Sunday, May 23, 2010

"The Golden River"

One unexpected benefit of writing on this blog is that--since any duck story I read nowadays (and I read or reread at least one a day) I'm reading with half an eye towards possibly writing an entry about it--I've become more analytical about them. This may cause me to be MORE critical of not-so-great stories, but it also deepens my appreciation for the good ones, because I'm better able to articulate WHY they're good.
Today's story, 1958's "Golden River," doesn't have a mind-bogglingly original plot: Scrooge is a greedy jerk; learns to be less of a greedy jerk--until next time. The details are what makes it stand out. Let's go through it in some detail, shall we?

We don't need to dwell too much on the set-up, which perhaps runs somewhat longer than it absolutely would have had to (no snide remarks about the length of this entry, please). Basically, the dry weather makes the money in Scrooge's bin shrink, and it makes him feel like he's going broke, putting him in an even more penurious mood than usual.

I love how amused his clerks are by his vociferations. They're clearly far too familiar with all this to be anything but completely blasé.

Naturally, he is less than enthused about the prospect of donating five dollars for a Junior Woodchucks playground. Here's the most important part of these preliminaries:

I like the image of HDL cowering behind the desk. In any case, this basically sums up Scrooge's mindset here: a combination of pride at having saved saved saved and sublimated resentment at having therefore never had any of what other people consider "fun." Look at how the force of his vehemence seems to be hitting Donald like a physical object in the bottom right.

So: no money forthcoming. But the kids come up with a way for him not to feel like he's going broke, by piping steam into the bottom of his bin, causing the money to expand again--in exchange for the five bucks. As one would anticipate, however, this goes sub-optimally: he forgets to turn off the steam, and has a bin blow-out that will cost A MILLION DOLLARS to fix. This causes him to have a nervous breakdown, and makes him even less likely to part with an extra fiver.

I feel like cartoon doctors are disproportionately fond of ordering people to go on surprisingly specific trips to calm themselves. Good way to move the action along, I guess.

Now we get to the main meat of the story, in the mountains. I'm going to go over one particular page here in minute detail, as I think it's really quite brilliant in the way it subtly reveals the contours of Scrooge's mindset.

To pass the time, one of the kids offers to read him a story, which turns out to be John Ruskin's "King of the Golden River."

Again, you can see his attitude of bitter satisfaction--this idea that he never did anything but work work work, and the troubling, underlying question of whether or not it was worth it. The fact that just the IDEA of hearing a story causes him to fall into such reminiscences shows how close to the surface of his mind this all is. But look on:

There's a change--look at his completely guileless smile there as he imagines this gnome king. In spite of all his protestations of hard-bitten-ness, there's obviously still an innocent core in there--one thinks perhaps that in bragging about being such a perfect capitalist, he protests a bit too much.

Here, you can see this going even further--even though the story's emphasis on "unselfishness" is an implicit critique of Scrooge's ways, he doesn't appear to mean "soft touch, wasn't he?" in anything other than an affectionate way.

But, we're back soon enough. Which only makes sense--throughout this story, Scrooge is more or less prey to his subconscious wherever it takes him, so this kind of mercurial behavior makes sense. Incidentally, although I'm not really emphasizing Donald's small role here--this entry is gonna be plenty long as it is--his background disapproval of Scrooge's rampaging id is also very effectively executed.

Anyway--in what is admittedly an overly convenient coincidence, the actual nearby waterfall starts spouting gold.

"Simon Pure"--that enriched my vocabulary, I must admit. Anyway, convenient though it is, you can pretty clearly see the difference between this and that damn flying non-horse story: here, it's in the service of an otherwise interesting and worthwhile story, so we don't mind it.

Of course, there's a rational explanation, even if I have a little bit of trouble quite wrapping my head around it: Donald and the kids go up the falls and see that the gold starts and stops based on whether some hot springs are flowing. Naturally, they see a way to use this to get their five bucks. But of course--this should probably go without saying--the "logic" here is really just a smokescreen to cover what really IS a morality play. There would be no rational explanation if there weren't a moral explanation, is what I'm saying. Gah.

You could argue that the idea that Scrooge would be fooled by this seems HIGHLY dubious, but I think you would be overlooking the extent to which he's not in a rational frame of mind. There's this whole golden river thing which seems to be mirroring something in a children's story, and at the same time he's thinking about his youth and the value of his entire raison d'être, and, well, I think you can see how he could potentially be taken in. The same rationale could be applied to the upcoming bit, where Donald dresses as a hobo to get the cash.

Scrooge has a crisis of conscience, but you can say, oh, this doesn't mean anything; the only reason he's willing to countenance the possibility that he's been too stingy is that he wants the gold to come back--and you'd be partially right, but the fact that he's thinking along these lines clearly goes to something deeper than simple avarice. Enter Donald:

Yeah, I REALLY like Donald's role here--you don't see him get the best of Scrooge very often, so the way he playfully and effortlessly PLAYS him here--it's an appealing sight indeed. It also matches up with the way you would expect a spirit to act in a faerie story--it isn't arbitrary.

So the kids try to get the gold to flow again, but they screw up a bit.

That's a funny image. I like it. And it goes to show what I've been saying: there are moral rather than rational reasons for this. Scrooge hasn't quite gotten to where he needs to get yet.

Exactly. As a narrative of religious conversion, this gets to the bottom of what's wrong with Chick tracts (I mean, besides all the other things): "Holy SHIT, I have to accept Jesus to avoid Hell!" is a purely mercenary calculation, and it will NEVER lead to sincere religious sentiment (it's also the problem with Pascal's Wager). Why was he so willing to believe Donald's cockamamie tales of woe? Because he just wanted to get the gold to flow. There was no real moral impetus behind it. He's clearly thinking a bit more rationally at this point.

This, too. We think back to Scrooge raging over this at the story's beginning. Barks had it all planned out--and very neatly too, I might add. This kind of self-knowledge makes me think I should've tacked a few extra points onto his wisdom score.

Hooray! Redemption (until next time)! NOW, the gold can start to flow again.


Not quite a perfect story--it DOES hinge on one dubious coincidence, and the outline of Scrooge's arc is perhaps overly familiar--but there's a lot of depth here, and it's still, let's face it, better than anything of which ninety-five percent of all other duck writers were ever capable.



Blogger Achille Talon said...

So your Golden River is golden. Lucky fellows.

(Let me explain. For no apparent reason, the colorist of our French version decided to "get realistic" and instead of a bright yellow river, we got a standard-blue-river-with-a-few-vaguely-yellow-spots. Realistic, but not the stuff of fairy tales !)

Also: the King of the Golden River that Scrooge imagines looks kinda like a dwarfed Muchkale, which makes a great deal of sense (wasn't Muchkale the King of the Golden Moon ?).

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August 18, 2021 at 5:35 AM  
Blogger Pan Miluś said...

I read the Fantagraphics version and while I love their coloring and I like the orange old in the last panel it felt more like goo.

It is an enjoyable story. I like it's just Scrooge, HD&L and Scrooge in one spot which helps creates a sense of place. In a way it's atmospheric.

October 3, 2022 at 5:55 PM  

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