By Meakin Armstrong
Before I’d walked into what could have easily been the saddest bookstore in the southeast, I’d never heard of The Golden Key, by George Macdonald. Among that store’s thumbed-through the best sellers and out-of-date guidebooks, was this small paperback, only eighty-five pages. But this is what interested me: the illustrations were by Maurice Sendak and the afterword was by W.H. Auden. What was this book?
It turns out its author was Lewis Carroll’s mentor (Carroll had even called George MacDonald his “master”). He wrote fairy tales and fantasy novels. Macdonald was prolific, and in his time, well-known. We owe to him, Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, because MacDonald had encouraged Lewis Carroll to write his stories down rather than just tell them to children. He was a preacher who believed that all will be saved by God, and that nothing is predestined; he was in other words, no proponent of fire and brimstone.
A person incapable of imaging another world than given to him by his senses would be subhuman, and a person who identifies his imaginary world with the world of sensory fact has become insane.”—Auden
The Golden Key is the story of a boy and a girl who wander into “Fairyland ” where they meet and fall in love. They hunt for the meaning of a golden key the boy had found at the end of the rainbow. Along the way, we wander through the lower parts of the world “where the shadows fall,” and meet the aeranth, a fishlike flying beast, along with the child at the center of the earth—yes, it sounds stupid.
But the world needs these kinds of stories. Or, as Auden who wrote in the afterword:
“Every normal human being is interested in two kinds of worlds: the Primary, everyday, world which he knows through his senses, and a Secondary world or worlds which he can only create in his imagination, but cannot stop himself creating.
A person incapable of imaging another world than given to him by his senses would be subhuman, and a person who identifies his imaginary world with the world of sensory fact has become insane.”
Bio: Meakin Armstrong is Guernica’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter at @meakinarmstrong.