Fairy Tale Friday: The Princess and the Goblin

July 31, 2009 at 12:00 am 2 comments

Perhaps you will wonder how the princess could tell you that the old lady was an old lady…her hair was combed back from her forehead and ace, and hung loose far down and all over her back. That is not much like an old lady — is it? Ah! but it was white almost as snow. And although her face was so smooth, her eyes looked so wise that you could not have helped seeing she must be old.

First, I should apologize for giving you all another fairy tale that is as recent as the 20th century. There aren’t even any fairies in this story, for goodness’ sake, which is the excuse I used for Tom Brightwind. But I had to share this story with you, because George MacDonald is the creator of my favourite fairy godmother in the genre, and he throws in some awesome goblins and a strapping miner boy as well.

The basic story is that there is a little princess called Irene who is stuck inside on a succession of rainy days. She goes exploring in her castle, and stumbles across three rooms on the top floor where she meets a beautiful old woman who turns out to be her great-great-great grandmother, or her father’s mother’s father’s mother, as she puts it. The grandmother, who looks both old and young at the same time and clearly is very magical, spends much of her time spinning cobwebs, tending to her pigeons (whose eggs she eats) and sitting in front of fires that look like burning red roses.

Meanwhile, a young boy named Curdie is working in the mines late at night to earn some extra money to buy his mother a red wool petticoat when he overhears a plot by the goblins (who live underground) to flood the mines and kidnap Princess Irene and make her marry the goblin prince. Contrary to current conventions, this prince is not attractive at all, having two toes on one foot, one on the other, and a very hard, very large head. Curdie has already rescued the princess from one kidnapping attempt by the goblins, and so he finds himself in that position again when Irene goes exploring down in the mines and ends up trapped.

This is kind of a long story, so I’ll leave it there. For me, the goblin parts of this story are not really important (though I, like everyone else, wonders why the title refers to one goblin when there are clearly many involved). More fascinating for me is the grandmother, who though not a fairy, is clearly more of a fairy godmother than anything else.

Irene is clearly not badly treated; she’s a princess, of course, and she is well taken care of by a nurse and she has so many toys that are so fantastic that Mr. MacDonald gives up describing them and advises the illustrator not to even try to draw them. Everyone loves Irene, including her father.

But her father’s only there a little of the time, as he is a king with many important responsibilities, and as her mother has died, Irene has no real friends beyond her nurse. This is a common motif in fairy tales, as Bruno Bettleheim points out that a fictional child who is more literally isolated from family and friends is identifiable to a real child who feels emotionally isolated from the adult world. Anyone in this situation, I feel, would love to suddenly find a grandmother in the attic who smelled like roses and always came to one’s rescue!

What sets Great-great-great grandmother Irene apart from most fairy godmothers is the detail involved in her description. Her apartments contain wonderful things like burning-rose fires and blue beds with rose counterpanes, and she is always dressed in some sort of amazingly beautiful and rich material, sometimes with a crown of fire opals to top off the ensemble. Her bathtub opens up into the sky, and the lamp in her room looks like the moon.

Clearly there is a lot of symbolism going on here; I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. MacDonald was trying to evoke ancient goddesses with his moon imagery, the roses are a symbol of love, perhaps, that Princess Irene was in need of, and evocative of other ancient goddesses.

Still, even setting the symbolism aside, Mr. MacDonald’s version of a fairy godmother is an incredible character in her own right and well worth reading the 241 pages of this story for…and the goblins make for some good fun as well. Definitely perfect for a rainy day when you’re not up to anything taxing, or for some particularly magical bedtime reading, this story is definitely a Victorian fairy tale worth checking out — and maybe reading to a little girl you know who is herself stuck inside on a rainy day!


Entry filed under: Children and Young Adult, Fairy Tale Friday. Tags: , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Corey  |  July 31, 2009 at 4:48 am

    I wanted to reread this anyway, but your post definitely made me want to even more! I never looked at the grandmother in the mold of the Fairy Godmother, but it’s a great way to think about her.

    And I also always wondered why everyone in fairy tales seems to have no mother, no father or possibly both. My mom swears it is a Disney conspiracy to make children hate their mothers, but I’m glad to hear it has a literary reason and antecedent. :)

  • 2. KT  |  July 31, 2009 at 9:48 am

    Well, part of it is just practical — how many adventures can kids get into with two loving parents? If the child is an orphan or missing one parent, it’s a bit easier for them to escape! The isolation is part of it…and generally parental figures are found in other characters. I don’t know, I think it has something to do with children rebelling against their parents, too.

    It’s not just Disney, though! Almost literally no one in Grimm has mothers, which I think Bettleheim says has something to do with an Oedipal complex. Or something.


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