ruskin 1

John Ruskin King of the Golden River

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Unlike the Puritans, John Ruskin believed fairy tales were the perfect literature for kids. In an introduction he wrote to a new edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, he expressed his belief that fairy tales are “free from faults.”

John Ruskin’s King of the Golden River is an organic continuation to the fairy tale tradition. It is an all male version of Cinderella.

The female version of Cinderella in each culture defines the ideal woman. This work utilizes, manipulates and reinvents the fairy tale as a tool with which Ruskin comments upon and criticizes contemporary definitions of fatherhood and masculinity specifically through fantastical creatures.

The South-West Wind Esquire and the King of the Golden River, who help Ruskin’s boy-Cinderella, Gluck, are physically as small or smaller than their charge, but their power exceeds that of the his large and violent brothers, who arguably represent contemporary ideals of masculinity. The King and Wind are able to control the weather, turn a desert into a garden, and grant wishes. Yet Ruskin undermines these magical helpers. He forces his child protagonist to recognize the limitations of fairies, whose own weaknesses become increasingly apparent. Gluck’s success at the end happens despite, not because of, the surrogates’ efforts to help. The book reclaims fairy tales by updating many of their common features to fit Ruskin’s reality. This readjustment includes, most importantly, a redefinition of the conservative image of masculinity most fairy tales endorse. The fantastical creature represents a highly conservative and rigid view of masculinity, which is the idea that fathers were little more than providers and moral overseers, who engage very little in the emotional life of children. Filtered through his own problematic relationship with his parents and his own gender identity, Ruskin challenges this notion by challenging conventional models of masculinity in their reliance on aggressive capitalism and physical violence.

In your comments, think about each brother. What kinds of masculinity do they represent? What is it saying about the role of humans in nature and the kind of system we should build as a society? How does the structure of the Cinderella narrative allow Ruskin to comment on the ideals of masculinity in his time? What model of masculinity does Gluck represent?

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