LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Curdie’s Mother’s Tale: A brief discourse on Symbolism and Subtext

on January 30, 2013 5:56pm

One of the most striking scenes in The Princess and the Goblin occurs in chapter twenty-three when Curdie’s mother is recounting the tale of her first encounter with the goblins. Soon after she had married Curdie’s father, she was walking and beset by the cobs.

Well, this isn't gonna end well

Well, this isn’t gonna end well

The goblins, along with some of their animals, then “had torn [her] clothes very much, and [she] was afraid they were going to tear [herself] to pieces” when, in the decisive moment before they struck a dove appeared flashing with light and drove away the goblins.

Well yeah it did

Hey look at that! It did.

Now besides offering up a striking visual image of a woman about to be torturously slain by the wicked creatures, this passage struck me both for its symbolism and its subtext.

The most obvious example of symbolism and association is with the Grandmother and the dove. The Grandmother, whom before this instance the reader has evidence has powers either divine or magical, further has her association as a divine protectress is strengthened. She acts to save Curdie’s mother, and does so through the use of a messenger not through her direct intervention. Further association is connected through her choice of messenger: a dove. The dove, an important bird in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is a messenger of peace and here serves that role, preventing the occurrence of violence.

The passage also holds further subtext and reminds me of a Victorian piece entitled “Goblin Market”. The goblins, bestial men, have a woman completely and totally surrounded and alone.  Curdie’s mother then recounts how “They all began … teasing me in a way it makes me shudder to think of even now” and that “They had torn my clothes very much.” Taking all of these factors together, it is not that large of a jump in logic to assume that she was about to become the victim of a brutal raping, possibly more than once. This horrific crime is then kicked up another notch by these simple seven words she uttered before: “not very long before you were born.” She was pregnant at the time the goblins assaulted her, pregnant at the time she was nearly raped, and pregnant at the time she was saved by the Grandmother.

Now this brings to mind one crucial question: Was this the reason then that the Grandmother stepped in and saved Curdie’s mother? Presumably other people have fallen to the cobs and not gotten divine intervention.  I would argue that yes, Curdie’s mother’s pregnancy, and a possibility that her son would save her granddaughter in the future, lends itself to the reasoning as well as further cementing the Grandmother’s role of protector, especially of youth.

For anyone interested in reading Goblin Market:


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