Top Ten: The Princess and the Goblin

A princess and miners in silhouette.
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Title: The Princess and the Goblin

Author: George MacDonald

Nutshell: Irene is a princess in a long-ago kingdom. Her doting father keeps her in a fine house in the mountains, while she is too young to be at court. She has every good thing and is well cared for.

And there is a magical room at the top of her staircase.

Inside the room is her many-times-great-grandmother, who spins spiderweb and sees pictures in the firelight and keeps pigeons. She is Wise, in the tradition of the old, great Wise women, tending to the patch of world around her with gentle urging here, a warning word there. She gives Irene a gift: a magical ring that always leads her home.

Also in the mountains around the princess’s house is a mine, and so there are miners. Curdie is one young miner with a quick mind. And beyond the mines, and below them, in the depths of the mountain, there are goblins, cowardly but wicked. They are hatching vicious plots in their dark caverns. Before the end of it, Curdie and Irene will both need rescuing.

Read-alikes: I’m having trouble with this. George MacDonald stories are not like other stories. They are very like fairytales in construction, but there is an element of reality to them that most fairytales lack. The Narnia books are like them, of course. I also have an old book called Ernest and the Golden Thread, which may or may not be available, but is rather like.


Irene is my favorite princess, over Mulan, Cinderella, and even Belle. She’s also a princess more appropriate for princess-crazy little girls, since she has to take action, behave appropriately for a princess, and, since she’s only eight, does not end up married at the end of the book. But that’s just the justification for the people who throw shade at princess stories.

C. S. Lewis said of George MacDonald that his books were not actually good prose, but that it was the story beneath the prose that was so excellent. The prose now has the charm of being a hundred years old. It is one of the last of the fairytales before the rise of Fantasy. Only [some number] of years later, Tolkien would write the Lord of the Rings, and define the mythology of the fantasy genre for decades to come, lifting magic from something for children’s stories to something sophisticated. Yet the simplicity of MacDonald’s child’s tale is not to be dismissed.

There is less that resembles allegory in MacDonald’s books than in Lewis’s, if allegory is something you find suspect. Certainly the wise grandmother has no obvious real-world parallel. The scheming goblins do, perhaps, but only because all evil things that plot in darkness and hate light resemble each other. Isn’t it interesting how many different forms goodness can take, but evil is only ever evil?

That’s some pretty deep rambles for a children’s book that is essentially a fairytale with occasional moral lessons. But the book isn’t just moralizing (although MacDonald did like to moralize a great deal), it’s also shiny and fun. There’s a magic ring, very different from the usual magic rings. There’s a brave boy who uses rhymes to fight goblins. There are the goblins themselves, hideous scheming things who think surface dwellers wear shoes to hide their toes, which are abominations. There’s some very clever plotting to allow Irene to sneak out and have adventures without lying or disobeying.

I like all of these things, and I like all of this book.

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