In 1841, John Ruskin, eminent English art critic and social thinker, wrote a children’s book for a twelve year old girl, Euphemia (Effie) Gray, who would later become his wife, staying married to him for some six years and disrupting his life considerably in the process. From such unpropitious beginnings, remarkably, Ruskin’s only children’s story has survived.
Set in a “valley of the most surprising and luxuriant fertility,” The King of the Golden River is the story of 11-year-old Gluck, a kindhearted underdog whose two wily older siblings, Hans and Schwartz, work him to the bone, withhold food, and subject him to incessant cuffs and punches. When Southwest Wind, Esquire, pays Gluck an unexpected and, it must be said, inconvenient visit, Gluck nonetheless feeds him and puts up with him, unwittingly acquiring a powerful ally.
Gold and greed figure in the story, as does a king entrapped by magic, the promise of transformation through three drops of holy water cast into a river, and more.
The twists and turns of story lead to a happy ending for Gluck, with rewards given for kindness and generosity and punishment duly meted out for cruelty and selfishness. At a deeper level, this is a fable about how humans treat the earth. (“They killed everything that did not pay for its eating.”) It links social and environmental justice in quirky and astonishingly modern ways. The one note that rang false to me in today’s social context was the unthinking equation of black with evil in the naming of the ill-fated wicked brothers.
Still, it is just possible that the passage of time, since Ruskin’s penning of this tale, allows us tap some of its essential truths in new and powerful ways.