“They had enough of affection left for each other to preserve them from being absolutely cruel for cruelty’s sake to those that came in their way; but still they so heartily cherished the ancestral grudge against those who occupied their former possessions and especially against the descendants of the king who had caused their expulsion, that they sought every opportunity of tormenting them in ways that were as odd as their inventors; and although dwarfed and misshapen, they had strength equal to their cunning.”
This passage is presented to the reader in the first chapter, eighty-four words that make up a single sentence, which explains the core motivation of the goblins and some of their traits. However, it is not the passage’s literal meaning that requires close attention, but rather its nature and construction, which are continuously used throughout the story. Indeed, the tone that is delivered in this one sentence is a poignant representation of the tone throughout the novel.
The sentence above from The Princess and the Goblin uses two semi-colons, which effectively breaks the one thought into three. Two of these thoughts use commas, but overall the amount of punctuation that breaks up the passage seems slight, or perhaps less than expected when looking at a block of eight-four words. The continuous nature of the passage requires you to slow down the pace of reading and let each word and idea truly sink into the mind of the reader. Likewise, this slowing in the pace is achieved by the word choice and phrasing of MacDonald. For example, “cruel for cruelty’s sake,” “heartily cherished,” and “former possessions,” repeat varying degrees of the “c” and “s” sounds. This repetition adds to the fairy tale and adds to the rhythm. Not only is the wording hypnotic in a way, but the diction is also challenging.
These elements, the syntax and the word choice, further drive the tone and intention of MacDonald’s tale: To tell a story to children. While MacDonald has been quoted to say that he writes for the child-like and not the child specifically, it is still reasonable to say that being aware of whom his story would be marketed towards and the fairy tale aspect of the story, that he would know the story would mainly end up in the hands of children. Many young people would be unfamiliar with several words in just this one passage. This represents MacDonald’s attitude towards children and his unwillingness to speak down to them. MacDonald is not of the school that children’s books should contain only things in them that children previously know.
Perhaps most importantly, this passage illustrates the author’s strong use of the narrative voice. The long sentences, the challenging vocabulary, and almost poetic semblance of the phrases portray a tone of story telling that almost begs to be read aloud. This speaks greatly to the time and also to the nature of the children’s literature, which is delivered from the parent to the child. Many of the sections that I myself read in preparing for this week’s class I read over again, more slowly, imagining myself doing so aloud to my younger brother who is only six. It is in this slowed down version that the tale came more alive and more vibrant. The very nature of the book brings you back to childhood and inserts you into the fantastical atmosphere of the story, making this tale of young Princess Irene both classical and necessary.