive volumes of Ruskin’s Modern Painters and getting going with his influential Cornhill magazine. He called upon the Punch caricaturist Richard Doyle to illustrate it, sloppily in some places but with particular success in his portrayals of the South-West Wind and the King himself. (A reprint was soon called for and these first two printings are notable for Doyle giving the South-West Wind a nose like a small post-horn. Whoever this may have offended, Doyle was prevailed upon to provide the gentleman with a regulation nose from 1859 onwards.)
In the canon
of imaginative children’s literature in Britain, The King of the Golden River has a notable status.For sure, Madame D’Aulnoy pioneered the making of original fairy tales (however over-written). The Grimms inspired similar ventures by such writers as Brentano and Hoffmann in Germany, who in turn played into Andersen’s imagination, but there had been no equivalent attempt in English. Ruskin thus had to find a voice to tell Effie his story and he does this in a prose that is immediately readable and also, importantly, read-aloud-able. True, there are over-lush scenic descriptions (‘…far beyond, and far above all these, fainter than the morning cloud, but purer and changeless, slept, in the blue sky, the utmost peaks of the eternal snow’) but the dramatic action holds attention, the characters are broad-brushed as tradition demands, and the verbal interchanges, especially with the crusty old gentleman who inundates the Treasure Valley and with tetchy King himself, are vastly entertaining.
Editions of The King of the Golden River are available from Book Jungle, Pook Press and CreateSpace.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times. His book The Ladybird Story: Children’s Books for Everyone, The British Library, 978-0712357289, £25.00 hbk, is out now.