I never had a chance to read George MacDonald’s fairytales when I was a child. It was not until I was a teenager that I discovered his two most widely read novels, The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie, not until I began teaching a course in Fantasy Literature that I read Lilith and Phantases, not until the following year in a Children’s Literature class that I read At the Back of the North Wind. It was also only then that I first read MacDonald’s fairytales.
They are an eclectic mix of stories. Some are clearly intended for children, including moral tales like the The Golden Key and whimsical stories like The Light Princess. Others are perhaps written for a more adult audience, including The Gray Wolf, an eerie little story about a werewolf, and The Day Boy and the Night Girl, a tale that explores some relational themes of a more mature nature than most fairytales do. In every case, though, MacDonald’s characteristic imagination makes them beautiful. They have the quality of dreams, narratively ethereal but imagistically vivid all at once. They are exactly what I want fairytales to be.
If I did not come to read MacDonald’s writing until much later than most, I still know very little about Maurice Sendak’s art at all. I cannot now recall when I first discovered Where the Wild Things Are, a perennial children’s favourite, but it remains the only book of Sendak’s that I have ever read. I have glanced at his illustrations for the Little Bear books, which were adapted into a tolerable children’s television show that my son now enjoys, but until recently I knew nothing else about Sendak and had no reason to suspect that he would ever be related to the MacDonald fairytales that I loved so much.
Last year, however, I found a used copy of MacDonald’s The Golden Key. It was a small blue hardcover edition illustrated with the most beautiful line drawings. They reflected MacDonald’s dreamlike sensibility well, interpreting the story without forcing themsleves onto it, and they were drawn by Maurice Sendak. I bought the book, of course, fully intending to discover whether similar editions had been made of MacDonald’s other fairytales, but it was an intention that I promptly forgot, and the book went on the shelf, and I did not think much more about it.
There the story might have remained had I not gone into a used bookstore this past fall and discovered The Light Princess in the same edition and with the same illustrator. I bought it even without really looking at it, and I can remember vividly heading straight home so that I could check the publisher’s website and find which other fairytales they might have published in the same edition. Somewhere between the store and the front door, however, something intervened, and I forget once more, and so, it was only today that I saw the books again on my shelf and finally completed the task that I had first set myself over a year ago.
In retrospect, I think that my forgotten intentions may have been an unconsious attempt at self-protection. As long as I did not actually find anything definitive to the contrary, I could always hope that Sendak had produced illustrations for a whole number of MacDonald’s books, and I could keep watch for them as I browsed my way through thrift stores and used book stalls. As soon as I knew for certain, as I now do, that there are no other such books to find, I can only regret that there are so few to be had. I must confess, I preferred it when I was ignorant.