“I write, not for children, but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” — George MacDonald, “The Fantastic Imagination”
I first read George MacDonald’s, The Princess and the Goblin, for a Children’s Literature course at the University of Toronto. Although I first encountered it my late twenties, I really enjoyed reading it. Images of the tender-footed goblins in their subterranean caves and Princess Irene’s great-great-grandmother spinning in her attic room have stayed with me, so it was one of the first books I looked for in The Osborne Collection’s catalogue. They have seventeen copies available to look at, published between 1872 to 1986, including a Hebrew translation: ha-Nesikhah yeha-shedonim, published in 1965. I looked at several copies, ranging in age and form, from an older boxed collector’s edition to a Puffin Classics paperback. I especially liked the cover of this one, from a copy printed in 1920 and illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith. I asked Martha, who works at The Osborne Collection, if she has any favourite editions and she said that, although she has a soft spot for the copy she remembers from her childhood, now she especially likes the ones that include the original black and white illustrations by Arthur Hughes.
Princess Irene is eight-years old when the story begins. She is sent away from her parents, to be raised in the country in a large home on the side of a mountain. She lives a sheltered life in which she is often kept indoors because, though nobody tells the princess, there are intelligent but devious goblins living in caves and tunnels underground. The goblins used to be men, but they were driven underground by some long-ago persecution and have become grotesque, squat beings with hard heads and soft, vulnerable feet. They have built and maintained their own subterranean kingdom in which they maintain an “ancestral grudge against those who occupied their former possessions and especially against the descendants of the king who caused their expulsion.”
On a rare occasion when Irene is left alone in her room, Irene takes the opportunity to explore the upper regions of the house, where she finds her “father’s mother’s father’s mother,” or her great-great-grandmother, whose guidance and supernatural powers help Irene through the course of the story.
The beautiful great-great-grandmother cannot be seen by everyone and Princess Irene struggles to convince people that the old queen truly exists; she even begins to think that she may have dreamed the meeting. When she searches for her great-great-grandmother, she cannot be found. Nevertheless, when she is needed, the old queen is always available.
Princess Irene is also aided by a twelve-year-old miner named Curdie Peterson, who knows the goblin’s secret: they hate poetry. Curdie has a talent for making up rhymes on the spot that keep the goblins at a distance. One afternoon when the princess and her nurse, Lootie, are out for a walk, Lootie is spooked by mischief-making goblins into running about the mountainside until they have thoroughly lost their way. Curdie notices the excited goblins and begins to sing a song to scare them away, before escorting the princess and her nurse home.
Curdie is not afraid of the goblins because he knows their weaknesses. As a result, he is not afraid to work late in the mines. He hopes to earn some extra money so he can buy his mother a new petticoat, after noticing she has complained of the cold earlier than usual that year. When the goblins believe the miners to be gone home for the night, they congress in the goblin Palace Hall. Curdie cautiously follows a progression of goblins to their meeting and overhears the goblin king’s plans for “the deliverance of their people.” Curdie discovers that they have a contingency plan to flood the mines but he is unable to discover their main plan without risking discovery.
Curdie spends many nights attempting to discover what the goblins are planning. Eventually he is discovered, eavesdropping on the royal family. He does, however, learn of their plans to kidnap Princess Irene and force her to marry their crown prince, Harelip. The great-great-grandmother spins spiderwebs, brought to her from across the sea by her pigeons, into fine thread that she gives Irene. When Curdie is caught spying on the goblins, that thread guides Irene to Curdie and they follow it safely out of the maze of underground caves.
As you can see, there are several plot-points that several illustrators include in their editions of the story. Of all of the copies I have seen though, there is one image in the story that has stayed with me, that I have not seen included as an illustration. On the night Irene is given the thread from her great-great-grandmother, she is scared out of her room by a deformed, long-legged, cat-like creature. The author explains:
“My readers will suspect what these were; but I will now give them full information concerning them. They were, of course, household animals belonging to the goblins, whose ancestors had taken their ancestors many centuries before from the upper regions of light into the lower regions of darkness. The original stocks of these horrible creatures were very much the same as the animals now seen about farms and homes in the country, with the exception of a few of them, which had been wild creatures, such as foxes, and indeed wolves and small bears, which the goblins, from their proclivity towards the animal creation, had caught when cubs and tamed. But in the course of time all had undergone even greater changes than had passed upon their owners. They had altered—that is, their descendants had altered—into such creatures as I have not attempted to describe except in the vaguest manner—the various parts of their bodies assuming, in an apparently arbitrary and self-willed manner, the most abnormal developments. Indeed, so little did any distinct type predominate in some of the bewildering results, that you could only have guessed at any known animal as the original, and even then, what likeness remained would be more one of general expression than of definable conformation. But what increased the gruesomeness tenfold was that, from constant domestic, or indeed rather family association with the goblins, their countenances had grown in grotesque resemblance to the human.”
I find the lack of illustrations about this image (especially because of its relevance to the plot) particularly interesting because The Princess and the Goblin was written by a pastor, six years after the publication of The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin. The changes that take place over generations, in response to a radical change in environment, as described by the narrator of The Princess and the Goblin, sound an awful lot like Darwin’s theory of evolution. I wonder if that has something to do with the fact that the theory of evolution was so new and controversial at the time the book was first published.
Perhaps there are copies I have not seen that do include artistic renderings of the strange domestic animals. I must admit, I have yet to look at all seventeen copies available at The Osborne Collection. However, in the books I did look through, there were many illustrations of the same key moments in the plot. Many of them depict images that, after reading the text, I remember very clearly and I would have liked to see how others imagined the cat-like creature.
All photos were taken from books at The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, Toronto Public Library:
1. MacDonald, George. The Princess and the Goblin. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1920. Illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith.
2. MacDonald, George. The Princess and the Goblin. London: Puffin Classics, 1974. Illustrated by Arthur Hughes.
3. MacDonald, George. The Princess and the Goblin. London: Strahan & Co., Publishers, 1872. Illustrated by Arthur Hughes.
4. MacDonald, George. The Princess and the Goblin. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1913. Illustrated by Maria L. Kirk.
5. MacDonald, George. The Princess and the Gobin. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1958. Illustrated by Charles Folkard.