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The Princess and the Goblin

by George MacDonald

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Student Question

What type of Folk Literature typically begins like this quote from "The Princess and the Goblin"? Can you provide other examples?

"There was once a little princess whose father was king over a great country full of mountains and valleys." (Page 1, The Princess and the Goblin).

Expert Answers

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Is the topic here modern fairy tales?  A S Byatt plays with the idea in a delight collection Djinn and the Nightingale's Eye. "The Story of The Eldest Princess," the first in the collection, is (according to Byatt) the story of her own life because she has always worried about being the eldest sister. This is a self-reflexive story with a metanarrative where the narrator constantly demonstrates self-awareness both as author and character that she is in a fairytale with all its inherent expectations and adventures. Even the title of 'The Story of The Eldest Princess' draws attention to its status as a constructed story and Byatt inserts classic themes such as royalty, a quest, animal helpers, the old crone and a "Once upon a time" opening line. The story is of a kingdom where the blue sky has disappeared and been replaced by a green one, and there must be a quest undertaken by the three princesses to find a silver bird and her nest in order to effect a cure for the unwarranted greenness.  What about other contemporary fairy tales?  I think maybe of Jeannette Winterson?  20thC literature by women often depicted the female characters trying to negate the fairy tales with which they grew up.  How many contemporary stories resurrect this genre for "subversive purposes"?

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This type of story is a fairy tale. Fairy tales often begin with "once upon a time" (which is essentially what you have here) and carry a stern didactic (meant to teach) lesson as well as moral instruction. Frequently, the stories are about female characters and the hazards they pose to the male sex and often to themselves.

Most of the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm are like this. For example, "Rumplestiltskin" (" Once there was a miller who was poor, but who had a beautiful daughter) and "Rapunzel" ("There were once a man and a woman who had long in vain wished for a child.")

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