Of all the stories I have read, including even all the novels of this same novelist, [The Princess and the Goblin] remains the most real, the most realistic . . . the most like life.[1]

– G.K. Chesterton

How do we become good or evil? . . . All these philosophers [Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes] are wrong, probably because most of them do not have children. Parents and children know the answer: by example. By having moral heroes.[2]

– Peter Kreeft

Superheroes are simply moral heroes, but with superpowers. That is not to say that, like any mortal hero, they do not have their weaknesses, faults, sins, or room to mature, but it is in their courage and moral heroism that they most live up to their credentials as Superheroes. In the Christian tradition (omitting all the Olympian, Norse, and other mythological warriors and gods), such heroes can be found in its imaginative literature, and for the modern era, that means George MacDonald. While his fairy tales are heralded as mythopoeic, and served as inspiration for later Christian imaginative works such as C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series as well as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, at the heart of each tale is a moral goodness not just embedded in the created world, but embodied in the characters. Nowhere else is this as evident as in MacDonald’s Princess tales. Lewis heralded this goodness in his praise of MacDonald’s Phantastes:

The quality which enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic reality in which we all live . . . what I learned to love in Phantastes was goodness . . . [not] that prosaic moralism which confines goodness to the region of Law and Duty, which never lets us feel in the face the sweet air blowing from ‘the land of righteousness’ . . . ‘more gold than gold.’[3]

Just as Chesterton cited the realistic quality of the Princess tale — that evil lurked just under the floorboards and must be battled — Lewis reminds us of the glorious goodness that combats such evil in our everyday lives. Thus, while Lewis declared that MacDonald’s Phantastes “baptize[d] my imagination,” he continued to next cite how the moral component would later complete his transformation.[4]

Building on An Unexpected Journal’s recent George MacDonald-themed issue (Advent 2020), we examine MacDonald’s Princess series, The Princess and the Goblin and its sequel, The Princess and Curdie.[5] In between these, MacDonald also wrote The Wise Princess: A Double Tale (also known as The Wise Woman) which is included, as it is an even more direct excursion into the moral makeup of young women who would behave worthy of the moniker (in the best sense) of Princess.

MacDonald’s imaginative work is considered groundbreaking in not just its moralizing but in its mythmaking, as Lewis and Chesterton explain. Lewis declared that what MacDonald “does best is fantasy — fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and mythopoeic,” and “this . . . he does better than any man.”[6] Lewis stated that while myths typically originated in “prehistoric times, and, I suppose, not consciously made by individuals at all . . . every now and then there occurs in the modern world a genius — a Kafka or a Novalis — who can make such a story,” adding “MacDonald is the greatest genius of this kind whom I know.”[7] Lewis did not rank MacDonald in the first or even second rank as a literary figure, but claimed that “it was in this mythopoeic art that MacDonald excelled.”[8] Lewis included these three Princess tales along with Phantastes, Lilith, and The Golden Key as MacDonald’s best mythopoeic works. Similarly, Chesterton claimed that were he to compose a list of “Books that Influenced Me,” a MacDonald book would top that list, namely The Princess and the Goblin. His claim that it is “the most like life” of all the stories, including others by MacDonald, that he had ever read owes to it including not just magical stairways but also “subterranean demons who sometimes come up through the cellars,” emphasizing the threat from within against which a notion like Holy War pales.[9]

The Princess and the Goblin: Fighting the Evil Underneath and Within

The Princess and the Goblin and its sequel, The Princess and Curdie, are both set in the mythical, fairytale kingdom of Gwyntystorm, and tell the story of Princess Irene, her father, the King (good, wise, and widowed), and the young miner Curdie who saves Irene and her father from the plots of goblins and corrupt officials. Set in a castle in the mountains, in which are located both the mines worked by the townspeople as well as cavern homes of a race of goblins, The Princess and the Goblin is a story of conflict between the kingdom and the goblins. The goblins left the countryside years back over some dispute, moving underground and becoming misshapen and hideously ugly, matching their inner degradation. They are cunning, mischievous creatures who take delight in frightening and tormenting human villagers when they surface at night. While Princess Irene discovers an enchanting, beautiful, and gracious apparition of her great-great-grandmother (after whom she was named, and whom only Princess Irene can see) in an upper room in the castle, a young, virtuous miner boy Curdie discovers a plot by the goblins to capture the Princess to marry her to a goblin prince, thus winning back the kingdom for their kind. Irene’s “Grandmother” meanwhile weaves a magic thread, which she attaches to a ring on the Princess’s hand and which can lead her out of any danger. Curdie gets captured by the goblins, and Irene’s ring and string lead her to rescue him from the goblins’ caverns. Curdie informs the King of the goblins’ plans, and the Princess, the kingdom, and the day are saved.

Within this simple plot, however, MacDonald enchants the reader into seeing a greater reality behind the ordinary. The struggle between townsfolk and goblins assumes greater and more mythical proportions than a mere political battle, as the mystical, magical grandmother beckons to the Princess and Curdie with devices (ring, string, and even her bedroom) that literally glow with enchantment. The angelic, elderly Irene explains to the Princess that “people must believe what they can, and those who believe more must not be hard upon those who believe less. I doubt you would have believed it all yourself if you hadn’t seen some of it.”[10] Later, when the Princess questions why Curdie can still not see Irene, she explains, “When I please I can make the lamp shine through the walls . . . not everybody can see it. It’s a gift born with you. And one day I hope everybody will have it.”[11] Even the magic string which saves Curdie evokes a deeper, salvific symbolism. Chesterton appropriates this in his Father Brown tales as Father Brown uses an invisible string to pull a thief back from evil ways, which is cited by the Christian novelist Evelyn Waugh in his Brideshead Revisited in which he describes God’s unrelenting tug at the human soul.[12]

Chesterton credited MacDonald’s inherent and other-worldly optimism for this “spiritual environment, a space and a mystical light” that was so counter to the gloomy predestination of the Calvinism of MacDonald’s era, country (Scotland), and own upbringing.[13] Such a shining optimism, which Chesterton likened to the otherworldly cheer of mystical Cavaliers, Catholic saints, and even Platonists, might even come to be considered as “a rather important turning point in the history of Christendom.”[14] Nineteenth century Scotland produced not just literary luminaries such as the poet Robert Burns and novelist Walter Scott, but in MacDonald it had its Francis of Assisi, who not only “saw a halo round every flower and bird” (as might even pagan poets, though without any ultimate hope), but imbued such ordinary items with a sacramental significance.[15] He not only dressed up ordinary characters as princes or princesses, Chesterton argued, but “did really believe that people were princesses and goblins and good fairies, and dressed them up as ordinary men and women.”[16]

The Princess and Curdie: Growing into Goodness

The Princess and Curdie continues two years later, with Curdie and the Princess maturing from the thirteen- and nine-year old children they were (respectively) in the previous tale. Curdie’s heroism shows throughout as he matures on a journey that resembles John Bunyan’s Pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress. Curdie turns down the King’s offer to come travel with the royal family as they return to Gwyntystorm, a decision that impresses the King. Instead, Curdie stays with his own family and continues to work in the mines alongside his father. Chesterton discounted the sequel slightly as a story of an ordinary young man headed off to seek fortune in “a far-off fairyland,” instead of a tale with the “particular purpose of making all the ordinary staircases and doors and windows into magical things;” nevertheless, in it Curdie learns to follow the path of goodness and thus find enchantment.[17] The mountain in which Curdie and his father Peter mined is declared by MacDonald as a “strange and awful thing . . . [a] beautiful terror,” a convulsion of the heat and heart of the earth, though people have lost their sense of them as such.[18] Curdie begins to lose his own eyes to see the world as a wonder, believing “less and less in things he had never seen,” despite being a miner whose job was “to bring to light hidden things.”[19] Nevertheless, the King knew that a boy who declined the offer to accompany a king for the love of his family would someday be of great use.[20] MacDonald likened Curdie’s state of faith to that of humanity which is either in a state of “continuous resurrection” or “continuous dying,” of knowing the truth of a thing at the moment of its encounter, or of knowing only what is between one’s teeth, of coming to “believe in nothing but his dinner.”[21] When Curdie finds himself hunting a snow-white pigeon merely for sport (surely an echo of Coleridge’s albatross-hunting Ancient Mariner, written 85 years prior, in 1798), he comes to question his purpose, and finds himself following a glowing moonlight to the castle to find the Princess Irene’s ancestral, ghostly Irene. The elder Irene heals the pigeon and reminds Curdie that now that he knows the harm of such activities as reckless hunting, he needs to repent. Curdie’s mother, who had seen the glowing light from Irene years ago, further reminds Curdie how the world “seems just as full of reason as it is of wonder” when she describes how the withered seeds she planted became scented, colorful flowers.[22]

Curdie grows in understanding and character as he encounters the luminary, ancestral Irene in various settings. The Mother of Light, dressed in an emerald shade, finds Peter and his father Curdie in the mines, informing them that in their poverty they have been blessed with a goodness they would not have achieved had they been rich; she also informs them that there is a royalty to their blood of which they are unaware, and she has been cultivating them for a long time. As Chesterton declared, MacDonald makes royalty of the ordinary. Curdie recognizes this in his own father, observing that “it is greed and laziness and selfishness, not hunger or weariness or cold, that take the dignity out of a man.”[23] The Silver Moon, another of her twenty different names (and to know her as one name allows him to recognize her in any other, shades of Lewis’s later Aslan), blesses Curdie’s hands with a refining fire, a painful process which allows him to sense in men whether they are continuously dying and turning into mere sensate beasts (and even which sort of beasts they become). Of such degenerated specimens of humanity, Curdie is advised that “to such a person there is in general no insult like the truth” as “he cannot endure it, not because he is growing a beast, but because he is ceasing to be a man.”[24] Curdie is then sent on a mission to find Irene and her father at the castle, though he is also given a companion, the incongruous, long, and thick-tailed, green-eyed monster with the hands of a child, named Lina.

Curdie’s heroism is tested as he and Lina travel to Gwyntystorm, encountering many trials in the forest along the way. Lina proves helpful, at times even risking her life, and Curdie comes to trust his faithful but hideous-looking companion; arguably Tolkien took a cue from Lina with Frodo’s companion, Gollum. Like Frodo, Curdie is at first moved with pity at such a creature, though Lina shows worth whereas Gollum displays the actions of the pale, withered shadow of a hobbit he had become. In contrast to the fallen Gollum, Luna is hinted to be a human working out her redemption. Curdie further learns to live and govern well from the King’s example. The King spends the silver produced in his mines not on luxuries but to govern, defend, and pay judges to “portion out righteousness among the people” so that “when it left the king’s hands it never made any but friends.”[25] By contrast, when foolish townsfolk get some silver, they often “degraded it by locking it up in a chest” where “it grew diseased and was called mammon, and bred all sorts of quarrels.”[26] Curdie’s power and heroic character consists in his learning of such wisdom.

The Princess and Curdie has been criticized for the vast array of bad characters encountered by Curdie and Lina on their journey, though MacDonald must have had Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress somewhat in mind. However, balanced against preachers who summon “the dull and monotonic grind of their intellectual machines” against dishonesty then get devoured from the pulpit by giant snakes, MacDonald offers delightful encounters to instruct, such as that between Barbara and her daughter Derba as well as that of Peter’s parents. Barbara and her daughter Derba offer shelter when townsfolk seek to arrest and roast, respectively, “the miner and his brute,” and the innocence of little Barbara later helps expel tormenting dreams from the King’s mind.[27] Curdie’s parents, Peter and Joan, are likewise lauded, being described as “the happiest couple in that country” as they always understood each other “because they always meant the same thing” as they always loved what was fair and true and right better, not than anything else, but than everything else put together.[28]

The Princess and Curdie proves the worth of the heroic wisdom Curdie has learned as it concludes. Lina and Curdie eventually both end up captured in a dungeon beneath the King’s castle, and manage to escape only to find that the King is being slowly poisoned by disloyal and greedy officers. Such enemies are exposed with the aid of Curdie’s gift of discernment. Curdie meets the doctor poisoning the King and sees the “snake . . . plainly visible” in his face, the “evil countenance” of a man who “hated the king, and delighted in doing him harm.”[29] Eventually, the King, Irene, Curdie, Lina, and her host of animal friends make war on the king’s oppressors (a regiment bringing to mind the forces of Narnia arrayed against the White Witch in Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or in Prince Caspian) and defeat them. In its brief ending, Irene’s celestial “Grandma” Irene reveals herself in yet another form, serving the royal company and their faithful companions, after which matters concerning the anticipated future reign of King Curdie and Queen Irene are introduced. MacDonald makes his final statement as he considers the state of the kingdom a generation after Curdie and Irene, with another king on the throne, the incessant lure of gold to be mined, and the greedy townsfolk making the fate of Gwyntytown precarious.

The Lost Princess: A Double Story of Overcoming Oneself

The Lost Princess: A Double Story (also known as The Wise Woman: A Parable) continues MacDonald’s focus on heroic character development, but centers on heroic princesses rather than boys who would become princes. Published in 1875 in between The Princess and the Goblin (1872) and The Princess and Curdie (1883), The Lost Princess is a story of two spoiled young girls learning (or not) humility. Just a few years later, MacDonald would return his focus to the moral education of young boys, as Sir Gibbie (1879) tells a rags to riches story about the noble youth Gibbie and his education in integrity, servanthood, and Christian obedience. Gibbie became popular in both Britain and America, and was revived in modern times by the recommendation of Lewis, and inspired the American writer Elizabeth Yates to applaud it with:

It moved me the way books did when, as a child, the great gates of literature began to open and first encounters with noble thoughts and utterances were unspeakably thrilling.[30]

Rosamond is the lost princess of MacDonald’s (double) story, though she is not just born on the same day as Agnes, the daughter of common shepherds, she is just as spoiled. Rosamond has been overindulged by her royal parents while Agnes has been overly praised by her proud shepherding lineage; both sets of parents pay for such sins the misery wreaked on them by the young tyrants. Despite coming from such diverse backgrounds, rags and riches, each girl suffers the same exact malady, as MacDonald states of their “odd country” that it was full of boys and girls who were:

rather too ready to think he or she was Somebody; and the worst of it was that the princess never thought of there being more than one Somebody.[31]

A mysterious Wise Woman intervenes in both cases, stealing away each girl to correct their wayward youths.

The lost princess Rosamond is the first to learn humility. She is abducted by the moral instructor, and taken to a secluded cottage in the forest and shown a magic mirror which reveals her true inner self; it is interesting to note that this was written fifteen years before Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) in which a painting was used to reveal true moral character. Disgusted, terrified, and ashamed by what she sees, and with the aid of the Wise Woman’s kindness, discipline and a little bit of magic, Rosamond comes to learn self-restraint, then later discovers a magic painting and steps through it to arrive on a hill near the home of Agnes. In this process, MacDonald sounds themes that will echo in the later writings of Lewis among others. In a dream, Rosamond envisions “the only shadow of a hope . . . that she might by slow degrees grow thinner and thinner, until at last she wore away to nothing at all;”[32] Lewis repeats this tune of distraction from self in The Great Divorce when he has MacDonald (there known as “the Teacher”) explain the use of a stampede of unicorns parading by a self-absorbed character: “it if took her mind a moment off herself, there might, in that moment, be a chance” and “I have seen them saved so.”[33]

Both Lewis and Tolkien took further cues from MacDonald on the incapacitating and dehumanizing nature of evil. The selfish princess misunderstands the Wise Woman at first, as the princess “did not in the least understand kindness” as “the wrong in her was this — that she had led such a bad life, that she did not know a good woman when she saw her.”[34] [35] Tolkien modeled evil physically in the dark and gloomy landscapes of Mordor and in the twisted, perverted beings that the once elven-orcs and once hobbit Gollum had become. Similarly Lewis models self-absorbed characters in The Great Divorce as insubstantial and tiny, unable to barely carry or bite into fruit, and sometimes self-imploding into nothingness. All authors hearken in some way back to insights such as that from Augustine that evil hardly exists on its own terms, it is simply a privation of that which is good, but MacDonald strikes the note so clearly in his fantasy literature that it reverberates clearly throughout the works of Lewis and Tolkien.[36]

Agnes spurns the lessons in humility which Rosamond embraces. Just as Rosamond escapes, the Wise Woman collects Agnes and returns to the cottage. Agnes’s reaction to the revealing of her inner character is not one of humility and repentance but denial, and she resolves to simply conceal her conceit while appearing outwardly obedient. Agnes also discovers the magic portrait gallery and steps through a painting to find herself at the palace where Rosamond’s parents search for their missing daughter. Agnes finds work in the royal kitchen, where she seeks attention by hinting that she can find the lost princess; it works, and soon the King and Queen send for her. Meanwhile, Agnes’s parents search for their lost daughter, only to find Rosamond, whom they nurse back to health and decide to keep in place of Agnes. Rosamond makes a sincere effort at reformation, but returns to her selfish, spoiled nature, and is asked to leave. Rosamond then searches for the Wise Woman’s cottage, dedicated to returning to her previous albeit brief state of humility, and becomes lost though the Wise woman rescues her. After failing several trials by her instructor’s magic, Rosamond looks into the magic mirror once more, only to find that the mirror is in fact the Wise Woman’s eyes, and that she has merely seen how beautiful the Wise Woman believed Rosamond could become. The Wise Woman then returns Rosamond home, through the magical gallery. Rosamond demonstrates the never-ending struggle of heroes, as temptations always arise to test her “powers,” the humility that she has learned.

Agnes and Rosamond conclude the tale by showing the true worth of humility. Back at the palace Rosamond and Agnes finally meet, though they (and their parents) make a portrait of perfect contrasts. Agnes’s parents are accused of kidnapping Rosamond, but when Rosamond dashes into the courtroom to defend them, she is so transformed that her own parents do not recognize her. The Wise Woman explains to Rosamond’s parents that they are so superficial that they cannot recognize goodness when it is standing in front of their very eyes. The Wise Woman then curses them with blindness until they reform their ways, and Rosamond offers to care for them in the meanwhile. Agnes is then returned to her parents by the Wise Woman, declaring that since they made Agnes into what she is, Agnes will now be their punishment. The father shows true repentance, begging the Wise Woman to teach him; she agrees, proceeding to take him to her cottage, but not before she promises Rosamond to always be nearby should she need her moral tutor. Humble Rosamond and hubristic Agnes, along with their parents, prove that heroic powers are at their best when heroes think the least of themselves.

Conclusion: Lessons for Princesses. And Princes

The moral struggle found in The Lost Princess resonates with the theme of courage found throughout MacDonald’s other Princess tales as well as throughout this AUJ issue devoted to superheroes. Agnes might appear courageous in her trials but it was only a fearlessness born of ignorance and “calm assured self-satisfaction,” while for Rosamund, her endurance through trials was courage in the face of fear, as MacDonald states that “the man who will do his work in spite of his fear is a man of true courage.”[37] Similarly, MacDonald uses Agnes and Rosamond to compare the effects of partial submission to one’s work, or duty, as Agnes illustrates how “to do one’s duty will make any pone conceited who only does it sometimes” whereas Rosamond illustrates how “until our duty becomes to us as common as breathing, we are poor creatures;” Superheroes are so bound by duty as to not even notice their own super-sized status, as their powers are meant to serve rather than self-glorify.[38]

Taken all together, MacDonald’s Princess tales illustrate the moral courage required at each step of an ordinary life to achieve the status of a moral superhero. The Princess and the Goblin continues the program of MacDonald’s most famous fantasy, Phantastes, in showing that life’s seemingly ordinary struggles are anything but ordinary, but a colossal battle between glorious good and pernicious evil. The Princess and Curdie continues the story, fleshing out the various forms in which that battle is met in the course of life’s journeys. Finally, The Lost Princess: A Double Tale highlights the courage required in the continuing struggle against the self, as well as the resources of a wise guide (the Wise Woman) in helping us along the way.

Citation Information

Seth Myers, “Once a Prince or Princess: MacDonald’s Moral Superheroines and Heroes in the Princess Tales,” An Unexpected Journal: Superheroes 4, no. 2. (Summer 2021), 199-224.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com///once-a-prince-or-princess-macdonalds-moral-superheroines-and-heroes-in-the-princess-tales/


[1] G.K. Chesterton, Introduction to George MacDonald and His Wife cited in “In Defense of Sanity” ed. Dale Ahlquist, Joseph Pearce and Aidan Mackey (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 301.

[2] Peter Kreeft, “Foreword” in Louis Markos, On the Shoulders of Hobbits: the Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012), 8.

[3] C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald (New York: HarperOne, 2001), XXXVIII.

[4] Ibid. Lewis continues by stating that “It did nothing to my intellect nor (at that time) to my conscience. Their turn came far later with the help of many other books and men.”

[5] These reviews augment those of Phantastes, Lilith, The Golden Key, and At the Back of the North Wind from our MacDonald issue: “George MacDonald,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 4 (Advent 2020), www. anunexpectedjournal.com/archive/v3-issue-4-george-macdonald/.

[6] C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, XXIX.

[7] C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, XXXII.

[8] Ibid.

[9] G.K. Chesterton, Introduction to George MacDonald and His Wife, 301.

[10] George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 115.

[11] Ibid., 174.

[12] Joseph Pearce, Catholic Literary Giants: A Field Guide to the Catholic Literary Landscape (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), pt. 25. Digital Edition.

[13] Chesterton, Introduction to George MacDonald and His Wife, 304.

[14] Ibid., 305.

[15] Ibid., 306.

[16] Ibid., 303.

[17] Ibid., 302.

[18] George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdie (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 1.

[19] Ibid., 12.

[20] Ibid., 12,4.

[21] Ibid., 12.

[22] Ibid., 37.

[23] Ibid., 61.

[24] Ibid., 74.

[25] Ibid., 5.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 118.

[28] Ibid., 35.

[29] Ibid., 180.

[30] Cited in “George MacDonald,” HS Treasures, last modified August 16, 2007, accessed May 7, 2021, https://web.archive.org/web/20070816234924/http://www.hstreasures.com/authors/george_macdonald.html Yates edited some of MacDonald’s novels.

[31] George MacDonald,The Lost Princess: A Double Tale (United States: Start Publishing, 2012), loc. 34. Digital edition.

[32] Ibid., 364.

[33] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 79.

[34] George MacDonald,The Lost Princess, loc. 138.

[35] Ibid., 274.

[36] Augustine, Confessions, Book VII.

[37] George MacDonald,The Lost Princess, loc. 664.

[38] Ibid., loc. 731.