The King of the Golden River

Image of The King of the Golden River
Release Date: 
April 1, 2019
Thames & Hudson
Reviewed by: 

“Ruskin and Blake, though living over a century apart, remain intellectual simpaticos and well-matched creative partners, making The King of the Golden River a fabulous classical story tendered with quintessential Quentin Blake mastery.”

John Ruskin was one of the most colorful 19th century upper-class British characters to make a name for himself as a writer, art critic, and artist. However, he is not at all well known as a children’s book author and for good reason: he only wrote one children’s book—The King of the Golden River—first published for the daughter of a friend in either 1842 (according to the publisher’s sell sheet) or 1851 (according to Blake’s Foreword).

The original edition, as Blake explains, was enhanced by the most popular illustrator of the Victorian era, and one of Blake’s influences, Richard “Dicky” Doyle. It was the picture of the character the South-West Wind, Esquire on the frontispiece that lured Blake into purchasing the book. When Blake realized that color illustrations, as opposed to black and white, would impact the dramatic landscapes with a fresh feel, he undertook a 21st century version.

The story is very much in league with Hans Christian Andersen, which is not surprising because Andersen was very prolific in Europe in the mid-1800s, writing thousands of fairy tales at a rapid-fire pace. Ruskin is sure to have been exposed to one or two.

Told in eloquent, sophisticated language, The King of the Golden River opens the door to a sweet and sensitive soul, a young boy named Gluck. Gluck has the misfortune of living at the mercy of two brutish older brothers who abuse and torment him as their own house slave and whipping post.

One miserable stormy day Gluck, while minding the roast he is responsible for preparing, hears a knock on the door and consents reluctantly to allow the visitor to enter the hovel to dry off and warm up. This odd gnome-ish character, the South-West Wind, Esquire (not a lawyer, but a titled gentleman), while kind to Gluck, proceeds to wreak havoc on the household when Gluck’s brothers are rude and inhospitable. South-West Wind, Esquire predicts the demise of the awful beastly brothers, and the family deteriorates into abject poverty.

Trying desperately to make some money, Gluck must melt down the last valuable possession he owns, a treasured golden mug inherited from a favorite uncle. Once thrown in the fire, the mug begins to talk, revealing himself to be the King of the Gold River who had been placed under a curse many moons ago. Grateful for being released from this condition, the king offers an escape for Gluck’s deplorable situation and then disappears back into the furnace.

Gluck relays to his brothers the solution to their prosperity problems, and the brothers embark one by one up into the mountains to find their fortunes. The brothers, in turn, skimp on the rules that the king demanded, and fail to achieve their mission.

Gluck, on the other hand, is more than obedient, he is generous and caring as he makes the treacherous trek and a happy ending ensues. The king reappears and explains that Gluck’s spirit and countenance will assure him lifelong wealth and standing in his humble Treasure Valley community.

Ruskin has employed vocabulary that respects the intelligence of the reader. Word choices may stretch comprehension for 8 to 12 year olds in a positive, challenging way. Fabulously juicy descriptors abound teasing out drama and conflict; in such a manner he tells us about the landscape:

“Level lines of dewy mist lay stretched along the valley, out of which rose the massy mountains—their lower cliffs in pale gray shadow, hardly distinguishable from the floating vapor, but gradually ascending till they caught the sunlight, which ran in sharp touches of ruddy color, along the angular crags, and pierced, in long, level rays, through their fringes of spear-like pine. Far above shot up red splintered masses of castellated rock, jagged and shivered into myriads of fantastic forms . . .”

It is easy enough to present through quotes a bit of Ruskin’s style, harder to do so with Blake’s. Simplistic scratchy sketches, the hallmark of Blake’s illustrations, are colored with mood enhancing glow. However he does this is a mystery, born of a lifetime of unsurpassed (even unsurpassable) illustration achievements. Ruskin and Blake, though living over a century apart, remain intellectual simpaticos and well-matched creative partners, making The King of the Golden River a fabulous classical story tendered with quintessential Quentin Blake mastery.