Besides being amazing writers, do you know what Lewis Carrol, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, T. H. White, G. K. Chesterton, Madeleine L’Engle, Brian Jacques, and Neil Gaiman (and many, many others) have in common? They were all deeply influenced by the writing of a humble Scottish minister and pioneer of fantasy literature, George MacDonald.
Sarah Mackenzie, author of The Read Aloud Family, often discusses a concept she calls “reading upstream.” Basically, use your love of a certain book or author as a starting point to explore more books and authors. If you delve into the things that influenced that writer or work, you’re “reading upstream” and gaining a greater understanding of the thing you love—as well as finding new things to love! If you begin reading upstream of almost any fantasy author of the past century, you’re going to find yourself at a big river of inspiration called George MacDonald.
I’ve read a few of MacDonald’s works aloud to my family—they’re particular fans of The Princess and the Goblin illustrated by Arthur Hughes. But it can be hard to find some of his lesser-known works, so I was thrilled when I discovered that Word on Fire Spark just came out with a beautiful new edition of The Golden Key, including two more of MacDonald’s lesser-read fairy tales, The Light Princess and Little Daylight. Just look at this beautiful cover! And the illustrations by Anastasia Nesterova are perfect for these stories (which is saying a lot, considering that MacDonald has been illustrated by some of the greatest artists of the golden age of illustration).
While each of the stories in this collection are fairy tales rich with symbolism, they are very different from one another. The Golden Key is about two neglected children who stumble into a fairy world and must go on a quest. The Light Princess is a wry and humorous story about a princess whose gravity (both on a physical and metaphorical level) has been stolen by an evil witch. Little Daylight highlights MacDonald’s humor as he creates a topsy-turvy verson of Sleeping Beauty, in which the princess is cursed to sleep during the day and wax and wane like the moon when she awakes at night.
For those of us who have the pleasure of reading MacDonald in a post-Tolkien age, it’s impossible to read without Tolkien’s thoughts on fairy stories intruding (pleasantly) into our minds. Take this quote, for example, from his essay On Fairy-Stories: "It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine."
You don’t have to search hard in MacDonald’s stories to find this potency and wonder. But what struck me most on my current reading was another fairy story element Tolkien wrote of at length: that of the comfort of finding true joy and happy endings.
In today’s world, you only need to pick up your phone to find a world full of unhappy stories. So perhaps fairy stories, with their reminder that happy endings are possible and true, are more important now than ever. Did you ever hear the Albert Eistein quote about fairy tales? “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Tokien or Lewis or L’Engle might adapt that for today’s audiences. I certainly will: “If you want your children to be resilient… to be faithful… to be hopeful… to be kind… read them fairy tales. If you want them to be saints and heroes, read them more fairy tales.”
The Golden Key is a good place to start.
Here is the link to order from Word on Fire Spark (I think it’s on sale right now!): https://bookstore.wordonfire.org/products/the-golden-key
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations, check out Always in the Middle!
Hi! I'm Faith. I blog about books and creativity, family and faith. Welcome!