Classic Juv/YA fantasy: The Princess and the Goblin

George MacDonald.  The Princess and The Goblin.  New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1986 (a facsimile of the 1920 ed.).  208 pgs.

I’m counting this in the Fairytale category of Quest the Second, in the Once Upon a Time VI challenge.

Yes, I did think of Labyrinth when I chose this.  But try as I did to imagine MacDonald’s Goblin King the way I wanted to, he just wouldn’t do it — four feet tall and “squarest of all the goblins,” he refused to even approximate David Bowie.  And anyway, MacDonald’s goblins hate songs and rhymes, so there would be no Magic Dance parties or sparkling ballroom serenades from this Goblin King.  Such a pity.

I do like MacDonald’s attempt to flesh out the goblins’ history, and make them at least somewhat sympathetic instead of just being the personification of evil; the story as a whole, says Peter Glassman in his Afterword, deviates from the usual educational children’s stories of the late 19th century.  It’s less obviously moralizing than even MacDonald’s other story, At The Back of the North Wind.  That must be saying a bit, because the messages in The Princess and The Goblin are still pretty overt.  “Mr. Author” himself explicitly sets up the story’s purpose at the very beginning:

“…every little girl is a princess, and there would be no need to say anything about it, except that she is always in danger of forgetting her rank, and behaving as if she had grown out of the mud.  I have seen little princesses behave like the children of thieves and lying beggars, and that is why they need to be told they are princesses.  And that is why, when I tell a story of this kind, I like to tell it about a princess.” *

Luckily, the story isn’t annoyingly messagey, focusing mainly on the action and only once in a while telling the reader what he/she should learn from the characters’ behavior.  And it’s easy enough to forgive the plot holes if you read this as a fairy tale (though “Mr. Author” insists “this is not a fairy story; but a goblin story”** ).  Why hasn’t the little princess or anyone else gone all the way up that old staircase off the nursery before?  Why is it so easy for the princess to keep escaping the house, despite the stronger and stronger safeguards put in place each time she does?

At least some of the holes are covered by the excuse that it was the will of the all-powerful mentor who often helps the princess.

Main things I liked:

  • The princess is no damsel; she even saves the young prince-figure at one point, and not just through magic but with actual hard work, “with aching back, and bleeding fingers and hands”.***
  • The princess’ father.  He is a very gentle, loving parent and his reactions when he thinks the princess is in danger seem so real, I can imagine my own father in his place.
  • Jessie Willcox Smith’s color illustrations.

Main things I didn’t:

  • The apparent uselessness of the princess’ caretakers, and the guards who are meant to patrol the grounds.
  • The depiction of the goblin prince — the implication that a harelip is an example of goblin ugliness.


A sweet example of early Juv/YA fantasy.  Stay tuned for more explorations in classic children’s fantasy, including Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Related Posts:

Classic Juv/YA fantasy: The Water Babies

. . . . .

* page 9

** page 17

*** pages 134-135

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