This will be the second, and final installment in a short series dealing with The Golden Key 1 by George MacDonald. If you haven’t read it already, the first article can be found here, and the full text of The Golden Key can be read for free online.
While there is obviously no shortage of symbolic meaning to be found in the first part of the story, the encounters that follow in this magical tale are even more strange and mysterious. In isolation they would likely be quite difficult to interpret, but hopefully the context we have established in the introduction will light our way.
The Old Man of the Sea
At the end of the last article, we had left Tangle asleep on a beach. When she awakes, she notices an old man with long white hair down to his shoulders. We learn that he is The Old Man of the Sea, someone who was mentioned by Grandmother so long ago. “Show me the way to the country from which the shadows fall,” says Tangle, but The Old Man of the Sea cannot. Instead, he suggests that Tangle visit The Old Man of the Earth. Perhaps he knows the way. He first leads her to his own house, and we learn that Grandmother is his daughter. The multiple air-fish that she keeps have come from him. Eager as she is to continue on her journey, Tangle cannot leave immediately:
“Only white-blossoming plants can grow under the sea,” said the old man. “In there you will find a bath, in which you must lie till I call you.”
Tangle went in, and found a smaller room or cave, in the further corner of which was a great basin hollowed out of a rock, and half full of the clearest sea-water. Little streams were constantly running into it from cracks in the wall of the cavern. It was polished quite smooth inside, and had a carpet of yellow sand in the bottom of it. Large green leaves and white flowers of various plants crowded up and over it, draping and covering it almost entirely.
She enters this watery coffin-like place, and receives “all the good of sleep” without the forgetfulness. She rises from her rest, either an hour later or seven days (the text is unclear), and returns to the room in the house where the old man had been. Instead of an old man, however, she finds a “grand man, with a majestic and beautiful face” waiting for her. The time in the water has opened her eyes to the reality of his appearance. He points her in the proper direction, down a deep and winding stair. Around her is quite dark, yet she can still see, “For being in that bath, people’s eyes always give out a light they can see by”.
This brings to mind the term used by the early church for the recently baptised – “neophyte”. Often translated as “newly-enlightened”, the Greek word “νεόφυτος” more literally means “newly-planted”, but either interpretation is in keeping with the imagery here of enhanced sight, and the “white-blossoming plants” living under the sea mentioned by the Old Man.
The Old Man of the Sea here is an obvious symbol for death. The waters that flow into his house can be taken as typical symbols of potentiality and chaos, and the shore upon which his house rests is the border between established space (as discussed in The Language of Creation 2by Matthieu Pageau) and the “sea” of death. The submersion of Tangle into these waters which stream into a stone coffin or tomb is not dissimilar to the earlier image of the air-fish (or aëranth) willingly jumping into a pot to be cooked. Like that of the aëranth, this death will lead to new life through baptism. This baptism is a threshold that must be crossed in order for Tangle to progress on the journey. Death itself must be conquered, not by avoidance, but by dying, and not remaining dead. The ultimate embodiment of meaning is accomplished only by descending into the watery abyss of chaotic potentiality, and being raised up by the Spirit of God which hovers over the surface of the primordial waters in the Biblical creation account. This Divine Spirit is that which fills Tangle’s mortal lungs which, like Adam and Eve, have been fashioned from the dust of the ground. It animates her very limbs, and illuminates her way through the darkness.
Later in the story, we are told of Mossy’s own encounter with the same Old Man of the Sea. Mossy sees him walking on the shore, not as an old man, but as a “kingly man of middle age”. Mossy’s eyes are better than most because he carries the golden key. Still, he too must be submerged in order to proceed on his journey. Before entering the baptismal font, Mossy notices that he has himself grown quite old, and in fact looks much older than even The Old Man of the Sea. Once he emerges from the water, though, he has changed:
“Get up and look at yourself in the water.” He rose and looked at himself in the water, and there was not a grey hair on his head or a wrinkle on his skin. “You have tasted of death now,” said the Old Man. “Is it good?” “It is good,” said Mossy. “It is better than life.” “No,” said the Old Man, “it is only more life.–Your feet will make no holes in the water now.”
In the Orthodox baptismal rite, the water is first blessed and the language of that blessing by the priest compares the sanctification of the baptismal water with the Jordan River as it was sanctified at Christ’s baptism. This is the same Jordan that served as a border and line of demarcation between the wilderness and the Promised Land. Through this water the Children of Israel crossed from death, wandering, and the forces of Time and Chaos, into that land established as Sacred Space. When Mossy rises from the water, the Old Man of the Sea leads him to the shore of a raging sea, and Mossy sets out eastward across that sea toward a glowing rainbow far on the other side. He walks upon it like Christ walked upon the waves, his feet making no holes in the water.
After the resurrection of Tangle, everything has changed. In a curious reversal she descends a winding stair, not to some region ontologically below the Sea of Chaos, but back above to Earth. It is, however, an Earth that has been transformed.
The Old Man of the Earth
At last there was not one step more, and she found herself in a glimmering cave. On a stone in the middle of it sat a figure with its back towards her–the figure of an old man bent double with age. From behind she could see his white beard spread out on the rocky floor in front of him. He did not move as she entered, so she passed round that she might stand before him and speak to him. The moment she looked in his face, she saw that he was a youth of marvellous beauty. He sat entranced with the delight of what he beheld in a mirror of something like silver, which lay on the floor at his feet, and which from behind she had taken for his white beard. He sat on, heedless of her presence, pale with the joy of his vision. She stood and watched him. At length, all trembling, she spoke. But her voice made no sound. Yet the youth lifted up his head. He showed no surprise, however, at seeing her–only smiled a welcome.
Before her descent to the Old Man of the Sea, Tangle was indeed on the Earth. The first part of the story took place in Fairy Land, a magical “world-between-worlds”. Tangle’s fall into the deep cave before meeting the resurrected aëranth was the penultimate “going-down” before her final descent into the watery tomb itself, a movement from the Earth into the waters of primordial chaos, from the actuality of established space into the potentiality of what might be but is not yet. The shift from creation to destruction (or vice versa) can be understood as a movement between these two realms of Potentiality and Actuality. With creation, we move from the “is not” into the “is”. This is a movement from Potentiality into Actuality. With destruction, we reverse that movement. All creative acts require the destruction of something, even if that destruction is merely of the nothingness that was before the creation. It also concretizes one of the myriad potentialities into a single actuality. In this way, every destructive act carries with it the seed of creation, just as the creative act contains the seed of its own destruction. The initial descent of Tangle into the death borne by the waters of baptism is an undoing of what was. It is a movement from the fallen actuality of the old Earth into the potentiality of pre-creation. The emergence from this death into the “more life” of a new creation begins a new stage, a return to an Earth made anew.
Tangle’s first sight of the Old Man of the Earth is indeed of an old man, old like the Earth from which she has come. Then the old man, like the Earth and Tangle herself, is changed. Where once was an old man, now is a “youth of marvelous beauty”. The mirrored pool he contemplates underscores this image of reversal, but also brings to mind the idea of a mirror as a portal that recurs frequently in MacDonald’s works. The same idea is expressed by the looking glass of Alice.
Earth is often symbolically the established or sacred space where meaning from above and matter from below have coalesced. It lies between the holy space above and the profane space below. Above is Heaven, from which meaning descends. Below is the Sea of Chaos, inhabited by mindless matter without purpose, not meaningfully manifested or embodied.
St. Cædmon, in his hymn penned during the seventh century, lays out a bit of this cosmic structure in Old English, and it is a structure seen throughout the ancient and medieval worldview as recorded in myth and song. The common Germanic description of the realm of Men as Middle-Earth (Miðgarðr in Old Norse), is an apt one for our discussion.
He ærest sceop eorðan bearnum;
heofon to hrofe, halig scyppend.
þa middangeard moncynnes weard.
ece drihten, æfter teode
firum foldan, frea ælmihtig.
He, Holy Creator, first fashioned
heaven as a roof for the sons of men.
Then the Guardian of Mankind adorned
this middle-earth below, the world for men,
Everlasting Lord, Almighty King.
–Cædmon’s Hymn(West Saxon Version), translation by Kevin Crossley-Holland 3
The Old Man of the Earth cannot help Tangle find the country from whence the shadows fall. Like the Old Man of the Sea, he points her to yet another figure on this quest.
“Ah! that I do not know. I only dream about it myself. I see its shadows sometimes in my mirror: the way to it I do not know. But I think the Old Man of the Fire must know. He is much older than I am. He is the oldest man of all.”
Tangle must again undertake a descent which, in another reversal, is really an ascent. By going down, she finds herself higher. The path forward is through a hole in the floor of the cave. The Old Man’s mirror seems to be a window into another realm, and the removal of a stone to reveal a hole in the ground offers her a doorway into that realm.
“That is the way,” he said.
“But there are no stairs.”
“You must throw yourself in. There is no other way.”
She turned and looked him full in the face–stood so for a whole minute, as she thought: it was a whole year–then threw herself headlong into the hole.
When she came to herself, she found herself gliding down fast and deep. Her head was under water, but that did not signify…When she lifted up her head a sudden and fierce heat struck her, and she sank it again instantly, and went sweeping on.
The Old Man of the Fire
The next moment she descried, in a corner of the cave, a little naked child, sitting on the moss. He was playing with balls of various colours and sizes, which he disposed in strange figures upon the floor beside him. And now Tangle felt that there was something in her knowledge which was not in her understanding. For she knew there must be an infinite meaning in the change and sequence and individual forms of the figures into which the child arranged the balls, as well as in the varied harmonies of their colours, but what it all meant she could not tell…
Throughout the tale there is a constant play between youth and age. Every previous character that Tangle and Mossy have met has appeared old, even ancient. Both the Old Man of the Sea and the Old Man of the Earth change into successively younger forms. However, the Old Man of the Fire is immediately perceived by Tangle to be a child.
“Where is the Old Man of the Fire?” she said. “Here I am,” answered the child, rising and leaving his balls on the moss. “What can I do for you?”There was such an awfulness of absolute repose on the face of the child that Tangle stood dumb before him. He had no smile, but the love in his large grey eyes was deep as the centre. And with the repose there lay on his face a shimmer as of moonlight, which seemed as if any moment it might break into such a ravishing smile as would cause the beholder to weep himself to death. But the smile never came, and the moonlight lay there unbroken. For the heart of the child was too deep for any smile to reach from it to his face. “Are you the oldest man of all?” Tangle at length, although filled with awe, ventured to ask. “Yes, I am. I am very, very old. I am able to help you, I know. I can help everybody.”
We see yet another aspect of inversion in this descent that is really an ascent. The oldest man of all is seen as a naked child. Tangle and Mossy were themselves mere children when the story began. At this point in the story, she is nearing the end of her journey, and the end resembles the start of that journey because it is a new beginning. In another work, George MacDonald says the following:
There is a childhood into which we have to grow, just as there is a childhood which we must leave behind. One is a childishness from which but few of those who are counted wisest among men have freed themselves. The other is a child-likeness, … which is the highest gain of humanity.
–George MacDonald, David Elginbrod 4
This is a strangely appropriate revelation—that the one who knows the way to the “country from whence the shadows fall” is a child. Pink Floyd, in their song Comfortably Numb, express a theme that was common in British rock music during the 1970s. That is the theme of a lost childhood that carried with it a magical key that once made the world itself better. It is an idyllic theme and one that many of us cannot help returning to, despite being often consumed by the affairs of adult life.
When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse, out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look, but it was gone. I cannot put my finger on it now. The child is grown. The dream is gone.
–Pink Floyd, Comfortably Numb 5
It is not very difficult to recall our own days of childhood. Those were days that seemed as though they would never end, and we did not want them to. We are often moved when we look into the eyes of the young who can pretend for hours that a pile of rocks is really a pile of precious jewels. Their imaginations allow them to transcend this often tiresome life, and they grasp with ease that lost realm of Faerie. They are in the world, but not of it. A child sings and dances until he collapses, because he can and because he must. His delight in monotony leaves the grown-ups agape with wonder, and the laughter of the gods rains down upon the household when the child discovers something new.
The nights of a child are filled with mystery and magic, and even his terror of the monsters that surely lurk in the darkness imbues his soul with a remarkable vibrancy. All may not be right with the world, but all is right with such a child, and the world becomes his fairy tale. Ball caps become crowns, house cats become raging lions, and a simple stick is magically transformed into a sword, a wand, or anything that an innocent imagination can dream up. Death is an abstract idea to the child, one which makes as little sense as nap-time. The time spent asleep could far better be spent leading brave knights against an army of goblins, or defending a stagecoach from masked robbers and villains.
This imaginative quality so abundant in children communicates a fuller sense of life even to those around them. Their expression of life is not less than that of the adult, but more. George MacDonald’s son, Greville, gave a lecture on William Blake in 1907 (published in 1920) in which he comments the following:
The child possibly has some instinctive knowledge of the clouds of glory whence he came; which clouds, if they mean anything, mean that the worth of life is measured rather by the poor child’s faculty of inventing a symbol of motherhood than by the millionaire’s purchase of human labour and his scientific modes of doing even better without it. The child fights and rebels against the rule of three and the rule of the world, until his imagination, that holy quality without which soul has no life, is broken: until he learns to live by bread alone.
-Greville MacDonald, The Sanity of William Blake 6
Christ, in St. Matthew’s Gospel, speaks of childhood, or some quality possessed by children, as though it is itself something like a “golden key” to the Kingdom of God.
Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.
–Jesus, Matthew 18:3 7
G.K. Chesterton, in his magnificent book Orthodoxy encapsulates it beautifully:
For we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
–G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy 8
Tangle ventures to ask this child of fire for the way to that land she has been seeking so long. She poses the question with a humility that is reminiscent of those ancients monastics in the Desert of Scetis, when they would humbly entreat direction of their spiritual father with that simple request, “Give me a word, Abba”
And the child drew near and looked up in her face so that she burst into tears. “Can you tell me the way to the country the shadows fall from?” she sobbed. “Yes. I know the way quite well. I go there myself sometimes. But you could not go my way; you are not old enough…”Do not send me out into the great heat again,” prayed Tangle. “I will not,” answered the child. And he reached up, and put his little cool hand on her heart. “Now,” he said, “you can go. The fire will not burn you. Come.”
Tangle had to cross a barrier of great heat that threatened to consume her before reaching the Old Man of the Fire. Now the child imparts to her some quality from his hands to her heart. Whatever this is, it makes her able to withstand the fire. Now, like the Burning Bush of Moses, and like the Womb of the Theotokos, Tangle will burn but will not be consumed. In one of his “unspoken sermons”, George MacDonald says the following:
He will shake heaven and earth, that only the unshakeable may remain, (verse 27): he is a consuming fire, that only that which cannot be consumed may stand forth eternal. It is the nature of God, so terribly pure that it destroys all that is not pure as fire, which demands like purity in our worship. He will have purity. It is not that the fire will burn us if we do not worship thus; but that the fire will burn us until we worship thus; yea, will go on burning within us after all that is foreign to it has yielded to its force, no longer with pain and consuming, but as the highest consciousness of life, the presence of God.
–George Macdonald, Unspoken Sermons Volume 1 9
This is again another common theme in MacDonald’s writings. That is the idea of the all-consuming presence of God, which burns like a raging fire the further one is from its center, but warms and comforts closer to the source. To approach the center, the dross must be burned away. This is the Love of God which spends itself that the Beloved may be made more lovely, and made able to approach the Holy Throne. The following passage is not the end of the tale, but brings to a close that period of the story dealing with these three “Old Man” figures. It is mysterious, perhaps even more so than the preceding images.
When they had gone some distance, the child turned up a great stone, and took something like an egg from under it. He next drew a long curved line in the sand with his finger, and laid the egg in it. He then spoke something Tangle could not understand. The egg broke, a small snake came out, and, lying in the line in the sand, grew and grew till he filled it. The moment he was thus full-grown, he began to glide away, undulating like a sea-wave. “Follow that serpent,” said the child. “He will lead you the right way.” Tangle followed the serpent. But she could not go far without looking back at the marvellous Child. He stood alone in the midst of the glowing desert, beside a fountain of red flame that had burst forth at his feet, his naked whiteness glimmering a pale rosy red in the torrid fire. There he stood, looking after her, till, from the lengthening distance, she could see him no more. The serpent went straight on, turning neither to the right nor left.
The Old Man of the Fire draws in the sand in a manner which brings to mind the story of Christ in John 8:6. In that account, a woman is accused of adultery by the scribes and Pharisees, and Jesus stoops down to write in the dirt as though he does not hear their condemnation of her. Where the Gospel text does not detail what Jesus wrote, MacDonald reveals to us what his Old Man of the Fire has drawn. With his finger he creates an emptiness in the sand that the growing serpent eventually fills before Tangle’s eyes. This shows us again the creative movement from Potentiality into Actuality that was seen earlier. Tangle is told to follow the serpent in yet another reversal. This time it recalls the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden. In that story, the following of the serpent’s temptation led to the expulsion from Paradise, but here it will finally lead Tangle to that country from whence the shadows fall. In Surah Al-Fatihah of The Quran, there is an ayah which requests that the divinity “Guide us to the straight path” (اهْدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ) . This seems in some ways to echo the petition of Christ in the Our Father, which seeks to avoid finding oneself astray from the will of God “And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one”. 10 The path back into the Garden is the same as the path from which we have come. The way through this fallen land of mere shadow must be ascended by way of the Divine Ladder, up the Holy Mountain, and it is a straight path which does not waver to the left or to the right. The brazen serpent must be gazed upon, and followed faithfully up that hill called Golgotha. This is the way to the “more life” of the unfallen Paradise, and it is a way which leads through death. This is the path of self-sacrifice tread even by Pinnochio, who, despite being a mere “puppet made of pine” eventually chooses to be “truthful, brave, and selfless” and is able to transcend his wood and strings to become a real boy. The country from whence the shadows fall is not an ethereal place that is less real than the world from which Mossy and Tangle have come. Rather, it is a place that is more real and even more solid than their homes on the other side of the magical forest; like the mountains in The Great Divorce of Lewis, and like Eden itself. The way to it is through death, and a remade creation. The door into that realm is unlocked by a magical key found within the innocence and faithfulness of our own childhood, and shrouded in the divine promise of a rainbow.
One of the final lines of MacDonald’s Phantastes is an apt one to end this exploration of the Golden Key with, I think:
“I have come through the door of Dismay; and the way back from the world into which that has led me, is through my tomb. Upon that the red sign lies, and I shall find it one day, and be glad.” 11
- George MacDonald. The Golden Key. Farrar, Straus And Giroux, 1967
- Pageau, Matthieu. The Language of Creation, Chapter 64. 2018.
- ed. Kevin Crossley-Holland. The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology, page 197. Oxford University Press. 1982
- George MacDonald. David Elginbrod, page 32. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
- Pink Floyd. Comfortably Numb. Columbia Records, 1980.
- Greville MacDonald. The Sanity of William Blake. Ruskin House, 1920.
- Jesus. The Orthodox Study Bible, at Matthew 18:3. Thomas Nelson, 2008
- G.K. Chesterton. Orthodoxy, page 66, Ignatius Press.
- George MacDonald. Unspoken Sermons: Volume 1, page 11. Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
- Jesus. The Orthodox Study Bible, at Matthew 6:13. Thomas Nelson, 2008
- George MacDonald. The George MacDonald Treasury, page 305. Kahley House Publishing, 2007.