LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

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”

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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.

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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.

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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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