Monday, October 4, 2010

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

This was one of my favourite books when I was little. Lately, I've delved into MacDonald's more mature fantasy (I read Lilith a few months ago) and realised what I never realised before—he was not just deeply theologically profound, but also a Presbyterian of sorts! Early fantasy is a genre largely dominated by great and gigantic Catholics (Tolkien, for example, or Chesterton) and Anglicans (CS Lewis and the remarkable Charles Williams). But for Calvinist fantasy, you have to choose between The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, Pilgrim's Progress—and MacDonald. Well, I'm not complaining, but Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory, The Faerie Queene is nearly an allegory (and both are some of my favourite books) and as for John Milton he didn't believe in the full divinity of Christ!

Which leaves—MacDonald.

This is probably his most conventional fantasy work. It tells the story of Princess Irene, who is nine years old and lives with her nurse and household in a castle on a lonely mountain, far away from the distant capital city where her king-papa rules. The mountain itself is riddled with coal-mines, where the poor but brave miners work: far below the mines, a constant annoyance and menace (they don't mind eating humans), live the goblins.

One day, bored, Princess Irene runs out of her nursery to explore the upper reaches of the castle—and in the tallest tower of all she opens a door and sees a beautiful, queenly old lady spinning. Her white hair is so long that it trails on the floor; and she introduces herself as Irene's great-great-grandmother, who has been living in the castle watching over her from afar all Irene's life.

Soon after, Irene meets a miner-boy named Curdie, who knows the goblins well, and just how to deal with them. Lost in the mines one night, Curdie discovers that the goblins intend to capture Irene as a bride for their prince, and so with much difficulty and the help of Irene's mysterious grandmother—and Irene herself—he foils their plans and saves the whole mountain from destruction.

Looking back, I can appreciate how well-written this story is. Curdie in particular is a well-drawn character, and while Irene indulges in a bit of sappiness with primroses, she earns all my respect again in her adventure in the mines. But when I was little, the reason I read this book again and again was because of Irene's grandmother in the tower, whose luxurious little tower room is described in delightful detail, with her starry bath and fire of roses; who lives on pigeon-eggs; who uses the Moon as her lamp; who appears sometimes as an old lady and sometimes as a young girl and sometimes not at all.

Did I mention how much I loved this book when I was a little girl? And later, when I was ready to step into Tolkien and Chesterton, I recognised much of MacDonald's kindly philosophical spirit in their writings, with little pieces of wisdom like this one:

“I am very old indeed. It is so silly of people—I don't mean you, for you are such a tiny, and couldn't know better—but it is so silly of people to fancy that old age means crookedness and witheredness and feebleness and sticks and spectacles and rheumatism and forgetfulness! It is so silly! Old age has nothing whatever to do with all that. The right old age means strength and beauty and mirth and courage and clear eyes and strong painless limbs.”


That puzzled me a lot when I was Irene's age, but I understand now.

Gutenberg etext
Librivox recordings

3 comments:

fredericthewise said...

One of my most very favouritest of authors! I'm not sure if you'd call him strictly Calvinist; for one he wasn't quite convinced that God doesn't somehow find a way to get everyone to heaven and for another, he once had one of the best characters in a particular story (Mr Graham in Malcolm, I think) jest bitterly against the local presbytery that if he stood up to them they'd probably burn him at the stake as their spiritual ancestor Calvin might have done.
Actually, what many people remember him for is that he convinced Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (AKA Lewis Carroll) to publish Alice in wonderland.
I personally like his novels Sir Gibbie and Donal Grant, as well as Phantastes, Lilith, at the back of the north wind (possibly number 1) and The Wise Woman.

Suzannah said...

Yes, a Presbyterian...of sorts.

*Sigh* Oh, George MacDonald, how could you? Calvin never burned anyone at the stake! Calvin never WANTED to burn anyone at the stake. It was the council of Geneva that burned one (1) troublesome heretic at a time when you could smell burning martyr from every rooftop in Barcelona--and Calvin, insofar as he expressed an opinion, asked for something more humane, like beheading.

How strange, I never heard that about Alice in Wonderland!

fredericthewise said...

Actually, about alice in wonderland I was a bit imprecise; it was actually the enthusiasm of MacDonald's children that convince Dodgson to publish.

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