Posted 22 June 2009 in Books by Catriona
For part three in this intermittent series, I’m looking at one of my favourite princesses: Princess Irene in George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin (1872).
This is one that I read many, many years ago and keep coming back to—this and, to a much lesser extent, its sequel, The Princess and Curdie (1883). Like Lewis Carroll, Macdonald is one of my formative literary influences.
(On a slightly unrelated note, have I mentioned how much George Macdonald looks like Grigori Rasputin? Because it’s more than a little disturbing, that similarity. Every time I look at the page, I wonder whether someone’s uploaded a picture of Rasputin to Macdonald’s page for a laugh.)
None of that, of course, is relevant to a discussion of Princess Irene.
Part of what’s intriguing about Princess Irene is the fact that she’s the type of sheltered princess we so often deplore in fairy tales and mainstream fantasy: provided with all the good things in life, but locked in the castle away from the dangers of the world, under strict and severe supervision.
But she’s not simply locked away because she’s a princess. Her world actually is dangerous.
When the humans dispossess the goblins and drive the latter underground, we’re left with a world in a state of seething never-quite-actual civil war, and the princess—vulnerable in her age, in her gender, in her privileged position within her family—is the target of those tensions.
She’s at risk in three ways.
She’s at risk because she’s young, and therefore more vulnerable to attack than a grown woman would be—especially since the goblins are themselves of diminutive stature.
She’s at risk because she’s female: without the fact of her gender, the goblins would be unable to plot to marry her to their own prince (assuming that this fantasy kingdom doesn’t have unusually progressive marriage laws, which I think is a fair assumption, given the publication date).
And she’s at risk because she’s a princess: if she weren’t of the royal family, the goblins would have little if anything to gain from forcing her to marry their prince.
For these reasons, she is locked away—for her own safety. But her incarceration simply puts her at greater risk, because now she doesn’t know why the world is dangerous and she doesn’t know why she’s under threat.
So she wanders away at the first opportunity.
As any girl of spirit would do.
The reason Princess Irene is here—when she’s younger and certainly less bold than the other girls I have looked at, and the ones I will look at in future installments—is that she never uses her ignorance or her youth as an excuse for failure to act. (And she is both young and ignorant, neither of which she can help.) When she is in peril, she’s as brave (if less stroppy) than any of the other girls I admired as a girl reader.
Add that to Macdonald’s peculiar brand of whimsy, and I’ll always love this book more than At The Back of the North Wind (1871), no matter how sweet and lovable Diamond is.