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The study begins with an analysis of the essay 'Fiction, Fair and Foul' (1880-1) and the idealised 'word picture' of Croxted Lane near Dulwich, fondly remembered from Ruskin's childhood, with which Ruskin begins that piece. He goes to some lengths to describe the natural beauty of the place, and then compares this bucolic vision with the state of the same area in 1880, when it has become blighted by new housing, light industry and the growth of the railways. Ruskin's reminiscences here form more than a simple reactionary tirade, though. Certainly, Ruskin mourns the plight of the children growing up in the area now, bemoaning their loss of innocence in a way with which Blake would have greatly sympathised, and the fact that they will no longer be able to explore and learn to understand the natural world as Ruskin himself was able to when growing up in the area. Crucially, however, he connects the dearth of this kind of experience amongst the children of contemporary London to a stunting or even truncation of imaginative growth, further reinforcing a perennial theme of his work: that exercising the young imagination is one of the most valuable purposes of all art. Secondly, he goes on to contend that much modern fiction, with the notable exception of Scott, limits itself to an ugliness of the subject-matter, to sensationalism and to a willingness to deal with 'low' subjects. He appears to suggest that this trend is, in part, the result of the erosion of natural landscapes. Industrialisation and urban creep become linked with a paucity of the creative spirit. Conversely, to develop the human imagination is also to develop the human mind.
The second half of the study, accordingly, explores Ruskin's own literary response to this challenge and the palliative he appears to find in the 'literary fairy tale'. In a lecture entitled 'Fairy Land' (in The Art of England, 1884), he praises 'the art which intends to address only childish imagination, and whose subject is primarily to entertain with grace'. In other words, Ruskin finds a solution in a marriage between the childlike, innocent imagination and the unsullied pastoral. His views on visual arts which achieve this are well known, but in 'Fiction, Fair and Foul' he also alludes to the potential of the written word to achieve similar aims, and laments its failure so to do:
Often, both in those days and since, I have put myself hard to it, vainly, to find words wherewith to tell of beautiful things; but beauty has been in the world since the world was made, and human language can make a shift, somehow, to give account of it.
His own attempt to coerce language and the literary form into this 'shift' can be found in The King of the Golden River (1851). In this literary fairy tale, Ruskin shallowly buries a clear moral didacticism; when the Treasure Valley of the story is corrupted and made barren by the evil of the two brothers, the direct comparison between 'all that is good and true' and the unsullied pastoral is made clear and unequivocal. Further, the lush and vivid descriptions of the Treasure Valley are an example of Ruskin's own (and only fictional) attempt to 'paint' a vision of the pastoral in words, and at times bear a resemblance to the depiction of Croxted Lane in 'Fiction, Fair and Foul'. Further, by using the genre of the fairy tale, Ruskin appeals directly to the childlike imagination in which he places such faith and responsibility for the future of the arts and, further, human culture.
This study, then, will attempt to demonstrate how Ruskin's particularly moral vision of beauty finds expression in The King of the Golden River by examining the 'word painting' of landscape in it and by comparing this portrayal directly to the ideas expressed in the essay 'Fiction, Fair and Foul'(1880-1). It will also draw on Ruskin's ideas about the literary fairy tale as an expression of the childlike imagination, and the importance he attached to this facility.