John Ruskin, aesthetician, art historian, reformer, and economist, would seem an unlikely author of a world-famous fairy tale. In fact, he himself wrote slightingly of it in his autobiography PRAETERITA: “THE KING OF THE GOLDEN RIVER was written to amuse a little girl...it is totally valueless...I can no more write a story than compose a picture.” Nevertheless, Ruskin unjustly demeaned his story which, more than a century after it was first published, still has its charm for children as well as for adults. The plot is not new: the good youngest brother triumphs after the evil older brothers fail and are punished; but just as the stories of Cinderella and Aladdin are always new, so is this story of ancient Stiria and Treasure Valley.
As Ruskin admitted, his principal literary influences were Grimm and Dickens. From Grimm came the grotesque elements and the German setting; the geniality, the colloquial tone and, more important, the character of the child, Gluck, and the social theme were derived from Dickens.
Like many of Dickens’ fictive children—Oliver Twist, Little Nell, Tiny Tim, and Paul Dombey—Gluck is the image of the tyrannized child, dear to Victorian hearts, who is victimized by the adult mercantile world. Preternaturally innocent and unspoiled by his environment, Gluck works generously under his brothers’ sadistic direction. He never responds to them or anyone else but in the spirit of Christian charity. Like Dickens’ children, he is close to a magical world that takes particular care of him.
Opposed to magic and spirit is a recognizable adult world of profit and loss. Schwartz and Hans can be taken as Ruskin’s version of Scrooge. The visits of the South-West Wind and the King of the Golden River would then parallel the various ghosts that visit the terrible miser on Christmas Eve. Unlike Scrooge, however, they fail to learn the lesson of charity, preached so eloquently by their brother’s example, and are turned to stone. Appropriately Gluck triumphs and becomes a benevolent farmer who ministers to the poor, not unlike the reformed Scrooge.