This article first appeared as a guest post on Pages Unbound on 28 July 2016. Many thanks to Krysta and Briana for hosting the celebrating classic literature event. Be sure to visit their fantastic blog!
Before the wardrobe. Before the One Ring…
Some one-hundred-twenty-odd years after its first publication, The Princess and the Goblin was honoured with a place in Everyman’s Library of Children’s Classics. But I would suggest the fairytale, and the entirety of MacDonald’s fantasy works, belong in the canon of classics for all ages. And I believe I am in good company in suggesting so. C.S. Lewis praised MacDonald as a master in “the art of myth-making.” Tolkien was inspired by his predecessor’s “stories of power and beauty.” The Princess and the Goblin attests to all of the above: a fairytale in the truest, pre-Victorian sense that Tolkien subscribed to (which ironically has nothing to do with little winged people hiding in flower gardens), this tale is enchantingly beautiful and at the same time has the power to awaken desire in the reader… which was, after all, precisely what the author intended.
As you might guess, the central protagonist in the story is the eight-year-old princess Irene who lives in an unnamed but perfectly believable mountainous kingdom. The King has sent Irene to grow up in a country home under the astute care of his servants because of a lurking threat: namely, vindictive goblins. Irene must never venture out of the house past dark lest the cave-dwelling “cobs” take the chance to seize her and at last have revenge on the king’s people whom they condemn as trespassers on their land. When by happenstance one evening Irene and her nurse get caught out after dark and are rescued by a confident young miner called Curdie, Irene’s life takes a turn towards the fantastical.
Not long afterwards, she discovers in the attics of her house a breathtakingly beautiful queen who claims to be Irene’s great grandmother, come to live in the house to watch over the little girl. Irene is delighted with her discovery of the wise and gentle woman, but when she descends the attic stair to share the news with her nurse, the true conflict of the story emerges. For though the goblins’ mischief sets the scene for the action that follows, the real crisis for Irene is one of belief – belief of what she has experienced, even when others write off her belief as a childish game, trickery, or worst of all, lies.
As the drama unfolds and the danger of goblin schemes grow, Irene must battle her own doubts about her grandmother as well as the doubts of others. Half-persuaded the whole experience was a dream, a lingering hope leads Irene to search out her grandmother once again, and when she succeeds, her fears are finally laid to rest. Now fully convinced of the truth of her experience, Irene is allowed to see her grandmother in all her splendid, magical beauty. The queen gives the princess a gift – a magic thread that will lead her out of danger whenever she follows it.
Certain at last of her grandmother’s existence and the power of her promise, Irene becomes a true princess, following her thread in a daring mission to save Curdie from the goblins. The tale does not end there, for the goblins still have their vendetta to serve, and Irene still must face the disbelief of those she loves. But suffice it to say, MacDonald is a self-professed believer in happy endings. And for those readers hungry for more, The Princess and Curdie continues the history yet further down the road.
But what does it all mean?
Aside from the remarkable tale itself, MacDonald’s style of storytelling is remarkable in the way it pulls the reader into the story, sometimes inviting him or her to guess what might happen next. But whilst he engages his readers as if they were sitting in the same room with him, the author never attempts to tell his audience what the tale means. Unlike so many writers for children of his day, MacDonald never lectures, never moralizes and never offers interpretation. And indeed, it would be a misstep to try and spell out the story’s meaning in this review – MacDonald expressly did not mean for one meaning to be found.
What MacDonald offers his readers of The Princess and the Goblin (along with his other fairytales) is not a lesson but an experience. It isn’t that he asks the reader to suspend thinking; quite the contrary, for MacDonald, Reason is intrinsic to the realm of Faerie. Also, he makes his audience not only think but rethink with his frequent use of paradox: the wisdom of youth seen in Irene, or the strength and beauty of old age that Irene’s great grandmother embodies. But while we readers may find ourselves rethinking what we once thought, MacDonald himself warned that “we spoil many a precious thing by intellectual greed,” and “The greatest forces lie in the region of the uncomprehended” (from MacDonald’s essay “The Fantastic Imagination”). Hence children are so much better at receiving fairytales than many adults, though MacDonald would argue it is adults who need them most.
For my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five. ~G. MacDonald, ‘The Fantastic Imagination’
A fairytale, MacDonald believed, is less like an allegory and more like a sonata that “seizes you and sweeps you away”: it is written with rationally with rules, but it will stir up a different feeling in every listener.
The key then to not just appreciating but truly enjoying The Princess and the Goblin and other like tales is letting it work its magic on you; allowing it to transport you right where you sit into a waking dream in the Realm of Faerie. This story’s beauty lies in its power to awaken a perhaps forgotten childlike wonder in readers of any and every age. It certainly had such a stirring, heartstring-pulling, transporting effect on me. But you must read it for yourself to see where the music of MacDonald’s fairy world will take you.
If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it.