Curdie and the Rose Fire

16×18″ pastels on paper

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This piece was inspired by the following scene from “The Princess and Curdie” by George MacDonald, and the original hangs in my daughters’ bedroom to remind them of God’s protection amidst suffering:

The princess stopped, her wheel stopped, and she laughed. And her laugh was sweeter than song and wheel; sweeter than running brook and silver bell; sweeter than joy itself, for the heart of the laugh was love.

‘Come now, Curdie, to this side of my wheel, and you will find me,’ she said; and her laugh seemed sounding on still in the words, as if they were made of breath that had laughed.

Curdie obeyed, and passed the wheel, and there she stood to receive him! – fairer than when he saw her last, a little younger still, and dressed not in green and emeralds, but in pale blue, with a coronet of silver set with pearls, and slippers covered with opals that gleamed every colour of the rainbow. It was some time before Curdie could take his eyes from the marvel of her loveliness. Fearing at last that he was rude, he turned them away; and, behold, he was in a room that was for beauty marvellous! The lofty ceiling was all a golden vine, Whose great clusters of carbuncles, rubies, and chrysoberyls hung down like the bosses of groined arches, and in its centre hung the most glorious lamp that human eyes ever saw – the Silver Moon itself, a globe of silver, as it seemed, with a heart of light so wondrous potent that it rendered the mass translucent, and altogether radiant.

The room was so large that, looking back, he could scarcely see the end at which he entered; but the other was only a few yards from him – and there he saw another wonder: on a huge hearth a great fire was burning, and the fire was a huge heap of roses, and yet it was fire. The smell of the roses filled the air, and the heat of the flames of them glowed upon his face. He turned an inquiring look upon the lady, and saw that she was now seated in an ancient chair, the legs of which were crusted with gems, but the upper part like a nest of daisies and moss and green grass.

‘Curdie,’ she said in answer to his eyes, ‘you have stood more than one trial already, and have stood them well: now I am going to put you to a harder. Do you think you are prepared for it?’

‘How can I tell, ma’am,’ he returned, ‘seeing I do not know what it is, or what preparation it needs? Judge me yourself, ma’am.’

‘It needs only trust and obedience,’ answered the lady.

‘I dare not say anything, ma’am. If you think me fit, command me.’

‘it will hurt you terribly, Curdie, but that will be all; no real hurt but much good will come to you from it.’

Curdie made no answer but stood gazing with parted lips in the lady’s face.

‘Go and thrust both your hands into that fire,’ she said quickly, almost hurriedly.

Curdie dared not stop to think. It was much too terrible to think about. He rushed to the fire, and thrust both of his hands right into the middle of the heap of flaming roses, and his arms halfway up to the elbows. And it did hurt! But he did not draw them back. He held the pain as if it were a thing that would kill him if he let it go – as indeed it would have done. He was in terrible fear lest it should conquer him.

But when it had risen to the pitch that he thought he could bear it no longer, it began to fall again, and went on growing less and less until by contrast with its former severity it had become rather pleasant. At last it ceased altogether, and Curdie thought his hands must be burned to cinders if not ashes, for he did not feel them at all. The princess told him to take them out and look at them. He did so, and found that all that was gone of them was the rough, hard skin; they were white and smooth like the princess’s.

‘Come to me,’ she said.

He obeyed and saw, to his surprise, that her face looked as if she had been weeping.

‘Oh, Princess! What is the matter?’ he cried. ‘Did I make a noise and vex you?’

‘No, Curdie, she answered; ‘but it was very bad.’

‘Did you feel it too then?’

‘Of course I did. But now it is over, and all is well. Would you like to know why I made You put your hands in the fire?’ Curdie looked at them again – then said:

‘To take the marks of the work off them and make them fit for the king’s court, I suppose.’

‘No, Curdie,’ answered the princess, shaking her head, for she was not pleased with the answer. ‘It would be a poor way of making your hands fit for the king’s court to take off them signs of his service. There is a far greater difference on them than that. Do you feel none?’

‘No, ma’am.’

‘You will, though, by and by, when the time comes. But perhaps even then you might not know what had been given you, therefore I will tell you. Have you ever heard what some philosophers say – that men were all animals once?’

‘No, ma’am.’

‘it is of no consequence. But there is another thing that is of the greatest consequence – this: that all men, if they do not take care, go down the hill to the animals’ country; that many men are actually, all their lives, going to be beasts. People knew it once, but it is long since they forgot it.’

‘I am not surprised to hear it, ma’am, when I think of some of our miners.’

‘Ah! But you must beware, Curdie, how you say of this man or that man that he is travelling beastward. There are not nearly so many going that way as at first sight you might think. When you met your father on the hill tonight, you stood and spoke together on the same spot; and although one of you was going up and the other coming down, at a little distance no one could have told which was bound in the one direction and which in the other. just so two people may be at the same spot in manners and behaviour, and yet one may be getting better and the other worse, which is just the greatest of all differences that could possibly exist between them.’

‘But ma’am,’ said Curdie, ‘where is the good of knowing that there is such a difference, if you can never know where it is?’

‘Now, Curdie, you must mind exactly what words I use, because although the right words cannot do exactly what I want them to do, the wrong words will certainly do what I do not want them to do. I did not say you can never know. When there is a necessity for your knowing, when you have to do important business with this or that man, there is always a way of knowing enough to keep you from any great blunder. And as you will have important business to do by and by, and that with people of whom you yet know nothing, it will be necessary that you should have some better means than usual of learning the nature of them.

‘Now listen. Since it is always what they do, whether in their minds or their bodies, that makes men go down to be less than men, that is, beasts, the change always comes first in their hands – and first of all in the inside hands, to which the outside ones are but as the gloves. They do not know it of course; for a beast does not know that he is a beast, and the nearer a man gets to being a beast the less he knows it. Neither can their best friends, or their worst enemies indeed, see any difference in their hands, for they see only the living gloves of them. But there are not a few who feel a vague something repulsive in the hand of a man who is growing a beast.

‘Now here is what the rose-fire has done for you: it has made your hands so knowing and wise, it has brought your real hands so near the outside of your flesh gloves, that you will henceforth be able to know at once the hand of a man who is growing into a beast; nay, more – you will at once feel the foot of the beast he is growing, just as if there were no glove made like a man’s hand between you and it.

‘Hence of course it follows that you will be able often, and with further education in zoology, will be able always to tell, not only when a man is growing a beast, but what beast he is growing to, for you will know the foot – what it is and what beast’s it is. According, then, to your knowledge of that beast will be your knowledge of the man you have to do with. Only there is one beautiful and awful thing about it, that if any one gifted with this perception once uses it for his own ends, it is taken from him, and then, not knowing that it is gone, he is in a far worse condition than before, for he trusts to what he has not got.’

‘How dreadful!’ Said Curdie. ‘I must mind what I am about.’

‘Yes, indeed, Curdie.’

‘But may not one sometimes make a mistake without being able to help it?’

‘Yes. But so long as he is not after his own ends, he will never make a serious mistake.

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