To Be Royal in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin (3 of 3)

In the previous two posts, I wrote about the symbol of royalty and the positive aspects of that royalty in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin. In this final post, I want to direct your attention to the false picture of royalty that MacDonald paints through the characters of the goblins. I want to do this by first taking a look at what MacDonald says about the goblin “royalty” and then conclude by comparing both sets of royalty (human and goblin) to their position and reaction to light. I hope you have enjoyed the last two posts, and I hope that this one is also insightful.

MacDonald’s description of the goblins

“There was a legend current in the country that at one time they [goblins] lived above ground, and were very like other people. But for some reason or other, concerning which there was different legendary theories, the king had laid what they thought too severe taxes upon them, or had requires observances of them they did not like, or had begun to treat them with more severity, in some way or other, and impose stricter laws, and the consequence was that they had all disappeared from the face of the country. According to he legend, however, instead of going to some other country, they had all taken refuge in the subterranean caverns, and then seldom showed themselves in any number, and never to many people at once” (4).

“The goblins themselves were not so far removed from the human as such a description would imply. And as they grew misshapen in body they had grow in knowledge and cleverness, and now were able to do things no mortal could see the possibility of. But as they grew in cunning, they grew in mischief and their great delight was in every way they could think of to annoy the people who lived in the open-air storey above them” (4).

“…especially against the descendants of the king who had caused their expulsion, that they sought every opportunity of tormenting them in ways that were as odd as their inventors; and although dwarfed and misshapen, they had strength equal to their cunning. In the process of time they had got a king and government of their own, whose chief business, beyond their own simple affairs, was to device trouble for their neighbours” (5).

“The goblin’s glory is his head” (53)—[because of its hardness]

“‘Now light your torches, and come along. What a distinction it is to provide our own light, instead of being dependent on a thing hung in the air–a most disagreeable contrivance–intended no doubt to blind us when we venture out under its baleful influence! Quite glaring and vulgar, I call it, though no doubt useful to poor creatures who haven’t the wit to make light for themselves!'”

‘”Regardless of the fact that we were the first possessors of the regions they now inhabit, regardless of the fat that we abandoned that region from the loftiest motives; regardless also of the self-evident fact that we excel them so far in mental ability as they excel us in stature, they look upon us as a degraded race, and make a mockery of all our finer feelings'” (67).

“…while their owners had sunk towards them…” (101).–[in reference to the goblins becoming more like animals]

‘”Don’t talk to me of his mother! You positively encourage his unnatural fancies. Whatever belongs to that mother ought to be cut out of him…If you expect me to approve of such coarse tastes, you will find yourself mistaken'” (134).–[Goblin Queen referring to Harelips sun-mother]

‘”but what do you mean by the king and queen?’ asked the princess ‘I should never call such creatures as those a king and a queen'” (167).

‘”…But they think so much of themselves!’ said his [Curdie] mother. ‘Small creatures always do'” (191).

“A good many of the goblins with their creatures escaped from inundation out upon the mountain…and most of those who remained grew milder in character…Their skulls became softer as well as their hearts, and their feet grew harder, and by degrees they became friendly with the inhabitants of the mountain and even with the miners” (241).

What to make of this

From these descriptions, we can understand how MacDonald defines royalty by understanding what true royalty is not: According to MacDonald, It is not:


Cunning and Mischievous

Seeking to undermine others







Unaware of true moral position

Creates a separate moral position

Ugly in nature
P & GUndoubtedly, if this story were made today, we would be hearing a subverted story from the goblin’s perspective who would probably end up being the heroes because the king was too harsh on them. And while I say this a little tongue and cheek, it amazes me how little our modern fairy tales have to say about royalty as goodness…or just goodness period. I think relativism has a large part to play in this–not that people don’t want to know what goodness is, but because we have subverted any and all forms of authority for the sake of equality–so it’s hard to find a solid definition of goodness. Unfortunately, when good and evil become indistinguishable from one another, it creates moral confusion.

I was asked a few days ago what I thought about the t.v. show Once Upon a Time. Truthfully, I haven’t watched the show, so I didn’t really have an opinion, but an interesting question followed that I believe demonstrates the kind of subversion I just mentioned.

“I know you talk a lot about virtue in fairy tales,” the woman asked, “but don’t you think there is hope for all characters? Both good and bad? Even the wicked witches?”

I stopped to think about the question for a moment. By saying “yes, there is hope of redemption for the witches,” I would appear benevolent and accepting. After all, doesn’t God desire to save all people?

But this is the trap of relativism. It is a misdirection, and eventually lowers goodness to make the wicked seem acceptable. In other words, by removing all points of moral reference, the good and evil are difficult to distinguish.

Fortunately, my wits came back to me, and I responded, “What makes you think that the witch wants to be saved? And if so, what would she be saved from and be saved to?”

Relativism in fairy tales has created a mashed-up mud puddle of virtue–we want to see the story from all points of view but often forget to have a reference point that lets us know whether we are looking up or down.

In other words, we can get a bad case of moral vertigo.

In The Princess and the Goblin, those who are further from the light are further from the truth, and the true royals of the story–Curdie, Mr. & Mrs. Peterson, Irene and her King-papa–are the only ones that can see the grandmother’s lamp. This lamp is the ultimate moral reference point of the story! The further a character is from her lamp, the more grotesque he or she becomes.

Notice that the goblins revel in the fact that they can live solely by their own lights; in fact, they mock those who rely on anything that isn’t made…even if it is the most natural and powerful sun by which the entire universe bows down to.

In the end, MacDonald creates a clear picture that false royalty is rooted in the goblin rebellion and their self-created theology where they are the authority.

It is only when the goblins exit (or are forced to leave) their self-constructed catacombs that they become less grotesque in appearance. And of course, in MacDonald’s symbolic world of The Princess and the Goblin, to be beautiful is to be royal, and to be royal is to be good, and to be good is to know that there is a reference to goodness beyond ourselves.

To Be Royal (1 of 3)

To Be Royal (2 of 3)

Why we need fairytales: Jeanette Winterson on Oscar Wilde

Love transfigured by imagination … 'The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde. Photograph: Grahame Baker-Smith

Love transfigured by imagination … ‘The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde. Photograph: Grahame Baker-Smith

“Far off, like a perfect pearl, one can see the city of God. It is so wonderful that it seems as if a child could reach it in a summer’s day. And so a child could. But with me and such as I am it is different. One can realise a thing in a single moment, but one loses it in the long hours that follow … ”

– Oscar Wilde, “De Profundis”

Oscar Wilde wrote “De Profundis” in Reading gaol where he was serving two years hard labour for being himself; he was homosexual. He was sent to prison in 1895 after one of the most notorious trials in English history. Wilde’s fatal amour, Lord Alfred Douglas, was son of the Marquess of Queensberry, who was a bully, womaniser, gambling addict, cycling bore and amateur boxer (to him we owe the Queensberry rules). In his personal life there was no such thing as fair play. Queensberry was a vicious pugilist detested by his family. A caricature of masculinity, he loathed the cult of art and beauty that Wilde championed, and under the guise of saving his son from sodomy, he set about bringing down Wilde at the height of his fame.

The tragedy is that he succeeded. Wilde became the most infamous man in Britain. Queensberry bankrupted him. Even his copyrights and his library were sold. On release in 1897 he was forced to live abroad, separated permanently from his wife and children, who changed their name. Three years later he was dead.

Wilde loved his sons and had been a devoted father. He loved his wife, Constance Holland, too; in his domestic affairs, and perhaps only there, Wilde was unexpectedly conventional. He liked women, but in common with Victorian men of his class, heterosexual and homosexual alike, his interests and his excitements happened outside of the home – with other men.

Unlike other men, Wilde was flamboyant, outspoken and provocative. The all-male environments of school, university, the army, gentlemen’s clubs and public life operated on a tacit code of concealment – whether of mistresses or misdemeanours. The “love that dare not speak its name” was a crime, yet in the eyes of society, Wilde’s real crime was being found out. The Victorians didn’t invent hypocrisy, but in an era of industrious taxonomy, they were the first to reclassify that sin as a virtue.

Disgraced and imprisoned, sleeping on a plank bed, his health broken, Wilde wrote a long letter to Alfred Douglas, later published as “De Profundis”. It is a meditation on faith and fate, suffering and forgiveness, love and art. The strange thing is that in this, his last real piece of work, Wilde takes us back in tone and spirit to his first authentic work – the fairy stories or children’s stories he wrote immediately after the birth of his two boys, Cyril and Vyvyan.

The work Wilde is remembered for was written over a period of less than 10 years. The Happy Prince and Other Tales was published in 1888. That volume marks the beginning of Wilde’s true creativity. He had lectured extensively in the US – but that would not have won him any lasting legacy, any more than his journalism or his poems. He had published a great many poems, but Wilde was a bad poet – he rarely found the right words and he was old-fashioned. Read him next to Emily DickinsonWalt Whitman or WB Yeats, and you will see for yourself. We don’t read his poetry now – it is dated and dead; too much Arcady and Hellenic Hours. The early plays suffer from the same verbal excess. Wilde at his worst wrote in purple. At his best he is dazzling.

The birth of his children seems to have regenerated Wilde as a writer. The tedious Hellenism vanished. The purple-isms faded. There are still overwritten images – Dawn’s grey fingers clutching at the stars – and he never gives up his fondness for a biblical moment, usually appearing as precious stones or pronouns (thee and thy), but his style did change. The writing became freer and sharper, and also more self-reflective, without being self-absorbed.

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To Be Royal in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin (2 of 3)

In my last post, I included the quote from Ursala Le Guin who had this to say about royalty in The Princess and the Goblin:

“A princess is a girl who behaves nobly; a girl who behaves nobly is a princess. Curdie the miner, being brave and kind, and behaving (or anyhow trying to behave) nobly and wisely, is a prince. The king is king because he’s good man. No other definition is allowed. This is radically moral democracy.”

Le Guin can make this statement because MacDonald is clear in what he expects of royalty. Throughout the novel, MacDonald intersperses definitions of
royalty by stating that “a true princess does…” and “a princess never…”. MacDonald leaves little room for speculation to what he means when he places teaching about morality squarely on the symbolic shoulders of royalty. Yet, there are two kinds of royalty found in this book: the true royalty of the king, the great grandmother, Princess Irene, and Curdie (who is accepted by royalty because of his royal behaviour), and the false royalty of the goblins who create their own monarchy as a rejection of true royalty. *As a special note–there is some great research into physical positioning of characters and their moral goodness in the story (example: great grandmother lives in the highest point of the castle while the goblins live in the depth of the mines).

With this said, I’m suggesting we can understand what MacDonald accepts as moral and good by understanding what he accepts as truly royal. This examination can undoubtedly be done in a number of different ways, but I will limit it to two types of examinations. Firstly, I will look strictly at the character dialogue and direct references that MacDonald uses to describe royalty. And secondly, I will look at royalty in relationship to a characters position to light. For the purpose of brevity, I will only focus on dialogue in this post.

Here is a list (I am using the Puffin Classics edition):

“Then she wiped her eyes with her hands, for princesses don’t always have their handkerchiefs in their pockets, any more than some other little girls I know. Next, like a true princesses, she resolved on going wisely to work to find her way back” (9).

[Conversation about Irene keeping her promise to kiss Curdie] ‘”Nurse, a princess must not break her work,'” said Irene, drawing herself up and standing stockstill. Lootie did not know which the king might count the worse–to let the princess be out after sunset, or to let her kiss a miner-boy. She did not know that, being a gentleman, as many kings have been, he would have counted neither of them the worse. However much he might have disliked his daughter to kiss the miner-boy, he would not have had her break her word for all the goblins in creation” (43).

[About Mrs. Peterson] “She made and kept a little heaven in that poor cottage on the high hillside–for her husband and son to go home to out of the low and rather dreary earth in which they worked. I doubt if the princess was very much happier even in the arms of her hug great-grandmother than Peter and Curdie were in the arms of Mrs. Peterson” (93).

[Mrs. Peterson’s conversation about the royal family] “‘But first, I may as well mention that, according to old whispers, there is something more than common about the king’s family; and the queen was of the same blood, for they were cousins of some degree. There were strange stories told concerning them–all good stories–but strange, very strange. What they were I cannot tell, for I only remember the faces of my grandmother and my mother as they talked together about them. There was wonder and awe–not fear–in their eyes, and they whispered, and never spoke aloud'” (185).

[Irene addresses Lootie after Lootie accuses her of “telling stories”] ‘Just as bad to say nothing at all as to tell stories?’ exclaimed the princess. ‘I will ask my papa about that. He won’t say so. And I don’t think he will like you to say so'” (195).

[The king addresses Irene after she tells him she made a promise to kiss Curdie] “‘Indeed she must, my child — except it be wrong,’ said the king” (231).

[Before the house is flooded] “The king, who was the wisest man in the kingdom, knew well there was a time when things must be done and questions left till afterwards. He had faith in Curdie, and rose instantly, with Irene in his arms” (234).

[Curdie saving the horses] “Curdie got on the king’s white charger and, leading the way, brought them all in safety to the rising ground” (236).

“‘I wish,’ said the king, when they stood before him, ‘to take your son with me. He shall enter my bodyguard at once, and wait further promotion'” (238).

[Describing the goblins after the flood] “But most of them soon left that part of the country, and most of them who remained grew milder in character…Their skulls became softer as well as their hearts, and their feet grew harder, and by degrees they became friendly with the inhabitants of the mountains and even with the miners” (241).

What does all of this mean? 

So, if we start with the assumption that many fairy tales are built upon symbolism and metaphor, and build from that assumption with the Ursala Le Guin’s quote about true royalty being a symbol of goodness, then what we have in The Princess and the Goblin is a picture of what MacDonald’s sees as the essential virtues of goodness. This is not an extensive list, but here are a few that seem obvious to me (if you see any that I missed, please feel free to add).

True Royalty is…

Based on virtue not position (although the position is often symbolic of the virtue)

Honest and Truthful


Knowledgeable between right and wrong

Willing to trust and have faith

Willing to serve

Willing to lead

Willing to accept others’ shortcoming

Willing to be led by a “higher light”

In the third and final installment, I will discuss how true royalty in P & G is recognized by a person’s position to light (particularly that of the grandmother), and I will also discuss the goblin’s “royalty” and why that structure is different from the true royalty of the people
above ground.


To Be Royal (1 of 3)

To Be Royal (3 of 3) 

The truth of fairy tales: Gaiman’s ocean and Chesterton’s giant

By Ross Lawhead


The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a novel of childhood and memory. It is a story of magic, about the power of stories and how we face the darkness inside each of us. It’s about fear, and love, and death, and families. But, fundamentally, I hope, at its heart, it’s a novel about survival.”


This statement by Neil Gaiman appears on the back cover of his latest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. And like most statements by authors about their own works, it is wildly inaccurate, nearly to the point of being completely untrue. The statement is made in absolute earnestness and without a shred of guile, but what Gaiman says his book is about applies less to this book specifically, but entirely to the reason he writes books at all – which are the best reasons that any writer writes for, and arguably the only reason any author ever should write.

The list of things that Gaiman claims that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about are not what it is about – it is only what the book contains. The book has magic, love and families in it, but it is not about magic, love, or families. He says it is about the power of stories, but it is not. Gaiman has written other stories about the power of stories, but this is not one of them. It is one of the most powerful stories he has ever written, however, and this is because of the few things the book actually is about, his book really is about survival. It is about surviving life, which is what every great book – that is, every book that is useful to humanity – is about, and Gaiman is right to apply this statement to his book because what he has written really is a great book.

The best justification for fairy tales ever written can be found in two short essays written by G.K. Chesterton (“The Dragon’s Grandmother” and “The Red Angel”), collected in his bookTremendous Trifles (1909). They are short essays because the need for fairy tales can be very plainly stated in perfectly plain logic. (J.R.R. Tolkien’s longer essay “On Fairy-Stories” covers nearly the exact same ground; it is only more exhaustive in its reasoning and referencing.) The core of Chesterton’s argument for fairy tales is this:

“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of the monster. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of the monster. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear. When I was a child I have stared at the darkness until the whole black bulk of it turned into one black giant taller than heaven. If there was one star in the sky it only made him a Cyclops. But fairy tales restored my mental health, for next day I read an authentic account of how a black giant with one eye, of quite equal dimensions, had been baffled by a little boy like myself (of similar inexperience and even lower social status) by means of a sword, some bad riddles, and a brave heart.”

This perfectly states Gaiman’s intent behind The Ocean at the End of the Lane, as well as his other fairy tales, Coraline and The Graveyard Book. In all of these books he has created worlds filled to the brim with evil and danger – fantastic worlds which we instantly recognise as being more real than our own world because the evils are more easily identified, and the dangers more abrupt – and placed at the centre of them one single, vulnerable child. This may or may not prove to be the most meaningful story of mankind, but it is the first story of mankind. It is the story of each of us being suddenly born into a world of more evil and corruption than we can define – our first great anxiety. And to be told this, and to be shown the way to survive it, is the highest purpose of literary art – which Aristotle terms catharsis, which is the cleansing of emotions, which is another way of absolving the soul of the fears that it experiences.

Common elements can be found in Gaiman’s works, as well as all the great authors of children’s books (the first educators) such as Roald Dahl and the Brothers Grimm: useless, if not actively hostile, parents; an evil from the wilderness or an outer-realm; and help from the ancients. This is not to say that this book (or any of these stories) are formulaic – that is one thing that Gaiman will never be accused of – but that this book follows the logic of truth, for parents are the first authorities that are proved to be fallible (since they are also human), the first evil we experience is that from outside of humanity, and the first hope of salvation can be found in the wisdom of those who have gone before us. Gaiman’s fairy tales follow this logic because he loves the truth of its outworking, he loves his characters too much to ever go easy on them, and he loves us, the audience, too much to ever lie to us and say that there is no life without danger, and no victory without personal sacrifice.

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Try seeing it this way: Imagination and reason in the apologetics of C.S. Lewis

by Alister McGrath

Lewis - Imagination and ReasonFew would now dispute that C.S. Lewis is one of the greatest Christian apologists of the twentieth century. So what is his approach to apologetics, and why has it been so successful?

Many Christian apologists have assimilated Lewis to their own way of thinking, presenting him in thoroughly modernist terms as an advocate of rationalist defences of faith. Yet to get the most out of reading Lewis, we need to approach him on his own terms. Here, I want to explore Lewis’s distinctive understanding of the rationality of faith, which emphasises the reasonableness of Christianity without imprisoning it within an impersonal and austere rationalism.

I came to appreciate this distinctive approach when researching my recent biography of Lewis. For reasons I do not understand, the importance of Lewis’s extensive use of visual images as metaphors of truth has been largely overlooked. For Lewis, truth is about seeing things rightly, grasping their deep interconnection. Truth is something that we see, rather than something we express primarily in logical or conceptual terms.

The basic idea is found in Dante’s Paradiso (XXIII, 55-6), where the great Florentine poet and theologian expresses the idea that Christianity provides a vision of things – something wonderful that can be seen, yet proves resistant to verbal expression:

From that moment onwards my power of sight exceededThat of speech, which fails at such a vision.

Hints of such an approach are also found in the writings of G.K. Chesterton, whom Lewis admired considerably. For Chesterton, a good theory allows us to see things properly: “We put on the theory, like a magic hat, and history becomes translucent like a house of glass.” Thus, for Chesterton, a good theory is to be judged by the amount of illumination it offers, and its capacity to accommodate what we see in the world around us and experience within us: “With this idea once inside our heads, a million things become transparent as if a lamp were lit behind them.” In the same way, Chesterton argued, Christianity validates itself by its ability to make sense of our observations of the world: “The phenomenon does not prove religion, but religion explains the phenomenon.”

For Lewis, the Christian faith offers us a means of seeing things properly – as they really are, despite their outward appearances. Christianity provides an intellectually capacious and imaginatively satisfying way of seeing things, and grasping their interconnectedness, even if we find it difficult to express this in words. Lewis’s affirmation of the reasonableness of the Christian faith rests on his own quite distinct way of seeing the rationality of the created order, and its ultimate grounding in God. Using a powerful visual image, Lewis invites us to see God as both the ground of the rationality of the world, and the one who enables us to grasp that rationality: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.” Lewis invites us to see Christianity as offering us a standpoint from which we may survey things, and grasp their intrinsic coherence. We see how things connect together.

Lewis consistently uses a remarkably wide range of visual metaphors – such as sun, light, blindness and shadows – to help us understand the nature of a true understanding of things. This has two important outcomes. First, it means that Lewis sees reason and imagination as existing in a collaborative, not competitive, relationship. Second, it leads Lewis to make extensive use of analogies in his apologetics, to enable us to see things in a new way…

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