Saturday, June 2, 2007

Book Review: The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie

Christian classics belonging on any kid-lit bookshelf.

The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald. The World's Classics, Oxford UP: 1990. 361 pages. Annotated by Roderick McGillis. ISBN 0-19-282579-8. £4.95 UK.

It's Snuffles again. Remember me? Seems I'm the official kid lit reviewer around here, so the other day when D. G. D. threw a copy of The Princess and the Goblin at me and said, "Do something with this," I made a crack about lining the bird cage and got to work.

So: George MacDonald is most famous, at least these days, for being a source of inspiration for C. S. Lewis, who first encountered MacDonald in his novel Phantastes, which Lewis claimed had a significant mythopoeic effect; that is, it produces in the reader that hard-to-define sensation of good myth. If my infallible draconic memory serves, Tolkien suggests in "On Fairy-Stories," which appears in Tree and Leaf, that the mythopoeic effect has at least as much to do with the reader as with the work he's reading. In other words, books don't affect everyone the same way. I agree with Tolkien's assessment; I didn't care much for Phantastes, with the exception of the short fairy tale, "Cosmo and the Mirror." On the other hand, I found Lilith haunting, though it contains incomprehensible passages, quite a bit of stumbling prose, and an ending marred by MacDonald's universalist theology.

Probably MacDonald's best-known works are the ones before us now, The Princess and the Goblin and its sequel. It will be impossible to discuss the depth of these books in this short review, so the reader is encouraged to acquire them himself, preferably in an annotated edition.

The Princess and the Goblin is an allegorical work. It's quite good, which is surprising because MacDonald, who is not an especially skilled wordsmith, is juggling two different allegories simultaneously.

The first allegory is a coming-of-age. The book opens with the young princess Irene (eight years old, a rather tender age for a coming-of-age) having grown bored with her toys. Because her mother is dead and her father is too busy riding around the country to care for her, Irene is being raised by a nanny in a mountain stronghold near some goblin-infested mines.

Irene's nanny, Lootie, has been warned that Irene is not to go out after nightfall when the goblins come out of their caves, nor is she to know that goblins exist. In spite of the warning, the day wanes while Irene and Lootie are on one of their walks, and goblins beset them; yet Irene and Lootie are saved in the nick of time by a twelve-year-old miner boy, Curdie, who can defeat the goblins by reciting rhymes.

Delving back into my infallible memory to a time when my memory was less infallible, I recall a Rocky and Bullwinkle "Fractured Fairy Tales" segment that uses this novel or a similar story. The cartoon makes the coming-of-age elements explicit; in that version, the young princess is sitting before the king, who is reading to her from a book entitled Les Birds et les Bees. The king warns, "The goblins will get you if you don't watch out!" The goblins come after the princess, but a prince rescues her. At the end of the segment, the princess is sitting in the prince's lap where she declares, "It's the love bug that gets you if you don't watch out!"

I bring this up to point out what MacDonald seems to be depicting. In many stories, the young hero or heroine is kept from the realities of the world by evil stepmothers or uncles. In this case, the king is a good man and the princess's nanny is a good woman: they are trying to protect the princess from things that are, at this age, none of her business; the goblins, who are planning to kidnap the princess and marry her to a hideous goblin prince, are representatives of all that is frightening and ugly in the adult world. But when Irene confronts adult reality, it comes to her not in the form of a hideous goblin but in the form of a handsome miner boy, who she promises a kiss in thanks for the rescue. This quite distresses and displeases Lootie, who sees Curdie as part of that world from which Irene must be protected. This is a version of a common theme in fairy tales: sheltering that has gone too far and parental figures who have grown overprotective. Much of the story involves Irene's self-assertion and breaking away from Lootie's influence.

The second allegory is the religious one, and it is more complex. As soon as she grows bored with her toys, Irene runs upstairs to seek out a part of the house she has never previously explored. She eventually makes it to a tower room where she discovers her great-great-grandmother, who is an ageless fairy and a type of God. A thorough explanation of what's going on here would require a deep study of MacDonald's theology, so a few brief comments must suffice for this essay.

God is described here in consistently feminine terms. Obedience to God, called duty, is emphasized. Irene's grandmother gives her tasks to perform which seem nonsensical or counter-intuitive at the time, but which make good sense by the story's end. This encapsulates the idea that the Christian is blind to the ultimate results of his good actions, and that he must not shirk from his duty even when it seems hard or stupid. Representing this is a magic ring Irene receives from her grandmother. This ring has an invisible thread attached, which Irene must follow no matter where it goes. The thread leads her into some dangerous places, but the positive results of Irene's obedience are obvious.

One of the central events in the novel is a scene in which Irene takes Curdie to the tower to meet her grandmother. Curdie, however, is unable to see the grandmother; he sees instead an empty room. The basic idea here is that supernatural faith is impossible without grace. At the time this scene takes place, Curdie has not yet received this grace, and so he and the princess have an argument that looks much like a fight between a skeptic and a Christian who is trying to explain a mystical experience.

In The Princess and Curdie, which appeared seven years after The Princess and the Goblin, MacDonald's prose and theological allegory are heavier, sometimes too heavy. This story focuses almost entirely on Curdie, who Irene's grandmother at last calls to herself. She gives him a disturbing magical power: the ability to tell, by clasping their hands, what direction people are moving on the evolutionary scale. In this novel, bad people are slowly transforming into whatever animals their misbehavior most resembles.

Curdie goes on an adventure to the kingdom's capital, Gwyntystorm, where he encounters nasty townspeople and uncovers a plot against the king. Curdie cleanses the palace of wicked servants with the help of an army of deformed animals, a scene C. S. Lewis almost certainly had in mind when he wrote the climax of That Hideous Strength, a novel with a number of explicit Curdie references.

After all is over, Curdie wins the hand of the princess and becomes a good and just king. Yet for all that, the novel ends with a disturbing last sentence that is almost the opposite of the conclusion of Lilith. Rather than saving everyone in spite of his evil deeds, it seems in The Princess and Curdie that MacDonald is damning everyone. The novel's conclusion is similar to the end of 2 Kings: though Josiah was a good king, he was unable to prevent the exile to Babylon because the nation's sins were too great. Roderick McGillis, in the introduction to the Oxford World's Classics edition of Curdie, quotes Humphrey Carpenter as saying of the novel's conclusion, "this is the Last Judgement. But it is a very strange Last Judgement: no one is saved" (p. xvii). McGillis suggests that the conclusion hints rather of "renewal, of new beginnings" (p. xviii). I'm inclined to agree with Carpenter, though McGillis's interpretation does seem to better match MacDonald's eschatology. If the book's conclusion is an attempt to depict renewal, it is a failed attempt, but a powerful one.

These novels are examples of Christian allegory done right. MacDonald accomplishes what he accomplishes because his theology is sophisticated (if not always orthodox) and because he is deeply familiar with great literature and mythology. Anyone interested in writing Christian sf would do well to study these books carefully. Lack of sophistication is probably the greatest sin of today's Christian fiction.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for The Princess and the Goblin and the Princess and Curdie:

Myth Level: High (I mean, it's George MacDonald)

Quality: Medium/High (MacDonald's no master writer, but these are excellent and important stories)

Religion/Ethics: High (very complicated, but a must-read)
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