Wednesday 18 June 2014

The Princess and the Goblin

I've been vaguely aware of this book for some time, but didn't really know all that much about it really (i.e. almost nothing). George MacDonald has faded from the public view somewhat with the passage of time, but he is widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of fantasy (not my genre of choice it must be said), and an inspiration to the Inklings. MacDonald was a friend and mentor to Lewis Carroll and instrumental in the publishing of Alice in Wonderland, a friend of Mark Twain, and an inspiration to Tolkien, E. Nesbit and Madeleine L'Engle among many. Reading George MacDonald lead C.S. Lewis to religion, and indirectly brought Narnia to us all. However like many authors now predominantly famous as children's authors, MacDonald primarily wrote for adults- fiction, poetry and sermons.

George MacDonald was born in Scotland in 1824, he trained as a minister, but was prevented from preaching after he was accused of heresy, and he turned to writing to support his wife and 11 children. The Princess and the Goblin was published in 1872 in serial form in Good Words for the Young, a magazine that George MacDonald edited at the time.

MacDonald's daughter Irene (second from right) with Lewis Carroll
Picture source

The Princess and the Goblin tells the tale of Princess Irene, living in a remote large house with servants, while her king-papa is out doing Kingly things. Her mother was "not strong" soon after she was born, and appears to have died sometime after, but then all great children's books dispense with the parents on page one. Irene is now 8 years old, she has more toys than we could imagine, but still tires of them and gets bored, and so she enjoys roaming the mountainside where she lives, and visiting the primroses. But she must be back to the house well before dark to avoid the dastardly goblins that live within the mountain.

MacDonald uses an omniscient first person narrator to tell Irene's story, and while that can be a bit intrusive at times, and sometimes 19th century writings can be a bit purple prosy, there is much to astonish the modern reader in the details and imagination on display. I love the descriptive passages about Irene's great-great grandmother, a kind of fairy god-mother figure (or maybe god, or is it really like Jane Eyre's Bertha?). Whatever she represents I find it rather amazing that a 19th century Scottish minister dreamt up a magical grandmother spinning spider webs in an attic room. She has a fire that burns in the shape of roses, and she may be or may not be a pigeon.

Irene wondered what she was going to do with her, but asked no questions- only starting a little when she found that she was going to lay her in the large silver bath; for as she looked into it, again she saw no bottom, but the stars shining miles away, as it seemed, in a great blue gulf. 

Every princess needs her knight of course, and Irene meets up with a 13 year old miner's son, Curdie. They help each other, and battle the goblins together. The goblins are great characters too- driven underground by severe taxes imposed by a long ago king- they still bear a grudge against his descendants, and as they have become "misshapen in body they had grown in knowledge and cleverness." They have an intriguing weak spot, and an aversion to verse.

Original artwork by Arthur Hughes
Picture source

It is with the battling of the goblins that The Princess and the Goblin becomes most allegorical, with discussions of belief and faith.

'Then you must believe without seeing,' said the princess;
'People must believe what they can, and those who believe more must not be hard upon those who believe less.'
George MacDonald wrote a sequel called The Princess and Curdie. His other most famous children's work is At the Back of the North Wind. His fairy tales are apparently "minor masterpieces" according to the Cambridge Guide to Children's Books in English, particularly The Light Princess.



Sally Tharpe Rowles said...

This is so interesting! I especially like the background story of the author & the old photo....really very interesting. Thanks, Louise.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Somehow I missed the fact that the author was accused of heresy. Not so good when you are a minister back in those days, I suppose.

Now I'm curious to know a little more about this fellow. Off to find out....

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. Very helpful. Love the book! Leanne