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.

9 (2009)

My daughter and I went to see 9 over the weekend.  She loved it. I was terribly disappointed. 

I LOVE Shane Acker’s short film, “9″, which is why I was so excited to see the full-length film. But there just wasn’t enough story to make it into a full-length film. Plus, everything that was left to the imagination in the short film is spelled out in detail. Personally, I liked the fact that we had to use our imaginations and fill in so many blanks in the short-film.

Oh well!

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

I recently watched Tim Burton’s, Sleepy Hollow just after reading Washington Irving’s short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  Burton and his writers have an interesting take on the tale. It’s entirely different.

In my interpretation of Irving’s telling, Ichabod Crane is an awkward but ambitious school master. Usually his ambitions are set on food and so he makes sure to get in good with all of the neighborhood women who make fantastic dutch meals and cakes. He eventually sets his sights on the lovely Katrina Van Tassel, whose father is the wealthiest man in the town. The possibility of marriage sets off great visions of being a vast land owner. He is love stricken because he’s in love with the idea of what marrying Katrina will get with him. He’s not in love with Katrina.

Another very important fact about Ichabod Crane is that he’s enamored with Cotton Mather’s book, History of New England Witchcraft, which provides antidotes to the devil’s trickery. He considers it his Bible. Because Crane is so superstitious, he is spooked even more easily than the superstitious dutch villagers. This is particularly disturbing since Ichabod Crane is the village educator!

During Irving’s tale, there are no actual slayings by the Hessian Headless Horseman. This is all portrayed as village legend. Crane doesn’t actually “see” the Headless Horseman until he challenges Brom Bones for Katrina’s hand in marriage which leaves the identity of the headless horseman in the legend subject to interpretation. But one thing is certain, while the horseman has no head at all, Ichabod Crane spends way too much time inside his head!

Burton turns the legend entirely upside down. Ichabod Crane becomes Constable Crane who comes to Sleepy Hollow to investigate the slayings of several citizens. It’s no longer a legend but a detective story and Crane is the detective.   Rather than being overly superstitious, Constable Crane is overly rational which clashes with the village folks superstitious tendencies. As far as they are concerned, what he deduces rationally is already obvious. Rather than being scared out of town, Crane saves the day, but not before finally accepting the wisdom of the old ways.

Perhaps Burton is saying that today’s propensity for rationalism is yesterday’s superstition? Although in different ways, both rationalism and superstition are totally in our heads.

The Red Shoes (1948)

The Red Shoes is my kind of movie!  I absolutely adore fairy tales and The Red Shoes does a wonderful job of reworking Hans Christian Anderson’s tale.  I used to read The Red Shoes to my kids when they were little. It’s about a little girl named Karen who is very poor but is adopted by a wealthy woman who buys her red shoes without realizing they are red. The little girl, against her adopted mother’s wishes, wears the shoes to church which distracts her from the community of church. The shoes become charmed and force Karen to dance, night and day. She finally asks an executioner to chop off her feet in order to get rid of the red shoes.

For me, the shoes represent the grotesque sort of happiness that desire creates. Once desire gets going, it’s very difficult to reign it in, even after it brings misery rather than happiness. Happiness resides in simplicity. Desire trumps that simplicity and makes everything complicated and confused.

The film, The Red Shoes, takes Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, and turns the shoes into a tale about the desire of ambition. Victoria Page is a relatively unknown dancer who meets Boris Lermontov, who owns the renowned Ballet Lermontov. Lermontov promises to make Page a great dancer. To say anymore than this would ruin the story and I don’t feel like presenting a “Spoiler Warning” today.  So I’ll leave the plot line there and venture on with my personal thoughts.

I watched Ordinary People a few days ago which is about the pitfalls of the image driven social climb of upper middle class American suburbia.  In order to successfully make the climb, you either have to be very lucky and actually live the mainstream American dream without any faux pas, or you have to pretend that all is well. To appear flawed is viewed as vulnerability which is not an appealing trait for those attempting to climb the social ladder.  In Ordinary People, however, it becomes apparent that those who are able to keep up the pretense don’t do so out of courage, they do so out of fear. The fear is specifically about an unwillingness to “feel”.

Many people who are extremely ambitious have become ambitious precisely because it is a way to destract themselves from “feeling”.  Lermontov is a perfect example. He’s controlling and believes that if his dancers give into the “doubtful comforts of love”, they will never become great dancers. NEVER!

American Beauty, one of my all-time favorite movies, does a fantastic job of showing the pitfalls of the American Dream and portrays ambition as the drug of choice among those engaged in the social climb.  Teenage drug use is portrayed as more humane than ambition.  Ambition makes people ugly and controlling.  I bring up American Beauty because it does such a fantastic job of showing how control is a form of denial. The military father has sent his son to boarding school, frequently hits him for getting out of line, yet the son continues to sell drugs out of the father’s home.  Despite all of the father’s control, the father remains completely oblivious to what is going on around him.

Lermontov exercises a sort of military control over his dancers. He expects total loyalty and becomes extremely upset whenever they do something “horrible” like discover they are in love.  He’s a sort of Godlike figure in terms of his dancers. He tries to control the Composer, Julian Craster, but is unable to do so. In fact, it is Craster, who, in the end, is able to walk away from his art for the sake of human relationship.

I read Kyra by Carol Gilligan not too long ago.  She points out that the legacy of women submitting to men has not yet fully come undone.  The Red Shoes was made in 1948 so female submission to male rules was still firmly entrenched back then. Anyway, in Gilligan’s novel, Kyra falls in love with a man named Andreas who eventually leaves Kyra because he fully expects Kyra to understand that his work (the opera) comes first. Kyra, on the other hand, is far more tuned into the relationship than Andreas so is devastated by his ability to leave her.  According to Gilligan, men play by rules that women do not, yet women have been forced to submit to these rules. So when "the railings” of those rules are pulled out from underneath of women, women often feel freedom, while for men it presents a sort of chaos.

OK – so I guess I’m going to have to do a SPOILER WARNING!


In The Red Shoes, it’s as though Victoria ceases to function because she is forced to decide between two alternative male based structures – housewife or dancer. Relationship or career. Back in 1948, that presented a total dichotomy for women. You couldn’t have both. Especially if you were a dancer. What’s interesting is that it is Julian who is able to give up his opera for the sake of relationship. But still, the male based rules apply. He shows up not wanting Victoria to dance, knowing that if she does, she’ll never return to him. He realizes she can’t give up her desire to be a great dancer so leaves her instead.

Victoria is faced with two alternative desires. One is the desire to dance and the other is the desire to maintain a love interest. But what comes into play even more than desire in The Red Shoes is ambition which is always image driven.   It’s always controlled.  It’s not desire by itself that makes Victoria’s decision impossible. It’s controlled ambition that makes it impossible. She could be a dancer and maintain her marriage, but she couldn’t be “the greatest dancer” and maintain her marriage. The ambition to be “the greatest dancer” demands conformity to the traditionally male structured rules that Lermonotov represents. It lacks the fluidity intimate relationships require.

This gets right at the heart of the observation I made in Ordinary People about the perfectionism required to climb the social ladder. It’s sterile and plastic because human inadequacies are not allowed. There’s no room for the “doubtful comforts of love”.

At the very beginning of the movie, Lermonotov says to Julian (when Julian is angry that his music has been stolen by his professor for Lermonokov’s ballet):  “It is worth remembering, that it is much more disheartening to have to steal than to be stolen from, hmmm?”

Throughout the film we get hints that Lermonotov is stealing. Someone tells Lermonotov that you can’t change human nature. Lermonotov replies that you can do even better than that. You can ignore it. That’s exactly what I mean by control being a form of denial. The idea that we can create some sort of perfection is a faulty idea because it relies on the belief that we can control human nature.

I could keep going but I’m all over the place so will end with one final controlling, life denying quote from Lermonotov:  “Don’t forget, a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit.”

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.