A review of George MacDonald’s “The Princess and the Goblin” (Strahan & Co., 1872)
By Derek Newman-Stille
The Princess and the Goblin is a beautiful tale with contrasting imagery of light and darkness. It features a princess who is described as the embodiment of virtues (most of which problematically involve obedience) and honesty who is lost and encounters a figure claiming to be her great great great grandmother. This grandmotherly figure communicates with doves, spins spider webs into magic string, had a hearth made of roses that are also flames, is described as transcendently beautiful… and can only be seen by the princess. In contrast to this image of heavenly beauty are the goblins – a race that was tossed out of the kingdom in ages past and has lived under the mountain in darkness. They are described as horrendously ugly and misshapen. MacDonald’s tale interweaves these images of darkness and light, intersecting in the space of the mines, where human and goblin worlds collide.
MacDonald explores imagery of being lost, using this as an allegory for faith. It is when the princess is lost that she is able to find her grandmother, and it is only through faith that characters find each other. The princess’ grandmother spins a string for her that she must believe in and follow to find her way and that others must believe in to find the princess. MacDonald playa with ideas of faith as a solution for confusion and feeling lost, using areas like the mines as metaphors for the labrythine confusion of the human experience. Truth and fiction interplay in The Princess and the Goblin and MacDonald explores the idea that disbelief in someone is a form of insult and faith in someone’s word is an important marker of respect.
Like many fairy tale authors, MacDonald examines the complexities of interactions between adults and children, and, in particular, explores the theme of children being ignored and viewed as faulty witnesses. MacDonald challenges adults to believe in the stories of children instead of dismissing everything they say as idle fantasy. In The Princess and the Goblin, disbelief always causes harm to the characters, but it also causes harm to the relationships between people, and that harm is harder to overcome. As the princess says “When I tell you the truth, you say to me “Don’t tell stories”: it seems I must tell stories before you will believe me.” She tells others that she would have to lie to be believed and she refuses to lie.