decorated initial 'A's in The Princess and the Goblin, MacDonald's second and final tale about Princess Irene and Curdie begins on the mountain. While Princess Irene has moved away from the castle on the mountainside, Curdie and his father remain miners and continue to delve into the depths of the now goblin-less mountain. Although the audience is already well acquainted with this particular mountain from Princess Irene and Curdie's last adventure in its subterranean depths, MacDonald lingers over his description of the mountain at the beginning of The Princess and Curdie:

I will try to tell you what they are. They are portions of the heart of the earth that have escaped from the dungeon down below, and rushed up and out. For the heart of the earth is a great wallowing mass, not of blood, as in the hearts of men and animals, but of glowing hot, melted metals and stones. And as our hearts keep us alive, so that great lump of heat keeps the earth alive: it is a huge power of buried sunlight — that is what it is.

Think, too, of the change in their own substance — no longer molten and soft, heaving and glowing, but hard and shining and cold. Think of the creatures scampering over and burrowing in it, and the birds building their nests upon it, and the trees growing out of its sides, like hair to clothe it, and the lovely grass in the valleys, and the gracious flowers even at the very edge of its armor of ice, like the rich embroidery of the garment below, and the rivers galloping down the valleys in a tumult of white and green! And along with all these, think of the terrible precipices down which the traveler may fall and be lost, and the frightful gulfs of blue air cracked in the glaciers, and the dark profound lakes, covered like little arctic oceans with floating lumps of ice.

All this outside the mountain! But the inside, who shall tell what lies there? Caverns of awfullest solitude, their walls miles thick, sparkling with ores of gold or silver, copper or iron, tin or mercury, studded perhaps with precious stones — perhaps a brook, with eyeless fish in it, running, running ceaselessly, cold and babbling, through banks crusted with carbuncles and golden topazes, or over a gravel of which some of the stones are rubies and emeralds, perhaps diamonds and sapphires — who can tell? — and whoever can't tell is free to think — all waiting to flash, waiting for millions of ages — ever since the earth flew off from the sun, a great blot of fire, and began to cool. [85-86]

MacDonald invites us to think, to dream, of these huge cavernous spaces filled with beautiful glittering treasures lying deep beneath the pastoral spaces of open mountainside. This contrast between the familiar hillside and grassy valleys which MacDonald must have explored during his childhood in Scotland, and the unknown vastness just beneath forces the reader to confront our own vulnerability. As we are not all miners, we will never know what lies within the mountain, we can only, and indeed we must, be "free to think." Furthermore, dreams must not be discounted, Curdie's father admonishes the boy, "Then dream often, my son; for there must then be more truth in your dreams than in your waking thoughts." (97)

The emphasis on contrasts between what appears without and what lives within, or between waking reality and dream truths, remains a primary theme throughout The Princess and Curdie. In fact Curdie sets off for court armed only with Queen Irene's gift, the ability to feel the truth of a man's inner self. Curdie is growing up and it is time for him to leave home and the mountain.

Whereas The Princess and the Goblin resembles a youth's adventure story in which Princess Irene and Curdie, no matter how threatened by goblins or lost within the mountain, will follow their thread or string and return home to Nurse or Mother, in The Princess and Curdie, both child protagonists have had to grow up; there is no longer string or thread to guide them surely to safety. Rather, Curdie must rely on his gift to distinguish appearances from reality and the Princess Irene must guard her King-papa's troubled sleep. Indeed, for much of the book, the children must deal with adults. On reuniting in the King-papa's bedchamber, Princess Irene states "I am not the little princess any more. I have grown up since I saw you last, Mr. Miner." To which Curdie replies, "So I see, Miss Princess... and therefore, being more of a princess, you are the more my princess." (131) The use of these titles reminds us of their respective roles in an adult society, Curdie remains a miner but he is no longer a miner's son but a miner in his own right, and Irene is no longer the childish girl who insisted Curdie call her by her first name.

Yet even as Princess Irene and Curdie cleanse the court of corruption and evil men, they retain an aspect of their innocent childhood. In fact, MacDonald affirms his faith in the child: "The boy should enclose and keep, as his life, the old child at the heart of him, and never let it go. He must still, to be a right man, be his mother's darling, and more, his father's pride, and more. The child is not meant to die, but to be forever fresh born." (89)


1. The surprising ending to The Princess and Curdie seems at odds with MacDonald's faith in men as children "forever fresh born." Princess Irene and Curdie, retaining their childish innocence and purity, are themselves childless and eventually, human greed for the riches hidden within the mountain causes the city to fall and disappear from existence and even memory. What does MacDonald think of mining then, within the mountain? How are Peter and Curdie good men and miners, the fortunate few able to see the riches within the mountain, different from the greedy kings who lead the kingdom to ruin?

2. Strong parallels to Christianity appear throughout The Princess and Curdie. For instance, the emphasis on bread and wine that bring real nourishment and salvation to the King-papa draws strongly from Christianity. How does Curdie's mission parallel Christian work? Queen Irene admonishes him, "You must not be like a dull servant that needs to be told again and again before he will understand. You have orders enough to start with, and you will find, as you go on, and as you need to know, what you have to do. But I warn you that perhaps it will not look the least like what you may have been fancying I should require of you. I have one idea of you and your work, and you have another. I do not blame you for that — you cannot help it yet; but you must be ready to let my idea, which sets you working, set your idea right. Be true and honest and fearless, and all shall go well with you and your work, and all with whom your work lies, and so with your parents — and me too, Curdie" (111) What about the King-papa's rebirth in Queen Irene's fire of roses? How does MacDonald's faith shape Princess Irene and Curdie's lives and the history of the kingdom. Why does, or must, Gwyntystorm fall?

3. The Princess and the Goblin deals with a subterranean race of once-men who now appear fearsome and terrible, such is their lack of humanity that they have even lost their toes! In The Princess and Curdie, it is not so easy to distinguish between friend or foe. Only Curdie, with his magical hands, is able to tell which men have become true beasts. Both volumes begin with an evil plot to take control of the kingdom, and generally involve marrying the Princess Irene off. How do the goblins compare with the man-beasts? What about Curdie's curiously-shaped helpers? After all, they too seem to come from the mines, "It was plain to Curdie, from the universal hardness among them, that they must all, at one time or another, have been creatures of the mines." (149) Given that both Lina and Curdie's Uglies as well as the goblins come from the depths of the mountain, and that Curdie spends a substantial amount of his childhood in the mines, what distinguishes good from bad? It is clear that not everything that comes from the depths of the mountain are bad. What then, makes men, goblin or animal evil?

4. Princess Irene plays a substantially diminished role in The Princess and Curdie. Although she too rides to battle, the princess is much more helpless and passive than in her previous adventures. Again, she faces the threat of being married off to wrest power from her King-papa. At the end of the book, Princess Irene is finally summarily married off by her father, the King-papa who states, "My child cannot choose but to love you, and when you are grown up — if you both will — you shall marry each other." (166) Why this contrast between the accepting child-girl and her namesake great grandmother? It is, after all, Queen Irene's pigeons who turn the tide of the battle in the King and Curdie's favor. Again, what are MacDonald's views of women here? And do they contrast with his presentation of gender in The Princess and the Goblin?

4. Finally, why had Curdie replaced goblins in the title? Perhaps it is because the Princess Irene finally marries Curdie and not Harelip, the aptly-named goblin prince, or a beast-man of the corrupted court's choosing. Or perhaps it is because at the book's beginning, Curdie threatens to grow up into an ill-bred miner man and not the Prince and King that he could be?


MacDonald, George. The Princess and Curdie. 1883.

Last modified 17 July 2007