Tag Archive: George MacDonald


Inklings Predecessor, Take Two

Having enjoyed The Princess and the Goblin, this past weekend I decided to pick up another MacDonald book, The Princess and Curdie.  This latter book serves as a sequel to the former, but unlike most sequels, it is at least as good as, if not better than, the original.  Whereas the first book focuses primarily on the eponymous princess, Irene, the second follows Curdie, the boy hero from the first story.

At the beginning of the story, about a year after the events in The Princess and the Goblin, Curdie is slowly drifting away from his former virtue.  One day he shoots an innocent white pigeon with his bow and arrow simply to test his skill.  Upon picking up the (nearly) dead bird in his hand, he is struck with remorse, and at once he runs to the king’s former residence to confess to the princess’s great-great-grandmother, to whom the bird belongs and who features even more prominently in this story than in the first.  Curdie’s act of repentance is the first step toward his rehabilitation, and Princess Irene the elder (she shares the name with her great-great-granddaughter) then sends him on a quest.  Curdie is not alone in his quest, but rather receives help from a strange and motley group of creatures, as well as Princess Irene the younger, with whom he is reunited.  As in most fairy tales, Curdie manages to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, but, without giving away the ending completely, it does not end in the typical fairy tale ending.  Rather, the book ends on a note in keeping with MacDonald’s vision of reality, virtue, and society.

The Princess and Curdie was one of my favorite books I’ve read this year for a number of reasons.  MacDonald’s depictions of natural settings are rich and evocative.  Take his description of mountains toward the beginning of the story:

“I will try to tell you what [mountains] are.  They are portions of the heart of the earth that have escaped from the dungeon 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.”

No disenchanted universe, this.  Moreover, MacDonald has a keen insight into the human condition and the nature of virtue.  The story’s symbolism is religious, and more specifically Christian, through and through, though without being overly preachy or moralizing.  Take his description of kingship:

“He was a real king – that is, one who ruled for the good of his people and not to please himself, and he wanted the silver not to buy rich things for himself, but to help him to govern the country, and pay the ones that defended it from certain troublesome neighbours, and the judges whom he set to portion out righteousness among the people, that so they might learn it themselves, and come to do without judges at all.”

The story is also darker than the first.  Though Curdie’s act of violence toward the beginning of the story is condemned, MacDonald was by no means a pacifist.  This tale has more than its fair share of battles, sometimes told in gruesome detail.

As with The Princess and the Goblin, this book made it abundantly clear why Chesteron, Lewis, Tolkien, et al. were so indebted to MacDonald.  Though each of their stories is set in a different world, their characters all inhabit the same moral universe.  Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Chesterton had these stories in mind as he wrote the chapter “The Ethics of Elfland” in his classic Orthodoxy.

I would recommend both stories for young readers, though one might hold off on Curdie until the age of 10 or 11 due to the violence.  Regardless, if you are a fan of Tolkien, Lewis, and Chesterton, then do yourself a favor and pick up at least one work by the man Lewis proclaimed his “master.”

Twenty-six down, (at least) twenty-six to go – half-way there!

Ta,
J

Inklings Predecessor

Greetings!  This post comes to you from an undisclosed location in Western Europe (as will most of my future posts this year).  Once again, I have taken far too long between posts, but jetlag and getting settled in a new city will do that, even if I finished the book I’m blogging a week ago.

Years ago I heard that both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, two of my favorite writers, were strongly influenced by George MacDonald, a Scottish writer of the nineteenth century, and so for some time I’ve wanted to read one of his books.  A trans-Atlantic flight gave me plenty of time to dig into The Princess and the Goblin, a fairy tale that made a significant impression on another of my favorite authors, G.K. Chesterton.  Now that I’ve read it, I can see MacDonald’s imprint on each of these writers in different ways.

The story bears many of the literary features of a typical fairy tale: no distinct mention of a time or place in this world, stereotypical characters (a king, a princess, a miner, etc.).  The tale also extols many of the virtues that Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis prized: honesty, courage, keeping one’s word, faith in the seemingly impossible.  Moreover, MacDonald emphasizes the power of poetry.  The one thing that scares the goblins in the story away is rhyme, particularly spontaneous and silly rhyme.  It seems clear to me that this element of the story was the inspiration for Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil.

Though not overly complicated, the story is a bit much to summarize in a blog post.  Suffice it to say that if you are a fan of Lewis or Tolkien, you should read this book.  According to Wikipedia, Chesterton said of the book that it “made a difference to my whole existence.”  Indeed, I suspect much of the argument in his classic Orthodoxy depended on such lines from MacDonald’s work as, “People must believe what they can, and those who believe more must not be hard upon those who believe less”; or, “Seeing is not believing – it is only seeing.”

If you’re a fan of Tolkien, Lewis, or Chesterton, or of fantasy literature/fairy tales in general, then I highly recommend The Princess and the Goblin.  I intend to move on to the sequel, The Princess and Curdie, before too long.

Twenty-four down, (at least) twenty-eight to go.

Ta,
J