The Sweet Ache of Friendship

Braving Shadows and Chasing Heaven

I’d like to walk with you through the pages of a fairy tale about friendship and loss, shadows and beauty. You’ll know if you want to accept this invitation by considering the following moments of companionship, moments when I felt the extraordinary break into the ordinary.

We sat together on the roof shoulder to shoulder, talking about everything and nothing, just a bit giddy with being together. Then the wind picked up, blowing with the sunshine through her hair. Wisps of soft brown fell across her face. Suddenly, she was no longer just a girl from my school. She came from a realm beyond, from beauty and mystery. I was, and remain, entranced.

One late afternoon, I sat on the shore with a new acquaintance. Looking at the ocean, our conversation lengthened beyond expectation. The moon rose. Suddenly, he said, “Okay, this is what I really believe.” And when he finished, I said, astonished, “Really? Me too.” No filters. No hiding. Just the sense, “I know you — as if I always had. No matter what, now I know you, and you know me.” Years later, despite many spats and reunions, our conversation still pierces me with a sense of what heavenly communion will be.

Near nightfall, I looked up into the slowly darkening summer sky. Two birds, wing to wing, flew westward, chasing the sunset. They were together. But together they were alone against the dark, hurrying to catch the light. With a heart stab, I thought, That’s us, my love: flying together, trying to beat the darkness and make the day stay. We will fly as fast and long as we can, seeking home. The night will come, but it will last only until final dawn.

These earthly tastes of aching beauty in companionship come from somewhere else, from the place we most want to be. That’s the essence of George MacDonald’s 1867 fairy tale The Golden Key, along with all his other fairy tales. They are not allegories, but they evoke an awareness of a realm beyond the ordinary. They are not specifically Christian, but they are an on-ramp to God’s great story of recreating the world in Christ. C.S Lewis reflected that, while he was still an atheist, a MacDonald novel prepared him to receive the gospel as it “baptized” his imagination.

For many, MacDonald piques the longing for the Otherworld so profoundly that, after reading one of his stories, we feel as if our whole life points toward the quest to reach it. So let’s move into The Golden Key, considering three aspects of the story.

Companionship in Quest

Independently, two children find their way into a forest that is part of Fairyland. The girl, Tangle, comes to a cottage in the woods. There she is welcomed by a beautiful, ancient woman. The lady, who wishes to be known only as Grandmother, gently tends the “tangles” of neglect the girl has known.

Meanwhile, the boy, Mossy, has followed a sunset gleam of light into these same woods. There he finds a golden key lying at the base of a rainbow. Soon he too comes to Grandmother’s house. She encourages Mossy that finding the lock that the key opens will be the quest of his life. “You must look for the keyhole. That is your work. I cannot help you. I can only tell you that if you look for it, you will find it.”

Soon, Grandmother tells the children it is time for them to venture forth, urging Tangle to accompany Mossy on his quest to find where the golden key fits. So, “Mossy and Tangle took each other’s hand and walked away into the depth of the forest. . . . By the time they got out of the forest, they were very fond of each other.” Their days in Fairyland have passed as years in our realm. Tangle and Mossy are young adults as they leave the forest and begin to ascend the mountains.

As I enter this tale, I naturally wonder what the golden key might be. Finding the lock it opens seems a worthy life goal. Is the golden key the gift of a rare faith? An impulse to push beyond the ordinary for deeper meaning? Perhaps it’s a rallying to Jesus’s words, “Seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). Maybe the golden key is believing that God “exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). Either way, if we burn with that call to quest, we know how priceless it is to find someone who will quest with us. We gladly join hands with companions who will walk with us along that narrow path.

Upward Passion

As Tangle and Mossy climb, they find a long tunnel that goes through the mountain. They come out overlooking a vast plain surrounded by mountains.

When they descend into it, they discover that the ground is covered with moving shadows — all kinds of shadows. Leaves wave as if in a breeze. Myriad flowers appear amidst them. Birds fly from branch to branch. Yet as Tangle and Mossy look around, they see no trees that could make such shadows. No actual birds fly overhead. The plain is bare; the mountains sheer. From where do such shadows come?

As they walk across the plain, knee-deep in the mysterious shadows, the leaves fade, and different kinds of shadow forms appear. People, wild horses, mythic creatures — some “unspeakable beauty” — move across the ground. But these glorious, fantastic shadows still seem to have no source!

About midway across the huge plain, Tangle and Mossy sit down to rest, lost in their own thoughts. Then MacDonald writes,

After sitting for a while, each, looking up, saw the other in tears: they were each longing after the country whence the shadows fell.

“We MUST find the country from which the shadows come,” said Mossy.

“We must, dear Mossy,” responded Tangle. “What if your golden key should be the key to it?”

As they first set out, Tangle and Mossy’s quest was sincere but vague. Now it is intensely focused. From where do shadows come that are more beautiful than this earth? That’s the country they thirst to reach.

This scene sends me to the way Hebrews describes the faithful. “People who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. . . . They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:14, 16). Their desire resonates with David’s: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4).

As the years of questing faith have unfolded, my wife and I have found that our desire for God has both clarified and intensified. We were on the journey from the beginning. But now the beauty of Christ calls in even deeper parts of us. We have sat in the sea of earthly shadows and wept for the sorrow. We have encountered the heavenly shadows in prayer and worship and cried for joy.

Separation and Reunion

Tangle and Mossy spend the rest of this day (what would unfold in our world as many years) crossing the plain. By evening, the shadows grow deeper and more sinister. The night descends. The story takes a grievous turn. Suddenly, Tangle realizes she no longer has hold of Mossy’s hand. She cries out his name but hears no reply. Then “she threw herself down and wept in despair.”

For the rest of the story, until the very end, Tangle and Mossy must journey on without each other. They both persist in the quest through strange and fantastic encounters. They cling to love and the clarity of what they most deeply desire to reach together. As I interpret the story, both pass through death before they can meet again.

The closer we grow to a companion in the quest, the more searing the cut of parting before the final goal is reached. Paul had to leave Ephesus. He knew he would not see those dear believers again in this world. “There was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because . . . they would not see his face again” (Acts 20:37–38). This journey “further up and further in,” as Lewis described it, can be laced with grief.

Finally, Mossy finds a door that his key opens. Inside a great hall, Tangle has been waiting for him for years. Soon, another door unlocks to his golden key, and the two begin a now sure ascent to the world from whence the shadows fall. MacDonald concludes, “And by this time, I think they must have got there.”

At every reading, The Golden Key reawakens my desire to reach that High Country. Memories rise of when I felt its breezes blow into this world. I feel poignantly how precious, yet brief, are the steps of the quest walked next to a true companion. And I find hope that, in Christ, we cannot be forever lost to each other. The journey’s end is sure.