Most fairy tales and adventure stories in general have a wise elder who teaches and guides the protagonist. In The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald this archetype is portrayed by Irene’s great-great-grandmother Irene. In class we discussed the Grandma and I’ve thought a little more on her since then. As a class we described her as a pale, timeless woman with a touch of the supernatural, as well as a bit of an enigma. In my opinion, she is the big mystery of the story. I don’t think any of us were surprised by the Goblins’ plot to steal away the princess and drown the miners but I never could quite figure out Irene’s “great big grand-grand-mother.”
She is supposedly a benevolent force in the story but there is an element of a puppeteer to her; she’s pulling the strings and watching the people below her dance. In class we characterized that side of her as the playful teacher but I think that there was something almost cruel to her lessons. Her treatment of Irene’s wish to tell people about her especially seems at odds to me. Irene is a young girl who has never truly known a female relative and the nearest thing she has to a mother is Lootie and what a gem she is. Then lo and behold, Irene finds her “very great, huge, old grandmother” who is beautiful and lavishes love and praise upon her. Of course Irene is going to be ecstatic with her new relation and want to show her off to people. Grandma Irene’s odd encouragement for Irene to tell Lootie about her (“Mind you tell her all about it exactly.”) seems cruel to me since this young girl is jubilant at finding a female relation and when she tries to share her newly found relation she is belittled and yelled at. A later conversation between Irene and her Grandmother reveals that the Grandma knew how Lootie would react and that she believed it would be best for Irene to discover it on her own. Nice. And Irene again experiences this later with Curdie who she actually takes up to her Grandmother’s room. The Grandmother claims that Curdie couldn’t see her because he didn’t wish to, he didn’t have faith. This could be true on one level but this woman who seems to be so powerful and all knowing should be able to reveal herself to a 12/13 year old boy. Instead once again Irene is ridiculed and hurt, though she brushes it off like a champ. So to me there seems to be a hint of malice hidden in those wise eyes.
This malice is again apparent to me when you consider the Grandmother’s treatment of the invasion and its development. It is highly improbable that she didn’t know about the plot in advance. She plays the mysterious, omniscient fairy godmother so shouldn’t she have known that the Goblins were planning on kidnapping her granddaughter right from under her nose? And couldn’t she have foreseen the flooding of the castle? But perhaps we can defend her by saying she knew that Curdie would avert the invasion and that he would figure out that there was an oncoming flood in time. Is that truly a good defense though? This magically powerful woman who could easily save the kingdom instead lets a young boy and her granddaughter muddle their way through a crisis and she only gives her granddaughter a magical ring to guide her. Oh well, at least they built character! 10 points to Gryffindor! (Am I the only one who saw the parallels between her and Dumbledore?) So even though they do manage to save Irene and avert the Goblin invasion the castle on a whole barely escape with their lives from the flood that Curdie inadvertently causes. A little insight from the Grandmother really could have had that all run so much more smoothly. Was she really so bent on teaching Irene and Curdie a lesson that she let people almost die?
In my opinion her long life drained some of the intrinsic qualities that make people human from her. She has seen so much already that the idea of a few human lives being lost doesn’t seem like a big deal. In this she is almost like a Greek goddess, all powerful and aloof, watching the people below her dance to her plans. She lacks the ability to view the situation as a “younger” being does. While she may care for select individuals such as Irene, she seems to be content with watching the story on a whole play out before her, as if it was all for her entertainment.