Flashback of a Flashback: Goblins underfoot . . .

Given the focus on princesses this week, I thought I’d pull out one of my favorite flashbacks.  This story is from the 1800s, but remains popular on the bookshelves for readers today!

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:

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 July 11, 2015, in Flashback Fridays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I finally read these a few years ago, after hearing them cited as major influences for years. I’d never SEEN them in person before then, and after I read them I thought WHY ON EARTH aren’t they easier to find/more well-known? Everything about them screams “timeless classic.”

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