Suvi's Reviews > The Princess and the Goblin

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald
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bookshelves: 1800s, children, _great-britain, fantasy

The mentor of Lewis Carroll, and revered by C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien among others, the severe-looking Scottish author clearly had a knack for creating magical things. Very few authors have said that they don't write for children, "but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five". The Princess and the Goblin is a fully-fledged children's fantasy novel, however, but also much more than a story of rescuing the princess and the kingdom.

Eight-year-old princess Irene lives a very sheltered life in a castle with her nursemaid Lootie and other servants. She has an abundance of toys, but there are so many that they don't satisfy her anymore. Instead she grows frustrated and runs around exploring the castle, eventually finding a mysterious room with an old lady who claims to be her grandmother. Irene also finds out that she has never been told about the goblins who live underground, and who are now plotting against the kingdom.

In a way this feels like a simple fairy tale, but a very bloated one. The straightforward plot is dragged out way too much, leading to a flat and anticlimactic ending. The sense of magic and the possibility to read between lines kept me going even when the text level itself was a letdown. Goblins are always interesting creatures, and here they have an interesting background story. The grandmother represents a more divine power. She is there to guide Irene and is connected to the concept of belief. What to do when you believe in something but others have a hard time doing the same? Some would say this hints at MacDonald's efforts to weave a Christian allegory to the story, but belief isn't exclusive to religion.

MacDonald also deals with transcending your outward place in the world by learning how to become a person who deserves respect. Early on, we learn that a real princess doesn't tell a lie, isn't rude and does what she is told. Being a good girl is a much bigger thing than being a princess, than having a superficial title. When Irene is playing with miner's children despite her status, the reader is reminded that "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".

Like in many children's homes even today, the nursemaid Lootie acts as both parents. Irene's mother is dead and her father travels for months on end around his kingdom. Whenever he comes back he is shown as a noble figure, and is almost put on a pedestal by Irene. The king loves his daughter and is moved to tears from the mention of his late wife, but I found it interesting that for most of the time he stays as an absent father, while the story focuses on Irene taking control of her seclusion and saving the kingdom.

Irene indeed shows herself to be a different kind of princess. With the help of a miner boy named Curdie, she is an active agent who, with the encouragement of her grandmother, finds courage and honour in herself. She's the one who follows a thread given to her by the grandmother, and saves Curdie from a cave by clearing away a heap of stones. It's admirable that MacDonald doesn't reduce her to a damsel in distress, but gives her the chance to develop and grow.

"[']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.'
'Yes, grandmother. I must be fair - for if I'm not fair to other people, I'm not worth being understood myself.[']"

PS. The cover of this Hesperus Press edition is gorgeous!
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Reading Progress

January 8, 2015 – Started Reading
January 8, 2015 – Shelved
January 8, 2015 – Shelved as: 1800s
January 8, 2015 – Shelved as: children
January 8, 2015 – Shelved as: _great-britain
January 8, 2015 – Shelved as: fantasy
January 19, 2015 – Finished Reading

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