The Princess and the Goblin

George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin (George Routledge and Sons, 1871; Alfred A Knopf, 1993)

According to the author’s short biography at the back of the book, W.H. Auden is quoted as saying of MacDonald’s writings: “To me, George MacDonald’s most extraordinary, and precious, gift is his ability, in all his stories, to create an atmosphere of goodness about which there is nothing phony or moralistic. Nothing is rarer in literature.” I rather must agree with Auden, both that there is no little dearth of such frank and sincere tales and that George MacDonald most certainly succeeds at weaving one with The Princess and the Goblin.

At its heart, The Princess and the Goblin is a simple tale about being true-hearted, sincere, empathetic, kind, honorable. . . . I could go on for quite a while in this vein, actually. Fitting all those traits into a story must surely make it instructional and complicated, I can hear you thinking. Yet this is simply not true with George MacDonald’s charming fairy tale. All these qualities are implicit within the characters of his subjects and are thus presented as desirable and worthy of emulation.

What’s remarkable about the above is that he manages not to be condescending. No child reading this novel is likely to feel she’s being talked down to or cosseted in an attempt to win his good behavior. Indeed, MacDonald draws them in with a lively eye and level intentions; he mesmerizes them with a well-rounded tale full of drama, serenity, an endangered yet capable princess, a daring miner boy, stupidly cunning goblins, and bloody battles. Adults, also, could find themselves enchanted by this literary fairy tale, both by the story and the quality of the language.

Indeed, the language of the novel presents the only potential drawback to the child of today’s enjoyment (and it’s more of a stumble than a drawback, really). Although most of the sentences are clear and succinct, when some of those 19th century English grammatical patterns crop up, they could throw a young reader off. The solution to this is simple, however: the parent should, of course, be on hand to aid their children’s comprehension. How lovely a novel this would be, even, to read aloud with one’s child, nephew, niece, or local library’s children’s circle!

The presentation of this particular edition of the book is quite befitting of MacDonald’s vision as well: it’s lovely and durable, very well constructed. The cover is of heavy board covered with textured blue fabric and embossed with the title and author’s name in gold. A colorized version of one of the gorgeous interior illustrations sits centered on the cover as well. The spine is worked in a gold-and-black diamond pattern, once more bearing the author’s name and title embossed in gold. Upon opening the book, you discover the interior cover and endpapers also bear a diamond pattern and silhouettes of children playing, fantastical beasts, and people reading. There’s even a place for the child to write her name and a blue ribbon marker to hold his place when he’s off (hopefully!) play-acting his favorite literary adventures or creating her own!

As gorgeous and charming as the story itself are the interior illustrations. Indeed, they are inextricable from the text. Arthur Hughes (yes, the Pre-Raphaelite painter responsible for “April Love”) was a good friend of the MacDonald’s and provided the illustrations for The Princess and the Goblin when it was written. Mostly featured as small inset windows between paragraphs, they are simply beautiful black-and-white drawings that completely capture the spirit of the story. The subtle lines and his use of shadow and light give charming hope to a princess, bleak immediacy to the miner boy’s several predicaments, depict the loving honor of a king, and suggest the twisted miens of the goblins and their creatures without taking the place of imagination.

This little volume is sure to leave anyone wanting more of the sweet little princess and her friends. Luckily, George MacDonald wrote one more. I, for one, can’t wait to see what he left waiting for us in The Princess and Curdie.

This review was originally published at Green Man Review on February 10th, 2008 and was a Featured Review in that edition.