Fairy Tales and Other Traditional Stories


“The Golden River”

by John Ruskin
Additional Information
  • Year Published: 0
  • Language: English
  • Country of Origin: England
  • Source: John Ruskin, King of the Golden River
  • Readability:
    • Flesch–Kincaid Level: 4.3
  • Word Count: 2,433


There was once a beautiful little valley, where the sun was warm, and the rains fell softly; its apples were so red, its corn so yellow, its grapes so blue, that it was called the Treasure Valley. Not a river ran into it, but one great river flowed down the mountains on the other side, and because the setting sun always tinged its high cataract with gold after the rest of the world was dark, it was called the Golden River. The lovely valley belonged to three brothers. The youngest, little Gluck, was happy-hearted and kind, but he had a hard life with his brothers, for Hans and Schwartz were so cruel and so mean that they were known everywhere around as the “Black Brothers.” They were hard to their farm hands, hard to their customers, hard to the poor, and hardest of all to Gluck.

At last the Black Brothers became so bad that the Spirit of the West Wind took vengeance on them; he forbade any of the gentle winds, south and west, to bring rain to the valley. Then, since there were no rivers in it, it dried up, and instead of a treasure valley it became a desert of dry, red sand. The Black Brothers could get nothing out of it, and they wandered out into the world on the other side of the mountain-peaks; and little Gluck went with them.

Hans and Schwartz went out every day, wasting their time in wickedness, but they left Gluck in the house to work. And they lived on the gold and silver they had saved in Treasure Valley, till at last it was all gone. The only precious thing left was Gluck’s gold mug. This the Black Brothers decided to melt into spoons, to sell; and in spite of Gluck’s tears, they put it in the melting pot, and went out, leaving him to watch it.

Poor little Gluck sat at the window, trying not to cry for his dear golden mug, and as the sun began to go down, he saw the beautiful cataract of the Golden River turn red, and yellow, and then pure gold.

“Oh, dear!” he said to himself, “how fine it would be if the river were really golden! I needn’t be poor, then.”

“It wouldn’t be fine at all!” said a thin, metallic little voice, in his ear.

“Mercy, what’s that!” said Gluck, looking all about. But nobody was there.

Suddenly the sharp little voice came again.

“Pour me out,” it said, “I am too hot!”

It seemed to come right from the oven, and as Gluck stood, staring in fright, it came again, “Pour me out; I’m too hot!”

Gluck was very much frightened, but he went and looked in the melting pot. When he touched it, the little voice said, “Pour me out, I say!” And Gluck took the handle and began to pour the gold out.

First came out a tiny pair of yellow legs; then a pair of yellow coat-tails; then a strange little yellow body, and, last, a wee yellow face, with long curls of gold hair. And the whole put itself together as it fell, and stood up on the floor,—the strangest little yellow dwarf, about a foot high!

“Dear, me!” said Gluck.

But the little yellow man said, “Gluck, do you know who I am? I am the King of the Golden River.”

Gluck did not know what to say, so he said nothing; and, indeed, the little man gave him no chance. He said, “Gluck, I have been watching you, and what I have seen of you, I like. Listen, and I will tell you something for your good. Whoever shall climb to the top of the mountain from which the Golden River falls, and shall cast into its waters three drops of holy water, for him and him only shall its waters turn to gold. But no one can succeed except at the first trial, and anyone who casts unholy water in the river will be turned into a black stone.”

And then, before Gluck could draw his breath, the King walked straight into the hottest flame of the fire, and vanished up the chimney!

When Gluck’s brothers came home, they beat him black and blue, because the mug was gone. But when he told them about the King of the Golden River they quarrelled all night, as to which should go to get the gold. At last, Hans, who was the stronger, got the better of Schwartz, and started off. The priest would not give such a bad man any holy water, so he stole a bottleful. Then he took a basket of bread and wine, and began to climb the mountain.

He climbed fast, and soon came to the end of the first hill. But there he found a great glacier, a hill of ice, which he had never seen before. It was horrible to cross,—the ice was slippery, great gulfs yawned before him, and noises like groans and shrieks came from under his feet. He lost his basket of bread and wine, and was quite faint with fear and exhaustion when his feet touched firm ground again.

Next he came to a hill of hot, red rock, without a bit of grass to ease the feet, or a particle of shade. After an hour’s climb he was so thirsty that he felt that he must drink. He looked at the flask of water. “Three drops are enough,” he thought; “I will just cool my lips.” He was lifting the flask to his lips when he saw something beside him in the path. It was a small dog, and it seemed to be dying of thirst. Its tongue was out, its legs were lifeless, and a swarm of black ants were crawling about its lips. It looked piteously at the bottle which Hans held. Hans raised the bottle, drank, kicked at the animal, and passed on.

A strange black shadow came across the blue sky.

Another hour Hans climbed; the rocks grew hotter and the way steeper every moment. At last he could bear it no longer; he must drink. The bottle was half empty, but he decided to drink half of what was left. As he lifted it, something moved in the path beside him. It was a child, lying nearly dead of thirst on the rock, its eyes closed, its lips burning, its breath coming in gasps. Hans looked at it, drank, and passed on.

A dark cloud came over the sun, and long shadows crept up the mountain-side.

It grew very steep now, and the air weighed like lead on Hans’s forehead, but the Golden River was very near. Hans stopped a moment to breathe, then started to climb the last height.

As he clambered on, he saw an old, old man lying in the path. His eyes were sunken, and his face deadly pale.

“Water!” he said; “water!”

“I have none for you,” said Hans; “you have had your share of life.” He strode over the old man’s body and climbed on.

A flash of blue lightning dazzled him for an instant, and then the heavens were dark.

At last Hans stood on the brink of the cataract of the Golden River. The sound of its roaring filled the air. He drew the flask from his side and hurled it into the torrent. As he did so, an icy chill shot through him; he shrieked and fell. And the river rose and flowed over

The Black Stone.

When Hans did not come back Gluck grieved, but Schwartz was glad. He decided to go and get the gold for himself. He thought it might not do to steal the holy water, as Hans had done, so he took the money little Gluck had earned, and bought holy water of a bad priest. Then he took a basket of bread and wine, and started off.

He came to the great hill of ice, and was as surprised as Hans had been, and found it as hard to cross. Many times he slipped, and he was much frightened at the noises, and was very glad to get across, although he had lost his basket of bread and wine. Then he came to the same hill of sharp, red stone, without grass or shade, that Hans had climbed. And like Hans he became very thirsty. Like Hans, too, he decided to drink a little of the water. As he raised it to his lips, he suddenly saw the same fair child that Hans had seen.

“Water!” said the child. “Water! I am dying.”

“I have not enough for myself,” said Schwartz, and passed on.

A low bank of black cloud rose out of the west.

When he had climbed for another hour, the thirst overcame him again, and again he lifted the flask to his lips. As he did so, he saw an old man who begged for water.

“I have not enough for myself,” said Schwartz, and passed on.

A mist, of the colour of blood, came over the sun.

Then Schwartz climbed for another hour, and once more he had to drink. This time, as he lifted the flask, he thought he saw his brother Hans before him. The figure stretched its arms to him, and cried out for water.

“Ha, ha,” laughed Schwartz, “do you suppose I brought the water up here for you?” And he strode over the figure. But when he had gone a few yards farther, he looked back, and the figure was not there.

Then he stood at the brink of the Golden River, and its waves were black, and the roaring of the waters filled all the air. He cast the flask into the stream. And as he did so the lightning glared in his eyes, the earth gave way beneath him, and the river flowed over

The Two Black Stones.

When Gluck found himself alone, he at last decided to try his luck with the King of the Golden River. The priest gave him some holy water as soon as he asked for it, and with this and a basket of bread he started off.

The hill of ice was much harder for Gluck to climb, because he was not so strong as his brothers. He lost his bread, fell often, and was exhausted when he got on firm ground. He began to climb the hill in the hottest part of the day. When he had climbed for an hour he was very thirsty, and lifted the bottle to drink a little water. As he did so he saw a feeble old man coming down the path toward him.

“I am faint with thirst,” said the old man; “will you give me some of that water?”

Gluck saw that he was pale and tired, so he gave him the water, saying, “Please don’t drink it all.” But the old man drank a great deal, and gave back the bottle two-thirds emptied. Then he bade Gluck good speed, and Gluck went on merrily.

Some grass appeared on the path, and the grasshoppers began to sing.

At the end of another hour, Gluck felt that he must drink again. But, as he raised the flask, he saw a little child lying by the roadside, and it cried out pitifully for water. After a struggle with himself Gluck decided to bear the thirst a little longer. He put the bottle to the child’s lips, and it drank all but a few drops. Then it got up and ran down the hill.

All kinds of sweet flowers began to grow on the rocks, and crimson and purple butterflies flitted about in the air.

At the end of another hour, Gluck’s thirst was almost unbearable. He saw that there were only five or six drops of water in the bottle, however, and he did not dare to drink. So he was putting the flask away again when he saw a little dog on the rocks, gasping for breath. He looked at it, and then at the Golden River, and he remembered the dwarf’s words, “No one can succeed except at the first trial”; and he tried to pass the dog. But it whined piteously, and Gluck stopped. He could not bear to pass it. “Confound the King and his gold, too!” he said; and he poured the few drops of water into the dog’s mouth.

The dog sprang up; its tail disappeared, its nose grew red, and its eyes twinkled. The next minute the dog was gone, and the King of the Golden River stood there. He stooped and plucked a lily that grew beside Gluck’s feet. Three drops of dew were on its white leaves. These the dwarf shook into the flask which Gluck held in his hand.

“Cast these into the river,” he said, “and go down the other side of the mountains into the Treasure Valley.” Then he disappeared.

Gluck stood on the brink of the Golden River, and cast the three drops of dew into the stream. Where they fell, a little whirlpool opened; but the water did not turn to gold. Indeed, the water seemed vanishing altogether. Gluck was disappointed not to see gold, but he obeyed the King of the Golden River, and went down the other side of the mountains.

When he came out into the Treasure Valley, a river, like the Golden River, was springing from a new cleft in the rocks above, and flowing among the heaps of dry sand. And then fresh grass sprang beside the river, flowers opened along its sides, and vines began to cover the whole valley. The Treasure Valley was becoming a garden again.

Gluck lived in the Valley, and his grapes were blue, and his apples were red, and his corn was yellow; and the poor were never driven from his door. For him, as the King had promised, the river was really a River of Gold.