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339 17. Unlocking Scottish Balladry and Folklore in George MacDonald’s ‘The Golden Key’ LINDEN BICKET In their recent reassessment Rethinking George MacDonald: Contexts and Contemporaries (2013), Christopher MacLachlan, John Patrick Pazdziora, and Ginger Stelle identify George MacDonald (1824–1905) as a major writer of the nineteenth century. He is, they write, not simply ‘a literary descendant of the Romantics and an ancestor of modern fantasy writers’, but an author whose works ‘reflect the complex and nuanced world of nineteenth-century Britain’.1 The last two decades’ resurgence of interest in the Aberdeenshire author, poet, and Christian minister, George MacDonald, are a welcome critical development. However, this new critical interest, and the previously mentioned volume, also tells us something curious about MacDonald. He is a writer who can be considered – to use a fittingly Biblical phrase – both visible and invisible. His works have long been considered an important part of the canon of Victorian English literature for children, and his pioneering works of fantasy famously influenced Lewis Carroll, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, to name a few. But MacDonald still remains invisible, or at least a shadowy, figure, who has yet to receive his due as an important nineteenth-century Scottish writer, and in the context of Scottish children’s literature too. In his fiction for children, MacDonald mines native folkloric, ballad, and fairy tale sources; yet this is still a significantly under-appreciated element of his creative work. This chapter will argue that a Scottish ballad heritage of song, and the living tradition of folktale in Scots and English are vital in helping readers to navigate a new path through the debatable land that is MacDonald’s fiction for children. MacDonald’s works are significantly informed by their author’s childhood in the north-east of Scotland. Like the ballad world in which he was steeped during childhood, MacDonald’s fairy tales are an ambiguous landscape. His stories traverse boundaries between fairyland V. FAIRYTALE AND FANTASY 340 linden bicket and our own world, but they also blur generic categories of Scottish folklore, fairy tale, ballad, and short story. Nowhere is this more apparent than in ‘The Golden Key’, one of the stories included in MacDonald’s Dealings with the Fairies (1867) and generally regarded as one of the best and most complex of his fairy tales.2 This collection was published almost a decade after MacDonald’s well-known debut novel Phantastes (1858). It was his first major volume of children’s tales, and was followed by At the Back of the North Wind (1871), The Princess and the Goblin (1872), and The Princess and Curdie (1883). ‘The Golden Key’ comes over three decades before MacDonald’s much-celebrated final novel Lilith (1895). MacDonald’s sense of his Scottish identity was strong. His best-known works, Phantastes and Lilith are, like his children’s stories, set chiefly in a fantasy realm, albeit one that draws much from the landscape of Scottish lore and folktale. MacDonald’s ‘realist’ novels David Elginbrod (1863), Alec Forbes of Howglen (1865) Robert Falconer (1868), Malcolm (1875), The Marquis of Lossie (1877), and Sir Gibbie (1879) take place mostly in Scotland and employ Doric vocabulary. It is really only these works which have regularly been credited with belonging to a canon of Scottish writing or containing Scottish literary tropes and motifs. Andrew Nash notes that these novels ‘reveal much that is distinctive about the author’s Scottish Victorianism’, while David Robb draws a firm canonical distinction between MacDonald’s fantasy works and his realist novels with a Scottish setting. He writes that: ‘[MacDonald’s] Scottish novels, long recognised as containing his best work outside his fairy fiction, afforded him the opportunity for self-exploration and for coming to terms with his Scottish origins. In doing this, they constitute a significant addition to nineteenth-century Scottish fiction’.3 But while the boundary between MacDonald’s realist works and his fairy writings may seem at first glance to be rather fixed, the influence of this writer’s Scottish cultural heritage is more pervasive than simplistic realist/fairy and adult/child binaries would allow. Indeed, Robb acknowledges that ‘like all MacDonald’s “realistic” novels [Alec Forbes of Howglen] has many fairytale characteristics, both overt and subtle. It has its openly fairytale counterpart in the short story, “The Golden Key”, written at about the same time and published two years later in 1867.’4 MacDonald’s Scottishness is not only to 341 balladry and folklore in...


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