Welcome to the next installment in my Retro Reviews! This time, we’re looking at an author and book I’ve been excited to get to, one of the foundational pieces in how the genre came to be. Indeed, some might say the foundational piece. With no further ado, I give you George MacDonald and The Princess and the Goblin
It is now time for my traditional attempt at poetical plot summation
There once was a princess named Irene
Who was an upstanding young bean
But when goblins tried
To take her for a bride
She had to create quite a scene
What’s it all about?
Irene is indeed a princess of the most unimpeachable character, unless you’re her nanny and believe princesses should be proper rather than good. Through a series of fortuitous coincidences and adventurous spirit, she meets and befriends a young miner named Curdie, and together they must deal with a goblin plot to take over the kingdom by means of unwanted marriage.
How readable is it?
This is Victorian children’s fiction. That is to say it is mostly written in a clear but slightly stiff style, with run-on sentences galore, and the author often speaks directly to his audience in a rather didactic manner. It’s a fairly easy read but might get on some people’s nerves.
Is it any good though?
When I finished this, I felt it was decent but didn’t click with me.
I think it clicked a little more with me for two months of sitting on the review, which is a good way of saying I liked the story more than the writing now I think about it. Irene is a rather sweet heroine, mostly thoughtful but sometimes a little headstrong, and Curdie’s devotion to his family is endearing. It’s hard to dislike a book with them.
Of course, this is a book aimed at children and even given my amusement at puerile humour, I am a long way away from such a blessed state. I can see kids loving the descriptions of the goblins and their animals, and really loving the interactions between Irene and her nanny and great-grandmother. Thoughts that the plot feels a little thin and drawn out are less likely to occur to them.
So it is good. I think it’s market today is for readers who like fairly comforting books, vibes over plot, and so on, which isn’t me, but I didn’t regret reading it and would recommend it.
How Important is this book?
To quote wikipedia, “the history of modern fantasy literature begins with George MacDonald”. Oh, it’s maybe not a universal view, but it’s quite common. And this is his most famous book.
Tolkien’s goblins are directly influenced by it. CS Lewis would name-check the book in his works and refer to MacDonald as his “master”. He mentored Lewis Carroll, and GK Chesterton would describe this book as one that would change his entire existence. The list of other writers wiki gives as influenced by MacDonald runs as follows: W. H. Auden, David Lindsay, J. M. Barrie, Lord Dunsany, Elizabeth Yates, Oswald Chambers, Mark Twain, Hope Mirrlees, Robert E. Howard, L. Frank Baum, T. H. White, Richard Adams, Lloyd Alexander, Hilaire Belloc, Robert Hugh Benson, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Fulton Sheen, Flannery O’Connor, Louis Pasteur, Simone Weil, Charles Maurras, Jacques Maritain, CH Douglas, Walter de la Mare, E. Nesbit, Peter S. Beagle, Elizabeth Goudge, Brian Jacques, M. I. McAllister, Neil Gaiman and Madeleine L’Engle. Sure, there’s very few current authors influenced directly by him, but finding a fantasy author whose family tree of influences doesn’t include him in some form probably just means finding a fantasy author who doesn’t believe in influences.
Incidentally, I find it interesting and mildly amusing to note in passing that much as fantasy is perceived as having its roots in men talking about men, one of the most foundational books has a female protagonist and as many important female characters as male (maybe more). Maybe that bit was less influential, alas.
What about the author?
George MacDonald was born into a farming family in Aberdeenshire that also features several scholars of Celtic literature and Shakespeare. Many of his family also held church positions, which probably contributed to him electing to becoming a man of the cloth (as did not having the funds to become a doctor). He was not a success as a minister due to preaching about God’s universal love, and ended up a teacher at the University of London.
It was around this time that he begun writing novels, although many were also written while living in Liguria in Italy. He was a prolific writer as a novelist, poet, and theologist, and equally prolific in other ways as he has eleven children, some of whom went on to be writers themselves. Yes, I know nobody needed that segue. All in all, he seems a rather decent type, and also very much a product of the romantic and Celtic revival movements.
How do you conclude this one really?
It is easy to see how MacDonald’s expression of his background so electrified the next generation, and thus helped generate the fantasy genre. I didn’t feel that energy myself, and I don’t think many people I know will. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book though. I enjoyed it, I think other people who enjoy visiting the olds or fairly comfy fairy tale-esque tales will enjoy it, and I think you could make a cracking adaptation out of it.