I have such a fascination with MacDonald and must say work through some thoughts on The Princess Irene and Curdie Series which I just finished for a book group I attended, today. It’s the season of monsters and goblins, so why not?
George MacDonald influenced a slew of fantasy writers including C.S. Lewis, JRR Tolkien, and Charles Williams. (He’s known as the Grandfather of the Inklings.) He also had a close relationship with Lewis Carrol. Scholars often compare the structure of Phantaste (published in 1858) to Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland which was published in 1865, which means Carrol likely borrowed from MacDonald. Phantaste was C.S. Lewis’ first introduction to MacDonald and was also one of his favorite books.
Tolkien was not as impressed with MacDonald as was Lewis, (Lewis called MacDonald “his master”). However, The Princess and the Goblin, the first book of the Princess Irene and Curdie series, influenced the goblins in Tolkien’s mythopoeic writings that are the basis of The Lord of the Rings.
Monsters play a major role in many of MacDonald’s tales. In The Princess and the Goblin. the goblins are your standard European sort. They live inside the mountain. They are greedy and want to overthrow the king and marry his daughter (8 year old Princess Irene) to a goblin in order to secure the kingdom. Their plans are thwarted by Curdie, a young miner who knows his way around the inside of a mountain.
We are told that the goblins may have been human beings that fled to the safety of the underground because they were persecuted by a cruel king many years ago. Perhaps they had been overworked miners? Whatever the case, they make alls kinds of excuses for why it is better to remain underground, despite the fact that a benevolent king now rules. They have been underground so long that they are no longer human.
The goblins have monstrous pets that play a larger role in The Princess and Curdie but there is an interesting scene in The Princess and the Goblin when Princess Irene intends to visit her mysterious great great Grandmother but comes upon a monster that resembles a cat with very long legs. It scares her so badly she runs away and gets lost. She has to overcome her fear in order to find her great great Grandmother, who represents divinity.
According to Roderick McGillis, MacDonald believed that it was only when individuals were able to fully recognize the chaos of evil that they were able to be open to the certainty of divine protection.
Forgiveness plays a major role in Lilith and several of MacDonald’s other books, but the Irene and Curdie series is much more vindictive. Perhaps the vindication is metaphorical? The goblins have all drowned at the beginning of The Princess and Curdie but Irene is gone, too, and everything feels dismal to Curdie. He would have preferred everything remain the same – goblins and all.
Curdie has grown lazy and mindless as young men tend to do. He shoots one of Irene’s great great Grandmother’s white pigeons and “wakes up”. He feels so badly about his mindlessness that he seeks out the great great Grandmother whom he has never met and isn’t even sure exists except through Irene’s testimony. He wants to repent and receive her forgiveness.
He receives her forgiveness and learns to move forward through life with trust. As in The Princess and the Goblins, this involves overcoming his fear of one of the goblin’s monstrous pets that still remain even though the goblins are gone. In this case, it is a dog creature named Lina that may have once been a woman.
The illustration doesn’t adequately represent the fearsomeness of the monster. It’s dog-like, but has two sets of fangs and is extremely ugly. It can easily dismember men and animals. It doesn’t like to be feared, but it is ferocious and has become Curdie’s fierce protector. Part of this protection includes gathering a team of 49 fellow “Uglies” that seek violent, ferocious vengeance on the enemies of the king on behalf of Curdie. It’s brutal, especially for a kids book.
MacDonald felt that both individuals and societies were either getting better or they were getting worse. The way to get better usually requires something like Curdie’s repentance. Most of us have to do this over and over again. But that is much better than the route the goblins took. The morally depraved monsters are in need of the purification of fire, but we know from Lina that they are also redeemable.
But what are we redeemed from? Ourselves?
At the end of the series, Curdie and crew defeat the evil-doers. Princess Irene marries Curdie who, it turns out, has royal blood. They do not have children and are eventually replaced by a king who becomes greedy and does so much mining for gold that his kingdom becomes even worse than the one Curdie & Irene helped defeat and the earth gives and the kingdom falls into the gold mines and is destroyed.
Extremely moralistic tale and harsh way to end a children’s novel, but we do seem doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again. Happily ever after stories rarely end up happy. And it’s true! If we aren’t constantly vigilant about our thoughts and actions, we fall prey to power, greed, fear and the stuff of the ego.
Perhaps MacDonald is saying that we’re all in Dante’s Purgatorio in need of constant purification until we are finally completely consumed by the fire like Lina and never seen again? (Sounds like ACIM.)