First published in 1872, The Princess and the Goblin is still a wonderful children’s story. I read an unabridged version that was a little wordier—more old-fashioned—than the abridged version I read in college, but I was amazed at all the layers of meaning I picked up on this time around that I missed back then. I can’t say if this was due to the abridgment, or if I’ve simply become a more astute reader.
In the story, Princess Irene and a young miner named Curdie are thrown into an adventure together despite their difference in station. In fact, they find they’re easy friends. Together, they stand against the race of goblins that lives under the mountain and seeks to destroy the human kingdom. They are both very good children—nearly perfect—and learn lessons of truthfulness, humbleness, friendship, faith and honor. It is a fairy tale and contains some moralistic tones that were common in the era during which it was written. This gives the book a quaint feeling, but the story is very engaging. I remember how surprised I was in college by how much I liked it despite its being assigned reading.
George MacDonald was a contemporary of Lewis Carroll (The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland), and he was an author both JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis cited as having a strong influence on their work. He was also a Scottish minister, and veiled elements of faith are threaded throughout the story much as Lewis’ does in his Chronicles of Narnia.
Princess Irene has a great-great grandmother that only she can see. She reminds me of a fairy godmother except she’s even greater, more God-like. She gives Irene a thread to follow when she is in trouble that will guide her to safety. There is much commentary about faith and trust and belief in what cannot be seen. I liked Irene’s comment to Curdie, who doubts she has a grandmother at all, “If you don’t know what I mean, what right have you to call it nonsense?”
These elements are a little harder to pick out than those in Narnia. I missed them completely in college. (I can’t believe how much I missed!) It was the story that I enjoyed: the underground caverns, the danger, the odd world of the goblins, the fairy tale life of the princess, the likeableness of Curdie, the way he warded off evil with rhyme. I have a deeper appreciation for the whole of the work now, but I think kids will primarily be drawn into the adventure, as I was. There are several abridged versions available in paperback and digital versions, but the unabridged version is free for Kindle (Awesome!), and it’s very readable. I’d recommended it for kids 6+, with an independent reading level of perhaps fourth or fifth grade. The vocabulary isn’t difficult, but sentence structures are a bit more complex than today’s style. There is a sequel entitled The Princess and Curdie, which I also plan to read.
Sweet adventure factor: This is the hard hat spelunking kind, but it is very fanciful and old-fashioned. So grab up some trail mix (or maybe some tea and scones) and settle in for a great read!