fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews George MacDonald The Princess and the GoblinThe Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

George MacDonald found out his talent for telling fairy tales due to the fact that he had eleven children, and after the success of At the Back of the North Wind, which was published serially in a magazine, MacDonald wrote his two most popular books: The Princess and the Goblin and its sequel The Princess and Curdie. These books inspired the two most famous fantasy authors of all time: J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, both of whom are much indebted to MacDonald’s innovative fairytales. It can be safely said that both The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia are direct descendants of MacDonald’s work. From these two original fairytales, Tolkien borrowed the idea of the goblin-infested mountain which arose in his own work as the Mines of Moria, whilst Lewis adopted MacDonald’s trend of investing magic and enchantment with Christian images and themes.

The Princess and the Goblin centres around two young protagonists: the young princess Irene (pronounced with three syllables: I-Reen-Nee) and the slightly older Curdie, a boy who mines in the mountains. They live close to each other without knowing it, as Irene has grown up on a castle by the mountainside, away from her father and his court whilst Curdie lives with his parents in a simple cottage near the mine shafts.

On a rainy afternoon, when the princess is bored, she explores the old castle and discovers a magical room at the top of the house where her great-great-great grandmother waits for her, accompanied by her pigeons and her magic rose-fires, spinning her a very special gift. Meanwhile, young Curdie is going about his business, knowing full well the danger that he and his fellow miners face everyday due to the population of goblins that live within the mountains that they mine. However, the goblins tend to keep to themselves with the occasional mischievous trick played, and they are easily kept at bay with a cheerful song. But now things are different: strange shadows are milling around the castle and Curdie overhears a sinister plot by the goblins to overthrow the king and destroy the homes of those that live above ground. Only together are the two children able to defeat their foes.

Also worth noting is MacDonald’s treatment of female characters throughout the book; although the nursemaid Lootie is a stereotypical “mother hen,” both the Princess Irene and her great-grandmother are strong female characters — rare for a book first published in 1872. It is Irene who is charged with the task of rescuing Curdie from the clutches of the goblins rather than the other way around, leading her through the darkness of the subterranean caves, guided by a single golden thread (symbolic of faith). Even more thought-provoking is her great-grandmother, who represents the divine within the story. Other books (such as the afore-mentioned Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia, and many more besides) solely have males as their heavenly figures, and it is a common theme in later fantasy books for powerful, spiritual females to have a “Mother Nature” or mystical feel to them. Here, however, MacDonald presents the angelic spirit in the form of a woman, and the result is rarer in books than many might think.

The Princess and the Goblin is a true gem of a book, simple yet meaningful, humorous yet poignant, and one of those essential children’s books that are just as enjoyable for adults to read as they are for children. With plenty of magic and mystery, of especial interest to those interested in the growth of the fantasy genre, and filled with beautiful imagery and ideas, The Princess and the Goblin deserves to sit on any bookshelf.

The Princess and the Goblin — (1872) Publisher: Princess Irene lives in a castle in a wild and lonely mountainous region. One day she discovers a steep and winding stairway leading to a bewildering labyrinth of unused passages with closed doors — and a further stairway. What lies at the top?


  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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