Apr 9, 2010

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

The Princess and the Goblin by George McDonald

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?

Other opinions:
books i done read

(Did I miss yours?)


  1. this book used to be around my house growing up but I never read it and eventually gave it away. too bad for me! I'm glad you enjoyed the experience of reading it, though!

  2. Like Amy, I remember seeing this book around (I think at my library) growing up but never lured me to pick it up. I guess the fantasy/fairy tale thing didn't interest me. Still, you make it seem worth my time now! It might be the perfect escape!

  3. I heard of this one when I checked out the subgenre Victorian Fantasy the other day. Since it's Victorian, I will want to read it. I tend to want to read every book that is set in that period. It has become like an addiction.

  4. This sounds like fun and I'd never heard of it before! I think my next OUaT read is going to be The King of Elfland's Daughter...I'm in the mood for some classic fantasy.

  5. I read The Princess and the Goblin when I was a kid -- I think it had been a favorite of my mom's -- and I loved it. MacDonald also wrote The Light Princess, which is my very favorite fairy tale of all time, partly because it's based on a pun: The Light Princess is cursed with "no gravity" which means she floats, and also means she can't take anything seriously. It's fabulous. :-)

  6. Jason and Morrigan both read and enjoyed Lilith by George McDonald and Jason tells me I s hould give it a try. Something about him scares me a little bit, though, and hearing he's similar to Madeleine L'Engle scares me a bit more, since I was very disappointed with my WRinkle in Time reread recently. :/

  7. I've never seen this, but I love the nexis between toelessness and aversion to verse (because you can't tap out the rhythm?!!) and I really like that "I never felt excluded from the text, not even when I didn’t share its ideology." So often, especially with Christian allegories, that can happen.

  8. I think I might very much like "meeting" Princess Irene! Thanks, Ana, yet again for introducing me to a book I'd never heard of.

  9. I have his, At the Back of the North Wind, but have not read it yet. I hadn't heard of The Princess and the Goblin but I like the sound of it. When I checked his page on FantasticFiction:
    I was surprised to see what a prolific author he was! Some of those might bear checking out.

  10. I've read The Princess and Curdie and liked it quite as much as this one.

    Have you seen that Amateur Reader, over at Wuthering Expectations, is also reading George MacDonald this week?

  11. Dang! Was looking at my daughter's copy of this one & thinking "maybe i'll read that for Once Upon a Time" & here you are with another wonderful review. Which I skimmed. Just in case. (I don't like reading others' opinions of books I plan to post about until after I've done so). Well, I can still read it, anyhow...Thanks.

  12. It's George MacDonald Week at Wuthering Expectations! Thanks for coincidentally joining in. I added a link to what I wrote yesterday. For whatever reason, I did not have much to say about the Princess books - I'm glad you did.

    Yes to The Princess and Curdie. It's deliberately different - clearly written more as a "boy's book" - the focus is on Curdie, and it is much more about becoming an adult. But it has the same tone and much of the same charm as the first book.

    MacDonald's light touch with allegory is extraordinary. It's there - for example, Curdie's father is named Peter, and his house is built on a rock. But mostly the symbolic meanings are just suggested, up to the reader to piece together.

  13. This is one of my absolute favorite children's books. I have my *grandmother's* copy and it is well-read and much beloved. I love great-great-great-etc-grandmother so much, and her silver thread, and her soft blue bed... love this book so very much. I haven't read the sequel (it's been hard to find until recently, for some reason) but I imagine it's fun as well. I am so glad you read it and enjoyed it! I might have to reread this one, myself. Love, love, love it.
    PS: very interesting about L'Engle. The Time Quintet is also a long-standing favorite of mine. Makes sense!

  14. I love little details - like toeless feet - when I'm reading. It's the things that are unique that really make a story.

  15. I loved this book as a child, loved it- the book shaped my desire to be a writer and I still aspire to write a fantasy. I had a much adored grandmother and she seemed to me like the great, great grandmother in this book- I keep re-reading the book at different intervals in my life and have a copy with beautiful coloured illustrations.

  16. Like Amanda mentioned, I read Lillith by him, which was quite certainly meant to have allegorical connections (Yes, it's that Lillith. Yes, Adam and Eve show up too. But the allegory didn't bother me. Mr. M was, himself, a Unitarian preacher, I believe, so I was actually quite prepared to feel like I do about Narnia, now, but in the end, it was the best kind of allegory, the kind that goes 'well, there's something to understand, and this is how I understand it' instead 'well, here, little reader, is what you need to understand'. I've heard the Light Princess is supposed to be wonderful too, and I think it has a free version on Librivox.

  17. The Princess and Curdie, as Wuthering Expectations said, is much more Curdie and much less Princess. It's also, in my opinion, slightly darker and wierder, but as good if not better.

  18. I think some of the things that surprised you--like the downplay of class, and Irene's freedom in her papa's mountain kingdom--have to do with the fact that MacDonald was a Scotsman. Different attitudes toward those things persisted in the Celtic fringe, where even the "best" people had a long history of disenfranchisement.

    I never thought about it, but I do think you are right about him not having hidden barbs. He was a more right-brained kind of a writer than Lewis. It was as if Lewis (much as I loved Narnia) desperately *wanted* to be swept away into Faery but couldn't help fretting about what he ought to pack for the trip, and MacDonald already lived there. If Jung were a household word back then, I think you could have called MacDonald's work Jungian.

    I loved the Princess and Curdie. It was even better than the princess and the Goblins.

    "Go to bed, goblin, do,
    Help the Queen take off her shoe..."

    I won't spoil it.

    You know what's funny? His novels for grownups with a contemporary Victorian setting are the most absolutely unreadable preachy schmaltz. Men who live in Faeryland shouldn't try to write about Victorian ladies!

  19. Princess Irene sounds like my kind of princess!

  20. I hated this book so much when I read it as a kid. Someone told me it was a lot like the Narnia books, and I trustingly bought it under that impression, and it was not AT ALL like the Narnia books. So it's kind of funny that that's exactly why you liked it. :P

  21. I haven't heard of this one,which surprises me as I have always taken an interest in these Puffin classics. I feel like they were part of my childhood. I shall definitely look out for this one.

  22. I´ve never even heard of this book. Usually I have problems with childrens fantasy stories such as Narnia and even Harry Potter because of the Christian ideology and child soldiers.

  23. I'd love to read some fairy tales this year. The whole fairy tale/fantasy genre is one I want to explore further. I have shied away from it in the past but not for any good reason.

  24. This sounds like such a fun story, although I've never heard of it before! Toeless feet? Now that's something I'm interested in reading about.

  25. I am not familiar with this book at all. It sounds wonderful, Ana. Although I enjoyed the Narnia books when I read them (I was in high school at the time), I do know what you mean about the narrative voice. I wonder what I'd think of it now if I read the series again so many years later.

  26. I read this when I was little - I remember I enjoyed it, although it wasn't one I kept rereading (I had a stack of titles that I reread to bits). I think it was one of my first fantasies, too.

  27. I don't read much fantasy so not surprising that I haven't heard of this book. Will have to make a note of it for the Once Upon a Time challenge!

  28. I've had MacDonald on my list for years and years, mostly because of his influence on Lewis. Interesting to hear how he is different--and in a good way.

    And I agree with you that allegory is rarely a good descriptor of a novel. It binds up the narrative too much; everything has to *mean* something, usually one specific thing. (And FWIW, Lewis didn't like his Narnia books to be described as allegories. For him, they were more like musings on how God would operate in another world.)

  29. Another one of my childhood favorites! My grandparents had a copy at their house and I would read it on our frequent visits there. I had no idea there was a sequel, though.

  30. I remember going through a phase where I read all the George MacDonald I could find at the library- I know this one and the Princess and Curdie were among them, but my memory is really hazy. I know I liked them, although if I remember rightly the story kind of wanders at times. One of the books I felt had a pretty strong allegory to Christ and when I started seeing that in it I got annoyed- but I'm not sure which book it was now.

  31. I totally just downloaded a public domain version of this for my ereader. Again, your review was the cause of me doing that.

    Have you seen the film? I remember this movie coming out in the '90s when all movies were made of magic and awesome.

  32. I had no idea this was so old! For some reason, I always thought it was first published in the 1930s.

  33. You've brought back good memories! Maybe this is one I should read again, since I am re-reading my favorites now. :-) I remember thinking it would be stuffy and was also surprised at how open minded and modern it was!

  34. I really enjoyed this book as a kid, although my memory of it is very fuzzy. I particularly enjoyed the toe-stomping bit! :) And I have to agree with Fredegonde that "The Light Princess" is fantastic! Hardly anyone seems to have heard of it, but it's hilarious and clever - and free domain! Highly recommended. As for "At the Back of the North Wind" . . . as a kid, I just found it completely baffling and strange. Maybe it's better when you're older?

  35. My husband is a HUGE MacDonald fan--he says yes to Princess Curdie and to make sure you read The Light Princess and Phantastes and Lillith. (He says. I haven't read any of them yet.) Also, if you're interested, you can find some of his works online here: http://www.george-macdonald.com/etexts/etexts.html.

  36. That's so funny that you have posted about this - we were just talking about it in my Victorians group on Goodreads only this week. Someone has nominated it for a group read.

    Great post, Nymeth.

  37. Amy: It's never too late to get another copy :P (Yes, I'm not so subtly trying to get you into fantasy - sorry :P)

    Sandy: It is - it was just such a joy to read! For children and adults alike, I think.

    Andreea: You're just like me - "Victorian" is often alll I need to know :P

    Eva: I actually started that two days ago! I'm not too far into it yet (because meanwhile the new Pullman arrived and I got distracted :P), but I'm enjoying it so far. Do you want to read it with me? We've never read a book together before.

    Fredegonde: The Light Princess does sound wonderful! I've read one of his fairy tales before, "The Day Boy and the Night Girl", and I really loved it.

    Amanda: I've just read at Amateur Reader's blog that Lilith was an influence on The Sandman, so clearly I need to read it! I don't think that disliking L'Engle will necessarily mean you won't like MacDonald, btw. They're more similar on a conceptual level than on a concrete one, if that makes sense.

    Jill: It can indeed - it was such a nice surprise that it didn't at all here!

    Debi, I think you would! Annie too, if she hasn't yet.

    Cath: He did write a lot! I'd definitely like to try some more of his work.

    Jeanne: I have now! Wonderful posts.

    ds: I do the same when I'm about to read a book. I can't wait to hear what you think :)

    Amateur Reader: I so enjoyed your posts :) I'll need to read The Princess and Curdie and At the Back of the North Wind before too long.

    Daphne, I think it's wonderful that you have your grandmother's copy, and that it's been read and loved throughout time :)

    Trisha: I know! :D

    Life's a poem: That illustrated copy sounds lovely! And the book that inspired you to write! That is special indeed :)

  38. What an interesting sounding book. I'm always interested in fairy tales for their historical value - and sometimes how frightful some of their underlying meanings are.

    This isn't a fairytale but do you know the background to the children's poem/song 'ring a ring a rosie'? It's about the black plague. Isn't it creepy how kids can sing about the black plague? I think so!

  39. Sometimes these fairy tales can be creepy, I like that!
    Even though it was preachy at times, this still sounds good.

  40. Oh yes! Read The Princess and Curdie! It's more action-packed, and it builds nicely on the first book. I loved them both, though I haven't read them in a few years. Thanks for the review--you're right; The Princess and the Goblin is just a great story.

  41. I read this book a few years ago and really enjoyed it. I don't really remember everything that happened in it anymore, though. I found the sequel second hand one time and bought it, but still have not read it!

  42. This book sounds really good--and I haven't even heard of it before now! I'll definitely have to give it a try.

  43. So this comment has nothing to do with your review, really, as I am writing it after reading only about the first paragraph so I don't forget my question.

    How do you pronounce Irene? I usually read it as eye-REEN, but this makes me wince when applied to royalty for whatever reason because I don't particularly LOVE that name. It is also the name of a queen in Megan Whalen Turner's series.

    So instead, I like to pronounce it ih-REN-ee, which I think is the Roman pronunciation. You? Just wondering :-)

  44. Jason: Like I was telling you on Twitter, I'm quite curious to read Lilith. And yes, this was the best kind of allegory indeed (if one at all, which I'm kind of reluctant to admit :P).

    Raych: Darker and weirder sounds good to me!

    Trapunto: That's an excellent point about him being from Scotland! Yes, I can see how that would make a difference. And I love what you said about him already living in Faery :) To me, the magic did feel more real than in the Narnia books (which, despite my negative experience with them, DO have moments I love.)

    Kathy: And mine!

    Jenny: I wish I could like Lewis! It makes me sad that there's this special and wonderful thing that so many people have experienced but is closed to me.

    Vivienne: Those Puffin classics tend to be wonderful, don't they? I want to collect them all!

    Bina: I can see what you mean about the battles, and how they involve a certain idealisation of conflicts which is problematic. But I'll admit I'm a Harry Potter junkie all the same :P I think the series questions that to a greater extent than most battle fantasies do.

    Kathleen: If you'd like some recommendations, I'd be happy to do my best to help!

    Emidy: lol, it's so random, isn't it? :D And yet so memorable at the same time.

    Wendy: Sadly, I came to Narnia for the first time when I was 20, and it proved too late for me :(

    Belle: There are some books that make me wish I'd read them when I was younger, but this isn't one of them - I think I might have enjoyed it more now than I would have then. Isn't it funny how that happens?

    Iliana: This is perfect for the challenge :)

    Teresa: I wouldn't describe Narnia as an allegory either - there's so much more there than that. And honestly, I do like some of the books! I just can't shake off the feeling that I'm not quite welcome, though, which makes me sad.

  45. Lorin: I love how both you and Daphne mentioned reading your grandparents' copies :)

    Jeane: Hm, I wonder which one it was.

    April: I didn't know there was a film! I'm curious to check it out now.

    Memory: I knew it was Victorian, but I thought it was more recent too - from the 1890's.

    Andrea: I know - it wasn't stuffy at all!

    Liz: I must check out "The Light Princess" as soon as possible! Have you read his fairy tale "The Day Boy and the Night Girl"? If not, I highly recommend it!

    Jena: I've added all of those to my list! And thank you for the link :)

    The Book Whisperer: Thank you! I hope you and your group enjoy it.

    Mae: Yes, they can be quite dark - it's so funny how these days the popular notion of fairy tales equals them with pink and fluffy and completely unproblematic. And that's so interesting about that song! I had no idea.

    Naida: I actually didn't think this crossed the line into preachy - it COULD have, but MacDonald always avoided it :)

    Kate Coombs: I'll read it for sure :)

    Kailana: I guess the sequel is another book we could read for OUaT if The Book of Flying doesn't work out!

    Heidnekind, I hope you enjoy it!

    Aarti: We have the name "Irene" here too, and yes, it's pronounced ih-REN-ee (actually, more like ih-REN, with a silent final vowel). But because I read the book in English, I said eye-REEN in my head :P

  46. I've been wanting to read George MacDonald because he was CS Lewis's inspiration....but interesting that it felt completely different from Narnia. (I am a Narnia fan.)

  47. I had never before heard of this book, but it sounds wonderful and I have just added it to my list! I like the weirdness factor of the book and the fact that the story is told in such a gentle and patient style really wins me over too. I will have to let you know what I think of it! Great review! I am glad you liked it so much!

  48. I would love some recommendations! Thanks!

  49. I absolutely adored this book as a kid, and then "had to" re-read it for a course on children's literature a couple of years ago. It reminded me of just how much fun it is! With all the children's books that have overbearing messages, this is definitely one that didn't push those buttons for me.

  50. Using this book for my 11/12 year old students right now. And should you pick up the Princess and Curdie if you haven't in the last 10 years.... Do so! I enjoyed, for the same reasons you did The Princess and The Goblin, and The Princess and Curdie was my favorite of the two.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.