Waterlilies are aquatic herbs, their roots grow in the mud at the bottom of ponds and slow flowing rivers and their leaves and flowers float on the surface of the water. The leaves are round, and some varieties, like the one pictured opposite have a distinct notch in the leaf. These leaves sink below the surface in winter. Waterlilies flower in the summer.
In the UK any plants found outdoors will belong to the ‘hardy’ branch of the genus. The famous tropical giant waterlily (Victoria amazonica) can only be grown in the UK in tropical greenhouses.
Waterlilies in Folklore and Mythology
As plants which are not historically part of the British environment it is unsurprising that the Mythological traditions associated with waterlilies tend to belong to areas of the world where they grow easily. Waterlilies are part of the creation mythology within Hinduism, Vishnu and Lakshmi are traditionally depicted sitting on lotus flowers (a type of waterlily.) The ancient Egyptians worshiped the Nile’s waterlilies and believed the submersion and re-emergence of the flower within the rivers symbolized the deity of the Pharaohs, while Romans believed that drinking crushed waterlilies mixed with vinegar for ten days would turn a boy into a eunuch.
Waterlilies in George MacDonald’s Fantasy work
MacDonald refers to water-lilies in The Wise Woman, or The Lost Princess, while he describes a fairy as moving like a water-lily in his fairy tale entitled Cross Purposes. Yet, more generally, water itself is of paramount significance within MacDonald’s writings. MacDonald’s use of bodies of water is especially significant in The Light Princess, where a princess loses her gravity and floats like a balloon unless she is swimming in the palace lake. When trying to collect a waterlily flower Rosamond, in MacDonald’s tale The Wise Woman, or The Lost Princess finds herself in trouble as this passage shows.
She followed. He made straight for the boat, clambered into it, and held out his hand to help her in. Then he caught up the little boat-hook, and pushed away from the shore: there was a great white flower floating a few yards off, and that was the little fellow’s goal. But, alas! no sooner had Rosamond caught sight of it, huge and glowing as a harvest moon, than she felt a great desire to have it herself. The boy, however, was in the bows of the boat, and caught it first. It had a long stem, reaching down to the bottom of the water, and for a moment he tugged at it in vain, but at last it gave way so suddenly, that he tumbled back with the flower into the bottom of the boat. Then Rosamond, almost wild at the danger it was in as he struggled to rise, hurried to save it, but somehow between them it came in pieces, and all its petals of fretted silver were scattered about the boat.
This trail has been developed by Rebecca Langworthy with editorial assistance from Derek Stewart, Mark Patterson and Oliver Langworthy.
Further information and resources
More about water lilies can be found through the Royal Horticultural Society
More information on the representation of Waterlily and lotus in mythology can be found here
The full text of The Lost Princess; or, the Wise Woman, is available here doublestory00macduoft
The Wise Woman, or The Lost Princess Is available as an audio book here
The Light Princess, The Golden Key and Cross Purposes can all be found within this collection of MacDonald’s Fairy tales lightprincessoth00macd
Ruth Sanderson’s Illustrated version of The Golden Key can be purchased via amazon
George MacDonald’s Scotland is Supported by The Research Institute of Scottish and Irish Studies https://www.abdn.ac.uk/riiss/ The University of Aberdeen https://www.abdn.ac.uk/and the British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS): www.bavs.ac.uk