The Golden Key

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This article is about the George MacDonald book. For the Brothers Grimm tale, see The Golden Key (Grimm's Fairy Tales). For the 1982 book, see Don Shaw (screenwriter). For the collaborative 1996 fantasy novel, see The Golden Key (novel). For the novella by A. N. Tolstoy, see Buratino.

The Golden Key is a fairy tale written by George MacDonald. It was published in Dealings with the Fairies (1867).

It is particularly noted for the intensity of the suggestive imagery, which implies a spiritual meaning to the story without providing a transparent allegory for the events in it.[1]

Plot summary[edit]

A woman tells her great-nephew of a golden key found at the end of a rainbow. One day, he sees a rainbow and sets out to find the end. The sun sets, but as the forest is in Fairyland, the rainbow only glows the brighter, and he finds the key, and it dawns on him that he does not know where the lock is.

Also on the borders of this forest, a merchant's daughter is being cared for by servants, who are such poor housekeepers that they disgust the local fairies, who resolve to get them sent away by frightening off the child. Their first attempts, by animating the furniture in her room, make her laugh, but as she has been reading Silverhair, when they make her think three bears are coming into her bedroom, she flees into the woods.

A tree traps her there, but an air fish frees her and leads her to a lady. A pot is boiling there, and the air fish flies into it. The lady asks her name; the girl says that the servants always called her Tangle, and the lady decides that although her tangled hair was their fault for not looking after her, Tangle is a pretty name. She tells the girl that she is called Grandmother, and that it has been three years since she ran away from the bears. She has the girl washed by fish and dresses her. Then they eat a dinner of the air fish, after the lady assures her that the air fish had voluntarily gone into the pot to be their dinner, and the pot that had cooked the air fish produces a little winged figure, who flies off.

The lady sends another air fish after the young man at the foot of the rainbow. At supper the next day, the young man, whose name is Mossy, arrives. The lady tells Mossy that if he searches for the keyhole, he will find it, and sends Tangle with him. In their wanderings, they come across a land where beautiful shadows fill the air, and they resolve they must find the land from which the shadows fall, but they are separated.

Tangle meets with the aëranth that used to be the fish, and it leads her to the mountain. There she meets the Old Man of the Sea. He can not tell her the way to the land from which the shadows fall, and sends her to his brother the Old Man of the Earth. He, also, does not know, and sends her to the Old Man of the Fire.

Then the Old Man of the Earth stooped over the floor of the cave, raised a huge stone from it, and left it leaning. It disclosed a great hole that went plumb-down.
"That is the way," he said.
"But there are no stairs."
"You must throw yourself in. There is no other way."

She throws herself in, and the Old Man of the Fire sends her to follow a serpent, which will lead her to that land.

Mossy also finds the Man of the Sea, who shows him a way leading to a door that his key unlocks. Behind the door, he finds Tangle, and another door that his key unlocks, where a stairway leads to the land from which the shadows fall. They start to climb, at which point the story ends.


  1. ^ Colin Manlove, Christian Fantasy: from 1200 to the Present p 168-9 ISBN 0-268-00790-X

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