The Princess Irene and Curdie Series by George MacDonald

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith from a 1920 edition.

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.

Spoiler Alert!

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.)

Tales from Outer Suburbia

My daughter and I worked our way through Tales from Outer Suburbia thanks to a recommendation from Kristen.  I’m very sad to have to take all of these stories back to the library!

 At first, we didn’t get “The Water Buffalo” at all.  We read it several times and then one, night, I had a dream and woke up realizing that the water buffalo is the wilderness that still exists in suburbia.

The water buffalo lives in the vacant lot at the end of a suburban street – the lot with all of the grass growing on it.  If a kid would ask the water buffalo for advice, the buffalo would answer, but only by pointing in a particular direction.  He offered no particulars.  The older the suburban kids became, the more they wanted the particulars, and so they quit visiting the buffalo.  The water buffalo eventually left.  Which was ashame, really, because every time the kids did follow the buffalo’s advice, they were surprised and delighted with what they found.

Here you are in suburbia, where everything is always explained in detail.  No mystery is left unsolved.  And if you do happen upon a mystery, there are plenty of anti-anxiety meds available to help you steer clear from the anxiety of the unknown.  The water buffalo, for me, represents the wilderness of subconscious knowing.  It’s that part of us that can be trusted, but that we tend to disregard because it doesn’t provide the security modern life demands.

Or imagine the government has asked you to keep a missile in your back yard and tells you to be alert, but not alarmed.  These rockets take up huge amounts of your back yard. Is it any wonder that kids turn them into play houses, birds into bird houses and that adults decorate them?  Of course, these alterations to the rockets may render them useless.  But how useful are they in the first place?

Or what if you took the idea of the standard holiday where people are given the gifts they want and turned it into a holiday, a nameless one, where people sacrifice the things they love?

Amazon says this book is for preschool and elementary school aged children.  While young children might enjoy these stories, I have a difficult time thinking they would understand them. The Tales from Outer Suburbia are clearly for teens and adults who at least have some literary and political savvy.

Shaun Tan grew up in Perth, Australia.  He claims Ray Bradbury was his favorite author in his pre-teen years.  That was true for me, too.  I was constantly getting caught reading Bradbury stories under my desk.  My mother caught me with I Sing the Body Electric under my covers, and thought it was a dirty book.  I got in tons of trouble for reading Bradbury!

These sorts of tales (fantasy) are among my all-time favorite. Now 9th graders are forced to read Bradbury so sneaking him under you desk is no longer as necessary. I wonder how many kids read Tan on the sly?

Where the Wild Things Are

My son and I saw Where the Wild Things Are, last night. Maurice Sendak originally published the book in 1963, the year I was born. Dave Eggers adapted the screenplay for the movie which was directed by Spike Jonze. Jonze and Eggers collaborated with Sendak on the film.

A lot of people are angry about this movie because they say it’s too violent, dark and depressing for a kids movie.  Maybe it is.  Rumor has it that Warner Brothers was going to scrap the whole project because they thought it was too dark.  But in the end they gave Jonze time to lighten it up a bit.

Had I been taking very young children to the film, I may have been a bit disturbed, too.  But I didn’t read this book to very young children because it’s not meant for young kids. I think most people know this. There were very few kids in the theater when my son and I viewed the film.  It is rated PG, after all.  There were a few kids, but the vast majority of the theater was filled with adults and teens.

Max, the main character of the film, is at least five years old.  He’s at a major developmental turning point. Three and four year olds aren’t going to get it!

I first read Where the Wild Things Are when I was in Kindergarten. I was 5 years old.  I got it from the school library and checked it out so many times that the school librarian got angry with me and told me I needed to give other kids a chance to read it, too.  I can’t tell you exactly what appealed to me about the book.  I suppose I was a kind of wild child. Probably ADD, although it wasn’t medicated back then. Just threatened. My mother said she had to keep a picture of me from when I was four to remind her of how sweet I could be. Developmentally, 5 & 6 is a difficult age for parents to deal with.  I have never  had a stitch of issues with my daughter (who is almost 15) except when she was 5 or 6 years old!

Around six years of age is known developmentally as the narcissistic stage of our development.  At six years old, we have become somewhat world savvy, yet we have not yet acquired the ability to see beyond ourselves. No matter what charming creatures we may be, at six years old, everything is about us.  The Twilight Zone had a fantastic episode called, “It’s a Good Life” about a six year old who has mutant powers and controls the world.  This child is considered a monster.  What the show makes clear is that you don’t want a six-year old controlling your world!!  And if you do have a six-year old controlling your world, you better do everything in your power to make him or her happy or else that child will make your life absolutely miserable.

One of the points that The Twilight Zone is making is that very often, adults are stuck in that six-year old level of development and don’t require mutant powers to control the world.  All they need is intellectual brilliance, a good marketing scheme, and a bunch of people willing to keep them happy.

But Max is a 6 year old and is going through what every single 6 year old goes through. He’s not always so nice.  And when things don’t go his way, he gets really angry and acts out in sometimes very violent ways.

So back to my Kindergarten days.  When I was five and six years old, I was deathly afraid that the end of the world was around the corner.  Seriously.  We had to do those crazy “duck and cover” drills in case of a nuclear disaster and I had seen that guy getting his brains blown out in in Saigon in 1968 on NBC prime time news.   I remember my mother apologizing to me for having seen it and we weren’t allowed to watch the news (or much of anything on television) after that.   I had nightmares for months afterward.  I don’t think anybody had ever seen anything like that on television, before.  And even though television has become increasingly violent, I don’t think they’ve shown anything quite like that on prime time since.   That was televised execution!

If you are 5 or 6 years old and are going through natural narcissistic development while the world around you seems permanently fixated at this stage, then “Where the Wild Things Are” is likely to resonate with your world.

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind or another, his mother called him “WILD THING!”

He was sent to bed with nothing to eat.   And in his room, a forest grew “until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around.”

Personally, I think the best fantasy occurs in this way – when you can walk into a wardrobe or a picture in your home that leads to another world.  You don’t have to run away from home to access it. It’s already there, just waiting to be discovered. But in the movie, Max’s mother doesn’t send him to his room.  He runs away from home.  He has to physically leave to access this other world.  It’s not waiting dormant for him in his room, like it is in the book.   My son and I were both deeply upset that the movie changed this aspect of the book.

But either way, Max sails “in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are” who roar their terrible roars and gnash their terrible teeth and roll their terrible eyes and show their terrible claws.

Max confronts the dark side and tells it “Be Still!”  And it complies. For this, he is made king of the wild things. He doesn’t run from the dark side in fear.  He becomes king and demands a wild rumpus. But despite the rumpus, the king of all wild things discovers he is lonely.  The only thing that will solve his loneliness is to leave the wild things and go home.   The wild things don’t want him to go and tell him they will eat him up because they love him so.  They roar their terrible roars and gnash their terrible teeth and roll their terrible eyes and show their terrible claws.  But Max steps into his boat and waves good-bye.   He sales back over a year and in and out of weeks to find dinner waiting for him in his room.  And it’s still hot.

That’s the book.  If you want to know how the movie differs, go see it!  The monsters are our egoic mind.  They are what we project “out there”.  Sendak said he had drawn the monsters according to his aunts and uncles.  So these monsters are definitely adults, but they act like Max! They are narcissistic projections. And what do these narcissistic projections do?  Demand happiness from one another, which, of course, comes at the expense of actual happiness!

Most six year-olds go through their necessary narcissistic stint and quickly figure out that wanting things to be the way they want them to be does not bring them what it is they want.  And so they grow up and begin to recognize the genuine importance of “other”.  Yet, our politicians, corporate leaders, and others who have a significant impact on our world often seem to be stuck “where the wild things are”.

Potential Spoiler Warning….

In the movie, the wild things are willing to let Max go although they don’t want him to go.   There is a sort of mutual “growing up”.  In the book, the wild things don’t want Max to go and threaten to eat him up.  The wild things don’t change. They remain wild.  But Max moves on, anyway.  And despite what horrible things he did to deserve to be sent to his room without dinner, he returns.  There dinner is – and it’s still hot.  Forgiveness.

Our ego doesn’t want us to change and when we want to leave it behind, it becomes angry.  It roars its terrible roar and gnashes its terrible teeth and rolls its terrible eyes and shows its terrible claws.  It becomes exceedingly relentless and increasingly boisterous.  We either give in and remain in that narcissistic state, or we wave good-bye with forgiveness and without judgment.

Coraline (2009)

I adore Neil Gaiman’s work, so when my daughter asked if we could go see Coraline today, I jumped at the chance! Besides it being a very engaging film, I’m glad I saw it because I think it has helped me have understanding of Ingmar Bergman’s use of a spider as God.

We get trapped in the web of our desire and it takes a lot of courage to choose reality/sanity over illusion/insanity. For Bergman, organized religion and the gods that are created to represent organized religion represented a sort of voluntary delusion. Not sure if that’s where Gaiman was going with Coraline, but I think there is a direct correlation – the desire that makes a child want to have a better, improved family is not all that different than the desire that a Christian has for a better, improved world.  Just get everyone to believe the way you do and see the way you do – if you have buttons for eyes, then you have to take out their eyes and replace them with buttons…

Excellent, excellent movie.  I immediately went out and bought Gaiman’s novella.

A Wind Through the Door

OK – so a little break from all of the existential studies.

My daughter and I recently finished reading Madeline L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door. Neither of us thought it compared at all to A Wrinkle in Time, but we both enjoyed it. I liked it far better than my daughter, however. I’d like to finish the series but I think it is highly unlikely my daughter will finish it with me. She absolutely loved A Wrinkle in Time, though (so did my son).

It’s my birthday today. My husband is out out of town which has become a birthday tradition. But, no matter. I bought myself an orange pineapple cake and the kids and I have made plans to go to Schlitterbahn which is regularly rated one of the best water parks in the U.S. My daughter claims we can’t go until she paints my nails, however. She never just paints nails one color – she uses several colors and also adds interesting patterns. Right now, her toe nails are painted pink on one foot and blue on another, and her fingernails are interspersed with blue and red and have stripes and polka dots on them. Can’t wait to see what she is going to do with mine.

Hubby is in Oregon and claims I’d love it. Wish I could be there with him!! It’s so danged hot here right now and he says it’s 70 degree there! On the flight up, he said he sat next to a seminarian from University of Dallas who was questioning my husband’s Buddhist beliefs. My husband said he wished I could have been there for that, too, because the guy was bringing up stuff my husband knew nothing about, quoting people like C.S. Lewis and Kierkegaard. Who ever brings up Kierkegaard in casual conversation? I would have loved to have been able to discuss Kierkegaard with a real live person – even if that person was a Conservative Evangelical. Conservative Evangelicals I can handle. It’s the literalist fundamentalists that I find impossible to converse with.

Now I Know by Aidan Chambers

In February, I wrote about a book called God in the Bath in which Stephen Mitchell uses a definition from Aidan Chambers, book, Now I Know, on belief. (Chambers had been a member of an Anglican monastery):

     Be, my dictionary says, means: To have presence in the realm of perceived reality; exist; live. Which being translated means, I suppose: To live in the world you accept is truly THERE.

     Lief, my dictionary says, means: Gladly, willingly. And adds that the word is related to the Old English word for love.

      So Belief means: that you will to give all your attention to Living with loving gladness in the world you think really does exist.

That is one of the most intriguing definitions of belief I have ever seen so I immediately looked up more information on belief and found a copy of Now I Know which I finished reading yesterday. It’s based upon Chambers experience in the monastery (he had been a member for 8 years and left in 1968) and is written for adolescents. The main character is a boy named Nik who is a strong skeptic and agnostic but has been asked to do historical research on Jesus for a school film project. He is also cast as Jesus in the film. He meets and falls in love with a girl who is a strong believer in God. But her belief in God is far more reasonable than he thought possible.

I’ve got little stickies all over the book – so here is some of what I highlighted:

On the power hungry Big-Doers

Nik: One of the reasons I like history is that it tells about the doers. And it seems to me the bigger the Doer becomes, the more he/she turns into a murderous, power-hungry, hypocritical, self-righteous arrogant prig. While ordinary Doers like me and Grandad and all telly watchers of the world, who want only to live our lives unmolested, are supposed to be thankful and admire these Big-Doer creeps, who always pretend they are doing what they’re doing for the sake of the rest of us, when they’re really only doing it for themselves. And they pay ad people (who are no better) to make ads and TV programs presenting them as heroes. I hate heroes.

I love this. We’re back in the throes of yellow journalism and so it is especially true these days.

Very Cool Definition of God

There is only one definition of God: the freedom that allows other freedoms to exist.

I just think that is such a great definition of God! The freedom that allows other freedoms to exist. Beautiful!

On making others believe what it is you believe

Julie: It’s one of the great temptations, you see – wanting to prove the strength of your own faith by making others believe what you believe. It shows you’re right…But it doesn’t prove anything of the sort. All it proves is that you’re condescending and arrogant and good at doing what half-decent actors can do, or advertising agents, or pop stars, or politicians, or con men, or any of the professional persuaders. They sell illusions. And that’s all they do. And they feel good when they succed. That’s what their lives depend on.”

The necessity of sex

Julie: There is necessity in sex for making life. There is no necessity in sex for the sake of it. One of the illusions that the Big Persuaders have sold us is that sex for the sake of it is necessary – that we’ve failed or lost out or somehow actually damaged ourselves if we don’t have sex for the sake of it.

Why doubt is better than an unshakable belief

Graham Greene: “The believer will fight another believer over a shade of difference. The doubter fights only with himself.”

He points out that “doubting Thomas” got a bad wrap from the church because it wanted to promote a message of “blind faith” and obedience. But the Bible doesn’t present Thomas in a bad light at all. It is just as easily argued, and also more easily supported, that Thomas was right to ask for proof because when he saw it for himself, then he “knew” it to be true for himself. That sort of knowing is much more important than believing what someone tells us we should believe..

Wearing a cross as jewelry is wearing an instrument of torture

Nik’s Notes: Wearing a cross round your neck to show you are a Christian, or just as a nice piece of jewelry, is like waring a gallows or guillotine or an electric chair or, more likely these days, a hypodermic needle. You’re wearing an instrument of torture and death.

A lot of people seem to think that crucifixion was abnormal, but the Romans crucified people by the tens of thousands. They sometimes lined the roads with people dying on crucifixes in order to maintain control. That Jesus was crucified was nothing special. Crucifixion was abolished by Constantine in the 300s. So it wasn’t until 500 years after Jesus death that people began depicting Jesus on the cross. To have done so before crucifixion was abolished would have been unbearable for those who had been far too used to loved ones being killed in this way. People had to get far enough away from their association of the cross with pain, torture and oppression to be able to represent it benignly.

On work

Brother Kit: In this, a monastery is no different from anywhere else. Everywhere in the world there are people who seek only their own elevation – comfort for themselves and power over others. And there are people who give themselves to the work.

On church buildings

Nik’s notes: Nowadays church buildings get in the way. Millstones round the neck of belief. They stand for the wrong things. Heavy, cold, empty, geriatric, cavernous, immovable, inflexible, museumlike, bossy. They’re about property, not prayer.

How Jesus would have to get the attention of people today

Nik’s thoughts: The first time around, he was arrested for claiming to be the messiah and therefore a threat to the establishment…Nowadays, nobody would care less if he claimed to be the son of God. People would just laugh and say he is another nutter, and ignore him. But, ‘dozing a building would really stir them up. Not because it’s a church, but because it’s a building, a piece of property.

What would happen to Jesus today

Nik’s notes for the film: …the authorities get fed up, but they don’t crucify him. Not these days. They’re not barbarians. They’re civilized. No, they’d say he is a deranged, schizoid, or dangerously deluded, anyway crackers, and pack him off to the bin, where they’d convulse him with electric-shock treatment till he can’t remember a thing, and inject him full of tranquilizers till he doesn’t know who he is or what he is or where he is, and leave him there, out of sight, out of mind, till he ceases to be a problem by snuffing it.

Out of the Silent Planet (Space Trilogy, Book One)

I read C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy my sophomore or junior year of high school and remember loving it. I just finished reading (again) the first book of the trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, and am certain I enjoyed it even more this time around. I cannot wait to start Perelandra. Makes me feel like a kid! It’s fun to read these books now that I have so much background info.

I don’t actually have a lot to report other than that this book expands on Lewis’ ideas of the anhilation of space, his distrust of scientific utopian thought as well as literalist Christian utopian thought.

I think I’ve probably held a certain amount of utopian idealism my entire life so it’s been interesting to come across all of these recent arguments against it – not against hoping for a utopia, necessarily, but rather believing that a utopian society can be created based upon a scientifically (or biblically) enlightened belief system.

I remember reading Thomas More’s Utopia at some stage of my life and thinking – who is this supposed to be a Utopia for? Maybe certain men. But certainly not women and the two slaves per household that come from other countries! It seems a man-made utopia would necessarily ostracize some group of people within society.