Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Golden Key by George MacDonald

In a funny reversal of how it usually works, I found out about the author George MacDonald through a movie adaptation of his book, The Princess and the Goblin, instead of the sort of standby of “Read the book, watch the movie, complain maybe a little bit about how stuff gets left out of movie adaptations all the time, although maybe, when I think about it, Lord of the Rings did a pretty good job.” What I mean to say is that this was one of those funny happenings where watching a movie led to reading a book. And The Princess and the Goblin, this animated children’s movie that had these small goblins who had six toes on each foot, led me to George MacDonald.

Actually, watching Game of Thrones on HBO has caused me to read George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Sword of Storms, but that is another small post altogether, so sometimes I guess television adaptations lead to reading books as well, or maybe just HBO series because now that I think about it True Blood swayed me into reading the first five Sookie Stackhouse books.

The Golden Key by George MacDonald is actually nothing like True Blood or Game of Thrones. I don't even think it was turned into a movie. Published in 1867, the novella is now in the public domain and you can find the text all over the internet. The Farrar, Straus, and Giroux edition of the novel was published in 1967, and boasts an impressive collaboration of text by MacDonald, illustrations by Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, and an afterword by W.H. Auden. The novella, or story really, is about Mossy and Tangle, a boy and a girl who become engrossed by the search for a golden key. The key is the subject of many stories that Mossy is told by his aunt as a child, a mysterious object and no one quite knows what it opens. Mossy lives “on the borders of Fairyland” and his search for the key leads him straight into the path of magic, supernatural people and beings, and strange otherworlds that Mossy and Tangle travel between.

I find this story difficult to go back to and explain other than to say that it takes the form of a fable/hero's quest. But it’s layered with example and allegory and metaphor, and is a story that seems to need to be taken and experienced instead of reiterated in summary. The closest comparison I can think of to The Golden Key is The Little Prince, another book that I can’t explain except for to say that there is something in it that stays with you for quite a while after the book is finished. I’ll get to the end and find that I say in this little voice, “Oh. Well. That’s really cool. And also really sad. And also ridiculously perfect.”

If this is an obtuse review, it’s only because I think it’s more about saying, “The Golden Key. It’s amazing. Please read it” instead of going ahead and saying just why exactly. Because the why is written right into the entire novel. It forms this scaffolding behind every word and has to be read, beginning to end, to feel that structure, form, and meaning.

There’s this small section of the novella where Tangle is talking to the Old Man of the Earth as she tries to figure out how to find Mossy again, since she’s been separated from him over the course of the journey. And the way the Old Man answers her, it’s these kind of exchanges scattered throughout the story:

Then the Old Man of the Earth stooped over the floor of the cave, raised a huge stone from it, and left it leaning. It disclosed a great hole that went plumb-down.
“This is the way,” he said.
“But there are no stairs.”
“You must throw yourself in. There is no other way.”
She turned and looked him full in the face – stood so for a whole minute, as she thought: it was a whole year – then threw herself headlong into the hole.

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