acDonald begins The Princess and the Goblin by introducing a subterranean world inhabited by fearsome goblins. According to legend, this "strange race" may once have been men, however, they were long driven below ground by severe taxes or stricter laws, or something. Although the goblins are now no longer men, they were once so and achieved their present terrible state due to some unspecified persecution. The narrator also reminds his reader that despite appearances, these goblins may not be as inhumane as they look: "They had enough of affection left for each other to preserve them from being absolutely cruel for cruelty's sake to those that came in their way; but still they so heartily cherished the ancestral grudge against those who occupied their former possessions and especially against the descendants of the king who had caused their expulsion." (2) This last brief introduction to the goblins hardly inspires enough sympathy in the reader for us to side with these sad, horrible creatures. Our sympathies obviously lie with the inhabitants above ground and the Princess Irene, despite the fact that perhaps these goblins would not be hatching their dastardly plots if Irene's ancestors had not driven them below ground in the first place. Indeed, although we only meet Irene's King-Papa briefly, it is difficult to imagine this heroic figure astride his white steed having any dealings with the goblins.
MacDonald does not intend for his audience to like the goblins. Our failure to sympathize with the goblins is on purpose. They are ugly and sly creatures, and although they may not have, once upon a time, deserved this underground life, we have no problems hoping Curdie foils their plans and stamps hard on their unshod, tender goblin feet. However, in creating this moral ambivalence regarding the history and presence of the goblins, MacDonald challenges the tradition of the reader's passive acceptance of good and evil, or in fact any familiar category. MacDonald refuses to premise that kings will be good, that princesses will always be correct and miner boys dirty and uncouth. In The Princess and the Goblin , it is the king's men who fail to protect the princess and rather the miner boy who dashes onto the king's white charger and saves the day. In fact, MacDonald takes pains to remind his audience that princesses are not naturally good or perfect. Princess Irene is a princess because she is brave and trusts in her grandmother, but as Lootie and Curdie are well aware, "princesses have told lies as well as other people." (66)
Moreover, despite the fantastical subterranean caverns and the existence of Irene's "dear old great big grandmother" in her attic in the sky, the truly fantastical element in MacDonald's novel, and one that is also the easiest to accept, is Curdie and the Princess Irene's companionship and equality. When, if ever, have miner boys consorted with princesses? Or indeed when do princesses deign to rescue miner boys, much less promise kisses? Well, in fairy tales and fantasies of course.
MacDonald underscores the similarities between his heroine and hero throughout the novel. Princess Irene has eyes "like two bits of night sky, each with a star dissolved in the blue" (1) while Curdie has "eyes as dark as the mines in which he worked and as sparkling as the crystals in their rocks." (13) If eyes are the windows into the soul, then Princess Irene and Curdie must share similar compositions as their eyes are described as mirrors to each other. Irene explores the lofty castle corridors to her grandmother's moon-attack as Curdie delves deep into the earth to discover the goblin's dastardly plan to gain control of the kingdom. Furthermore, upon first meeting, Curdie and Irene are quickly established to be equals; Irene defies Lootie's abortive attempt to have the miner boy call her "Your Royal Highness" by arguing that "I won't be called names. I don't like them. You told me once yourself it's only rude children that call names; and I'm sure Curdie wouldn't be rude." (15) Curdie is no rude miner's boy. Indeed, our narrator hints that Curdie may have some royal blood in him — one wonders if some long ago Peter also had a role in banishing the goblins below ground. Finally, both Curdie and Irene are guided in their adventures; Irene by following her grandmother's thread and Curdie with his stout string firmly in hand. The princely courage and independence that MacDonald clearly admires and both Curdie and Irene share manifest from their unwavering faith in this means of guidance through the dark maze of goblin tunnels and the wild mountainside. Irene and Curdie may grow older as the novel progresses, but they maintain at heart some element of their respective eight and twelve year old selves that allow them to hold fast to their unwavering faith and childlike hope that there is something, battle-axe or grandmother, at the other end of the string-thread that will lead them out of the darkness and the goblin depths.
MacDonald pairs hero and heroine in other tales, for instance, The Day Boy and the Night Girl . How do Curdie and Princess Irene differ from Photogen and Nycteris? Again, it would appear that Princess Irene is superior to Curdie — she is, after all, a princess and has the ability to see her great grandmother whereas Curdie sees only the bare attic and the ray of moonlight.
With its social and moral ambivalence — the miners who labor day and night for the king's gold or the suggested reasons for the goblins existence below ground — The Princess and the Goblin yet appeals to younger readers. How does MacDonald maintain an atmosphere of wonder and the unquestionable promise of a happy ending? What is the reader to make of the triumph over the goblins in the "regular stamping fight" (75)?
Curdie's goblin rhymes echo that of nursery sing-a-longs. Why does MacDonald suggest that such basic rhymes can have such power? After all, Curdie's rhymes remain his chief protection in the underground caverns.
There are several different aspects of women presented in various characters here: Princess Irene is the innocent girl but below her outward girlishness remains her femininity — she promises a kiss to Curdie and the goblins want to carry her below ground to marry Harelip the unfortunately named goblin prince; Queen Irene displays majestic maternal goodwill from her turret, but she fails to appear unless she wants to — what does this speak to the power of mothers? Joan, Curdie's mother, on the other hand, represents the other aspect of motherhood, she must be protected and supported by son and husband. Finally, the goblin queen is the stuff of nightmares, and where the goblin men fail, her stoutly stone-shod feet resist Curdie's stomping and it is through her aegis that Curdie is imprisoned below ground. Why these divergent, even conflicting, views of women?
MacDonald, George. The Princess and the Goblin. 1872.
Last modified 2 July 2007