George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin

The human journey often leads travelers astray who are misled by darkness of the night or by darkness of the intellect. Many who travel lose their way because they wander far from the sources of light, lose themselves in a labyrinth of passages and doors, or take a false turn. In The Princess and the Goblin many characters that lose their way experience a sense of helplessness in the midst of lurking enemies and hidden dangers. Children and adults, princesses and servants, the daughter of a king and the son of a miner all experience the same fear of unknown evil that threatens  when the darkness overcomes the light.

For example, Princess Irene wakes up one evening and decides to go out the door of her room and up the stairs of the castle only to discover that all the passages and all the doors look the same: “She ran for some distance, turned several times, and then began to be afraid.” On another occasion when the princess and her nurse Lootie have taken a walk during the evening, they wander too far from home and find themselves lost in darkness: “We’ve taken the wrong turning somewhere, and I don’t know where we are,” cries Lootie. “We are lost! lost!” One evening Irene, terrified by the hostile eyes of a goblin staring at her through a window, runs outside to escape from the ugly beast. Lost in the night and far from the castle, Irene again finds herself in a state of dread: “But how was she to find her way back?”  In a similar episode Curdie, the miner’s son who relies on his clue (the rope tied to his pickax) to lead him out of the underground realm of the goblins, loses the rope and finds himself trapped in the mazes of darkness.  Also a long time ago Curdie’s mother recalls that she too experienced this terror when she traveled at night and was intimidated by the violent goblins. The gloom of the night and the darkness of caves loom as deadly powers that threaten everyone in the story.

MacdonaldHowever, in all these incidents of being lost in the dark, wandering in a maze, and straying into desolate places, the characters are not abandoned. A beam of moonlight, a thread from a ring,  the flight of a bird—all streams of light originating and ending in the grandmother’s upper room in the castle—provide a way out of the darkness or out of the maze. When Irene loses her way among the many halls and doors in the castle (“Rooms everywhere and no stair!”), she hears a humming sound, sees an old woman who identifies herself as “your great-great-grandmother” and who explains “I came here to take care of you.” This kind grandmother with luxurious gray hair and sparkling blue eyes—both young and old like wisdom “ever ancient, ever new”—leads Irene safely down the right staircase to her familiar bed: a leitmotif that recurs throughout the story in which rays of light always penetrate the darkest places. When Irene and Lootie in their evening walk realize the night will soon descend upon them and expose them to the goblins, Lootie panics: “It was enough they had lost the way. They had been running down into a valley in which there was no house to be seen.” But a source of deliverance mysteriously leads them safely home: Curdie appears from the mines reciting nonsense rhymes that befuddle the goblins. He reassures Irene and Lootie, “If you’re not afraid of them, they’re afraid of you,” “they won’t touch you if we don’t run,” and “They won’t touch you as long as I am with you.” These words come as a source of light in the form of truth to lead the princess and her nurse out of the darkness.

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When Curdie is trapped in the mines and loses pickax and clue, Irene wakes up night and obeys the grandmother’s instructions: Irene must place the gift of the grandmother’s ring under her pillow, place a forefinger on the ball of thread under the ring, and then “follow the ring wherever it leads you.” Awakened one morning by the pull of the thread, Irene follows it on a circuitous course that leads to the mine where Curdie lies trapped by stones. As she descends “farther and farther into the darkness of the great hollow mountain,” Irene finds Curdie imprisoned in an underworld. Asking “how did you ever come here, Irene?” and mystified at her knowledge, Curdie does not comprehend Irene’s simple answer: “My grandmother sent me after her thread.” These images of light beams from the sky, threads from a ring, and pigeons flying on their course have not only many variations but also a recurring pattern.

The grandmother is a constant in the world, an unchanging law that governs from above (the highest storey of the castle) the world below the stairs. She rules human lives—princesses, miners, children, and parents all tell similar stories about sudden flashes of light. There are many lights, many threads, and many messengers sent by the grandmother all for the purpose of delivering the lost from evil. When Curdie disbelieves Irene’s explanation of the thread, his mother recalls an episode from her own past that verifies Irene’s narrative. On the way home from the mines in the night she was tormented by goblins tearing her clothes “when suddenly a great white soft shone upon me light” and “from the globe of light came a bird, shining like silver in the sun.”  Mysteriously present, the grandmother does not allow the forces of darkness to put out all the light.

From delicate, imperceptible threads that lead to and from the grandmother’s apartment, from beams of light that shine like the light of the moon from the grandmother’s window, and from the pigeons that come and go in lines entering and leaving by the illumination of this lamp, the grandmother exerts a divine providence in the world and in the lives of all the characters. Their stories also resemble one another. Irene felt lost on the stairs, but the grandmother showed her the right steps leading to her bedroom. Lootie was lost in the night, but Curdie appeared reciting his rhymes that repelled the goblins. Curdie was lost in the mazes of the mines, but a princess following a thread led her to his rescue from the lower world. A young wife attacked by the goblins beheld the streaks of light from the sky that intimidated the goblins.   Thus the grandmother—like the mystery of Divine Providence—is ever present but ever hidden. Princess Irene goes to the grandmother’s room but sometimes imagines that she is a dream. Lootie and the King-Papa do not take seriously Irene’s invitation to take them to the grandmother’s room because she is inventing “stories.” Even though the mystery of the grandmother is an open secret, only Irene goes upstairs to discover her.

Indeed the grandmother is as real as light, thread, pigeons, the moon, and the words of a child. Even though Lootie calls the grandmother “make-believe,” Curdie considers Irene’s “thread” nonsense, and Irene herself first calls the grandmother a “dream,” the fact that the grandmother’s mysterious ways form a familiar design in the lives of the characters testifies that she is not a dream but a reality. As Irene knows from experience, the beautiful grandmother attracts; the motherly grandmother protects; the wise grandmother provides; the mysterious grandmother surprises; the sovereign grandmother rules; and the tall grandmother on the highest level of the castle brings the light from the world above to the people below and leads the people below to the divine realm in the heavens by way of a child who follows a thread and shows the way upstairs.


  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children’s Literature.

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