The King of the Golden River was written in 1841 as a gift for the thirteen-year-old Effie Gray (who was later to become Ruskin's wife). Ruskin's first biographer, W. G. Collingwood, relates the circumstances as follows:
'The story goes that she challenged the melancholy John, engrossed in his drawing and geology, to write a fairy tale — as the least likely task for him to fulfill. Upon which he produced at a couple of sittings The King of the Golden River, a pretty medley of Grimm's grotesque and Dickens' kindliness and the true Ruskinian ecstasy of the Alps.'
The story was never intended for the general public and remained unpublished till 1850, when Ruskin gave his 'passive assent' to its publication. Charmingly illustrated by Richard Doyle, it was quickly successful and remained so throughout the nineteenth century.
The influences named by Collingwood were noted by Ruskin himself in Praeterita. He was an enthusiastic follower of Dickens and read all his stories and novels as they appeared. He first read Grimm's fairy tales as a small boy. Edgar Taylor's German Popular Stories of 1826, splendidly illustrated with etchings by George Cruikshank, grafted itself upon his imagination, and in 1868 he wrote the introduction to a new edition of it, emphasizing the importance for developing imaginations of the traditional tale and its power to animate
'the material world with inextinguishable life'.
Neither Ruskin nor Collingwood mentions the influence of Turner's Alpine paintings. It is clear, even from a single reading of the story, that Ruskin was already searching for a way of expressing in words the same feeling for landscape that he found in Turner. Without the discovery that the fairy tale represents, Modern Painters might not have been possible. Moreover, what Ruskin most admired in Turner was his ability to combine the truthful depiction of natural wonders with an awareness of the moral order underpinning them. Thus, when the wicked brothers in this tale are judged by the 'red glory of the sunset', the conception is Turnerian and something more than a pleasant fancy.
When Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism argues that
'Ruskin's treatment of wealth in his economic works is essentially a commentary on this fairy tale',
he exaggerates. It is nonetheless surprising to find how much of Unto this Last is there in embryo. If one wished to extract a moral from the allegory, one could hardly do better than the dictum from Unto this Last: 'There is no Wealth but Life'.