Flashback Fridays: This is not that lovely story of The Sleeping Beauty. It is quite a new one, I assure you, and I will try to tell it as prettily as I can. . .

You’re a young princess left mostly to her own devices in a rocky and isolated castle.  No one has ever told you of the goblins that lurk in the rocky crevices, or of the dastardly plan that their queen has concocted to bring goblins into power over men . . .

Do you remember

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald, illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith (HarperCollins, c1872)

Beyond the thousands of fairy and folk tales, and even though children’s fantasy stories go back a ways further than science fiction for children, there are fairly few classic fantasy tales over a hundred years old that still inhabit the shelves today.   The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, of course are the two big names.  And often people will remember The Wind in the Willows.  But George MacDonald’s work often goes unmentioned, though it is never lost to obscurity.  Even I’ve forgotten how long it has stood the test of time.  This little exercise of my Flashback Fridays has taught me I still have a lot to learn about the history of children’s literature.


Eight year old princess Irene is a lonely and curious girl living in an isolated castle with her nursemaid.  Her king-papa occasionally comes to visit, but mostly she is left to her own devices.  Irene discovers she has one other guardian, an ethereal  great-great grandmother of some mystical abilities whom Irene encounters living up high in the castle  and constantly spinning.  What Irene has not been told about are the goblins who live deep in the rocky caves beneath the castle and mines of the human population.  Those goblins are plotting something dastardly, and only Irene and the brave miner boy Curdie will be able to foil their plans and escape–with the help of Irene’s mystical guardian and a very special thread.

It’s a charming tale, made more so because it doesn’t have the clunky moralizing of some of the literature meant for children at the time.  The great-grandmother is quite a bit the fey creature, with a tartness to balance her sweet (she’s not a helpless grandmotherly type).  MacDonald’s story, for all that it was written so long ago, remains much more accessible and enjoyable to audiences than much of early children’s literature.  The author/narrator’s voice that continually surfaces in the telling of the story to comment on specific things to the reader is done well and recognizes that this is a tale being told for listeners.  It’s quite well done and despite it pulling from the traditions of fairy tale, it manages to be quite its own story.

The story itself can be found on Project Gutenberg and also at The Baldwin Project.  It also remains in print and on the shelves at the library.

Did you know there was a sequel to the book?

The Princess and Curdie (1886)

This sequel contains many of the same characters and setting, but focuses on a task set for Curdie by Princess Irene’s great-grandmother.  George MacDonald has written several other fantasy works for children including The Light Princess (1864) and The Golden Key (1867)

But let’s talk a moment about George MacDonald.  I started digging and, to tell the truth I’m astonished at the range of influence he’s had.  This Scottish writer, poet and Christian minister  lived from 1824 to 1904 and had a profound impact on many of the other greats of the field. C.S. Lewis wrote that he regarded MacDonald as his “master”  when it came to writing.  MacDonald served as a mentor to Lewis Carroll.  G.K. Chesterton regarded this book  as  one that had “made a difference to my whole existence.”  Tolkien and Lewis are often cited as the key influences on fantasy for children, but MacDonald influenced them.  I’m not going to do an in depth biography here, but please check out more on the author if you’re interested, he really is one of the literary lights of his generation.

Links of interest:

Did you know the story had inspired a ballet?  Check out the promo trailer here:

There was a (rather unexceptional) animated movie made of the book in the 1990s:

The Princess and the Goblin movie

Apparently George MacDonald has inspired quite a few fans:

The George MacDonald society

There’s a blog with a more extensive overview of the book complete with images from several different editions that can be found here:

Once on a Tyme

Are you a fan?  What do you think of the story?  Comments Welcome!


About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on October 12, 2013, in Flashback Fridays, General Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I only just found out there was a sequel this year! It’s crazy that I didn’t know that seeing as it’s been out for oh you know OVER A CENTURY. This book brings back so many happy memories for me! It almost made my TTT this week as a book from my dad (but I chose Asterix and Obelix instead). I loved this book as a little girl.

  2. *chuckling* Well, you already know this was a childhood favourite of mine, too, from our chat on GR. In fact, it forms part of one of my earliest memories (about the third-earliest, I believe, after sitting with a paper aged two, learning to read the letter, & visiting my grandparents down the street on my tricycle, aged three).

    I used to visit my great-grandmother, whom I can just barely recall, in her nursing home when she was a very sick, very old lady, and I was a very small girl. I had two cousins and a sister by then, but I was the oldest (by a year; my eldest cousin was 3, my sister 2 and my middle cousin about a year old–this was years before their younger sister was even born) and the closest to understanding what was going on, as well as being the most capable reader, so my mother took me with her to visit her grandmother and read to her.

    Of course, I read to her The Princess and the Goblin. It was my favourite book and continued to be through most of my childhood and early teenage years–it was never superseded, just joined–and I think that may have been the second or third time I’d read it. I was five years old, did I mention? Anyway, I was a surprisingly good reader at that age – I pretty much ran through all the books for my year group and asked for more – so reading my favourite book aloud would not have been a problem for me. The odd thing is, I barely recall her face any longer, nor her reaction to the book itself. I can remember how pale her hands had become, and remember her holding one of mine (she was too weak by then to bend to hug me), and her sitting in a manual wheelchair half-slumped to her right…and me sitting at the bottom of her hospital-type bed in the nursing home, on a small chair, and reading to her from this book.

    I still have the selfsame copy I read as a little girl, though it’s impossible now to read it to the very end as somehow, a chunk of the back of the book went missing – it tapers off from the middle of the page with damage all the way up. It’s the companion edition to your dark green “Curdie” up above, and it looks quite similar, obviously apart from the centre illustration.

    I do, fortunately, now have two additional copies of TPatG, and two of Curdie, including the green edition in this post, and one each beautifully illustrated. Thank goodness for the internet!

    • Thanks for sharing this! What great memories! I’ve been enjoying going through the variety of illustrations inspired by the book, and love so many of them. If memory serves, this was the first book in which I’d ever heard of a fire opal. Since then I’ve always had a wish for a ring with that gem . . .

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