LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

A Modern Day Feminist and the Goblin

on January 30, 2013 11:01pm

George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin presents the tale of a young princess in a kingdom under siege by malicious and conniving goblins.  Like many fairy tales of the time period and similar to many that we have studied in the “Golden Age of Children’s Literature” class, Princess Irene is a young female protagonist who possesses many qualities representative of purity and femininity.  She is a young member of a royal family known for her beauty—notably her long, golden hair—and is placed under many restrictions by her caregiver, Lootie, that prevent her from making many mistakes that young women could often find themselves making at such an age.  However, this novel took a turn in a new direction in that it presented additional female characters who each possessed almost entirely different characteristics from the next.  The text delivers descriptions of just as many female characters as it does male characters, which displays a shifting view towards feminism in children’s literature.

Each of the female characters throughout the tale is presented in a manner that represents their various traits and qualities.  This gives the plot of the story a more dynamic quality that readers may not have seen in fairy tales prior to this time.  The princess is no longer a damsel in distress in desperate need of salvation by a male hero.  She is a cunning, while simultaneously polite, young lady who overcomes the struggle for her father’s kingdom by defeating the wicked goblins who have arranged for their Prince Harelip to marry her without consent.  She does this using the help of a seemingly god-like character brought to the story as her somewhat omniscient great-great grandmother.  This brought to the modern, global culture a wise, female character often represented in Scottish literature.

1920 illustration from "The Princess and the Goblin" by Jessie Willcox Smith

1920 illustration from “The Princess and the Goblin” by Jessie Willcox Smith

I feel that the portrayal of these various female characters in such a dynamic manner truly made this story what it was as an outstanding tale.  It represents a shift in literary culture that allowed female readers to relate to the characters in stories and consequently feel empowered by their daring adventures.  I believe that male authors such as George MacDonald represented the powerful female figures in their lives through their literature, which led to a trickle-down effect in female empowerment.  The young girls reading these fairy tales undoubtedly felt empowered by strong, heroic, female protagonists, and consequently felt empowered to live fruitful lives with more independence than they had in the past.  These women then began writing and told more tales of heroines to inspire young girls of their time, who grew up to be even more independent and even arguably rebellious.  I feel that stories like The Princess and the Goblin paved the way for feminist literature, which planted the roots for a more tolerant society that eventually grew into the predominantly egalitarian structure that we know today.

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One response to “A Modern Day Feminist and the Goblin

  1. cwood520 says:

    I really enjoyed Kevin’s comments and insight on the idea that the female characters in “The Princess and the Goblin”, especially Irene, helped to pave the way for powerful female protagonists dominating much of children’s literature. Kevin, in his blog, included a link to a very interesting excerpt of an article about powerful woman in George McDonald’s fantasies and in the article the author, Judith John, observed that, “it would be a mistake to call MacDonald a feminist”, she went on to argue that the strength, intelligence, and beauty of the women in his novel are a result of McDonald’s reverence for older women inspired by the grandmother that raised him, rather than a political statement for gender equality. Despite this fact, I would agree with Kevin that McDonald’s focus on creating dominant female characters and highlighting their various positive qualities did influence the resulting surge of strong female characters in fantasy and children’s work. When you look at the enduring fairytales that are still celebrated today, especially those crafted and proliferated by Walt Disney, the foundation of each of these stories is a principal female character and older novels such as “The Princess and the Goblin” encourage me to view these fantasies as groundbreaking and the stories that helped make way for the Disney Princesses to be plastered on every little girl’s walls now, centuries later. However, another interesting thing that the article brought up and an idea that I think Kevin could explore even further with his observations is that even though McDonald explored and enriched the ‘female character’ he still never went quite as far as to allow the women in his novel to completely step out of the bounds of a ‘proper Victorian woman’. Though Irene is brave and cunning, she would have been a goblin’s wife without the help of the braver and more cunning Curdie. Even though this fact works to bolster the idea that McDonald’s stories are not feminism but a respect for women and the variation and increased complexity that they can bring to a story, his inclusion and creation of dynamic and powerful women unquestionably helped to pave the way for female protagonists and supporting characters in literature.

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