LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

The Princess and the Goblin and Christianity

Irene’s grandmother is perhaps the most interesting character of George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin. For most of the story the reader believes that the only one who knows of her existence is Irene. She is characterized as omniscient/godlike, as a sort of shape-shifter (she appears as an old woman, a young woman, and a bird). She is beautiful…but old… but timeless. She also has magical healing powers, spins a thread that leads Irene out of danger, and knows how people are going to act and react to things. It is very easy to look at the grandmother as a representation of a Christian god (or god-like figure, maybe the feminine goddess Sophia?) especially when you consider Macdonald’s own religious history.


With the interpretation of Irene’s grandmother as God (or another Christian figure), it is interesting to look at the other women in this story. Curdie’s mom is of a lower class (she is the wife of a miner—Scottish folklore always glorified the humble working class) and is characterized as domestic and a loving mother. She is also responsible, trusting, honest, wise, and full of common sense. Her opinions and beliefs have weight among even the men of the family. When Curdie tells his mom the stories Irene has told him about her grandmother, she scolds him for not believing Irene and tells her own story of when she was rescued in the woods by a bright light that guided her home. She emphasizes that if he does not have an explanation for something, he cannot know that what someone else believes is false. Lootie, on the other hand, is of a higher class (she is the nurse of the princess Irene) and is also characterized as domestic and a loving mother-figure. Lootie is, however, a sort of foil to Curdie’s mom in every other way: she is irresponsible (getting lost in the woods and sometimes losing track of Irene), nervous, skeptical, proud and a bit foolish. She is a people-pleaser and is always worried about losing her job. She scolds Irene for “telling stories” about her grandmother and when the Irene asks her grandmother about Lootie she says that Lootie will not believe in her.

It is very easy to imagine these two women characters as representative of the believer and the non-believer of God and of Christian morals.

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The Princess and the Puppet: Contrasts in Presentation


In both The Princess and the Goblin and The Adventure of Pinocchio, the authors present the audience with moral lessons and values. These lessons, sometimes subtle and sometimes not, and are designed to instruct and develop children into responsible and respectable adults. While both MacDonald and Collodi present these lessons, one big difference in these stories is the method of delivery; the polite and courageous Irene and Curdie stand in stark contrast to the frustratingly mischievous Pinocchio in providing examples to children. MacDonald presents the reader with Curdie and Irene, both excellent examples of nobility, honor, courage and humility to stress these values and to teach the audience his moral lessons. Collodi on the other hand gives the audience Pinocchio, the character who teaches us everything not to do while stumbling from bad decision to bad decision. While the development is more evident when the character starts with a lack of virtue – as Pinocchio clearly did – both strategies can yield the desired effect of teaching kids how to be good. Both authors tie in the lessons to their stories and both stories have a relatively clear moral imperative that is rather accessible and clear. The dueling delivery styles are not mutually exclusive however, as The Princess and the Goblin showed with characters like Harelip and the Goblin Queen and as The Adventures of Pinocchio demonstrated with the blue-haired fairy. These characters served to create dynamic contrast between the characters; whether to highlight the virtuous Princess Irene and Curdie or to emphasize the failings of Pinocchio, these supporting roles were important in developing stronger protagonists and helped refine and guide them on their quests. In the end, both stories deliver potent lessons important in the development of children into adults; whether learned from the strong examples set by the characters in The Princess and the Goblin or acquired in the trials and tribulations that Collodi puts his characters through in The Adventures of Pinocchio.

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The Goblins: A Close Reading

“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.

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The God-Grandma

In The Princess and the Goblin, there are hints of religious aspects that can be found in the text. Irene’s great-great-grandmother is seen as a cross between a fairy godmother (as we see in past fairy tales such as Cinderella) and an omniscient, god-like figure. The grandmother is always willing to help Irene in times of need (following the godmother archetype), but there is a catch. She only helps Irene when she retains faith in the existence of the grandmother, thus giving her a god-like quality. Even MacDonald’s descriptions of her give her an ethereal suggestion: pale white skin, long silver hair, young yet old, wise, patient yet playful, supernatural qualities, mysterious. It seems that MacDonald attempts to slip in a Christian moral and remind the doubtful that they have to believe what they can’t see—you have to believe in order to receive.


However, I am of the opinion that the grandmother is omnipotent only to a certain degree. Though she helps others besides Irene, like Curdie’s mother, I think it is very easy to argue that she only did so that Curdie could help Irene in the future. If she knew about the flood and had the power to prevent it, why didn’t she? It seems she only cares for the true well-being of little Irene. This could in part be due to sort of loving, familial reason—as if it is to ensure that the heir to the throne and kingdom is kept away from danger. It seems as though her supernatural qualities only seek to aid her in accomplishing that goal. Why else would she choose to live so long, only to live alone where no one can find her while she sits and spins thread? In this sense, MacDonald is inventive with his merging of duel qualities of the grandmother (the god-like and the godmother), while not following the classic archetype normally presented in fairy tales.

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smithand Arthur Hughes

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith
and Arthur Hughes


Fairy Tales and Disney Tales: the Goblin known as Walt

The Princess and the Goblin is an interesting progression for fairy tales as the idea of a female protagonist is not only represented in this text, but the story also implores the idea that the other main characters who greatly affect this story’s development are also women. In class, we were able to spend an ample amount of time highlighting the qualities of five women who demonstrated their influence on the story. Coincidentally enough, this movie, not created though the somewhat less than imaginative mind of Walt Disney, was not very popular with audiences, such as Beauty and the Beast, which was also produced in the same yearWhat does this say about the power that Disney holds over popular culture regarding how an animated fairy tale should be viewed and critiqued? Walt Disney is anything but the model for feminism and as a result, the criticism regarding his chauvinistic tendencies in practically every one of his movies becomes more of a focus even decades after his death.

While I cannot argue that Mr. Disney did not find merit in the fairy tale of Princess Irene, it can be demonstrated through his inability of focusing on strong female protagonists and his display of women in his films, that he could have possibly been deterred from producing a film that was centered on women. In The Princess and the Goblin, the King is absent for majority of the book, and the only other real strong male character is Curdie, who while helps save the Princess, is only a supporting character to the illustrious Irene.

When the movie of The Princess and the Goblin came out in 1991, it was competing with the Disney classic film, Beauty and the Beastand we all know how that turned out. Princess Irene got lost in the castle along with poor Chip in the cupboard and was hardly a thought in the realm of Belle and the Beast.

The author of The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald, was beginning a new focus of fairy tales, which included women in a more commanding role; however, as Jack Zipes wrote in his piece Breaking the Disney Spell, Disney has a way of “chang[ing] [fairy tales] completely to suit his tastes and beliefs” (Zipes, 347). Zipes specifically looks at how Disney portrayed the film version of Snow White, but much of what he says applies to practically every movie that deals with a Disney princess. In the Grimms’ version of Snow White there is “the sentimental death of [Snow White’s] mother”, however this just so happens to be left out of Mr. Disney’s portrayal of the film (Zipes, 347). Instead, his story centered on the romance with the Prince, who of course enters on a white horse as Snow’s very own prince charming. Snow White lies lifeless in the end of the film until this man can come rescue her. As Zipes states concisely, the “film follows the classic ‘sexist’ narrative about the framing of women’s lives through a male discourse” (Zipes, 348). “Despite [the] beauty and charm” of the princesses in Disney’s films, “these figures are pale and pathetic compared to the more active and demonic characters in the film” (Zipes 349).

Princess Irene does not fill this archetype of the domestic woman, whose motive is purely as an accessory to a man. She is strong-willed, independent, and uses her title as princess to implore power, rather than subservience. Why then was the film of her journey unfavorable? The answer to this question is certainly perplexing, and unfortunately, I am not sure I will find the answer any time soon. But I feel I am more hopeful than most in thinking that as a society we will all be able to fight back against the patriarchal goblin that Disney has created in order to demonstrate a more balanced approach to the contributions of both women and men in fairy-tales.



Brave: Gender Equality

The Princess and the Goblins made me think of one of my new favorite Disney movies, Brave. This book and movie illustrate princesses in a different way than they have previously been seen; they seem to show gender equality. In many of the Disney movies, we see the typical princess that is beautiful and portrays the characteristics of a loveable young woman; and this same thing is seen in books about princesses. They seem to portray the characteristics that were typical of women during that time; however, Brave is illustrating the need for gender equality when it comes to women. The need for gender equality is definitely seen in the famous Disney princesses movies (this is hard for me to say because I real love the Disney princesses); these princesses makes you wonder what does true equality look life for a female character in a fairly-tale world? This same question came to mind when reading The Princess and the Goblins.

Brave seems to be the first Disney movie that shows some type of equality when it comes to that of men and women. Taking place in Ancient Scotland, the film tells the story of a teenage girl named Merida who is not your typical Disney princess. Merida is adventurous, a skilled archer, sword fighter, athletic, independent; which are all qualities that goes against her being a princess. She is just as wild as her younger brothers are. The movie, Brave, allows Merida to find her own identity; she likes to sew but she also likes archery and swordsmanship. These likes show the embracing of tomboyishhness characteristics among young girls.



Irene and Merida both want to be independent and love adventures; they both want to break away from the things that are expected of them because they are princesses. Irene and Merida show want little girls can become if they are allowed to truly find themselves and be the individuals that they want to. Just because they are not the typical princesses, do not mean that they are not good and respectable princesses.

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Teasing out the “Beautiful” and the “Ugly” in Fairy Tales and Victorian Literature


What is beauty? What does it mean to be beautiful? In today’s world, when we read about a beautiful daughter who was virtuous in a fairy tale we immediately assume, “Wow, what sexist, awful fairy tale and Victorian writers, just because she’s virtuous means she’s automatically the most ‘beautiful’ person on earth. And then of course since her sisters are mean and bad, they are called ‘ugly’. How ridiculous!” With this mindset then, we turn on virtue, we start criticizing it, we start speaking about it in negative ways, we start mocking it.  But is there something more here? What did these authors and tales mean when they bestowed this pronouncement of beauty or  ugliness?

Is this a modern day version of MacDonald’s “princess” theory?


First, for modern readers, what it comes down to is the fact that in our world we have reduced beauty to someone who is physically attractive, someone that looks like a model or actress.  However beauty, like the word love, is a loaded word.  Perhaps what the authors of fairy tales or Victorian writers like George MacDonald are asking us to think about is not the fact that virtues make a person “beautiful” in the way we think of beauty.  Instead acting good, being virtuous, actually having morals, makes a person beautiful.  And it is not a surface beauty, it is a radiance that comes out, it is a joy, it is something intangible and almost imperceptible but we know it’s there.  So although the media and even illustrators choose to portray the “beautiful princess” as the perfectly shaped and attractive girl, I do not think that these authors were working at such a shallow and surface level.  George MacDonald, as a Christian, would have most likely been well versed in Christian thoughts on beauty.  He surely would have been very aware of this passage from scripture, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, that says:

Thus, with this in mind, MacDonald and others in his line of thought (ie Lewis and Tolkien), are not concerned with superficial beauty; they believed in ideals of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful and that bringing these things into your life and focusing on them could actually make a difference in your life.  That what could happen is if one thinks on what is True, they’ll become a person who is true; if they think on Beauty, they’ll become beautiful; and if they think on the Good, then they will become the man or women that they are meant to become.

Curious to read this and see how it fits in with my propositions in this post…

And what of the mean, evil, ugly characters??  In the same way that we’ve reduced the term beautiful to attractive, we’ve reduced ugly to physically unattractive.  However, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen many descriptions of the physical ugliness of let’s say mean sisters in fairy tales.  It is an ugliness that exudes from inside, that taints their being, that mars the way we think of them.  Granted sometimes like in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, the goblins are actually physically ugly to represent their bad behavior, but I mean they are goblins, right?! This calls to mind a scene from C.S. Lewis’s first Narnia book, The Magician’s Nephew, in which Jadis, the witch, comes to life inside of the great hall.  The children notice that as they move down the table there is slowly an almost imperceptible change that has come over all of these rulers, and the corruption that they practiced has trickled into their physical appearance (which we should note, could actually happen, trials and hardships, or joys and blessings, have a way of making themselves physically evident in our countenance).  However, the queen, Jadis, is physically beautiful, but her greed, her evilness is evident to the children, and to them she becomes ugly, but no so much on the surface but a burning from the inside.  In this way there is an illumination of the danger in correlating ugliness with physical unattractiveness.

Recently this idea of the utterly beautiful but evil woman has probably been depicted best by Charlize Theron in “Snow White and the Huntsman”


Arthur Hughes and The Princess and the Goblin

Figure 1

Figure 1


As an Art History major, I am always drawn to the illustrations in books at least as much as the stories themselves. So, naturally, I was intrigued by the Arthur Hughes illustrations in my copy of The Princess and the Goblin, and I was curious to learn more about this artist.

Figure 2

Figure 2







Arthur Hughes was born in London on January 27th, 1832. He began studying art in 1846 at Somerset House, and shortly after he entered the Royal Academy where he became friends with some of the leaders of a group known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is known for their use of intense colors and extremely precise attention to detail as well as their frequent portrayal of historical subjects, especially those drawn from medieval times and Arthurian legend. Hughes’s paintings, such as one of his best-known works April Love, clearly demonstrate the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, and he remains closely associated with them today, although he was not an official member of the Brotherhood.

Figure 3

Figure 3

In addition to his paintings, Hughes is also known for his numerous book illustrations, such as those that appear in The Princess and the Goblin. In fact, he frequently collaborated with George MacDonald, contributing illustrations that appeared alongside MacDonald’s stories in the journal Good Words for the Young. These illustrations, like his paintings, demonstrate a Pre-Raphaelite influence that can be seen, for example, in the beautiful and idealized depiction of Irene’s great-grandmother (fig. 1) and in the cheerful springtime setting of the illustration of Irene on a hillside among flowers and lambs (fig. 2). Also notable in his illustrations is the tight focus that brings the viewer directly into the action of the scene and the moment of the story, as seen in figures 3 and 4.

Figure 4

Figure 4


Hughes died in London on December 22nd, 1915, leaving behind numerous paintings and illustrations such as those that still enrich The Princess and the Goblin today.

Arthur Hughes on The Victorian Web (see also link “Hughes as an Illustrator”)
Arthur Hughes on Wikipedia
Pre-Raphaelites on Wikipedia
Hilton, Tom. The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 1970.
Illustrations: Macdonald, George. The Princess and the Goblin. New York: Puffin Books, 1996.

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A Modern Day Feminist and the Goblin

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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Novel VS. Film: The Princess and The Goblin

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After watching the trailer to the 1991 animated film adaptation of George Macdonald’s The Princess and The Goblin in class, I was interested in seeing how close of an adaptation the film was to the original novel. The European animated film was directed by József Gémes and released in the United States on June 1994, which coincidentally was in direct competition with Disney’s The Lion King. One could imagine the reception The Princess and The Goblin received when it first came out in the states, but beside the point. The film’s portrayal of the wide variety of characters from the classic tale is surprisingly left intact with a few minor alterations to entertain the modern audience. In order to appease the younger demographic, the antagonists have been toned down quite a bit to incorporate some comic relief. In addition, the movie includes a few musical segments in which the novel had placed a big importance on in terms of singing when confronting the goblins. There was also the use of symbols, such as the roses that represented Irene’s Great Great Grandmother.

In terms of the characters being portrayed in the movie, the film version did an excellent job bringing to life an animated version of Princess Irene and Curdie. Both protagonists could easily relate to their respective audience. For instance, Curdie’s character is a young boy with a sense of adventure and bravery and, like his novel counterpart, is a hardworking young man who would go out of his way to battle goblins to protect the princess. To a young boy, Curdie could be viewed as a very influential figure and a good influence to all boys. Princess Irene, on the other hand, is portrayed as an elegant and very intelligent girl. Although she appears to be a little older and had a different design than her novel counterpart, she goes through a form of quest to mature and gain a sense of independence with the help from her great great grandmother.

The adults are portrayed as wise and responsible individuals that are often present to support the two children protagonists, with the exception of Lootie who seems to have gone through a complete personality shift compared to the Lootie in the novel. She is not as dedicated to her work and paranoid about losing her job like her novel counterpart. Specifically, Lootie in this film is portrayed as careless, absentminded, and clumsy. For instance, in the beginning of the film, Lootie falls asleep instead of keeping watch over Irene and thus leaves Irene to fend for herself when she is being chased by the goblin creatures. Undoubtedly, she is still the character who scolds Irene and shows no interest in locating or believing in Irene’s grandmother, but one can conclude that she was given a more comedic personality. Another interesting thing to note is that most of the adults in the castle are completely unaware of the existence of goblins and believe that goblins only originated from miner’s tales. This contrasts with the novel as Irene was the only one left in the dark about goblins. Therefore, the adult soldiers and guards are constantly questioning what exactly they would be fighting against since they do not know how goblins look like and at one point mistake Curdie for a goblin.

The goblins in the film are not as intimidating or menacing as the ones portrayed in the novel, in fact, they serve as comedic antagonists. The primary antagonist in the animated film version is perhaps the only character to have his name changed. Originally Prince Harelip in the novel, he is known as Prince Froglip in the film version and is shown as a spoiled and childish goblin with an exaggerated and slobbery lisp. The Goblin Queen is illustrated as an overweight goblin with hilarious big lips and a bossy and petulant attitude to complete the set. Interestingly enough, the film version decided to leave out the fact that the Goblin Queen was a stepmother. Then there is the Goblin King who is constantly sneezing as emphasized by his huge runny nose. He seems to be very submissive to his wife’s wishes and is usually just present to make announcements to his people while his wife makes all the decisions for him. With that, the goblin family could be seen as “the three stooges” of the film as they do not pose much of a threat to the protagonists. To modern viewers, the antagonists were given these characteristics to keep the lighthearted aura within the film and, of course, make the kids laugh at their antics.


Finally, the animated film added an extra character known as Turnip the Cat or as one would call it “the mascot of the film.” Although the cat made no appearances in the novel, in the film it serves as a plot device. The cat led Irene to the attic where she found her great great grandmother and also helped lead Irene in some cases.

Spoiler Alert: Also, in the end, Curdie does not get his kiss on the mouth like in the novel.
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