The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

In the omnibus At the Back of the North Wind/The Princess and the Goblin/The Princess and Curdie, published by Octopus, 1979, 166 p (for The Princess and the Goblin.)

George MacDonald Omnibus cover

As a fairy tale (its first three words are “There was once”) this is not my usual fare. I only read it as it was in the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books. The title seems a little askew as there was not one goblin in the story but many, who live under a mountain near to the castle where the Princess (who has the very unprincessly name of Irene) lives. She is to be kept away from the forest and hill at night in case she encounters the goblins but her nurse, Lootie, mistakes the time one day and the pair would have been at their mercy but for the intervention of a miner’s son, Curdie. A lot of the tale is in fact Curdie’s as he later ventures into the mines and discovers what the goblins are up to, but several sequences involve the princess’s meetings with a strange old woman claiming to be her great-great grandmother (though on the second meeting she has become young) spinning away in the upper floors of the castle, invisible threads which, Theseus-like, aid the princess and Curdie in the plot’s working-out.

To twenty-first century eyes the demonisation of the goblins stands out. I suppose they are some sort of sexual metaphor – the princess has to be protected from nastiness – and the King is presented as far too noble. Still; it is a fairy tale. A certain degree of simplicity is to be expected.

The king spends most of the time absent, on kingly duties, and I note there is no mother, no queen, to be seen. A perennial trope of the children’s tale is such a separation from parents.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing end quote, rhymster (rhymester,) horid (horrid,) “The cobs dropped persecuting me and look dazed” (looked,) “they came to the conclusion it had been slain in the mines, and had crept out there to die” (slain implies death; so how could it then have crept out to die?) balnkets (blankets.)

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  1. Denis Cullinan

    Malevolent spirits made the work of medieval miners and ore-people (I don’t know what you’d call the guys who take the ore and come up with the refined metal product) difficult. What we now call the element cobalt made the smelting of silver ore dangerous because it occurs in combination with arsenic. The miners called the demon in question a kobold. Another imp made purifying copper difficult because it was hard to separate from the metallic product. The miners called it “kupfernickel” (cf. “Old Nick”), or copper-devil.
    I read MacDonald’s “Phantastes,” the Curdie stories, and the punishingly boring “At the Back of the North Wind.” I think it’s the Phantastes text that contains a very badly edited scene that makes no sense whatever. You’ll know what I mean whenever you get the chance to look into this work. Or was it the North Wind book with the error? I forget.

  2. jackdeighton

    Denis,
    I knew the derivation of cobalt from kobold – and that kupfernickel is where the element nickel’s name comes from – but not these details. Thanks.
    As to MacDonald I’ve only got his adult novel Lilith on my tbr list at the moment. I wasn’t enthused enough by The Princess and the Goblin to read the other two in the omnibus any time soon.

  3. Peggy Ann

    No sexual metaphors in George MacDonald’s works! He was a religious man, a preacher and his books all had threads of theology and Christ in them. This book is full of symbolism, being lost in the dark, wondering in a maze and desolate places (life before we met Christ or even life after but going through difficult times) and yet the characters are never abandoned or without a beam of light (God always there if we look for him – He will never leave us or forsake us). He was a huge influence on C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. Here’s a great explanation of this particular book…http://www.crisismagazine.com/2013/george-macdonalds-the-princess-and-the-goblin.

  4. jackdeighton

    Peggy,
    Not even subconscious ones? The times he lived in are notorious for weird attitudes to sexuality. He may have imbibed such fears unknowingly.
    In any case fairy tales in general are riddled with metaphors about the dangers of (especially female) sexuality. Rumpelstiltskin is a prime example.
    And being Christian (or professing it) does not make anyone immune to impure thoughts and deeds. The disputes that go on within church congregations and between churches are testament to that.
    I was brought up in a church family and can testify that it wasn’t all sweetness and light.

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