Saturday, December 29, 2012

Review: The Light Princess


Earlier this fall, I was given a pair of Puffin Classics by friends of ours from church.  They had us over for dinner and we got to talking about their book collection.  They had two sets of George Macdonald’s Princess books, and very nicely handed one set to me.  I’m now the proud owner of The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie.  I loved the first; not so much the second.  Knowing that Macdonald is the father of the English Anglican fantasy (if I remember right, both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien cite Macdonald as an influence), I wanted to read more of his work.

Macdonald was not a strict Anglican but a Congregationalist minister.  His theology, as far as I can tell, is on the liberal side; for example, Macdonald “dares to hope that all might be saved,” as we said in my theology class.  He wrote for both children and adults, and is most famous now for his fairy tales, all of which reflect aspects of his Christian faith.  I was absolutely delighted, when reading The Princess and the Goblin, to interpret it using my new knowledge from theology class – my husband loves that I’m able to do this now, and absolutely beamed each time I ran from the bedroom to the living room to announce things like “the grandmother represents God the Father!”  It’s been fun to play spot-the-doctrine in Macdonald’s fairy tales.

The Light Princess (1864) is written for a younger audience than the Princess books; it is very short and my copy (from the campus library) is even illustrated.  It has a fascinating premise with some very, very odd working out of the Christian allegory.  The king and queen of Lagobel forget to invite the king’s sister to their daughter’s christening.  This is a problem because the king’s sister, Princess Mak-em-no-it (“make ‘em know it”?) is an evil witch, who takes offence at being overlooked, so she curses the princess just as the infant is splashed with water, taking away the child’s gravity.  So the “light” of the title refers not to light as in sunbeams, but light as in weight!  The princess (who is never named) is in constant danger of floating away, except when she is swimming in water – for some reason related to the water of her christening, the princess gets her gravity back in the nearby lake.  Two conflicts emerge in this book.  First, the princess is always laughing but never serious and never smiling.  She is kind of vacuous, which is a problem, because the only cure for her loss of gravity is for the princess to cry.  The king even whips his daughter in an attempt to make her cry (what?!), but to no avail.  The second conflict comes about due to Princess Mak-em-no-it’s continued jealousy and rage; with her magic sucking snake, she causes the water of the lake to descend and then disappear altogether, which of course devastates the princess.  The only solution is for a living man to sacrifice his own life to plug the hole at the bottom of the lake.  By the end of the book, both conflicts are solved, the evil witch gets her comeuppance, and all ends happily, as a fairy tale should.

So you’ve got all sorts of nifty baptism imagery and an even more perfect working out of Abelard’s moral influence atonement theory (see, there’s my theology class again), but it all ends up being rather confused and baffling because the symbols aren’t very consistent and there are those occasional really odd and unpleasant moments like the king whipping his own daughter.  On the other hand, there are some really wonderful and creative images like the princess floating above a procession of the king’s courtiers, each holding a ribbon attached to the princess’s sash (charmingly illustrated on the cover of this edition).  If you’re not familiar with Macdonald’s work, I’d recommend The Princess and the Goblin over this book, though The Light Princess certainly has its endearing moments.  If you do know it, what did you think?  I’d be fascinated to hear the opinion of someone who didn’t approach it from the find-the-Christian-theology standpoint.  How does it measure up with other Victorian fairy tales?

10 comments:

  1. I didn't look for any in The Light Princess. I read it as pure fairy tale--something just to entertain and delight. I think I love The Princess and the Goblin more, but these two are so very different from each other!

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    1. Indeed they are! Have you read any of his others? Are they worth a try?

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  2. I've only read A Light Princess and the two Princess books. I'd love to read more though, I just don't know where to start!

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  3. His adult fiction is the best! Though I love all the kid stuff too. I don't think of any of them are as allegorical as Pilgrim's Progress, so you don't strictly have to look for the theology. I have read the Baronet's song (I think it is called sir Gibbie in other additions) which was quite good, but Lilith and Phantastes both truly changed my life, incredible books. I was reading the later to Amber when I spontaneously proposed to her almost 10 years ago.

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    1. Garret, I'm not sure I know this story! I'd love to hear it!! Will I perhaps see you at New Year's?

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  4. I really loved this story, although it's certainly not a tidy allegory. I have to admit I kind of liked that about it--theology is messy, and a tidy allegory tends to oversimplify. It seemed like MacDonald just hinted at lots of different kinds of things and lets readers play with them. This particular story made me think a lot about the Incarnation and the importance of being connected with the world, but there's lots of other stuff too. I really need to read more MacDonald. This and two other stories are all I've read so far, but I have At the Back of the North Wind and Lilith on my e-reader.

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    1. I'm okay with messy theology if it doesn't stray too far into truly weird or problematic. In truth, though, it was just that one paragraph in the book that bothered me; the rest of the time and in both of the Princess books, I really enjoyed how many different aspects were tied together in an untidy way. Thanks for reminding me not to focus too much on the small details that annoy me, and pay more attention to what's good in these books! :-) Please do let me know if you read any more MacDonald - I'd love to hear what you think!

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  5. Fairy tales have traditionally contained a lot of cruelty, as do their descendants, writers like Angela Carter and Neil Gaiman. MacDonald is a sweetheart compared to a lot of fairy tales!

    At the Back of the North Wind is superb, but as a Gaiman fan I urge you to try Lilith. There is a lot of Lilith in Sandman.

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    1. That's a good point. I was amazed when we read Cinderella in my German class (in German, of course) - I'd had no idea the Brothers Grimm original was so violent.

      I do indeed love Neil Gaiman though I have to confess I've never read Sandman. I'll have to look both that and Lilith up! Should I read the two in any particular order? Thanks for the recommendations!

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  6. No, I do not believe there is any order. The one will be uncannily like the other, whichever way you go.

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