Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

  I had to write a review of The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald because of the impact it had on my sons. At the time I read this book I had two sons: my biological son, Derek and my foster son Coleman. Coleman has since gone back to live with his mother but while he was here we had a ritual of reading the Bible, saying our prayers, and reading a book before going to bed.

At first I was reluctant to read such an “old fashioned Victorian” sort of book. I mean, a book like this cannot rate very high on the “cool” scale, right?

Wrong. My sixteen and twelve year old sons loved this book. Let me give a synopsis and then I'll tell you why they enjoyed this book so much.

Princess Irene has been sent to live in a palace away from her father, the King. Why? Because underneath the ground in a mountain is a whole city of goblins who intend to kidnap the princess and force her to marry the Goblin King's son. What Princess Irene's father does not realize is that for many years the Goblins have been slowly tunneling toward the palace where the princess lives and plan to come up from the basement of the palace in order to snatch her.

Luckily for the princess she has some help. First of all, she has a grandmother who lives in a tower in the palace. To everyone but Irene this tower is deserted and decrepit. Only Irene can see her grandmother. Although not explicitly stated, it seems the grandmother is angel from heaven come to help and protect Irene.

And then there's Curdie. Curdie is a boy, not much older than Irene, who works in the mines with his father. While the other miners are wary of the goblins, Curdie isn't afraid at all. He knows that the goblins are cowards and retreat if anyone puts up a good fight. And rhymes. They hate poetry. So Curdie cheerfully works through the night. If goblins surface from underground, he fearlessly “fights and recites” back at them. Curdie turns out to be an invaluable friend to Princess Irene and ultimately protects her from the Goblin King.

Lest you think Princess Irene is a wilting wall flower with no personality of her own, she is a vibrantly, strong young girl who knows right from wrong and how to stand up for what she believes in.

But she is a girl and never has to prove her worth by acting like a guy. Unlike just about every movie out in Hollywood today where the female protagonists  prove their equality with men by emasculating them. Let's be honest: today’s movie 'heroines' are basically men with female parts.

Curdie is very strong in who he is and isn't afraid to fight goblins, or care for and protect Irene. But while Curdie is Irene's hero, she is his heroine because she has many qualities that he benefits from as well, such as her strong sense of propriety and how to act based on those principals. She teaches him to trust in the unseen and follow her even when his practical mind says they're going the wrong way. In point of fact, throughout the story Curdie and Irene take turns “saving” each other from danger but without Irene sacrificing her innocence or femininity.

My! How counter modern culture.

I was concerned that my teenage boys were going to roll their eyes at this Victorian depiction of nascent love.
Wrong again.  They wanted to be Curdie. Boys aren't inspired by movies that depict the women as smarter and stronger than they are. They want to be heroes.

Curdie and Princess Irene are still kids at the end of this book but MacDonald promises a sequel where they grow up and get married. My boys' response?

“Let's go buy the sequel!”

JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis both credit Macdonald's The Princess and the Goblin and it's sequel, The Princess and Curdie as the inspiration for their fantasy books. That's reason enough to read them, but if you want your son to read how young boys use to “man up” back in the day, I suggest you read them The Princess and the Goblin.

For more book reviews for teens you can go here

I own this book.  If you'd like to buy it, please do so by clicking on the link below.


  1. Oh how lovely, the older books knew what they were talking about! The cover looks so classic too!
    Enjoyed your review, you definitely make this sound like a great bed time read!

  2. Very interesting. I've never heard of this book but I'll try and get it at the library, maybe my daughter (7) would like it.

    I love the cover.


  3. @Man of la Book: It might be a little advanced for a seven year old, but Princess Irene is certainly a young lady worth emulation.

  4. @BuzzB. I heartily agree about the older books. In fact I should review some other gems I found. Thanks for visiting!

  5. I have both of these books and read them yeeeeaaarss ago, like about 30. I guess I need to go and re-read from my more "mature" world viewpoint. I really appreciate your comments on the only women in modern media are not female heroines, they are men with boobs on. I hear alot about how there are no good men role models out there... which is pretty true, but how about women role models. So much for women's lib. The only role model now is to be a sexy sleezy as possible while bringing home the bacon and frying it up in a pan. A bit overwhelming if you ask me.

    Okay, enough ranting. Thanks for sharing this Sharon

  6. @ Teri: I hear you!! Keep ranting. I personally laughed myself silly through the movie Tomb Raider. Have a great day!

  7. Thats such a sweet story. ANd totally agree with you on suitable role models for kids today. The story seems so mch like the fairy tales I love! Thanks for posting this!

  8. @Shilpa: You're welcome and thanks for visiting.

  9. I haven't yet reviewed this book on my blog yet b/c there's no way I can fit it into a blog post. Did my bachelor's thesis on it and MacDonald wormed his way into my MA as well :-). LOVE IT. Check out the Wise Woman (or Lost PRincess) and The Golden Key--two stories that don't get much attention but should.

  10. Betsy: Wow! I'd love to read your thesis and I'm definitely going to check out those other books and review them!! Our kids need more good quality reading.

  11. I just found your review and loved it. I just finished reading this book aloud to my two sons, ages 5 and 7 and they also absolutely loved it! You're right in saying the book is very counter cultural. We need more characters like Curdie who aren't afraid to lead the charge and stomp on goblin toes when such situations present themselves. :) Loved this book and hearing your thoughts on it as well!

    1. Carrie: Thank you. I just reread my own review and forgot there was a sequel. I need to go buy that as well.

  12. Ugh. You had me until "But she is a girl and never has to prove her worth by acting like a guy. Unlike just about every movie out in Hollywood today where the female protagonists prove their equality with men by emasculating them. Let's be honest: today’s movie 'heroines' are basically men with female parts."

    Lets be honest: real heroines come in all personality types. Real heroines are strong and built, or soft and gentle, muscular and thin, or curvy and round, swear like a sailor, or sing with birds, the possibilities are endless. (Y'know, just like with real human woman.) As someone trying to show strong female characters to their impressionable sons, I'm slightly horrified you have written off so many great heroine leads as "basically men."

    Which leads to my next bit: while Irene is refreshingly "pro-girl" for the time, she is still a stereotypical female in the Victorian era, written inside a Christian-allegory, whose completely defined by her purity and innocence.

    Not very dimensional, is she?

    Don't get your hopes up on the sequel, because she turns into the other (there's 3) female stereotype of the time: the siren. Whooohoo female leads.

    The Princess and the Goblin is a wonderful children's fantasy, rich with symbolism and allegory, with interesting archetypal characters, and whose oral style really gives you a tremendous sense of folk-tale history. I would highly recommended the novel for any child.

    But. Irene is not the only (arguably one at all) female heroine out there, and you're doing a disservice to modern literature (and their movie adaptations - and modern tv/movies in general) by discrediting all the diverse heroines out there.

    Buy this book! Buy lots of books! While you're at it, talk to your sons and daughters about the diversity of the female spirit, and how literature has changed over time to reflect it. Especially older novels written by men: you can easily find a ton of literature about female character's one-dimensionality if you're really interested in the topic.

    Happy Reading!


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.