The King of the Golden River is one of the most enduring of the many fairy tales written in the nineteenth century. Ruskin rose to prominence as an art critic who promoted a simple and truthful portrayal of nature such as was produced, he maintained, before the Reformation. Like the Pre-Raphaelite painters he championed, he believed that morality could be discerned in the natural world. It is not surprising that he chose to set his fairy story “in old times,” a quasi-medieval period reminiscent of the German countryside of the Grimm brothers stories and also of the Arthurian landscapes of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Fairies were a popular motif in the moral tales of the writers in the Pre-Raphaelite movement and on its periphery, such as Christina Rosetti, Mary de Morgan, and Ford Madox Brown. Ruskins fairy tale does not deal with conventional fairies, however, but with the natural elements in the form of magical beings. In this, The King of the Golden River bears affinity with George MacDonalds At the Back of the North Wind (1871), in which the wind plays a leading role in the protagonists moral education.
Ruskin opens his story with an idyllic description of nature in harmony with agriculture, contrasting it with a wry portrait of two monstrous men and their villainous business practices. He concludes with a restoration of fertility to a drought-stricken land in response to a mans sensitivity to nature and his fellow creatures. His themes of ecological balance and human compassion never weigh down this witty and lyrically written story. In his autobiography Praeterita (1886-1889), Ruskin dismissed the story as “totally worthless,” an assessment with which few critics agree.
Although this was his only work of fiction, it may be Ruskin’s only work that is still widely read. His influence, however, has reached beyond the lush, romantic paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites or even of the Arts and Crafts movement that grew out of it. The fantasy literature of the twentieth century was certainly preceded in theme and setting by such works as The King of the Golden River.