The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

Once upon a time, deep in Amish country, a little girl fell in love with the fantastical adventures found in her books, especially the children’s stories by C. S. Lewis and George MacDonald. The little girl grew older, moved three thousand miles across the country, and discovered countless other books. Still, once or twice a year, she would open an old book and sink into the story, pulling it all around her like the warmest, softest down comforter in the world.

Of course, I am who that little girl grew into. When I was invited to write a Retro Review, I jumped up and down a few times and then chose to write a Retro Review about one of my beloved “time machines.” Miraculously, instantaneously, this time machine can transport me back to my converted attic bedroom in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, or to a deliciously elicit 12am-on-a-school-night reading fest in our tiny house in Oregon City.

Here is a photo of the time machine in question:
The Princess and Curdie, 1964 Paperback

I am a Nerdy Book Club nerd; I read the blog religiously each morning. So, I knew I couldn’t do right by my task if I re-read my “time machine” copy of the book, because my memories lie interleaved in its pages, coloring my perceptions. So, I picked up a library copy for a fresh perspective. Here it is with my darling old one:
Something Old, Something Borrowed

And – I’ll be honest – it took me a few pages to get over the different edition. You know when you walk into your old high school and it’s been renovated but still has the same layout, and the posters are different yet familiar? The first two chapters were like that: uncanny. Unsettling.

Here’s the Princess and her King-Papa. The colored print is from the newer edition I picked up at the library; the black and white die cuts are much older.
New King-Papa
Old King-Papa

However, that feeling quickly faded. It doesn’t matter what window-dressing illustrations come with it, or whether or not the edition includes awkward introductory asides. The Princess and the Goblin is wonderful. It stands the test of time.

Yes, the language and the pacing are not contemporary – after all, it was published in 1872. Young readers still love monsters, princesses, and adventures. (Don’t we all? I know I do.) Especially when they are presented in a fresh, inventive, and honest way.

Sometimes, older texts feel staid because of the way they reflect the mores of their time. For instance, implicit sexism – negative or weak roles for women – can make a story less appealing to me. I did not have that problem with George MacDonald, because he did not write about weak, silly women. From my experience, he writes strong women better and more consistently than C.S. Lewis, who did pretty well, himself.

One of his strong female characters is the eponymous eight year old princess, Irene. She is and is written to be young, but she is courageous and good-hearted, and does as much rescuing as she gets rescued. She does receive help from a magical and omnipotent source, but if that discounts heroic efforts, you’ll find literature is a little scarce on “real” heroes. 🙂 In any case, she isn’t afraid to injure and dirty her hands digging at rocks for hours for the cause, which is impressive for any 8-year old, let alone a pampered princess!

Strong female number two is Princess Irene’s great-great grandmother, the ancient and striking woman who guides the heroes from her tower in a way that Gandalf will imitate in future literature, providing tools and opportunities throughout the story.

The third strong female is the mother of Curdie, the little miner boy who is the secondary protagonist to Princess Irene (SPOILER: Curdie is who the Princess rescues! He does get to rescue her one time, too, but you’ll have to read it and see who you think has the more impressive rescue…)

I love Curdie’s parents. They remind me of Linda Urban’s incredibly subtle, supportive and inspirational role models, the parents in A Crooked Kind of Perfect and the uncle in Hound Dog True. Curdie’s parents are more lightly drawn and less poetic, of course, but they have a similar energy. In her way, Curdie’s mother is just as impressive as the royal Irenes, and she plays a quiet yet crucial role in the story.

Not to lose sight of the action in the midst of my historical gender considerations, this book, of course, features exciting, goblin-related adventures. In fact, Curdie uncovers and tries to stop not one but TWO fiendish plots that the goblins have hatched!

When the book opens, the Princess has been kept in the dark about the very existence of goblins, let alone their dangerous grudge against the royal family… Meanwhile, Curdie is the most adept, among the miners, at inventing songs to rout out the foul creatures. Thus, it is obvious they must cross paths with each other (and with the goblins!) They do, and – as the book continues and schemes are revealed and enacted – the stakes are raised. Deaths are defied. Curdie’s faith in Princess Irene’s honesty and her own patience with those who do not believe her are solely tested.

In addition to the plot, MacDonald’s story is suffused with his belief in the possibilities of people. His message of seeking to be your best self is one that continues to ring true today, and in his gender-balanced and plot-driven novel, there is nothing to tarnish it. Humans today still need to work hard, to be forgiving, and to trust each other.

In summation, The Princess and the Goblin is a wonderful story I would recommend as a read aloud with an older or bolder young child or for curious readers of any age. Personally, I’d recommend a copy with the original black and white die cut illustrations, but you take your pick! Here are two final examples, featuring Curdie, the Princess, and an irritated Lootie:

Color Version: the Princess and Curdie B&W Version: the Princess and Curdie

Abi Kurfman has photos demonstrating that she’s been a book nerd since before she could talk. As a two year-old, it is reported she pointed to the picture on the back of Goodnight Moon and earnestly informed people, “That’s Margaret Wise Brown.” Via the Nerdy Book Club and The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, she has recently rediscovered and re-energized her nerdiness.

In the fall, she will start her master’s program in teaching. As a middle school and high school English teacher, she hopes to introduce many many many students to the wonders of reading and writing. Right now, she practices on all the people in her life. You can find her on Twitter @mskurf and on her blog, and in real life with her nose in a book.

(Nerdy Note: This title is in the public domain and is available in a variety of locations to read online or download for the device of your choice for free. Of course, you can always do like Abi did and check the library or buy a copy if you prefer to read on paper. — Cindy)