King of the Golden River (Ruskin/Rackham)

King of the Golden River (Ruskin/Rackham) March 8, 2019

Imagine creating a fairy tale.

Early published folk tales, lumped together as fairy tales, were ancient stories collected by researchers like the brothers Grimm. The King of the Golden River was a fairy tale created by an eccentric genius, John Ruskin, and a great illustrator, Arthur Rackham.

John Ruskin may have faded into genteel obscurity as much as anyone ever proclaimed one the “greats.” If you are not an academic writing on the Victorian, you might ignore him. Do not.

John Ruskin is often wrong and disturbing, but not always. He is a cautionary tale of misunderstanding the implications of science and drawing bad conclusions from those misunderstandings at the cost of his psychological health. Ruskin also penned some excellent essays on beauty and art that are beautiful works of art themselves. Visiting his house (which sold me a comic on him!) revealed a man who envisioned a voluntary turn from the uglier parts of modernity, using the wealth that modernity provided, for an appreciation of community (guilds), craftsmanship, and ancient patterns of living.

John Ruskin was what a craft beer drinker would be if a craft beer drinker had thought deeply about his choices.

As for Arthur Rackham, he turned illustration into art. When books turned from beauty to quantity, he faded, but now collectors look for any editions with his lovely drawings. Rackham did what Thomas Kinkade tried and failed to do: he drew sentiment without falsity. I grew up studying his drawings, because they were a world that almost could be lived in but were ideal. False sentiment idealizes a cottage to the point of impractability. Rackham gives the reader cottages for the City of God, ideal and livable.

This was what Ruskin hoped we could voluntarily do in society: create an image of the ideal voluntarily.

The King of the Golden River follows the pattern of the folk tale. Cruelty is punished. The powerful are laid low and the humble are exalted. The pattern works because it is deeply true. Tyrants appear to win, but they do not over the long term. Prosperity cannot be sustained when it is based on injustice: ask the slaver South. Social injustice leads inevitably to social ruin.

The greedy harden their souls. What does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul?

There is no profit and the cruel joke is that the man who trades his soul for wealth always ends up enjoying neither. 

The tyrannical man is afraid, lonely, and ends up miserable and alone.

Why bother telling the truth? Shouldn’t the truth defend itself?

Of course the truth will out, but meanwhile we might make the error of the bad brothers of the story and think we can escape the moral laws of the universe. Blessed are the meek . . . They will inherit the earth. This often happens now, but will always happen in the age to come. Good stories remind us, so we end up on the right side of King Jesus.

Ruskin gets the moral truth and depth of the folk tale right and Rackham gives the reader pen and ink illustrations that are rich without distractions.

Read the story, savor the illustrations.

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