My interest in George MacDonald was first piqued when I read of his influence on the life and writings of C. S. Lewis, whose imagination, he said, was “baptised” by reading MacDonald’s Phantastes. I’ve seen him quoted by various others, but somehow I don’t think I have ever read one of his books. I was especially interested in The Princess and the Goblin after listening to the funeral service of a young wife and mom who passed away last year (Julie Herbster, for those who knew her). Her pastor spoke of her love for literature and mentioned her hanging on to the truth she knew in the face of such devastating circumstances, just like the princess followed her great-great-grandmother’s thread through the goblin cave even though no one else could see it or believed it was there (more on that later). So I was delighted to see this title listed for this month for Carrie’s Reading to Know Classics Book Club. That’s one of the values of these kinds of challenges and book clubs: they spur me to read books I might not otherwise have ever gotten around to.
The story begins with a bored 8 year old Princess Irene, inside on a rainy day, restless and dissatisfied with all her many wonderful toys. Her “King Papa” has sent her out into the country to be raised at first because her mother was not very strong, later because her mother died and her father was often away on kingdom business. On this rainy day her nurse, Lootie, leaves the room for a moment, and Irene notices another door left ajar, one that goes upstairs. She decides to investigate but gets thoroughly lost amidst seemingly myriad doors. She can’t find her way back down and gets quite upset until she finds a very old lady at a spinning wheel in one room. Though she was obviously very old and wise, with white hair, her skin was smooth. She told Irene she was her great-great-grandmother and that she was also named Irene. After her great-great-grandmother wipes the tears from Irene’s dusty face and shows her her pigeons, she shows her the way back downstairs so that Lootie won’t be worried about her.
Irene tells Lootie all about her great-great-grandmother, but Lootie thinks she is just making up stories. Irene is quite offended, but after a while she wonders if perhaps her visit to her great-great-grandmother was all just a dream.
One thing the princess doesn’t know, but everyone else does, is that the mountains’ underground passages are full of goblins who used to be people but chose to live underground after some disagreements with the King. Eons of living “away from the sun, in cold and wet and dark places” had transformed them into hideous and grotesque creatures. Lootie is supposed to be keeping Irene safe especially from goblins, but one day as they are out exploring, Lootie realizes they’ve gone too far and won’t make it back home before dark. Frightened, she grabs Irene and starts running without having the time to explain why. They take a wrong turn and begin to see odd shapes in the rocks and hear laughter, when suddenly a young miner’s son named Curdie comes across their path singing a rhyme. He tells them the goblins can’t stand rhymes and songs, but they are out and about, and they need to get home as quickly as possible, so he helps them find the way and escorts them back.
Later, when Curdie works late in the mines one night to try to earn money to buy his mother a red petticoat, he overhears some goblins talking and hears reference to a plan that would endanger Irene, and another “Plan B” that isn’t exactly clear. In trying to find out more about it, he eventually is captured. Irene had found her great-great-grandmother once again, who had given her a ring filled with fine thread she had woven for her. She told her that when she needed to, she could put the ring under her pillow and follow the thread to guide her. One day she follows the thread to where Curdie is being kept, and helps him escape. Curdie can’t see the thread and can’t see Irene’s great-great-grandmother, either, when she tries to introduce him. He thinks Irene is trying to make a fool of him; Irene is hurt.
But Curdie determines that he will still try to find out the goblins’ plan and protect the princess. I’ll leave the story there for you to find out the rest if you choose to read the book, but you can be sure a confrontation with the goblins will occur.
One one level, this is a fairy tale with a classic good vs. evil battle and with young people learning and growing in the course of it. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any Spark Notes or Cliff Notes that discussed the plot, theme, and symbolism. Just Googling “symbolism in The Princess and the Goblin” and perusing a few of the posts that came up led to a wide variety of interpretations. Some see Irene’s sreat-great-grandmother as a fairy godmother, a goddess, or the Virgin Mary. Some sympathize with the goblins as victims of a classist society. Some took umbrage to MacDonald’s view that a princess (or anyone of royal blood) should have certain inherent qualities.
Since MacDonald was a Christian (though I’d disagree with some of his views as described in Wikipedia), I think we have to interpret the story in the light of basic Christian teachings. I don’t think the story is meant to be an overt allegory, but it does portray a beneficent being who cares for, heals, protects (and sometimes rebukes) its charges, who can’t be seen unless allowed and with some degree of faith. Light is associated with it, light that guides and protects, and a bird showing up at certain moments seems to invoke Biblical instances of the Holy Spirit in the form of a bird (though in the story the bird is a pigeon rather than a dove). I think the thread does represent truth, and Irene has to discern between what appears to be true and what her great-great-grandmother told her and choose which to trust, even (especially) when others don’t believe. I don’t think that royal blood really influences one’s behavior (except in fairy tales) – both history and modern times have given us royals with less than commendable character. But we can agree that a royal should have certain characteristics, and if Irene and Curdie are supposed to represent children of God, then, yes, they should have certain characteristics and should also be growing in them.
Besides the overall story and symbolism, there is a lot of humor in the book, especially in regard to the goblins. In one of my favorite passages, a goblin father is telling his son that humans have toes, which goblins apparently don’t have:
‘Why do they wear shoes up there?’
‘Ah, now that’s a sensible question, and I will answer it. But in order to do so, I must first tell you a secret. I once saw the queen’s feet.’
‘Without her shoes?’
‘Yes—without her shoes.’
‘No! Did you? How was it?’
‘Never you mind how it was. She didn’t know I saw them. And what do you think!—they had toes!’
‘Toes! What’s that?’
‘You may well ask! I should never have known if I had not seen the queen’s feet. Just imagine! the ends of her feet were split up into five or six thin pieces!’
‘Oh, horrid! How could the king have fallen in love with her?’
‘You forget that she wore shoes. That is just why she wore them. That is why all the men, and women too, upstairs wear shoes. They can’t bear the sight of their own feet without them.’
A few of my other favorite passages:
When Irene in fear unwisely runs right into the path of danger, “Not daring to look behind her, she rushed straight out of the gate and up the mountain. It was foolish indeed—thus to run farther and farther from all who could help her, as if she had been seeking a fit spot for the goblin creature to eat her in his leisure; but that is the way fear serves us: it always sides with the thing we are afraid of. “
“Lootie had very foolish notions concerning the dignity of a princess, not understanding that the truest princess is just the one who loves all her brothers and sisters best, and who is most able to do them good by being humble towards them.”
“…it is so silly of people to fancy that old age means crookedness and witheredness and feebleness and sticks and spectacles and rheumatism and forgetfulness! It is so silly! Old age has nothing whatever to do with all that. The right old age means strength and beauty and mirth and courage and clear eyes and strong painless limbs.”
“Here I should like to remark, for the sake of princes and princesses in general, that it is a low and contemptible thing to refuse to confess a fault, or even an error. If a true princess has done wrong, she is always uneasy until she has had an opportunity of throwing the wrongness away from her by saying: ‘I did it; and I wish I had not; and I am sorry for having done it.”
A comment I saw on Goodreads said that in one person’s edition, the story starts this way:
“THERE was once a little princess who—
“But Mr. Author, why do you always write about princesses?”
“Because every little girl is a princess.”
“You will make them vain if you tell them that.”
“Not if they understand what I mean.”
“Then what do you mean?”
“What do you mean by a princess?”
“The daughter of a king.”
“Very well, then every little girl is a princess, and there would be no need to say anything about it, except that she is always in danger of forgetting her rank, and behaving as if she had grown out of the mud. I have seen little princesses behave like children of thieves and lying beggars, and that is why they need to be told they are princesses. And that is why when I tell a story of this kind, I like to tell it about a princess. Then I can say better what I mean, because I can then give her every beautiful thing I want her to have.”
“Please go on.”
I love that – I don’t know why it is taken out in some editions.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)