Why am I reading a 150 year old children’s fantasy/fairy tale book? Because:
Certain magazines have symposiums (I will call them ‘symposia’ if I am allowed to call the two separate South Kensington collections ‘musea’) in which persons are asked to name ‘Books that have Influenced Me’, on the lines of ‘Hymns that have Helped Me’. It is not a very realistic process as a rule, for our minds are mostly a vast uncatalogued library; and for a man to be photographed with one of the books in his hand generally means at best that he has chosen at random, and at worst that he is posing for effect. But in a certain rather special sense I for one can really testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start; a vision of things which even so real a revolution as a change of religious allegiance has substantially only crowned and confirmed. Of all the stories I have read, including even all the novels of the same novelist, it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life. It is called The Princess and the Goblin, and is by George MacDonald, the man who is the subject of this book.
G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald
If G. K. Chesterton praises The Princess and the Goblin like that, I had to read it. Of course, you should read all of the above essay. In a way, this review here is a review of both the book and Chesterton’s views of it.
George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin is a fairytale, but with a difference: the daily lives of the 8 year old Princess Irene and the young boy hero Curdie are drawn so as to seem familiar, cozy and normal. Irene is a princess, yes, but a perfectly acceptable little girl living a good but somewhat lonely life. Her mother has died and her father, the king, has business that takes him away most of the time. Her situation is sad but perfectly real. The people in the castle are – with one exception – also perfectly normal and decent human beings. Irene’s governess Lootie is fussy but good-hearted; other characters – the king’s guard, cooks – are but lightly sketched but also ring true.
Curdie is the young son of a miner, who is brave, honest, enterprising and kind, and works side-by-side with his father. His mother and father, briefly but convincingly sketched, are solid, familiar people.
The castle is a real castle, the mountain a real mountain, the mines where Curdie and his father work real mines. And all are full of magic.
Magic happens in the course of usual events. Irene goes exploring the many rooms of the castle, and meets her namesake great great grandmother in a room high in the castle. Chesterton points out that the castle seemed to him not unlike his own childhood home, with a cellar and many rooms, so that Irene’s explorations and discoveries were like what he, himself, might have experienced as a child exploring his own house.
And that’s the difference: the adventures here take place at home, not in a far-away kingdom or in the clouds. You don’t need to go to an enchanted forest, for the forest right here is already enchanted, and the goblins really are under your bed, and your fairy godmother lives upstairs.
In keeping with this mood or setting, MacDonald blurs the lines between royalty and commoners, nobility being not so much about birth but about character:
All this time Curdie had to be sorry, without a chance of confessing, that he had behaved so unkindly to the princess. This perhaps made him the more diligent in his endeavours to serve her. His mother and he often talked on the subject, and she comforted him, and told him she was sure he would some day have the opportunity he so much desired.
Here I should like to remark, for the sake of princes and princesses in general, that it is a low and contemptible thing to refuse to confess a fault, or even an error. If a true princess has done wrong, she is always uneasy until she has had an opportunity of throwing the wrongness away from her by saying: ‘I did it; and I wish I had not; and I am sorry for having done it.’ So you see there is some ground for supposing that Curdie was not a miner only, but a prince as well. Many such instances have been known in the world’s history.
Superversive, even. And:
‘Lootie! Lootie! I promised a kiss,’ cried Irene.
‘A princess mustn’t give kisses. It’s not at all proper,’ said Lootie.
‘But I promised,’ said the princess.
‘There’s no occasion; he’s only a miner-boy.’
‘He’s a good boy, and a brave boy, and he has been very kind to us. Lootie! Lootie! I promised.’
‘Then you shouldn’t have promised.’
‘Lootie, I promised him a kiss.’
‘Your Royal Highness,’ said Lootie, suddenly grown very respectful, ‘must come in directly.’
‘Nurse, a princess must not break her word,’ said Irene, drawing herself up and standing stock-still.
Lootie did not know which the king might count the worst—to let the princess be out after sunset, or to let her kiss a miner-boy. She did not know that, being a gentleman, as many kings have been, he would have counted neither of them the worse. However much he might have disliked his daughter to kiss the miner-boy, he would not have had her break her word for all the goblins in creation. But, as I say, the nurse was not lady enough to understand this, and so she was in a great difficulty, for, if she insisted, someone might hear the princess cry and run to see, and then all would come out. But here Curdie came again to the rescue.
‘Never mind, Princess Irene,’ he said. ‘You mustn’t kiss me tonight. But you shan’t break your word. I will come another time. You may be sure I will.’
“…being a gentleman, as many kings have been…”
After a number of increasingly dire adventures and challenges, involving goblins, mines, magic thread, narrow rescues and escapes, Curdie saves the day and the princess and she, as her approving father looks on, gives him a kiss. The story is not sappy, but beautiful.
Any reader of Chesterton will soon run into one of his core convictions: that the world is fantastical and magical, full of wonders and the inexplicable, it’s just that we are most often too dull to see it. The Princess and the Goblin shows just such a world as ours.
Chesterton gets the last word, as he almost always would in a better world:
When I say it is like life, what I mean is this. It describes a little princess living in a castle in the mountains which is perpetually undermined, so to speak, by subterranean demons who sometimes come up through the cellars. She climbs up the castle stairways to the nursery or the other rooms; but now and again the stairs do not lead to the usual landings, but to a new room she has never seen before, and cannot generally find again. Here a good great-grandmother, who is a sort of fairy godmother, is perpetually spinning and speaking words of understanding and encouragement. When I read it as a child, I felt that the whole thing was happening inside a real human house, not essentially unlike the house I was living in, which also had staircases and rooms and cellars. This is where the fairy-tale differed from many other fairy-tales; above all, this is where the philosophy differed from many other philosophies. I have always felt a certain insufficiency about the ideal of Progress, even of the best sort which is a Pilgrim’s Progress. It hardly suggests how near both the best and the worst things are to us from the first; even perhaps especially at the first. And though like every other sane person I value and revere the ordinary fairy-tale of the miller’s third son who set out to seek his fortune (a form which MacDonald himself followed in the sequel called The Princess and Curdie), the very suggestion of travelling to a far-off fairyland, which is the soul of it, prevents it from achieving this particular purpose of making all the ordinary staircases and doors and windows into magical things.