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”


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

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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Brave and The Princess and the Goblin: Scottish Girls with A Determination to Defy Gender Norms

As I was reading George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the children’s story of 1872 and the Disney film that was released recently entitled Brave. Both young girls share a Scottish heritage and have an intense craving for adventure along with a strong sense of self. Their defying of gender roles seems very ahead of its time given that MacDonald was writing The Princess and the Goblin in the 1800s, where a woman’s abilities often went unrecognized. As Irene’s character becomes revealed, we realize that she is much more than a little Scottish girl who just so happens to be a princess, but rather she possesses a wisdom beyond her years and courage that would be limited to men in armor at the time that MacDonald was writing. In the Disney film, the female protagonist, Merida, also possesses great courage and endeavors to defy her parents’ decision to marry her off.  The peace of her father’s kingdom depends upon this marriage, but her happiness becomes her first priority so she runs away into the woods and turns her mother into a bear. A similar plot involving marriage is included in The Princess and the Goblin, in which the goblins plan for their prince Harelip to marry Irene in order to attempt “peace” between the two kingdoms against the princess’ will.  Though Irene is unaware, Curdie, the male protagonist (and her future husband) realizes their plan and saves the princess. The two girls are also very sheltered and the discovery of self often takes place in the wilderness and away from the home. These females serve as strong role models for girls and though they may not accomplish all their goals alone (we have to give Curdie some credit!), they surely do not sit idly much like the character archetype assigned to females in works of the time.

Here is a link to the trailer for the Disney film Brave:

Princess Irene and Curdie

Princess Irene and Curdie


Merida of the Disney film Brave

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