abstract illustration of Princess Irene with a forest backdrop

The Princess and the Goblin

by George MacDonald

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The opening phrase, "There once was a Princess," places the action in a distant land, in the distant past. The country is ruled by a king and there are few signs of technology. The action takes place in and around (and even under) one of the king's great houses, which is situated halfway up the side of a mountain. In the lower regions of the great house live the princess, Irene, her nurse, Lootie, and the other servants. One day while exploring an apparently unoccupied region of the house, Irene discovers a mysterious woman known as Grandmother, whose guidance and supernatural powers help Irene through her subsequent adventures. Irene is also assisted by Curdie, the son of a miner, who lives with his father and mother in a humble cottage farther up the mountain.

Underneath the mountain, in a subterranean kingdom, live the goblins. They moved there generations earlier, and over the years have regressed from normal people into squat, misshapen beings with hard heads and soft feet. Their domestic animals have also changed into exotic forms. By day the goblins remain below ground, nursing an ancient grievance against people; at night they emerge to do whatever mischief they can. Their plan for revenge is to kidnap Irene by tunneling from below into the great house and marry her to Harelip, Prince of the Goblins. Failing that, they plan to send a deadly flood through the mines. While working late in the mines one night, Curdie overhears part of their plans and takes action to thwart them.

Literary Qualities

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In The Princess and the Goblin MacDonald offers plausible characters with human emotions and motives. Princess Irene and Curdie both have unusual strength of character, yet they sometimes fall prey to temptations and human weaknesses. Irene panics in a stressful situation; Curdie lets loose with a cutting, hurtful remark. The evil goblins are memorable for their cunning and for their bizarre sense of family togetherness.

The plot of The Princess and the Goblin contains a large number of exciting incidents. There are preliminary skirmishes, suspenseful reconnaissance missions, and daring rescues, all building to a climactic battle near the end. The story's narrative incidents are not only skillfully paced but also motivated by both internal and external conflicts. The goblins' stratagems (external conflict) threaten the life of the princess and lead Curdie to thwart their plot. Characters also go through internal struggles as they commit acts of folly or heroism. The fantasy elements may initially attract the reader's attention, but the characters and plot give The Princess and the Goblin its lasting value.

Social Sensitivity

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Because the story is a spiritual fantasy in a fairy tale setting, it contains almost no social commentary. MacDonald dramatizes the process of a young developing mind's quest for truth. Error and failure are attributed to universal human nature, not to the corrupting influence of social attitudes and institutions. For instance, no manifestation of organized religion (except for one unrevealing reference to a parson), appears in the story, even though it has a religious theme. The only bit of class snobbery expressed by Lootie is outweighed by the princess's attitude, which values virtue over social status.

One might expect that a book written during the Victorian era would reflect the period's predominantly patriarchal values and show men as leaders and women as subjects to be protected. However, the story is relatively free from sexist assumptions. Curdie's mother keeps house in the traditional fashion, but she is an active figure whose wisdom and guidance is largely responsible for Curdie's conversion. The heroine and the hero of the story share center stage. Curdie...

(This entire section contains 223 words.)

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may do the fighting in the climactic battle, but Irene undertakes the dangerous mission behind enemy lines. Finally, and most importantly, the story's spiritual guide is a female. This alone marksThe Princess and the Goblin as a work which avoids using traditional gender roles to explain the disposition of the world.

For Further Reference

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Hein, Roland. The Harmony Within: The Spiritual Vision of George MacDonald. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian University Press, n.d. Chapter 2 discusses MacDonald's theme of spiritual maturation in the Princess books.

Lewis, C. S. "Preface." In George Mac- Donald: An Anthology. New York: Macmillan, 1947. Lewis characterizes the type of fantasy MacDonald wrote.

MacDonald, Greville. George MacDonald and His Wife. New York: Dial Press, 1924. This is the standard edition of MacDonald's life and letters.

Manlove, C. N. Modern Fantasy: Five Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975. Manlove challenges Wolff's reading on the grounds that it is too allegorical. He also explores the religious symbolism of Grandmother's possessions.

Phillips, Michael R. George MacDonald: Scotland's Beloved Storyteller. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1987. This highly detailed biography relies on treating MacDonald's novels as highly autobiographical.

Reis, H. Richard. George MacDonald. New York: Twayne, 1972. Although it does not contain an extensive analysis of the Princess books, Reis's study is a good survey of MacDonald's contribution to English thought and literature.

Willis, Lesley. " 'Born Again': The Metamorphosis of Irene in George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin." Scottish Literary Journal 12 (1985): 24-39. This is an excellent treatment of MacDonald's theme of spiritual maturation. Willis points out the Biblical passages that underpin the work.

Wolff, Robert Lee. The Golden Key: A Study of the Fiction of George MacDonald. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961. This book contains a substantial interpretation of the Princess books, partly based on Freudian assumptions.




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