George Macdonald’s The Princess and Curdie

Nothing is stranger than the holy Catholic Faith. Its scriptures speak of its God variously as a mother hen, a cuckolded husband, and a worm—in addition to the mighty images and titles that comfort us. Its God turns water into wine and terrifies men of corrupt finance with a whip, only end His life seemingly powerless and pinned to a cross. Its articles include the belief that somehow the actual bodies of all people who have ever lived will be reconstituted at the end of time—a fact which has inspired thousands of grade-school adherents with endless speculation about what happens, say, when cannibals are resurrected. The Faith, the highest truth, comes to us inseparably bound with the fantastic. This consideration reveals something about the nature of sacred truth and instruction in that truth. It is fundamentally mysterious; it communicates itself as much by paradox as by exposition, and employs many and interwoven meanings.

This is perhaps one reason that allegory has a hard time representing Christianity. The difficulty with straight allegory is that it usually involves a clear, one-to-one correspondence of items of faith to their representations. So much of what the Faith contains is too rich and too strange to be reduced in an attractive way to such correspondences. One allegorist, however, who was able to employ mystery, paradox, and deeply-layered symbolism, was the Scottish Victorian, George MacDonald. One of his works, The Princess and Curdie, succeeds as an allegory because it does not try to explain or dumb down the mystery and strangeness of faith. Rather, MacDonald embraces these crucial characteristics. He employs them in creating his own world, a world that entices the reader by its strangeness, and by this means, brings the reader to appreciate the strangeness of our own world and its God as well.

This strangeness begins with the characters. Curdie, from the Princess and the Goblin, returns to discover that his mining family has a mysterious, hidden lineage. He receives the ability to read hearts through the strangest of means. He is given a mission without an objective. Accompanying him in his quest full of questions is a most bizarre menagerie of creatures, including a serpent with wings and a small meatball-like being. Their origin is literally shrouded by their monstrous forms, forms which are punishments, or rather fulfillments, of earlier sins committed by each creature. Strangely, these forms become the means of salvation not only for a fallen kingdom, but for the creatures themselves as well. One may not finish a discussion of the characters without mention of the “great great grandmother.” She is not merely a symbol of Wisdom; after all, a symbol does not have a laugh that is a “lightning of delight,” “sweeter than song,” “made of breath that had laughed.” She appears here as a hag, there as a severe queen, sometimes as a beautiful princess, and sometimes even as a lowly maid.

The strange mystery of the characters is compounded by the situations they appear in. A long journey passes through a desert filled with horrors. Curdie and his father undergo a terrifying trial of faith in the middle of a mountain. Rose-petal fires burn with excruciating pain and bestow wonderful powers. A beautiful young girl emerges unexpectedly from the back of a long, dark chamber. A great evil has reduced a strong and virtuous king to spiritual and physical sickness.

These characters and scenes are surrounded by a world that is larger, and a plot that is more terrifying, than that in the Princess and the Goblin. Instead of a small old castle, a hut, and a mountain, the setting is now the entire kingdom. The fate of the kingdom is now at stake, instead of the capture of a princess. The enemies were grotesque and foolish goblins before, but here they are clever men with goblin hearts.

Although the stage is larger and the threats more dire than in the first book the same kind of faith is, nevertheless, required to overcome them. This is what elevates The Princess and Curdie from mere allegory to something else, something like what J.R.R. Tolkien saw in the fairy tale: “a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.” The reality pointed to here is the victory of faith, faith in the context of a human-made story that points out and illustrates the truth of St. John’s words: “this is the victory which overcometh the world, our faith” (1 John 5:4).

On a more somber note, the victory of faith in the book shares another similarity to such victories here in our world: The kingdom is only temporarily saved; it only takes a forgetful generation afterward to plunge it once again into evil ways. As it is true in our “Primary World,” so it is true in Gwyntystorm: triumphs of good are always passing even while they partake in the final triumph to come.

The Princess and Curdie is a wonderful allegory, and yet it transcends the label of child’s allegory, for its world is real enough to captivate our attention. This world is real because it is, in a word, strange like our own world, strange like reality, strange like our Faith itself.

Paul Joseph Prezzia

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Paul Joseph Prezzia is a citizen of Pittsburgh and a graduate of St. Gregory's Academy, class of 2002. He received his M.A. in History from the University of Notre Dame in 2012, and now writes in exile from Scranton.

  • sibyl

    I have read the two Curdie books aloud for my children probably six times in the last 15 years, and each time I find something new in them. Much of what you say I agree with; that allegory is limited, and that faith contains elements of fantastic. I would go further and say that, especially in the first book, Curdie and Irene represent two souls: one with excellence in the natural realm, the other with supernatural grace. It’s no accident that Irene rescues Curdie by simply trusting wherever her grandmother’s thread leads, and that Curdie can hardly believe what has happened even when he witnesses it.

    After spending so much time with these books, I find that the spiritual resonances in them only ring more clearly. I would put these before the Narnia books as excellent children’s literature.

  • Jdonnell

    Allegory may be the reason that this book fails in comparison with its predecessor, “The Princess and the Goblin.” Our family read the sequel after enjoying the first one so much, only to be terribly disappointed in the second. I sparred my own children the experience of disappointment by going from “The Princess and the Goblin” right to “The Hobbit,” where the influence of the former is nearly unmistakable.

  • Ib

    One has to be careful with George MacDonald. He vigorously denied the Roman Catholic faith, yes, all the holiness of it as well as the strangeness. The roots of his mythopoeics lie not so much in Dante and Ariosto, but in the phoniness of Ossian and other English and German folklore. The philandering C.S. Lewis (see the blog post written by James O’Fee at Impala Press, titled “C.S. Lewis and Mrs Janie Moore”) zeroed in on the essential nature of MacDonald’s work: in his well-known essay on MacDonald, Lewis terms it “mythopoeic” rather than allegorical. Mythopoeic work builds a mythos around itself, much of which necessarily remains unexplained lore. It is inevitably mysterious and strange. In contrast, allegory builds a clear overlay on the present by use of obvious correspondences between the story and the current circumstance. It does so, as H.W. Fowler put it, in order “to enlighten the hearer by submitting to him a case in which he has apparently no direct concern, and upon which therefore a disinterested judgment may be elicited from him” (_Modern English Usage_, p 535). If we use Fowler’s well-established definition, then MacDonald’s work is not allegory. There are few clear correspondences, but many indistinct, yet suggestive ones. Of course, if one changes the definition of allegory, then anything goes, and MacDonald’s fairy stories would acquire the famous nose of wax.

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