The Golden Key by George MacDonald sets straight that no pot of gold, but a golden key, lies at the foot of the rainbow. First published in 1867, Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers has just released a new edition, exquisitely illustrated by Ruth Sanderson in black and white scratchboard.
On my first trip through the book, I found the Victorian fairy tale portrayed on the cover taking me back to my early bookworm days following a hero or heroine on a journey that always seemed to have one more enticement just beyond reach. Male and female protagonists, eventually called Mossy and Tangle, make their way through magical forests and rivers to find the key and then to discover what it unlocks.
I enjoyed the nostalgia all the way to the end, but then looked up to ask, “What have I just read?” Jane Yolen’s afterword and the illustrator’s note assured me that I was not alone in my reaction. The story can be taken as the fantasy it seems on the surface, a fairy tale laced with morality and religious overtones, or an extended metaphor about life and death. MacDonald scholar Dr. John Patrick Pazdziora wrote to Jane, “No one really knows what The Golden Key is about.” The multiple layers make it a book for all ages from those who enjoy a fantastical fairy tale to those who love to peel layers apart and analyze whether the three old men could stand for the Trinity.
MacDonald became a model for names we know better than his – Mark Twain, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis. In fact, C. S. Lewis said, “I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed, I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.”
I have no choice but to return to the beginning and see if I can find what the allegory is about.