The Princess and the Goblin

by George MacDonald

1872 – originally published in London by Strahan & Co.

216 pp – 32 chapters

Age:  6+ (?)

Next: C. S. Lewis Narnia books, The Hobbit

Also by this author:

Dealings with the Fairies (1867) aka The Light Princess and Other Stories – includes the story “The Golden Key”, commonly regarded as a masterpiece
At the Back of the North Wind (1871) – along with P&G, his most famous work
The Princess and Curdie (1883) – sequel to The Princess and the Goblin, but a lot darker, more violent and destructive

In a nutshell: The Princess and the Goblin is a magical and enchanting fairy tale. There is a brave, kind princess, a protective fairy-like grandmother, a courageous miner boy, and a tribe of ugly and villainous goblins to battle. Whatever violence exists is not extended or gratuitous and springs naturally out of the story. The length of the chapters and the outdated manner of speech may be taxing for a child’s attention, so it might best be read to children no younger than 6.

Princess Irene meets her Great-Great-Grandmother

Young Princess Irene lives in an immense house, described as half-castle and half-farmhouse, on the side of a mountain. She was sent there to be raised by country people because “her mother was not very strong”. (It becomes clear later that her mother died some years ago, but Irene has no memory of her.) Irene’s beloved King-Papa spends much time away, travelling around his kingdom. The corridors and rooms of the house are so numerous that no one has explored them all. One day Irene gets lost in the rambling stairways and dark halls. At the top of a tower she discovers a beautiful old lady at a spinning wheel who claims to be her great-great grandmother, the old Queen Irene. No one else believes her to be there, but Irene soon finds herself in grave danger and in need of the great lady’s magical protection.

The Goblins that live under the mountain are plotting to kidnap Irene to marry the goblin prince. A courageous young miner named Curdie overhears their scheme, but is captured. Following her grandmother’s magical thread, Irene descends into the mountain and rescues Curdie. Weeks later, the goblins succeed in tunnelling under the castle and mount an attack. Fortunately Curdie knows enough about them to lead the guards in a counter-attack: he knows they hate poetry of any kind, and that their feet are particularly vulnerable. After much foot-stomping the goblins are repelled, and Irene (again following the thread) has found refuge at Curdie’s parents’ rough cottage in the woods. The King returns to reward Curdie, who does everyone a last favour by sounding the alarm when water diverted from the goblin tunnels threatens to flood the castle. Everyone escapes the deluge but the goblins, who are done in by their own mischief.

“Victorian literary fairy tales tend to have a conservative moral and political bias. Under their charm and invention is usually an improving lesson: adults know best; good, obedient, patient, and self-effacing little boys and girls are rewarded by the fairies, and naughty assertive ones are punished. ” ¹

1949 J.M. Dent & Sons edition

George MacDonald was born in 1824 in Aberdeen, Scotland. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was 8, and it has been noted that mother figures haunt his stories, but not to the exclusion of lovable fathers: the ‘King-Papa’ in The Princess and the Goblin is the very picture of fatherly strength and protection:

“He rode a white horse and was taller than any of the men with him. He wore a narrow circle of gold set with jewels around his helmet, and as he came still nearer Irene could discern the flashing of the stones in the sun. … When the horsemen pulled up she ran to the side of the white horse and held up her arms. The king stooped and took her hands. In an instant she was on the saddle and clasped in his great strong arms. … He had gentle, blue eyes, but a nose that made him look like an eagle. A long dark beard, streaked with silvery lines, flowed from his mouth almost to his waist, and as Irene sat on the saddle and hid her glad face upon his bosom it mingled with the golden hair which her mother had given her, and the two together were like a cloud with streaks of the sun woven through it.” ²

The old Queen Irene, the beautiful, powerful, magical great-great grandmother in the tower room, is an even more reassuring presence. As soon as we meet her, on page 10, we feel that she will be watching over Irene throughout the adventures of the book, which indeed she does. A later account of her room is captivating:

“The soft light made [Irene] feel as if she were going into the heart of the milkiest pearl; while the blue walls and their silver stars for a moment perplexed her with the fancy that they were in reality the sky which she had left outside a minute ago covered with rainclouds.”³

And in the hearth glow burning roses which have the power to purify and heal. The description of Queen Irene on this, their second meeting, is also magical,

“Her grandmother was dressed in the loveliest pale blue velvet, over which her hair, no longer white, but of a rich golden colour, streamed like a cataract, here falling in dull gathered heaps, there rushing away in smooth shining falls. And ever as she looked, the hair seemed pouring down from her head and vanishing in a golden mist ere it reached the floor. It flowed from under the edge of a circle of shining silver, set with alternated pearls and opals. On her dress was no ornament whatever, neither was there a ring on her hand, or a necklace or carcanet about her neck. But her slippers glimmered with the light of the Milky Way, for they were covered with seed-pearls and opals in one mass. Her face was that of a woman of three-and-twenty.”

MacDonald’s style is poetic and enchanting. His earlier work, At the Back of the North Wind, retains a Sunday School moral tone, but The Princess and the Goblin is thankfully free of sermonizing. It has a light touch, although Irene and Curdie are almost ridiculously virtuous – to a jaded adult’s eyes anyway. They do, however, experience self-doubt, uncertainty and fear, so they are not entirely unnatural.

Violence: The adventurous plot is rambling and seems quickly written. (MacDonald had no less than 11 children and a desperate need for income, so it’s no wonder!) In the battles between goblins and humans there is some violence, but it’s not upsetting. Irene herself is never physically threatened. Curdie is accidentally shot in the leg with an arrow by the palace guards, who see him lurking about trying to detect tunnelling goblins. Curdie’s convalescence is hurried by a visit from Queen Irene and her magical curing fire-roses. Curdie then battles the goblins strenuously, slashing at them with a short sword, but mostly just stomping on their feet. The goblins retreat like rats. He does make a slash across the Goblin Queen’s face, but she has already been depicted as the most ferocious of the goblins, due to the granite shoes protecting her feet. Actually, in an earlier encounter Curdie overcomes his gentlemanly reluctance to attack her:

“Curdie would have endured much rather than hurt a woman, even if she was a goblin; but here was an affair of life and death: forgetting her shoes, he made a great stamp on one of her feet.”

The shoes make the difference and it is the Queen who captures him and imprisons him at that meeting.

The last gruesome reference comes at the end, after the flood, with the “news that dead goblins were tossing about in the current through the house,” but this is merely related secondhand and not seen by Irene or described more fully. And after all, the goblins had been planning to drown all the miners with their water diversion, so they are in the end done in by their own evil deeds.

All in all, this book is surprisingly nonviolent, considering the time it was written in. It’s certainly tamer than the Brothers Grimm. When it was written there was no prevailing attitude that violence may not be suitable in a children’s story. After all, the fare of youngsters had long been dominated by hellfire and brimstone, the bloodiest Old Testament stories, and the gruesome lives and deaths of the saints. In comparison to those, this book is a sunny walk in the park!

Some scenes are a little creepy (the misshapen goblin pets, the scenes in the underground), but the courage of Irene and Curdie throughout should keep children reassured. Irene is a little delicate for modern sensibilities – at one point Curdie must carry her across rain-swollen streams – but she is strong-willed and proactive in her own way. Her rescue of Curdie is a highlight, though she accomplishes it by following her grandmother’s thread trustingly. One can’t fault this novel for lacking strong females. The old Queen Irene is the most powerful force in the book, albeit in a sly and hidden way. And of the Goblins it is the Queen who is the most fearsome. I can’t resist including a description of the formidable goblin dame:

“[Curdie] could not consider her handsome. Her nose was certainly broader at the end than its extreme length, and her eyes, instead of being horizontal, were set up like two perpendicular eggs, one on the broad, the other on the small end. Her mouth was no bigger than a small buttonhole until she laughed, when it stretched from ear to ear – only, to be sure, her ears were very nearly in the middle of her cheeks.”

Humphrey Carpenter calls The Princess and the Goblin the “first original British children’s book to make an utterly confident, fresh use of such traditional materials as an old fairy spinning in a tower, and a race of wicked dwarfs beneath a mountain”. MacDonald was using folkloric elements to write a parable about the “Christian universe”, creating “an alternative religious landscape which a child’s mind could explore and which could offer spiritual nourishment.”⁷

Sound familiar? If this makes you think of C.S. Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia, it’s no accident. Lewis was a great fan of MacDonald’s, claiming that his first book Phantastes had “baptised” his imagination.⁸

Sadly, MacDonald was not able to retain this light and enchanting tone for long. The books he wrote after The Princess and the Goblin are nastier, more violent and scary. The sequel, The Princess and Curdie, ends in despair and destruction – so you might want to avoid it even if your child loves The Princess and the Goblin. At the end of MacDonald’s life he seemed to lose hope entirely, and spent his last ten years in silence, not even speaking to his family.⁹

_____________________________

¹ Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell the Grown-ups. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990) p.99.

² George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin. (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1973) pp. 67-68.

³ Op. cit., MacDonald, p. 98.

⁴ Ibid., p. 98.

⁵ Ibid., p. 125.

⁶ Ibid., p. 121.

⁷ Carpenter, Humphrey, Secret Gardens: The Golden Age of Children’s Literature  (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985) p. 83.

⁸ Op. cit., Carpenter, p. 79.

⁹ Ibid., p. 84.

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