Sunday, January 3, 2016

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald (1872)

Princess Irene is eight years old, and lives in a large castle-like house in the countryside with only her nurse, Lootie, for company. (Her father, the king, is often away, and her mother is dead.) Irene is very sheltered, because, although she is not aware of them, subterranean goblins lurk in the mountains outside of her home, lying in wait to exact revenge on the humans who have banished them. One rainy day, Irene goes exploring in the halls of the castle, and she comes upon a beautiful woman with a spinning wheel sitting in a tower room. The woman identifies herself as the princess's great-great-grandmother for whom  Irene was named. After this meeting, things change for Irene. The very next day, she convinces Lootie to keep her out much later than normal, and the two meet Curdie, the son of miners, who has the gift of driving away goblins by reciting verse. After Curdie recues Irene and Lootie from goblins on that night, he goes onto uncover a plan that endangers the princess. At the same time, Irene becomes better acquainted with her grandmother, who ultimately enables her to save Curdie as well.

Considering that this book was published in 1872, I was surprised to find that it made for fairly quick reading. This is helped significantly by the fact that the author addresses the reader directly at the start of the story, helping to ease the reader out of the real world and into the fantasy world he has created. (I am someone who usually has a hard time understanding any world which does not directly mirror the real one, so this sort of slow immersion in the princess's world was very helpful for me.) The descriptions, though somewhat old-fashioned in tone, paint beautiful pictures of the author's vision of Irene herself, her nursery, the mines where Curdie's family works, Irene's grandmother, and Curdie's own parents. It is also easy to conjure up grotesque images of what the goblins must look like, which adds just enough of a sense of fear to the reading experience to be fun without causing nightmares.

There is a ton of Christian imagery in this book, and though I knew to look for it, many of the references are so subtle, that I know I didn't grasp their full meaning on this first read-through. The theme of believing without seeing is the most overtly religious message in the book, but there are also hints at the importance of love, forgiveness, and keeping one's word that certainly support a Christian worldview. I don't think I enjoyed this much as I have enjoyed the Narnia or Lord of the Rings books, but I could certainly how it would have influenced Lewis and Tolkien in their own work, and I definitely think readers who enjoy Lewis and Tolkien will also love MacDonald.

In terms of sharing this book with kids, I would say it is appropriate for kids as young as four or five to hear as a read-aloud, but I would caution against having this be their only experience with the book. This is a story that has many layers and can be appreciated differently at different developmental levels.

I have some unanswered questions left after finishing this book, and I suspect it will probably be necessary for me to read the sequel, The Princess and Curdie, in order to find out their definitive answers.

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