Once Upon a Wardrobe

In Once Upon a Wardrobe by Patti Callahan, Megs Devonshire is a college student at Oxford in the 1950s. Her 8-year-old brother, George, has a heart condition and is not expected to live long.

George has become enamored with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. George wonders often if Narnia is a real place. If not, where did it come from? When he learns that the author of the book is a professor at Megs’ school, George begs her to ask Lewis about Narnia for him.

Megs demurs. First, she explains to George, Oxford is made up of different colleges, and Lewis doesn’t teach at the one she attends. Plus, Megs studies math and physics and is not much for stories. She prefers logic and black and white answers. Of course Narnia is just a figment of the author’s imagination, she insists.

But George keeps asking, and Megs loves him. So she finds a way to meet Mr. Lewis.

Lewis is very hospitable. But he doesn’t answer Megs’ question directly. Instead, he tells her a series of stories about his life over several visits.

George enjoys the stories. But Megs is frustrated that she can’t get a straight answer. And their mother wonders if George is spending too much time thinking about an imaginary world.

There are three levels, or threads, to this story. One is Megs and George and their family. One is Lewis’ biography. And another is Megs’ learning the value of stories. Having read On Stories by Lewis, I recognized a lot of his points in this novel. He’s not saying that the world doesn’t need logic and math and facts. Rather, “Reason is how we get to the truth, but imagination is how we find meaning” (p. 52).

The middle section of the book seemed a little formulaic. Megs’ point of view is written in the first person. She’d visit Lewis and come back with a story for George. As she begins to tell it, the point of view switches to George’s, but in the third person. Then, as if the scene is unfolding in George’s imagination, a section of Lewis’ story is told in the third person.

In the final third or so of the book, the action picked up and there were no more switches, so it was easier to get caught up in the story.

The scenes with C. S. and his brother, Warnie, made me feel like I was there in their room with the fireplace going, listening in. Callahan had studied Lewis’ life for her first book, Becoming Mrs. Lewis, and I am not surprised another book about him grew from all that research. The details shared showed a familiarity with Lewis’ home and school without overpowering the story.

Callahan writes in her note after the story that she wasn’t interested in “ascribing logic, facts, and theory to the world of Narnia,” as that has been done by so many others. But she wanted to explore how Narnia changes readers and how, as Lewis said, “Sometimes fairy stories may say best what needs to be said.”

I’ve read many biographies of Lewis, so most of his story was familiar to me. There were parts that surprised me, though. For instance, I knew he took some children from London into his home during the Blitz, but I had never heard anything about them until this book. It also occurred to me that, though I had read much about Lewis, I had never read his book about himself: Surprised by Joy. I’d seen that book quoted in anything else I’d read about him, so I thought I knew it. But I should read it some time.

There were a couple of places the theology was a little wonky. I wasn’t sure whether these were from the author’s beliefs or a character’s.

But overall, this was a sweet and touching story.

I listened to most of the book via audiobook, read nicely by Fiona Hardingham. But I had also gotten the Kindle version on sale and looked up many sections there.

Book Review: The Silent Songbird

silent-songbird The Silent Songbird by Melanie Dickerson is a Christian fiction retelling loosely based on “The Little Mermaid.” It’s book 7 of the Hagenheim/ Fairy Tale Romance Series, so some other characters in the other books appear here, mainly from The Merchant’s Daughter, as the hero here is the son of the couple there. But it could be read as a stand-alone book.

In this book, Evangeline is the ward of her cousin, King Richard II. When he plans for her to marry Lord Shively, a much older man whom she finds disgusting, she decides to escape. Her maid, and older woman named Muriel, finds out and, not being able to stop her, comes with her.

Evangeline is known for her beauitful singing voice, so she decides to act as if she is mute as part of her disguise. She and Muriel travel with a group going away from the castle back to their home village. Right away Evangeline notices that the apparent leader, Wesley le Wyse, is both handsome and kind. He notices her as well, and feels sorry for her when Muriel tells him that Eva (as she’s known now) lost her voice when her master beat her. Eva and Westley find ways to communicate, and as she comes to know him better, she regrets deceiving him. She wants to tell him the truth but is afraid of how he might react to her deception.

When they get to Westley’s village, he gets Eva and Muriel jobs at his family’s home. But Eva has never been trained to do menial labor and either injures herself or someone else at everything she tries. Muriel is more capable but also more miserable, longing for home and a special someone there.

Eventually Westley catches on the Eva is not who she seems to be, learns of her deception, and is understandably angry. Just then Eva learns that Westley’s life is in danger, as is the king’s safety, but will anyone believe her now? And can she ever be forgiven, not only by other people, but by God?

“Losing everything is sometimes the price one must pay for doing the right thing.”

I wasn’t sure if perhaps Westley’s name was a nod to The Princess Bride, but when “As you wish” was said a couple of times, it seemed so.

This series is labeled as Young Adult, and I mentioned last time that most of them didn’t read that way to me. This one did seem meant for a younger audience, but I generally enjoyed it.

Genre: Christian fiction fairy tale
Objectionable elements: None
My rating: 8 out of 10

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Carole’s Books You Loved)

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Laudable Linkage

It’s a busy time of year, but I’ve discovered several thought-provoking reads online the last couple of weeks. Perhaps some of them will pique your interest as well.

Weep, Groan, Wail: The Need to Lament. “How is it possible to grieve, mourn, and wail but still know God is good?”

Even If He Doesn’t. “When the bad things come, when the kind of rescue we think we need just isn’t part of our story, will we be able to testify before a watching world that God can do it, that He will do it, but even if He doesn’t, we won’t turn away.”

Immanuel. From a friend’s whose 25 year old daughter is fighting yet another setback in her cancer battle. God is with us, even in the hard places, even in bad news.

5 Reasons to Read the Bible When You Feel Absolutely Nothing. I kept thinking Yes! all throughout reading this.

Jesus Isn’t Threatened by Your Christmas Gifts. Loved the practicality and balance in this. “The implicit messaging is that Christmas is a kind of either/or proposition in which we can either emphasize Jesus or emphasize gifts. But one always threatens to displace the other. I disagree with this.”

Miracles at Midnight.

5 Ways We Stunt Our Spiritual Growth.

Seekest Thou Great Things For Thyself? HT to Challies.

It’s Time to Take Your Medicine. “As we read the letters of Paul we find he always frames things this way: ‘God has done this for you in Christ, therefore you should respond in the following ways.’ ‘Thus the motivation, energy, and drive for holiness are all found in the reality and power of God’s grace in Christ.'”

Words That Shimmer. “For Christians, isn’t it amazing that our gracious God chose something as powerful as words to communicate to us His glorious truth? Everything pertaining to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). What a gift! What a treasure! Collectors of words take heart:”

Praying Biblical Prayers.

(Re)Remembering What We Mean. “Fairy tales employ the tool of the fantastic to jar us back to a truer vision that sees that all things are fantastic. Wonder is an appropriate response to all things because all things are wonderfully made.”

On parenting:

Should Parents Lay Down The Law Or Give Grace? “Grace is not rejecting authority. Grace is not walking away from the need of my children to have boundaries in their life—grace is about the way that I do that.”

My Changing Thoughts On Being a Mother. I wrestled with many of the same things mentioned here.

On writing:

Why Backstory Is Better Than Flashbacks.

And finally, I loved this video of a deer and rabbit playing. At least the deer is playing – it takes a while for the rabbit. Someone posted this on Facebook with the caption “Bambi and Thumper are real!”

Happy Saturday!

Book Review: The Princess Spy

In most versions of The Frog Prince, the princess is proud, spoiled, and condescending. The frog recovers a lost ball for her, and in return asks to be taken to her house, eat from her plate, and sleep on her bed. In the version I listened to last year, she got disgusted and threw him against a wall, after which he transformed into a prince. In other versions she tolerates him until he transforms, and then, of course, they fall in love and live happily ever after.

princess-spyIn this retelling, The Princess Spy by Melanie Dickerson, set in 15th century Germany, 18-year-old Margaretha is the oldest daughter of a duke. She isn’t spoiled, but she tends to talk a lot, especially when she’s nervous. A number of suitors have come and left her home, but none seemed right to her. Currently Lord Claybrook has been visiting, and she thinks he wears weird hats and talks about things she’s not interested in, but she’s trying to get to know him better and give him the benefit of the doubt.

Meanwhile a severely injured young man has been found and taken to the healer. He only speaks English, and Margaret can understand and converse in it well enough, so she serves as translator for him. When he carries on about needing to speak to the duke, but can’t say why or reveal who he is, she thinks his ravings are coming from his injury. When he finally convinces her to do a bit of eavesdropping for him, she finds that he’s right about the danger her family and town are in. But her father and brother are away, and together she and the stranger escape to find and warn them.

Since these are realistic stories, I wondered how the author was going to portray the frog prince himself without any magic changing of form. That ended up being humorous, but I won’t spill the secret here.

In many ways, this is a fairly typical fairly tale romance, except that Margaretha is pluckier than many heroines in this genre, even to the point of bashing guards in the head with a candlestick in her escape, and the addition of an orphan boy rescued along the way. I’ve enjoyed many of Melanie’s books in the past, and this was a nice, clean read, but it just seemed – almost a little cliche for me. I saw on Amazon that it was listed as a teen/young adult novel, which I hadn’t realized before, and that may be one reason the writing just seemed a little “younger” to me than usual. I didn’t get that vibe from the others, though.

I hadn’t realized at first that some of the characters had appeared in previous stories. It had been a while since I had read them, but as I looked at descriptions of them at the end of the book, they came back to me.

One aspect I especially liked was Margaretha’s learning the difference between panic praying and actively trusting while praying.

All in all, not an unpleasant read, but not one that blew me away, either.

Genre: Christian fiction
Potential objectionable elements: None
My rating: 7 out of 10

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Carol‘s Books You Loved )

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Book Review: The Captive Maiden

Captive MaidenThe Captive Maiden by Melanie Dickerson is a retelling of Cinderella set in Germany of the 1400s. Gisela’s father has died and her step-mother has taken over and treats Gisela like a servant. While Gisela submits when she has to, she is spirited and uncowed When a big tournament is held in town, Gisela sneaks away to see the games and unexpectedly runs into Valten, the duke’s son. They had met years ago when she was seven and he and his father had bought one of her father’s horses, and she has thought about him ever since.

Valten is the older brother of Gabe from The Fairest Beauty but quite different in personality. Where Gabe is glib-tongued, especially with the ladies, Valten never knows quite what to say and seems aloof. Valten excels at winning tournaments, particularly in jousting, but is beginning to think there has to be something else in life.

Valten also has an enemy in Ruexner, his main challenger in the tournaments. When Ruexner observes that Valten has an interest in Gisela, Ruexner sees her as a means of getting back at Valten. And of course Gisela’s step-mother hinders her attempts to pursue a relationship with Valten, so, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the course of their true love is not going to run smoothly. But I won’t spoil the details.

Along the way, Valten has to realize that he needs to rely on God’s strength rather that his own, and they both have to wrestle with the vengeance belonging to the Lord rather than being theirs to exact.

I didn’t think the writing in this story flowed quite as smoothly as in some of Melanie’s other books, and, although it is normal for couples to have some misunderstandings at first as they are getting to know each other and learning to read each other, the misunderstandings and misreadings here seemed excessive. But overall I did enjoy the story. I think anyone who likes fairy tale retellings and/or clean Christian romances would like this book.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Book Review: The Fairest Beauty

FairestBeautyMelanie Dickerson writes Christian fiction retellings of fairy tales and sets them in medieval Germany. She says on her web site that she has “always loved fairy tales and been fascinated by the prospect of fleshing out traditional fairy tales and turning them into an in-depth romance. I was fascinated by the idea of taking a well-known fairy tale and making it real, with realistic characters and realistic reactions to their circumstances.” There are no magic wands or fairy godmothers in her stories, so the issues have to be worked out a bit more realistically. Having previously enjoyed The Merchant’s Daughter (based on Beauty and the Beast) and The Healer’s Apprentice (based on Sleeping Beauty), I snapped up The Fairest Beauty (based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves) when it came up on sale for the Kindle app.

Sophie is a scullery maid for the wicked Duchess Ermengard, who throws her into the dungeon for things like rescuing the puppies that the duchess had ordered to be drowned. Sophie doesn’t see any way out of her situation, so she tries to make the best of it. Believing herself to be an orphan, the cook, Petra, is the closest person Sophie has to a mother, and another servant. Roslind, is her best friend. Somehow, despite her miserable upbringing, she is good and kind, and many love her (this is a fairy tale, after all. 🙂 )

What she doesn’t know is that she is the daughter of the presumed-dead husband of the duchess, and the duchess is actually her step-mother, who treats her as she does because she is insanely jealous of her. Only two servants in the entire castle know who Sophie really is, and one of them has just escaped and traveled several days’ journey to Hagenheim Castle, the home of the man Sophie was betrothed to years ago, Valten. Unfortunately Valten is laid up with a broken leg and can’t leave immediately to investigate this claim that the girl he thought had died years ago is alive. His younger brother, Gabe, decides on his own to go and rescue Sophie. Though he sincerely feels that God would have him do so and that Sophie might be in danger, his motives are primarily to best his brother this one time and to be the hero.

Once he finds Sophie, he has to ascertain whether she really is the daughter of a duke and then try to convince her of that. Then they face several days’ journey back to Hagenheim, facing dangers from the henchmen the duchess has sent after them and wolves. Along the way they begin to fall for each other, each fighting it at first because they are both betrothed to others.

Since this is based on Snow White, we know how the story will end, but it was fun to see how Melanie worked out the details of the issues the couple faced as well as the classic fairy tale elements, like the poisoned apple and the seven dwarves (I’ll let you discover that for yourself. 🙂 )

One thing I especially enjoyed in this book were the spiritual journeys. Sophie had to learn to trust and to let God heal her from the lies the duchess had been telling her all her life. Gabe had to realize that he had acted with wrong motives and that his impetuosity could put Sophie in danger physically and possibly hurt her reputation.

One little part I didn’t like was that, as they were becoming more aware of their interest in each other, there were mentions of Sophie noticing his muscles and being disconcerted when his shirt was off due to tending a wound. I don’t doubt that those things would happen in those situations, but I just don’t like to go there in books that I read. Thankfully, that was just a small part of the book.

I did also enjoy an unexpected tie-in with a couple of characters from A Healer’s Apprentice.

Overall I enjoyed this book quite a lot and look forward to a couple of others Melanie has written in this same vein.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Book Review: The Snow Queen

Audible.com offers an end-of-year gift to its members in the way of a free short classic audiobook. Past offerings have been  A Christmas Carol,  The Wizard of Oz, and The Cricket on the Hearth: this past year it was The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen (as of right now it is still free for members – don’t know how long it will be).

Snow QueenYou probably know that Frozen, Disney’s blockbuster movie last year, was supposedly based on The Snow Queen, but there is little resemblance besides a woman who “was beautiful but all made of ice: cold, blindingly glittering ice; and yet she was alive, for her eyes stared at Kai like two stars, but neither rest nor peace was to be found in her gaze,” an ice palace, and a talking reindeer (among other talking animals and even flowers) and some of the themes. All of the main characters’ names are different. But it is a pleasant story nonetheless, though maybe a little weird in places.

The tale is told in seven shorter stories. It begins with a troll (or sprite or hobgoblin or demon – different translations tell it a little differently) who made a mirror which causes those who look into it to see to see only the bad and nothing good or beautiful. In fact, the bad was magnified and the real distorted. After terrorizing everyone they could with the mirror, the fellow creatures of this being decided to take this mirror to heaven to “mock the angels,”  but in the process it fell and broke into millions of small pieces and splinters.

The next story tells of two childhood friend, Gerda and Kai (or Kay, depending again on which book you read), and their innocent play and love for each other, until one day Kai gets one of these splinters in his eye and heart, which changes him and makes him quite disagreeable. Then one day he sees the Snow Queen, mentioned already, whom Kai’s grandmother had told them of. He is frightened of her and draws back. But another day when all the boys are hooking their sledges up to carts and carriages to pull them, Kai ends up unknowingly fastening his to the Snow Queen’s vehicle. Too late he realizes who she is: she won’t stop, and she takes him to her palace far away. Her kiss numbs him and makes his heart grow colder.

Everyone in the village thinks he has died, but Gerda is convinced he has not, so she goes to look for him. Several more of the intervening stories tell of the people and creatures she meets along the way, some who help and some who hinder her.

There are vivid contrasts – light vs. darkness, warmth vs. coldness, innocence and purity vs. evil. In one segment it is said,

“I can give her no greater power than she has already”, said the woman; “Don’t you see how strong that is? How men and animals are obliged to serve her, and how well she has got through the world, barefooted as she is. She cannot receive any power from me greater than she now has, which consists in her own purity and innocence of heart. If she cannot herself obtain access to the Snow Queen, and remove the glass fragments from little Kai, we can do nothing to help her.”

I’ve wondered if the Snow Queen was inspiration for C. S. Lewis’s White Witch in Narnia. There are similarities, but the White Witch’s personality is much more developed – maybe because she spans several books whereas the Snow Queen is just in this one story – and she is more overtly evil. But the scene in which Edmund is taken into the White Witch’s sleigh and folded into her robes is very reminiscent of the Snow Queen doing the same with Kai.

There is also something of a religious element. I realized after reading this that I know very little about Andersen’s background, so I don’t know what he believed, but the children quote a fragment of a hymn which says, “Roses bloom and cease to be, But we shall the Christ-child see,” and later when Gerda is in trouble she prays the Lord’s Prayer, and angels come to help her. Near the end, “The grandmother sat in God’s bright sunshine, and she read aloud from the Bible, ‘Except ye become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of God.’ And Kay and Gerda looked into each other’s eyes, and all at once understood the words of the old song, ‘Roses bloom and cease to be, But we shall the Christ-child see.'”

I found some of the intervening chapters, particularly one where Gerda is talking to flowers to see if they know anything about Kai, and they tell their stories, not only a little strange but also not really contributing much to the plot. But overall it is a sweet story of good triumphing over evil, of loyalty, of loving someone despite their flaws, of resilience when facing hardship and adversity. You can find the whole story online in various places with minor variations in the text (like the spelling of Kai/Kay’s name). Some day I’d like to read a nicely illustrated book version of the story.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Book Review: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

OzI hadn’t planned on reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz any time soon. It was one of those “Maybe someday…” books to me. But when a great sale on an Audible version read by Anne Hathaway came through some time ago, I went ahead and bought it. And last month when I had several days between the end of my last audiobook and the availability of my next Audible credit at the beginning of the month and looked for a short book to fill the time, this seemed like a perfect choice.

The story is so well-known, I don’t think I need to go over the plot at all, but just in case someone is unfamiliar with it, the main character is Dorothy Gale, a little girl who lives with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry in Kansas. Everything is pretty grey and cheerless, except Dorothy’s little dog, Toto. When a cyclone heads toward their house, Dorothy doesn’t quite make it to the storm cellar before the house is whisked away and ends up in the land of the Munchkins, right on top of the wicked witch of the East, for which the Munchkins are very grateful. Dorothy wants to get home to Kansas, but they don’t know how to help her: they can only advise that she go to see the great wizard, Oz, in the Emerald City. So she follows the yellow brick road that direction and along the way meets a Scarecrow who wishes he had brains, a Tin Woodman who wishes he had a heart, and a Cowardly Lion who wishes he had courage. They all decide to join her to see if Oz can help them. But Oz doesn’t quite respond the way they want, sending them on a mission to kill the Wicked Witch of the West. And eventually they find the wizard isn’t who they thought he was at all.

Of course, the book has its differences from the well-known movie. We only see 3 Munchkins rather than a townful, there is no “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” line, the shoes Dorothy is given from the dead witch are silver rather than ruby (probably due to the effect of which would look best in Technicolor). I enjoyed getting more back story of the characters, especially the Tin Woodman and how he came to be tin when he was originally human. The winged monkeys aren’t inherently evil – they’re mischievous, but they prove helpful in the end. There is an elephant-sized spider, a little town made of china people and buildings, and a race of people called Hammerheads who can shoot their necks out and butt people off the hill they’re guarding. Those are all interesting in themselves, but since they come between Dorothy’s leaving Oz (which is the end of the movie version) and her finally getting back home, they seem a little anticlimactic.

The book was written in 1899 and is considered the first American fairy tale. In the introduction, Baum says he wrote it just for the pleasure of children. He felt that “Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder-tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.” I would say there is still plenty of “disagreeable incident” in the story, with some of the trials the troop has to undergo, but they are not of the “horrible and blood-curdling” variety he feels are “devised by their authors to point to a fearsome moral to each tale.” I don’t think morals and stories are antithetical, but I agree it’s fine to  have a story just for fun. And though Baum wasn’t necessarily trying to dispense morality, I think an observant reader would glean good traits from the good characters (their kindness, thoughtfulness, bravery, hard work, persistence, etc.).

I found it interesting that in the book, the idea that “There’s no place like home” came from Dorothy herself: it wasn’t something she had to be told by Glinda.

The Scarecrow listened carefully, and said, “I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray place you call Kansas.”

“That is because you have no brains” answered the girl. “No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.”

When my children were very little, I had trouble with the idea of a “good witch” in the story, so I didn’t let them see the film for a long while. But I eventually came to terms with the idea that fairy tale witches are a completely different thing from real-life ones.

Apparently Baum did not want to write sequels, but the interest and demand was so great that he wrote thirteen of them.

I’m so glad I gave it a go. Anne Hathaway did a marvelous job narrating. I agree with C. S. Lewis’s quote to the effect that a good children’s book should be enjoyable by adults as well. It would be hard to say whether I like the book or the film better. I like them both. They each have their charms.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Book Review: The Princess and the Goblin

Princess_and_the_GoblinMy 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.

Overall I loved this book and am so glad Bekah chose it for this months Reading to Know Classics Book Club selection.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)




Book Review: The Little White Horse

LWHWhen I saw The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge listed as Carrie’s  Reading to Know Classics Book Club selection for March. I wanted to give it a try because I had seen Goudge highly recommended. This is one of her children’s books, but she has written for adults as well.

This story begins with recently orphaned Maria Merryweather and her governess, Miss Heliotrope, traveling to Moonacre Manor to live with Maria’s uncle. The first few chapters are a series of discoveries as Maria gets to know her new guardian, house, room, village, church, etc., and along the way she learns that she and Mrs. H. are the first females to set foot in the house in 20 years, that there are a group of wicked Men of the Dark Woods doing wicked things like poaching animals and blocking the way to Merryweather Bay. When she finds that there was a quarrel caused by her own ancestors that set off these bad men , she feels it is her duty and destiny to set things right. In the course of her quest, she also has to learn patience and self-control over her own anger and tendency to hasty words, the lack of which traits contributed to the original disagreement in the first place.

The story has the flavor of a fairy tale, with animals who seem to know what to do and help Maria along the way (including a cat who writes messages in hieroglyphics in the ashes of the fireplace), the appearance of the little white horse, who is actually a unicorn, at key points in the story, and the discovery that her “imaginary friend” in London actually is a real boy who had been visiting her in his dreams (which I thought odd on many levels. Wouldn’t he have visited her in her dreams?)

It took a while for me to get into the story. All the discoveries of her new place and descriptions were fine, but had me thinking, “OK, when are we going to get into the plot?” When we finally did, my interest picked up a little. I like “quest” stories, particularly when the main character has to conquer something in him- or herself along the way, so I liked that aspect, as well as the aspect that the first step in setting things right was to give Paradise Hill, formerly run by monks, back to God (I don’t know what Goudge’s religious views were, but there are mentions of Biblical principles sprinkled here and there.)

But somehow the book just didn’t grab me, and I can’t quite put my finger on why. I can’t say I strongly disliked it, but I just didn’t love it like I thought it would. As Bekah mentioned in her review, you have to suspend a lot of disbelief to enjoy the story, even knowing that it is a fantasy. I liked Goudge’s descriptions and characterizations for the most part, and I liked the general storyline ok. I liked her planting of little clues, like Maria’s regal bearing at the beginning, before she even knew she was descended from a Moon Princess, and Miss Heliotrope’s pointing out of the “house of her dreams,” before she has any clue that she will marry its owner in the end. I wasn’t really enthralled with Maria, but I liked her well enough. All of the elements were there to make for a charming story, but to me charm was the exact thing it was missing. It took me a long time to get through it just because I wasn’t motivated to pick it up. But that may just be me (and Carrie. 🙂 ) A quick scan of other reviews show that many people love it, and it did win a Carnegie Medal.

For a couple of more positive reviews, see Amy‘s and Janet‘s. I do want to give Goudge another try though, perhaps with one of her adult books.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)