C.S. Lewis, a literary-bent mind if ever there was, had the habit of discussing other writers (and their influences on him) within his own stories. In Out of the Silent Planet, for instance, Dr. Ransom can’t help but envision the loathsome brutes of H.G. Wells’s fantasies while en route to the alien world of Malacandra.
In Lewis’s The Great Divorce, another author of renown gets more than a mere mention within the story’s context. He is, in fact, an actor in it. The narrator bumps into this familiar figure, resulting in the following meeting in the spiritual realm:
‘I don’t know you, Sir,’ said I, taking my seat beside him.
‘My name is George,’ he answered. ‘George MacDonald.’
Inevitably, the protagonist iterates that George MacDonald’s works had aided him to glean a notion of what Holiness is. This is high praise coming from a writer as decorated and celebrated as Lewis. However, J.R.R. Tolkien, a close friend of Lewis, did not always perceive the same luster and magnificence in MacDonald’s words. In fact, he had mixed feelings on the various literary works of the Scottish writer. When attempting to compose a preface to MacDonald’s short story “The Golden Key,” Tolkien became convinced he could write a superior short story. The fruit of his efforts was Smith of Wootton Major. Tolkien’s story was published in 1967, a full 100 years after the publication of MacDonald’s collection Dealing with the Fairies (1867).
The writings of George MacDonald were evidently held in two drastically different appraisals by Tolkien and Lewis. “The Golden Key,” that brief tale which the Lord of the Rings author found so unsatisfying, can nevertheless take on a fresh nuance when examined through the lens of one of Lewis’s favorite aspects of analysis: allegory. (Like MacDonald’s work, Tolkien did not care much for the allegorical in literature, though many scholars have suggested his own writings showcase this element fluently.) In this case, our allegorical focus is on Christian symbolism.
“The Golden Key” is a story which is, to Tolkien’s credit, a bit all over the place. Actions happen seemingly inexplicably as the reader’s imagination is taken on a colorful ride through a world inhabited by fantastic creatures and filled with many hues of light. There is no shortage of bath-times or stairs in the story either. As Tolkien did in The Lord of the Rings, MacDonald here pays acute attention to the physical surroundings of his characters. Understandably, as the story was written over a century and a half ago, it displays some social scenarios which would play out rather awkwardly in the mind of the modern reader.
MacDonald’s little mythical tale is full of transcendental ideas and imagery. The protagonists, Mossy and Tangle, are always trying to attain that which is out of their reach: an elusive rainbow, an airborne fish, the highly-sought-after country whence the shadows fall. Not by their own strength or intelligence do they take further steps on their quest, but rather by the aid of others of superior power.
In a Christian allegorical sense, it could be said that they are bestowed graces and other gifts such as wisdom. The ultimate goal which Mossy and Tangle realize, then pursue, is the country whence the shadows fall, which might be seen as a representation of Heaven. That realm is so mystical, yet in what glimpses the pair are given of it, they perceive in them joy and beauty. As persistently as Mossy and Tangle seek the country, so we Christians are meant to seek out Heaven, a state of being in which we shall clearly see the Beatific Vision and spend eternity adoring God.
As with a great deal of fantasy, no reference to a single and sociable Creator is made. The purpose here is not to detect specifically religious dynamics of “The Golden Key” but to examine the potential symbolism within the story.
Just as there are noticeable Christ figures in the body of Tolkien’s work, such as Gandalf who loses himself and is “resurrected” after conquering evil, there seems to be at least one such figure in MacDonald’s short story. This character is the Old Man of the Sea, who may be reminiscent of any one of the aquatic male deities of Greek mythology, though here the figure is unmistakably the form of a human.
One of the most striking passages featuring the Old Man of the Sea describes him walking on water. To a Christian, the imagery is immediately recognizable when compared to Christ’s walking on water as witnessed by the Apostles from their boat (recalled in Matthew chapter 14). There are a few discrepancies; the description does not try to be overtly Christological. For instance, the Old Man steps out onto water and where his feet fall, dry land appears. However, he gifts a similar ability to Mossy once he has laid himself in the bath.
Mossy is given a bath, a very special bath which I am inclined to perceive as a representation of baptism. The connotation of water is already shared between the two, but the symbolism runs even deeper. After Mossy bathes, the Old Man says to him, “Follow me,” at which point Mossy discovers he has a newly-acquired capability: he can walk out onto the sea and his feet make “no holes in the water.”
Mossy feels wholly rejuvenated by the waters he was plunged into during the bath. Now, with not an aging hair on his head and feeling reinvigorated, he exclaims how wondrous this is – a virtual fountain of youth. Yet, in MacDonald’s story, there are no ill repercussions attached to this splendid gift. And it is given freely.
Mossy later hails this miracle as being “better than life,” and this prompts clarification from the Old Man of the Sea who replies: “No…it is only more life.” This is another notion that rings of Christian ideals. Christ told his disciples that he came so that we may have life and have it more abundantly. This abundance of life comes from the freedom from sin that Christ offers. The freedom from sin, particularly the original sin generated by the Fall of Adam and Eve, is first granted in the waters of sacramental baptism.
Thus, we might venture to ponder the symbolism of the bath given by the Old Man of the Sea. “More life” may not merely refer to a longer lifespan for the physical body but to a deeper spiritual life. As baptism supplies what grace was lost by our First Parents, so the Old Man’s bath restores youth – a source of life lost. Moreover, those who have been granted one such bath (as Tangle also had), seem to have a light emanating forth from their eyes, making clear the path they are to take.
Baptism, effectively initiating the baptized person into the life of Christ, brings the person under the wings of faith. And, growing in the knowledge of faith, the baptized person shapes their conscience accordingly. One’s conscience is then intended to be an aid in discerning clearly the paths we take in our lives. So once again, we see a connection in comparison to the unique properties dispensed through the waters of the bath.
The significant takeaway here is that, without this crucial bath, neither Tangle nor Mossy would have had the strength and disposition to endure the rest of their journey and travel on to the country whence the shadows fall. In contrast, the waters of baptism remove Original Sin, giving the baptized access to Paradise. In other words, baptism is typically a crucial part of our journey to Heaven.
With the idea of the afterlife fresh in mind, we come at last to examine the death and bizarre metamorphosis of a specimen of fantastic fauna which MacDonald includes in “The Golden Key.” This creature is at first described as a sort of airborne flying fish and, after its reincarnation, dubbed an aëranth.
The first flying fish mortality the reader discovers, as witnessed by Tangle, is odd at first glance. However, it takes on a rather macabre essence once it is thoroughly explained. The airborne fish (which is sentient like the rest of its unique species) flies into a cottage and straight into a pot of boiling water. Upon description, it is divulged that the fish knew what it was doing and that it was wholly content in its own demise, displaying all the zeal of Pelagia the Virgin when she cast herself into the ocean.
However, there is an element of vocation in the seemingly tragic consummation of these airborne fish creatures – as well as an element of reward. These creatures seem to realize they have a purpose: doing the will of another; in this case, to be killed and consumed. Afterward, however, the dead flying fish undergo a miraculous transformation of physique. The resulting creature is an aëranth, whose most distinctive feature is its pair of white wings.
Aëranths, to some extent, bear a resemblance to the Judeo-Christian descriptions of angelic beings. Not only have angels been described as possessing wings, but there are also numerous Scriptural instances where angels are spoken of as being radiant. One example of this lustrous feature comes from a sequence after the Resurrection in the book of Matthew: “His [the angel’s] appearance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow” (Mt. 28:3). Similarly, MacDonald notes the light the aëranths generate; they produce multicolored sparks from the friction of their moving wings.
The comparison of angels and MacDonald’s fictional aëranths goes still further when we go beyond physicalities and look at what the function of their species typically is. In Sacred Scripture, angels of both the Old and New Testaments serve most often as messengers, advisors, and guides sent from God to relate His Will to human beings. In comparable fashion, the former airborne fish had guided Tangle to the woodland cottage where her whole life changed and then, as an aëranth, guided her for a segment of her journey toward the land whence the shadows fall.
While there are seemingly some noticeable traits shared between angels and the fantastic aëranths, some scholars have suggested that the majority of the taxa seen in “The Golden Key” are based on the figures of ancient Greek mythology. In an academic essay, Fernando Soto – a Canadian editor of the George MacDonald journal North Wind – suggests the Greek conception of the soul might have influenced MacDonald’s depiction of the aëranth. This may likely be the case. However, the use of Greek archetypes does not dismiss the concept of Christian allegory. A perfect example of this is C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, which merges many Greek-based beasts with what is often argued as being a representation of the story of salvation.
While I have been hard pressed to discover any remarkable feats of virtue in “The Golden Key” and its characters, there is more merit there than Tolkien may have been willing to admit. Specifically, its methodology may be viewed as delivering significant Christian aspirations and even a transcendent worldview.
John Tuttle is a Catholic journalist and creative. He has written for The Hill, University Bookman, Eucatastrophe, CiRCE Institute, Franciscan Media, Starting Points Journal, The Millions, and the University of Notre Dame’s Grotto Network. He has also served as the prose editor of Loomings, the literary magazine of Benedictine College.
John P. Tuttle, “Aëranths, Angels, and Allegory,” An Unexpected Journal: George MacDonald 3, no. 4. (Advent 2020), 211.
Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com/aeranths-angels-and-allegory/
 C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet, Reprint edition (New York: Scribner 2003), 37.
 C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, Reprint edition (New York: HarperOne 2001) 66-67.
 Douglas A. Anderson, Tales before Tolkien, Mass market edition (New York: Del Rey 2005) 27.
 “The Gospel According to Matthew,” in The Holy Bible (Charlotte, NC: Saint Benedict Press, 2009).
 Douglas A. Anderson, Tales before Tolkien, Mass market edition (New York: Del Rey 2005) 55.
 “The Gospel According to Matthew,” in The Holy Bible (Charlotte, NC: Saint Benedict Press, 2009).
 Fernando Soto, “Unearthing Ancient Sources in MacDonald’s ‘The Golden Key,’” North Wind, accessed July 7, 2020, https://www.snc.edu/northwind/documents/By_work/The_Golden_Key/Unearthing_Ancient_Sources in_MacDonald’s_’The_Golden_Key’_-_Fernando_Soto.pdf.