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 received his M.A. in History from the University of Notre Dame in 2012. He now teaches at Gregory the Great Academy and lives in Scranton with his wife and child.

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