A thing more necessary

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.

Illustration of Princess Irene, by Arthur Hughes 1872

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.

Image by Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com

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

26 thoughts on “A thing more necessary

  1. alisondoig

    I had The Princess and the Goblin read to me when I was very young, about 4, and read it to myself many times in my childhood. A lot of the use of myth and metaphor obviously went over my head, but I loved the image of the mysterious stair in the huge house, and the ancient woman living in a forgotten room. I agree that Tolkien was likely to have been influenced by it. The Princess and Curdie, the sequel, is less satisfying probably because it’s more overtly moralistic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d read that about The Princess and Curdie too, Alison, and so may give that a miss — it sounds as though he ignored his own advice about writing fairytales when he wrote this sequel a decade later! But I’m pretty sure that Tolkien acknowledged MacDonald’s influence more than once on his own thinking and writings. I rapidly skimmed MacDonald’s essay (which I link to in the review) but there are lots of interesting points he made there which apply neatly with this original.

      The staircase and the mysterious woman are such delicious motifs, ones I’m sure I would’ve liked if I’d read this as a child even if it might’ve been borrowed from the Sleeping Beauty story.

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        1. Magical indeed. I was somewhat reminded of the concept of floatation tanks, also known as sensory deprivation tanks, though I’ve never had the experience myself of being suspended in one, sans hearing, sans seeing, sans feeling.

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  2. Ah, those curious portals again! Isn’t it wondrous how something as simple as a stairwell can mean something historical, something horrifying, something wondrous, something loving…a portal to the impossible always makes for a cracking read. xxxxx

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    1. I know what you mean, Jean! We live in an 18th-century house (most original features previously stripped out, unfortunately) with a cellar and three storeys, and going up a pokey oak staircase to bed in what was the attic, with its original oak beams, always feels like an adventure every night, especially with views over a a medieval church, ancient hills and river valley. It’s like being part of a Gothick story or historical mystery… 😁

      In Arthur Hughes’ illustration of Princess Irene you can just see the shadowy hint of the arched portal before the stairs rise up, an indication of a doorway which is sometimes there and sometimes not.

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  3. I loved both the Curdie books as a child and I’m glad this one still spoke to you. Love the quote you chose for the beginning. I suggest you read The Princess and Curdie and see what you think for yourself. It’s definitely moral in intent, grimmer and not so charming, but still in vivid fairytale pictures rather than sermonizing or platitudes. It won’t take you long to read!

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    1. And now you’ve swayed me against prejudging it, Lory! It was also available as a Puffin paperback so I will doubtless get round to it eventually. Glad you liked the quote I chose — many classic European fairytales have an edifying take on good behaviour, don’t they, often including being compassionate to those less fortunate than oneself. The Arabian Nights stories were more ambiguous, I seem to remember, when kind turns to djinns for example didn’t always result in gratitude being shown!

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  4. This looks great. I tried McDonald’s “Phantasies” once but couldn’t get into it. This story sounds a lot more accessible. I think C S Lewis really loved McDonald’s stories as well as Tolkien. (I’m pretty sure it was Lewis’ autobiography “Surprised by Joy” which first led me to investigate George MacDonald.)

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  5. alisondoig

    There’s also At the Back of the North Wind, which I read as a child. However, my recollection is that it is full of Victorian moralising and sentimentality, so probably wouldn’t hold up too well now.

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    1. I’m fairly sure I’m not in the mood for Victorian moralising and sentimentality right now so may give this a miss, Alison, thanks for the warning! Maybe when things are a little more hopeful in the world I’ll be able to stand back and view this with suitable equilibrium.

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  6. This has sent me to my bookcase with childhood books on it. I have The Princess and the Goblin, and another MacDonald book, The Lost Princess, about spoilt Princess Rosamund who is kidnapped by a Wise Woman and taught a different way of being. My copies were published by Scripture Union in 1978 and were, I think, bought from a church bookstall at my primary school’s summer fête. I have a definite sense from childhood of them supposedly being religious books, or at least acceptable books for a child being brought up in the Christian tradition to read. I was surprised to read in your review that MacDonald himself didn’t think there was a place for overt Christian moralising in his books!

    Both have a quote from C S Lewis on the cover, too, “I regard George MacDonald as my master,” so there’s another Inkling inspired by him, as Jo says above.

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    1. Interesting points, Jan, thanks. I can’t think of any fictional narrative in the Western world, whether fairytale or otherwise, that counsels unchristian morality either overt or covert. Stories of saintly miracles were ever popular as explicit moral exemplars, but fables and even tales of faërie and magic pretty much extolled virtues found in, say, St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians where he talks about faith being nothing without love.

      What MacDonald seems to have aimed to do was follow the fairytale tradition in illustrating how the protagonist learnt charity and compassion whereas those who didn’t came to horrible ends. Ruskin’s literary fairytale The King of the Golden River from 1851 must surely have influenced MacDonald in this respect.

      I wouldn’t mind reading The Lost Princess now, I think!

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      1. True, MacDonald’s fairytales can’t help but have a Christian aspect given the period he was writing in. What you say about MacDonald’s aims makes sense of why I definitely didn’t think of them as overtly Christian when I read them, despite the origins of my copies. I remember receiving them and having a slight worry that they were going to be devout tracts, and being relieved that they were adventures with a supernatural bent!

        The Lost Princess was my favourite over The Princess and the Goblin. There’s another girl in the story, of more humble stock but equally spoiled, who also gets kidnapped. Plus a mirror and a portal, of course, to help them understand themselves differently.

        I might re-read them, now I’ve been reminded of them!

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          1. This lovely review has sent me rummaging through my bookshelves as I thought I had a copy of this from childhood but sadly not. I love the quote you have opened with and the illustration brings back memories as illustrations often do. Thank you for the reminder, Chris.

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            1. Thanks so much, Anne, I do like it when I find a quote that seems to encapsulate much of what a novel is about, and as for the illustration — I thought it subtly indicated the shadowy and insubstantial nature of so many fictional portals, like wormholes to another space, time or existence. A shame that your own copy is no longer available but at least the Puffin edition is still available I believe.

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  7. I haven’t read this, but I’ve read Phantastes and Lilith. I think the latter needs a reread before I can say much about it, and I read Phantastes before I was writing reviews. If the slow start to Phantastes was a problem, Lilith has more going on, I think. It’s deeply weird, though.

    On the subject of didactic Victorian fairytales – have you read any of the ones by Oscar Wilde? I think most of them have some kind of moral, but Wilde pulls it off without being boring.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If I remember aright Wilde was never explicit with his morals, letting the story (I’m thinking particularly of The Selfish Giant here) speak for itself; and moral, if there was one, was almost always ‘Be compassionate’.

      I’m now intrigued by MacDonald’s forays into fantasy because, apart from this novel, virtually all his other essays have come laden with caveats (as you demonstrate). I shall doubtless be investigating but for now I’ve enough to get on with!

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  10. This looks absolutely charming, and your review makes it doubly so! It reminded me a little of the Princess Bride, I am wondering if you got that vibe too? Thanks for a great #WyrdAndWonder post.

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    1. That’s interesting, that possible link with The Princess Bride. There’s a difference in age, of course, between Princess Irene and Princess Buttercup, but I suspect that William Goldman will have known the MacDonald fantasy and may thus have subconsciously drawn some elements from it. But the parallels are quite general, it seems to me, rather than specific — even so, I shall have to ponder what you say! It is definitely a charming read and surprisingly little of it feels dated.

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