By George MacDonald
Princess Irene, for her own safety, lives in the mountains, far away from her Papa King. She adores it when he comes to visit, but most of the time she amuses herself with the best toys available and her only “playmate,” her nurse. All that changes when one day, she discovers a stair that no one else seems to notice. Climbing the stare, she finds her great-great grandmother, who is spinning cloth out of moonlight. Her great-great grandmother gives her a magic ring and sends her on adventures.
Meanwhile, Curdie, the son of a mountain miner, discovers not one but two fiendish plots hatched by the goblins that live under the mines. Can he do anything to stop them before the princess is threatened?
When the Irene and Curdie meet, they do all they can to save the kingdom, even though most of the adults believe they are only playing a game.
This very early fantasy novel was first published in 1872. It’s fascinating reading a story that takes place long before C. S. Lewis or Tolkien released their epics. Fantasy tropes had not yet been settled into the forms we recognize today. For instance, the goblins that are the major threat in this tale are also called gnomes and kobolds. Apparently all three refer to the same race! As any current fantasy reader could tell you, gnomes and goblins are not usually alike.
The author originally wrote this for his children, and that’s clear in the simple prose style. I often got the impression the book was meant to be read aloud. There are several points in the story where the narrator stops and asks for the reader’s direct involvement, for instance, “Guess what she was spinning.”
The plot is simple but delightful. It’s great seeing where so many of our modern tropes come from – or at least, where their evolution was at this point. It’s clear that C. S. Lewis and Tolkien were familiar with this work, and I can clearly see how Neil Gaiman was influenced by it.
However, this is not epic fantasy of the modern set. If you’re looking for cataclysmic battles, you won’t find it here. You’ll find the story of two children who are trying to save the adults. The tale is fitting for children, but still entertaining to adults, making it great read-along fare.
There is a fascinating theme to the novel, though, that will interest Christian readers. Princess Irene loves her great great grandmother, but no one believes that this mysterious benefactress exists, not even Irene’s friend Curdie. Irene speaks confidently, but at times even finds herself doubting whether or not her great great grandmother is real. I see a precursor to Lucy’s plot from Prince Caspian here. I’d be interested to hear from another reader to see if they detect the same.
As a last note, I am aware of the animated movie of the same title, which is based on this book. Having never seen the movie, I cannot speak as to how faithful an adaptation it was – or if someone who enjoyed the movie would likewise enjoy the book. I would encourage you to read and watch both if you’re interested!
A preview of the book may be found by clicking on the hyperlinked title of the novel above.