There was once a little princess whose father was king over a great country full of mountains and valleys. His palace was built upon one of the mountains, and was very grand and beautiful. The princess, whose name was Irene, was born there, but she was sent soon after her birth, because her mother was not very strong, to be brought up by country people in a large house, half castle, half farmhouse, on the side of another mountain, about half-way between its base and its peak.The Princess and the Goblin is the story of Princess Irene and her friend Curdie, a miner’s son, and their quest to put a stop to a wicked plan set in motion by the goblins who live underground in the mountains surrounding Irene’s palace – these goblins are strange little creatures with toeless feet and an aversion to rhymes, and as Curdie and Irene soon find out, they are Up To No Good.
The Princess and the Goblin is one of the forefathers of modern fantasy, and historical interest was one of the main reasons why I decided pick it up. I think I’d find the reading experience satisfying from a historical standpoint even if I hadn’t enjoyed it all that much, but fortunately for me, I very much did. This is such an odd book—and I mean odd in the best possible way. Some of the details are imaginative and strange enough (Toeless feet? An aversion to verse?) that they give what at first seems to be a fairly standard children’s fantasy a very unique flavour.
This book was actually altogether a lot less conventional than I was expecting it to be. As I said back when I read Jack Zipes’ anthology of Victorian fairy tales, as much as I love the Victorians, I’m a little wary of the fairy tales and children’s books of the period. If there’s one thing the Victorians were not reluctant to do, it was to preach, especially to children. When it comes to children’s literature, give me the Edwardians any day. But there’s a reason why The Princess and the Goblin has remained in print and is still so beloved today: it’s subtler, more ambiguous and a lot more fun to read than you’d expect a Victorian fairy tale for children to be.
For example, the majority of the characters, and especially Irene herself, are nowhere nearly as class conscious as I was expecting. Also (and remarkably for a book from 1872), Princess Irene is far from helpless. She goes out on her own, she does things, she knows her own mind, she rescues Curdie, and she’s all-around awesome. As is her Great-great-great-grandmother, about whom I really can’t tell you any more.
There were occasional moments when I almost felt preached to by the book’s insistence that you have to believe in things you cannot see – mostly because of the way it was presented, which seemed to imply that scepticism is somewhat of a character flaw. I suppose this is why I’ve seen this book be described as a Christian allegory; but “allegory” is, I think, nearly always a poor way of describing a novel. I find it a simplistic term, as it suggests that the story can only be read in one way, and that all its symbols have pre-defined meanings. As is always the case with good fiction, The Princess and the Goblin is rich enough to withstand multiple interpretations. And anyway, to be honest I was having too much fun to feel preached to for very long.
(On a side note, the critical study of fantasy I’m currently reading suggests that Madeleine L’Engle writes in the tradition of George MacDonald, and that her Time Quintet is an equally inclusive Christian fantasy. That makes sense to me, as I also adored A Wrinkle in Time.)
Another reason why I enjoyed this book so much was the fact that, unlike what (much to my disappointed) happened to me with Narnia, I never felt excluded from the text, not even when I didn’t share its ideology. I think that the narrator’s voice is responsible for this – it’s grandfatherly but never condescending, conversational, humorous, and very welcoming; and unlike Lewis’ (again, for me! Sorry Narnia fans), there are no hidden barbs. I felt completely at home in this book.
Has anyone read the sequel, The Princess and Curdie? Should I pick it up?
books i done read
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