Effie’s fairy tale

Euphemia ('Effie') Chalmers (née Gray), Lady Millais by (George) Herbert Watkins, albumen print, late 1850s
Euphemia (‘Effie’) Chalmers (née Gray), Lady Millais by (George) Herbert Watkins: albumen print, late 1850s, National Portrait Gallery

John Ruskin: The King of the Golden River, or
The Black Brothers: A Legend of Stiria (1851)
Illustrated by Richard Doyle, E.P.Dutton / J.M.Dent 1925
Illustrated by Charles W Stewart, Edmund Ward 1958

The King of the Golden River was written in 1841, at the request of a very young lady, and solely for her amusement, without any idea of publication…”

The very young lady was the twelve-year-old Effie Gray and the writer was John Ruskin, ten years her senior.

Ruskin was eventually to marry Effie in 1848 but the marriage foundered and was annulled, Effie then marrying the artist John Everett Millais. All that turbulence was in the future, however, and Effie must have been delighted with her present, along with later generations too after the tale was published in 1851.

The Brothers Grimm had issued the first edition of their Children’s and Household Tales back in 1812, initiating a public enthusiasm for what were called fairy tales by English-speakers. Ruskin gave a nod to German-speaking primacy in this genre by setting his story in ‘Stiria’ or Styria, a mountainous region straddling modern Austria and Slovenia. Like many of the Grimms’ tales (which the brothers were continually re-writing and ‘improving’ in successive editions) there is a strong moral dimension to Ruskin’s literary tale which has led commentators to label it a fable or parable. Who knows if the young Euphemia was aware of the overt import of Ruskin’s morality tale or whether she instinctively accepted it as natural corollary of prevailing Victorian values, values shared by many readers today.

Early 19th-century Styria: Wikimedia Commons

In five chapters (no genuinely oral folktale would have chapters!) the tale is told of the three Black Brothers, Hans (that is, Johannes, John in English), Schwartz (in German this simply means ‘black’) and Gluck (‘luck’). Many of the traditional fairytale tropes are in place: the youngest brother is the last but not the least; he who shows compassion without expectation of reward will be rewarded; supernatural helpers are on hand to offer guidance or punishment.

The two older brothers, grasping and cruel, are unwelcoming of South-West Wind, Esquire, and thus suffer retribution in the loss of their farm and livelihood. They don’t learn their lesson, however, and when they move to town to become goldsmiths their greed results in near penury.

Into this potential disaster there appears to Gluck the King of the Golden River in very singular form, with the promise of riches for the one who succeeds in completing a task to the letter.

“Whoever shall climb to the top of that mountain from which you see the Golden River issue, and shall cast into the stream at its source three drops of holy water, for him, and for him only, the river shall turn to gold. But no one failing in his first, can succeed in a second attempt; and if any one shall cast unholy water into the river, it will overwhelm him, and he will become a black stone.”


This being an improving fairy tale the reader may guess the final outcome.

The King of the Golden River isn’t perfect — the pacing is occasionally uneven, the odd explanation is rushed, and we miss the formulaic repetition of wording which is such a satisfying feature of oral tales. But this is a narrative that is compelling and which lingers in the memory, not least the environmental messages which apply even more urgently today.

My memories are enhanced by the original distinctive line illustrations by Richard Doyle which graced several re-publications over the decades, but the story has proved popular with several other artists such as Arthur Rackham and Charles Stewart providing colour as well as monochrome images. Did Effie rely solely on Ruskin’s words to create the scenes in her mind’s eye or did Ruskin himself provide some illustrations, now lost? Diana Wynne Jones recounts how as a child evacuated to the Lake District during the Second World War she inadvertently rubbed out some line drawings, mostly of flowers, that she’d discovered in a cottage: they turned out to be by John Ruskin. It’s sheer speculation of course, but it’s tempting to wonder if they included sketches for that fairy tale he wrote for another little girl, almost exactly a century before.

Repost of review first published 15th September 2013

23 thoughts on “Effie’s fairy tale

    1. I can’t do better than quote Jones herself (http://www.leemac.freeserve.co.uk/autobiog.htm):
      “We were told that Lane Head [the cottage in the Lake District the family had escaped to] had belonged to John Ruskin’s secretary and that this man’s descendants … had been the John, Susan, Titty, and Roger of Arthur Ransome’s books. Ruskin’s own house, Brantwood, was just up the road.”

      She was full of “the wonder of living in a rambling old house smelling of lamp oil, with no electricity, where the lounge (where we were forbidden to play) was full of Oriental trophies, silk couches, and Pre-Raphaelite pictures. There was a loft (also forbidden) packed with Titty and Roger’s old toys. The entry to it was above our room and I used to sneak up into it. By this time, war shortages had made themselves felt. There were no new toys and no paper to draw on and I loved drawing. One rainy afternoon, poking about the loft, I came upon a stack of high-quality thick drawing paper. To my irritation, someone had drawn flowers on every sheet, very fine and black and accurate, and signed them with a monogram, JR. I took the monogram for a bad drawing of a mosquito and assumed the fine black pencil was ink. I carried a wad of them down to our room and knelt at the window seat industriously erasing the drawings with an ink rubber. Halfway through I was caught and punished. The loft was padlocked. Oddly enough, it was only many years later that I realised that I must have innocently rubbed out a good fifty of Ruskin’s famous flower drawings.”

      Another neighbour complained about being “disturbed by a parcel of evacuees and announced that he would come next morning to complain. He hated children. There was huge dismay among the mothers. Next morning I stood in the hall, watching them rush about trying to find coffee and biscuits … with which to soothe the great Arthur Ransome. I watched with great interest as a tubby man with a beard stamped past, obviously in a great fury, and almost immediately stormed away again on finding there was nobody exactly in charge to complain to.”

      Elsewhere in the Lake District Diana’s sister and “another four-year-old girl were so tired that, when they found a nice gate, they hooked their feet on it and had a restful swing. An old woman with a sack over her shoulders stormed out of the house and hit both of them for swinging on her gate. This was Beatrix Potter. She hated children, too.” Not good experiences for Diana, herself a successful writer in years to come.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Utterly fascinating – but very depressing for a children’s author. It seems that the fact I like children is a completely wrong attribute. I don’t think Blyton liked them much, either.


        1. Well, now you know — to be a successful children’s writer you have to turn grumpy and declare a hatred for children!

          Luckily, by all accounts DWJ was very amenable, liked children and was still a successful author, so there’s still hope for you!


            1. I suspect, Dylan, that the alleged crotchety-ness of children’s authors doesn’t extend to close friends and family — Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons or Dahl’s granddaughter Sophie, the heroine of The BFG, for examples — but is bestowed instead on intruding strangers. Rather in the manner of injunctions against stalker ‘fans’ or irritation at individuals who verbally abuse celebrities when they demur from having their picture taken together.


  1. Very funny about Potter and Ransome. Although I don’t think their actions showed they “hated children” — more likely they were just running short of patience in their old age. Just 20 minutes ago I was grousing about two 8-year-old boys kicking a soccer ball around my apartment buildings’ foyer.


    1. I think Diana’s comments about the two authors were an expression of her childhood self — at that tender age adult rages must seem like the bellowings of ogres, a theme she took up in The Ogre Downstairs (http://wp.me/s2oNj1-ogre). I’m sure though you’re really nothing like the elderly Ransome or Potter!


      1. My daughter would disagree — and possibly my colleagues — but I appreciate your reassurances. And I definitely don’t hate children. Not individually, at any rate. It’s just when they come in large clumps …


        1. I appreciate your last comment — memories of difficult classes at school — especially as it’s so easy to lose sight of individuals when faced by a crowd.


  2. Fascinating stuff. Ransome portrays his dislike of children (when they appear at the wrong time) in Swallows and Amazons. Writers are justifiably intolerant of anyone interrupting at the wrong time; it doesn’t necessarily show a dislike of children. Your piece and the responses weave together important themes and characters. Thank you for the nod and thank you for the pointer to Diana Wynne Jones. I had forgotten her. We had a tape of Tony Robinson reading Chrestomanci (A Charmed Life) that we used to play in the car on family outings when the children were little. I hadn’t made the Lakeland connection.


    1. I’m sure Ransome’s and others’ irrascibility was part and parcel of the ‘children should be seen and not heard’ mentality which was even more prevalent then. Reminds me how many kids books had the mothers saying “Shh, your father’s writing in the study…”

      It’s a small world, isn’t it? When Tony Robinson lived in Bristol my wife used to give his daughter Laura piano lessons … And I had some acquaintances in the Bristol folk music scene who lived next door to Diana Wynne Jones, though I left the city before actually reading any of her work…


  3. On a lighter note, I’m not all that fond of children so may be I should take up writing children’s stories 🙂

    The King of the Golden River is a story I have read quite a few times since I was a child–it was part of my Children’s Wonderland of Stories which has a collection of fairy tales, classics, folk tales and poetry. Can’t remember who the illustrator was but it does have a full page colour plate with Mr Southwest Wind, Esquire! Must revisit and see what I think of it now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wonder if many authors who write children’s stories but who aren’t overfond of children as a tribe are in fact writing for the rather ‘odd’ child they were themselves (I use ‘odd’ meaning highly individualistic, at odds as it were with other kids’ thinking and preferences)? They could be apt to be fond of a select few — say, like Dahl with his granddaughter — but see children en masse as a threatening or annoying bunch. Just a theory, anyway.

      The second edition I cited above, the one illustrated by Charles W Stewart, has colour illustrations (unlike the Doyle pictures, which were all monochrome line engravings) so I wonder if that’s the edition you’re remembering?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I dug out my copy of the collected stories but there isn’t a word in it about the illustrations or illustrators-–the story itself has b&w ones with the one colour plate. It’s from 1939, the first edition that is, my copy is printed in 1986.

        Re the odd child they were themselves, that does make sense, and thinking about it, I’d fall in that category too since I didn’t much care for other children even when I was a child-–I remember asking my mother once to send them back home since they’d stayed too long 😛

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh, this is so familiar, Mallika, that feeling of guests of whatever age who’d overstayed their welcome! Being sociable can be so exhausting for those who aren’t naturally sociable — which is why some of us prefer social media as you can usually take interaction at your own pace!

          I’ve realised in recent years that this is a common trait for many on the autistic spectrum and, though not officially diagnosed, I’m happy to identify as neurodivergent, one who doesn’t manage the norms of neurotypical behaviour at all well. I suspect many writers, especially the grumpy ones who don’t manage company well either, may well be on the spectrum — even though anybody is of course capable of being grumpy!

          I do sigh at publications that don’t give credit where it’s due: not acknowledging who the illustrations are by is so disrespectful, I think.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I wonder why they didn’t mention the illustrator, they are pretty good too unlike the rather awful ones in a copy of Oblamov I acquired, and where they have given the proper attribution.

            Liked by 1 person

        1. I had hoped to have read or at least seen Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice before now, but I wanted to read Mary Mccarthy’s essays on Florence and Venice again before that (having hung on to a copy for at least a dozen years or more) and also Dickens’ memoir of travels in Italy. Tempus definitely fugit.

          Liked by 1 person

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