By Justin Wiggins, Crosswalk.com
Pastor and writer George MacDonald published his fairy tale The Princess and The Goblin in 1872. While many fairy tales from that time are forgotten, this book continues to sell today, with readers worldwide enjoying it in various translations and various scholars discussing it.
So, what makes this classic book so beloved and important?
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What Happens in The Princess and the Goblin?
The story's beginning establishes that it happens in a fictional country ruled by a king with a daughter named Irene. Irene is sent from her father's palace soon after her birth to live with country people in a farmhouse in the mountains because of her mother's ill health. Irene's father is the king who rules over the large country filled with mountains and valleys. Beneath the mountains in the underground caverns live the enemies of the king—the goblins.
MacDonald reveals that the goblins were once humans. A few different legends discuss what happened, most famously that the king treated the goblins unfairly, and they revolted. After the revolt, the goblins moved from their above-ground dwellings to live in caverns. They also physically changed—taking on new appearances, including weak feet that they fear others will stamp on. The goblins also fear sunlight and hate hearing rhymes being spoken aloud. The goblins' hatred of the king and the humans above the caverns makes them crave revenge. The goblins plan for revenge (to flood the mines and then take over the kingdom) becomes their sole mission.
Irene finds herself lost one day in the large house where she lives with her nurse, Lootie. As she tries to find her way back, she enters a room she has never been in. There, Irene meets a wise, old, beautiful woman. The woman comforts Irene, telling her that she has known Irene for a long time and is her ancient Grandmother. The Grandmother gives Irene a beautiful ring. The ring leads Irene to the Grandmother by an invisible thread when she is lost.
When Irene returns to Lootie, Irene tells her of the ancient Grandmother. Lootie scoffs at Irene's claim and refuses to believe her. Lootie's doubt deeply offends Irene, and she is gravely disappointed.
One day, Irene and Lootie stay out too late and lose their way after dark. They find themselves almost being captured by some goblins until a miner named Curdie rescues them from harm. It is through the power of song that Curdie keeps the goblins away from Irene and Lootie when he rescues them. After they are both safely home, Curdie becomes friends with Irene.
After becoming friends with Curdie, the miner Irene brings Curdie to meet the Grandmother. Curdie cannot see her and doubts Irene's claims. Instead of the magical room with the beautiful Grandmother and her spinning wheel, Curdie
Curide enters the caverns and discovers a plot: the goblin king and queen plot to kidnap Princess Irene and make her marry the Goblin Prince Harelip against her will. Curdie resolves to stop them, leading to many plot machinations to get help before the goblins attack the farmhouse.
Ultimately, the goblins are defeated through Cudie and Irene's courage and the Grandmother's help. Curdie is granted a kiss from Irene with her father's permission. Irene goes to live with the king at his palace, and Curdie stays with his family in the miners' village. The sequel, The Princess and Curdie, appeared in 1883 and continues the final story of Curdie and Irene's adventures.
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What Christian Themes Does The Princess and the Goblin Explore?
The old fairy Grandmother can be interpreted as a Christ-like archetype in the story. Like Christ, the Grandmother is immortal (both young and ancient), strong, benevolent, and wise. Irene encounters the Grandmother when she loses her way, and she helps her on her journey in the story. Irene's interactions with her can be interpreted as losing your life in Christ to find it in him after coming to a place of surrender. This act of surrender echoes Jesus' paradoxical saying in the Gospels that if you lose your life, you will save and find it.
The Christian virtue of faith is very important in the book. Lootie does not believe in the Grandmother's existence despite Irene's testimony. Irene learns from the Grandmother that it is important to understand people's doubts when Irene expresses being distraught that Curdie and Lootie disbelieve in her claims about the Grandmother.
The question of how faith relates to doubt becomes prominent in later sections. Curdie cannot see the Grandmother when Irene brings Curdie to meet her. Her Grandmother reminds Irene that Curdie expresses healthy doubt about her existence. Later, Curdie tells his parents how Irene rescues him from the mines and about the Grandmother. His mother challenges him not to doubt a friend's testimony. She shares a story about something surprising she experienced (a white pigeon emerging from a globe light, which helped her escape goblins). The scene nudges Curde to be honest with himself and to think about whom he trusts. The seeds of faith begin to develop in his mind and heart.
The theme of courage also becomes vital to the story. Curdie becomes trapped and captured while finding out the goblins' revenge plot. Irene follows her Grandmother's magical thread to try and find Curdie. She locates a heap of rocks nearby, where Curdie is trapped. Despite fearing the goblins and doubting where the thread leads her, Irene removes the rocks and hears Curdie singing rhymes to deter the goblins. Irene and Curdie then follow the thread and escape the caverns.
Further Reading: How Did George MacDonald Change Christian Literature?
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How Has The Princess and the Goblin Influenced Other Writers?
MacDonald's fairytale had a profound impact on many people.
One famous example is its impact on Christian apologist and storyteller G.K. Chesterton. He discusses MacDonald's influence on him in the essay titled "George MacDonald" (recently collected in In Defense of Sanity, edited by Dale Alquist). He describes how the book helped save his sanity during a spiritual crisis, where he'd been exploring the occult and nihilistic existential philosophers, questioning whether life had meaning. The beauty, goodness, and truth evoked by MacDonald's fairy tale reminded Chesterton that he was not alone in this world. It also helped him recall Jesus' agape love for humanity, to see human beings as precious in God's eyes as MacDonald did.
C. S. Lewis was greatly influenced by MacDonald's The Princess and The Goblin. In Lewis' That Hideous Strength, Ransom mentions the fairy tale to Jane Studdock as she comes closer to believing in the divine, rejecting staunch rationalism. Through Ransom's character, Lewis conveys his admiration for MacDonald's fairy tale.
When I first read Lewis' The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, published in 1950, I could certainly see how the story's Grandmother influenced Aslan's character as the Christ-like archetype. Just as the Grandmother helps Irene when she is in a desperate plight, so does Aslan when The White Witch captures Edmund and gives his life to save him.
Madeleine L'Engle writes about how The Princess and the Goblin influenced her in Walking On Water: Reflections On Faith and Art. L'Engle says the book worked alongside other great authors she was reading to help her understand the power of story and the limitations of logical empiricism. L 'Engle's fiction conveys the same belief MacDonald had about the powerful way the story conveys important spiritual truth.
J.R.R. Tolkien read MacDonald's The Princess and The Goblin while growing up in England. The goblins in MacDonald's story, derived from Germanic mythology, influenced the goblins and orcs in Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In his essay "On Fairy Stories," Tolkien describes MacDonald as a man who wrote timeless powerful fantasy stories evoking goodness, beauty, and truth.
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Great Ways to Learn More about The Princess and the Goblin
Below are some different adaptations of MacDonald's The Princess and The Goblin and resources for studying it.
1. The audiobook version of The Princess and The Goblin audiobook was narrated by Brooke Heldman and published by Oasis Audio.
2. The animated film The Princess and The Goblin first appeared in 1991 and was directed by Josef Gemes.
2. The manga novel The Princess and The Goblin was illustrated by Japanese artist Okama and published in 2017.
3. Shirley Temple's Storybook: The Princess and The Goblin appeared in 1961 and was directed by Robert S. Miller.
4. Giner Stelle discusses the story and its place in MacDonald's work in her 2007 essay "Fracturing MacDonald: The Princess and The Goblin and Fractured Fairy Tales," published in North Wind, an academic journal devoted to studying MacDonald's life and writing.
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10 Other Classic Fantasy Stories by George MacDonald
If you would like to read more of MacDonald's fantasy works, the ten books listed below are great resources for understanding his contribution to the fantasy genre of literature.
1. The Princess and Curdie
2. The Golden Key
3. At the Back of The North Wind
4. The Light Princess
5. The Gray Wolf and Other Stories
6. Phantastes: A Faerie Romance For Men and Women
8. The George MacDonald Christmas Collection
9. The Day Boy and the Night Girl: The Romance of Photogen and Nycteris
10. The Complete Fairy Tales
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