The Princess and the Goblin
by George MacDonald.
Illustrated by Arthur Hughes.
Puffin Books 1996 (1872)
‘We are all very anxious to be understood, and it is very hard not to be. But there is one thing much more necessary.’
‘What is that, grandmother?’
‘To understand other people.’Chapter 22, The Old Lady and Curdie.
There are many key-notes in this most famous of literary fairytales but the one that impresses me most strongly after reading it is that of empathy. It’s not really a moral precept, more an ability to imagine oneself in somebody else’s place, particularly on an emotional or compassionate level.
To some such empathy comes naturally, though for Princess Irene and for her friend Curdie a reminder by way of an unfortunate sequence of events is sometimes required to reinforce a predisposition; but the goblins in this tale find empathy an elusive concept, with the almost inevitable consequences.
Irene is eight and motherless, but she lives in a castle by a mountain and, being a princess, is well cared for while her father the king is away making perambulations of his realm. Meanwhile, Curdie is twelve and, being the son of a miner, joins his father as they excavate the lodes of ore underground. But all humans have to take care not to be caught out in the open at night by goblins or cobs, the shrunken hideous beings who inhabit the caverns under the mountain.
Curdie has learnt how to cope with the cobs, knowing that they hate both the daylight and singing, and is happy to descend to depths below where the goblins have their dwellings. Irene, despite the usually close attentions of Lootie her nurse, manages to explore an unknown part of the castle which lies above and, ascending many stairs, arrives at a room where she encounters a lady who tells Irene “I’m your father’s mother’s father’s mother.” And so the stage is set for the four levels of existence — Irene’s great-great-grandmother, Irene and the court, Curdie and the miners, and the goblins under the mountain — to interact in a complex drama.
A review is not the place to give the plot away which, in any case, is far too intricate to describe briefly, far less do justice to. It’s sufficient to say that MacDonald has drawn on many motifs from myth, legend and fairytale to fashion a narrative that takes young readers into its confidence but almost never talks down to its audience. Here we recognise many common motifs such as the ball of thread in the labyrinth, the troll kingdom under the mountain, the various magic portals (such as the stairs behind an overlooked door or the tunnel behind a stream), the fairy godmother, the incantations that work as protective spells, and so on. As each motif is casually introduced the reader may experience a shiver of recognition while wondering how the motif will be used.
The only thing that runs counter to MacDonald’s theme of empathy are the goblins. They’re portrayed as former human beings who, in retreating to their caverns, have become deformed in shape and character in a seeming reversal of evolution. They remind me of the Doasyoulikes in Charles Kingsley’s moralising The Water-Babies who (as it were) became devolved, though MacDonald avoids the overt racist descriptors that Kingsley used. Still, despite rendering the goblins humorously grotesque — their Achilles heel being their toeless and vulnerable bare feet — MacDonald shows them as incorrigibly and irretrievably wicked, ready to abduct humans as royal brides or, indeed, to drown the castle inhabitants. There is no attempt to bring the antagonists together with diplomacy, and there is an unattractive delight shown when any of them die.
Tolkien, who was influenced by MacDonald’s fantasies, must surely have fashioned his goblins and orcs out of the same clay, much as MacDonald moulded his goblins from the kobolds of Teutonic lore. In fact it’s very easy to spot other borrowings, unconscious or otherwise, that went towards Middle-earth’s characteristic features; and impish goblins even appeared in embryonic form in the Father Christmas Letters (though these were only published as late as 1976). And let’s not forget the svart-elves in Alan Garner’s Alderley Edge fantasies.
Still, despite the period flaws in this novel, it remains a powerful piece. Princess Irene and Curdie have very likeable personalities, and have families and acquaintances who are equally likeable. Irene take her name from the Greek goddess Eirene whose name means peace, and that suits her nature and behaviour exactly. Scottish dialect accounts for Curdie’s name — it means a coin of little worth, such as a farthing, and was also a nickname for a boy small for his age — though in fact Curdie proves to have stout courage and to have much worth in the scheme of things.
Though The Princess and the Goblin was penned by a Congregational minister, the literary interests of the author’s extended family (one of his uncles for example collected Scottish fairytales) largely freed his own fairytale from overt Christian moralising let alone allegorising, which he felt had no place in fantasy [see footnote]. Nevertheless this didn’t exclude a moral stance in certain areas, as most fairytales did: Irene, for instance, despite her regal status never puts on airs and graces with staff or villagers because to her the concept of noblesse oblige meant treating all others with respect, honesty and politeness.
… 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.Chapter 25, Curdie comes to grief.
The Princess and the Goblin was an eye-opener for me, as some of the references I’d read suggested it was mere allegory, or a primitive forerunner to the Inklings’ fictions, or as impossibly pious. Instead I found it charming, if a little gung-ho in places, and it exuded a distinctive magic quite different to literary fairytales contemporary with it.
Read for the Wyrd & Wonder fantasy reading month. Coincidentally, 2021 is the novel’s 150th anniversary: it was published in serial form in the monthly Good Words for the Young, finishing in June 1871 before eventually appearing in book form in 1872. Publication was helped of course by the author editor of Good Words for the Young between 1869 and 1872.
Footnote: ‘“You write as if a fairytale were a thing of importance: must it have meaning?” It cannot help having some meaning; if it have proportion and harmony it has vitality, and vitality is truth. The beauty may be plainer in it than the truth, but without the truth the beauty could not be, and the fairytale would give no delight. Everyone, however, who feels the story, will read its meaning after his own nature and development: one man will read one meaning in it, another will read another.’‘The Fantastic Imagination’ by George MacDonald: from the Introduction to The Light Princess and other Fairy Tales