The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald. Two and a half stars.
A children’s fantasy book first published in 1872 and considered one of the classic precursors of the fantasy genre.
Princess Irene is a little girl of indeterminate age–at the end of the book one is told she is eight– who lives in a big house in the mountains with her nurse and house servants, but without her parents, one of whom has presumably passed away; the other one is the king of the realm and too busy to spend much time with his beloved daughter. There is a heroic miner boy named Curdie, goblins and their monstrous creatures, and a secret plan that must be unravelled before its nefarious consequences can upset the balance of the kigndom. And if my description makes it sound interesting, you ought to credit my writing and not the book itself for that.
This is another book that I wondered why was I inflicting this thing upon myself. The plot seems to be designed for a very small child, perhaps three or four years old, that would be amused by the magical descriptions but not put-off by the lack of self-consistency and internal logic of the narrative. The language, on the other hand, seems at times complex enough for a first year college student. The characters are extremely stereotypical and at times absurd, like the nurse Lootie, who seems particularly inmature and incompetent to have such an important person as the princess as her charge. Then there is the character of princess Irene, which is such a bore, weak, uninteresting pushover, that one has to wonder why is she supposed to be the heroine of the story if not to provide an extremely distressed damsel for the heroic miner boy to rescue. Added to that, the constant breaking of the fourth wall in which the author stops the story to lecture the reader about what it means to be a nice princess and a good little girl. Ugh!
So what is good about this book, if anything? Well, there is an early chapter in which Curdie listens to the converstaion of the goblins for the first time, which is extremely funny, pure genius, and I wish more of that would have found space on the rest of the book. If you appreciate perfect grammar and antique usage in your reading, this is another high point of The Princess and the Goblin. And that’s about it. I must say I finished it because I feel it is unfair to criticize a book without giving it at least one thorough reading and I wanted so much to criticize this one.
I don’t know who would want to read this. Perhaps a literature major who’d like to compare modern children’s literature to that of the nineteenth century? Or if you must read something and are stuck in a long transatlantic flight with nothing else at hand. Perhaps, you want to make an experiment and read it to your children to see if if this type of narrative could work for modern children. And if they like it, please let me know; maybe, I could learn something after all.
In summary, the book has some—very few—good parts, and it gets better after the first half, but you have to wade through so much that makes you want to scratch your eyes off that you need real stamina to get to them.