129: The King of the Golden River (A Story)

It is a thrilling, sometimes chilling, story in fact! The only one Ruskin ever wrote. Written on a challenge as it happened. Thus:

It is 1841 and Ruskin, now 22, is ruminating deeply over what will become, two years later, the first volume of his Modern Painters series, the book which, soon after it was read by the literati of Europe and America, established his fame as a writer of brilliance on all things natural, beautiful, and Turner. The Ruskins are at home in London. At the door is the Gray family of Perth, distant relatives. The older Grays’ daughter, Euphemia–“Effie”–is thirteen, lovely, with a mind already very much her own and feisty. Not much impressed with the taciturn and gloomy John, Effie starts to taunt him, asks him to write her a fairy story, thinking that, of all things, surely this he will be unable to do. Piqued, Ruskin retires to his room and sets to work. Two days later (with suitable breaks for sustenance and appropriate visiting), he presents Effie with a story he has titled “The King of the Golden River,” a tale he had set in the foothills of the Austrian Alps (“Stiria”) that focuses on the lives of three brothers. Two are mean and nasty and take cruel pleasure in demeaning the third, who is a sweet and gentle soul. As the story unfolds, for a time it looks as if things are always going to go badly the one nice fellow. But then the story turns and the oppressed little fellow sets out to find and legendary King of the Golden River, does so, as a result of which, as things should always work in fairy stories, the bad brothers, now black, get their earned comeuppance and are transformed into enduring and adamantine symbols of what happens, as one reaps what one has sewn, to mean and greedy people.

The story reads like some sort of combination of The Brothers (!) Grimm and Dickens (both of whom Ruskin read over and over again as child and young man). Its paragraphs tell its readers for the first time of the author’s love of mountains, foreshadows his later work on what sort of behaviors create a good and humane society, and makes abundantly clear one of Ruskin’s deepest convictions: of the eventual triumph, no matter the difficulties which must be endured, of good over evil.

Years later–seven to be exact–John and Effie will marry. It doesn’t work out well. But that, as they say, is another story!

That unanticipated outcome aside, Ruskin’s fable remains a delight–full of frights real and imagined, of winds bad and good, of people worthy deserving of the same adjectives, as well as some sweet moments spent by a crackling fire or by a burbling brook–as the illustrations below–reproductions of the originals done by Richard Doyle when the story published in 1850 (after which it was a favorite in many thousands of homes on both sides of the Atlantic for decades)–foretell. The first images is of the cover. I’ll leave it to you to guess where the others should appear.)

Do give “The King of the Golden River” a read. Print it out and, once you’ve read it, read it to your children, your grandchildren, your friends, or your antiquing parents. You and all your listeners will have a marvelous time.

King of the Golden River--Title Page

King of the Golden River--The Visit of the West Wind

King of the Golden River--Gluck sets off to find it

The King of the Golden River

Click on the link above for access to the text. Once again we have the blessing of a scan taken from Clive Wilmer’s Unto this Last and Other Writings of John Ruskin (see previous post: #128 ), with, at the end, his always helpful notes.


Until next time!


This entry was posted in Life, Nature, Ruskin's Life, Society, Truths and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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