Classic Children's Literature · RAL

Completed: The Princess and the Goblin

The Princess and the Goblin

The Princess and the Goblin
George MacDonald
1872 (Scotland)

It would seem I’m trying very hard to be late to my own readalong! But I’ve been so very busy lately that I only just finished my reading of The Princess and the Goblin.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this book. My only previous experience with MacDonald was about ten years ago when I read Lilith, which I barely remember beyond that I found it difficult (slow) to get through and there was quite a bit about dreams. Would I find The Princess and the Goblin difficult? Excessively moralistic or preachy? I found it none of these things, but rather a charming tale–I’m not sure whether to call it fairy tale or fantasy, although I lean towards the former–although, I’m not sure if there truly is any difference.

The Princess and the Goblin is the story of Irene, the princess, and her interactions with her great-great-grandmother Irene and the miner boy Curdie. It is also the story of Curdie’s excursions into the mines and beyond to discover the nefarious plans of the goblins. In some ways the world they live in is so real–I think it meets J.R.R. Tolkien’s standard for “inner consistency of reality”*–that one could say this is not a fantasy, it must be set in some far-off but real kingdom of long ago. But then there are goblins who dwell underground with their fantastic creatures, so no it must be fantasy. And then there is great-great-grandmother, whom as first it seems only princess Irene believes in–is her great-great-grandmother only a dream, as at times Irene herself seems to think possible? I find it a curious mixture of reality–for example, Irene’s nurse is very much the sort who doesn’t believe in fantasy; if the goblins were not real in their world she would not believe they existed–fantasy, and  dream. It is clear, too, that the fantasy aspects and the aspects that may or may not be (though we will know by the end) dreams are distinct things. What the reader considers fantastic–the goblins–are real to the inhabitants of the world, while both reader and other characters may believe that Irene’s experiences are mere dreams. In defining “fairy-story” Tolkien dismissed those tales which are framed by dreams, but here, the dreams are integral to the fantasy. Except, perhaps they are not dreams, but reality. Only, whose reality? Why might two people see two completely different things in the same scene?

This dream-not-dream leads to what I believe some define in this novel as allegory. I’m not sure that’s quite the right word. I do see there’s symbolism or metaphor, but a single one-to-one exchange I think would simplify the story too much. But it is clear that Irene’s times with her great-great-grandmother, which none else in the house seem to find possible, could represent something greater. Perhaps I’ve read this too close to the first part of Little Women and its allusions to the Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, but I see in the interactions of the two Irenes the representation of the Christian walk of faith. Princess Irene must trust in her great-great-grandmother, even when she doesn’t understand and even when no one else believes her. MacDonald’s ministerial background shines through, though he is never preachy, nor would a religious meaning need to be understood to enjoy reading the tale. But giving it this reading illuminates for me why Irene can meet with her great-great-grandmother when others can’t–I see great-great-grandmother as a representation of a deity-figure that must be believed in to be seen. Of course, calling it a fantasy could provide its own explanation as well–that the older woman has some sort of power that allows her to appear to some and not to others–and no doubt, many understand the story this way.

After finishing The Princess and the Goblin this afternoon, I immediately requested The Princess and Curdie from the library–I’m curious both as to where the next book goes, both story and ideas. What else does MacDonald have in store?

*From his 1964 essay “On Fairy-stories”.

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9 thoughts on “Completed: The Princess and the Goblin

  1. Ohh, this sounds interesting. I haven’t read fairytales in years, but I’ve been meaning to read them again for a while now. This seems to be both enchanting and thought-provoking, so it might be the perfect title to pick the genre back up.

    1. It is very enchanting. I was afraid it might be too moralistic in the manner of typical Victorian children’s lit, but it wasn’t at all.

  2. Amanda, I can’t believe that the Classic Children’s Literature Challenge lasts only two more days. Like “The Princess and the Goblin” I could add books to my reading list every day!

  3. The sequel is perhaps even odder than this book. The emphasis shifts, as the title suggests. Well worth reading.

    Have you tried At the Back of the North Wind? A wonderful book, full of dream-stuff like Lilith but not so esoteric. The North WInd is like the great-great grandmother, another of MacDonald’s female gods.

    1. I can’t wait to read the sequel, so I’m glad to hear it’s worth it. I’m curious as to where MacDonald goes next.

      No, I haven’t tried At the Back of the North Wind yet–but it’s on my list. It sounds interesting; perhaps I’ll have to get to it sooner rather than later. Thanks for the rec!

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