“The Day Boy and the Night Girl”
by George MacDonald
It’s an old saying that opposites attract. But is there hope for reconciliation if the world of each opposite is deadly to the other? Can each opposite be right, but better when united to the other? Sounds like a topic too heavy for a fairy tale? Welcome to the world of 19th-century Scottish preacher turned writer George MacDonald, and gorgeous 1882 fable, “The Day Boy and the Night Girl.”
Don’t get turned off by MacDonald’s original calling in religion. Ostracized from the church, he turned to writing to support his growing family. Not all his work translates well beyond its Victorian roots, but he left a handful of stories of enduring power, written in prose rich as a Thanksgiving pumpkin pie.
“There once was a witch who desired to know everything,” the story of "The Day Boy and the Night Girl" begins. “Her name was Watho, and she had a wolf in her mind. She cared for nothing in itself – only for knowing it.”
And to that end, Watho designs a diabolical experiment: what effect will raising human beings in completely different environments have on their psychology? She entices two pregnant women to visit her. (In deference to Victorian sensibilities, MacDonald doesn’t actually state that the women were pregnant, only that they gave birth to children during their visits.)
The first woman is a member of the king’s court, whose husband is away on a long and dangerous mission. The second woman was a young widow whose husband has recently died, and who has since become blind. They are housed in different parts of Watho’s castle, unaware of each other’s presence and treated differently, to the extent even of receiving special diets.: “venison and feathered game,” milk and “pale sunny sparkling wine” for one, for the other “milk and wine dark as a carbuncle, and pomegranates, and purple grapes, and birds that dwell in marshy place.”
The first woman gives birth to a son who Watho steals immediately afterward, telling the mother that her child died the moment he was born. After the distraught mother left the castle, the witch secretly raises the boy, naming him Photogen, and “taking care that the child should not know darkness.”
Several months after Photogen is born, the second woman also gives birth, dying in the process. Her child, who Watho names Nycteris, is raised in darkness, housed in a windowless part of the castle illuminated only enough to allow the child’s nurse to tend to her.
And so the children grew up, neither knowing the other, until their teens. Again sparing the sensibilities of his Victorian readers, MacDonald doesn’t use terms as crude as “puberty” or “adolescence.” But we know from the kids’ increasing restlessness that teenage rebellion can’t be far behind.
The girl is the first. (MacDonald’s heroines tend to display a surprising un-Victorian tendency toward independence.) One night while Nycteris’s nurse-turned-jailer is absent, a minor earthquake shakes the castle, knocking down her single lamp. While searching for the lost lamp, the girl accidentally discovers a secret door out of her windowless chamber and escapes to the top of the castle.
|"Starry Night," wikimedia commons|
There, for the first time, she sees the sky, “lit by a perfect moon . . . like silver glowing in a furnace – a moon one could see to be a globe – not far off, a mere flat disc on the face of the blue, but hanging down halfway, and looking as if one could see all round it by a mere bending of the neck.” Her life can never be the same, and although she returns eventually to her room in the castle, she becomes increasingly adept at sneaking out to revel in the beauty of the night.
Photogen has always been allowed to roam freely, although Watho has given her huntsman orders to bring him home before darkness falls.
However, “one morning, when he happened to be on the ground a little earlier than usual, and before his attendants (Photogen) caught sight of an animal unknown to him, stealing from a hollow into which the sunrays had not yet reached.” He pursues the animal on horseback, but it eludes him. He questions the huntsman, remarking that the creature must be a coward, and before thinking, the man replies that it was “one of the creatures the sun makes uncomfortable. As soon as the sun is down, he will be brave enough.”
The answer makes Photogen determined to test his own courage by confronting this terror of the dark that Watho has warned him against. But when he slips away secretly at night, he finds his light-based courage unequal to the terrors of darkness. Until he meets Nycteris, who is as at home in the dark as he is in the light.
It doesn’t take the witch long to discover their meetings. And in revenge for their spoiling of her hideous psychological experiment, she devises a dreadful punishment, one that neither can endure alone.
Will they be able to survive? Will they escape the witch’s imprisoning castle and her power? Treat yourself to a free online reading of “The Day Boy and the Night Girl” at Librivox (or at any of several sites on YouTube.)
(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a November of fairy tale fantasy with Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard.”)