Early English Fantasy Writing

princess and goblin

It is the Late Victorian Era and genre fiction has arrived! I think we might be in the Late-late Victorian Era, but that doesn’t matter. A few weeks ago we covered a mystery novel, today’s book is a children’s fantasy novel and we have horror novels coming up. I appreciate this, because dressing up as a goblin is heaps more fun than getting out my tired old blue dress, middle parting my hair and forgoing makeup to be yet another Victorian lady. Bring on the genres! Bring on the murders, vampires, goblins, ghosts and demons.

George MacDonald is far more influential than he is famous. I reviewed his dense, philosophical, fantasy novel for adults, Phantastes, here. The Princess and the Goblin is another animal altogether. It retains the fairy tale whimsy of Phantastes, but as a children’s book, it is much simpler. An improvement, in my opinion, as I found his first novel a bit dull and meandering. For clarity’s sake, I should state that MacDonald professed that he wrote not for children, but “for the childlike,” which was a pretty common sentiment among kid lit writers in this era. Genres are just now emerging from under the nose of “serious literature.” Most writers didn’t want to be considered genre writers.

The Princess and the Goblin is a delightful little tale of a very young princess who shares her realm with a subterranean goblin kingdom. The princess is so sheltered that she’s unaware of the goblins at the beginning of the story. When she is nearly captured by these hideous, malformed creatures a young miner rescues her by singing. Because goblins hate rhymes. Especially extemporaneous rhymes. The miner, Curdie, and Princess Irene become fast friends, even though he does not believe her stories about her magical grandmother that no one else can see.

It’s quite evident that MacDonald significantly influenced two giants of fantasy: Tolkien and Lewis. When Irene goes wandering in her large home, she stumbles upon a mystical room and a beautiful, white-haired lady who bestows magic baubles upon her. A benevolent precursor of the White Witch in the wardrobe. Curdie, while mining, overhears a goblin conversation and is able to thwart their dastardly plans. This reminds me of several moments in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy when hidden hobbits overhear their enemies’ terrifying schemes. It’s a great scene. I was simultaneously frightened for Curdie and entertained by the ludicrous goblin conversation. The underground goblin kingdom precedes both Tolkien’s dwarfish kingdom overrun by goblins, and the secret subterranean land in Lewis’ The Silver Chair.

It’s a bit silly that MacDonald resisted being identified as a children’s writer, given that he addresses many comments to “little girls I know” who don’t manage to behave as well as Princess Irene. She is very much a perfect, fairytale princess who can do no wrong. Modern readers crave a bit more nuanced characterization than MacDonald offers in The Princess and the Goblin, especially adult readers. But, it is a fun, sweet little story and breath of fresh air after all that Victorian realism.

I don’t have much else to say about The Princess and the Goblin. It is a sweet, simple fantasy story for children, but it has plenty of silly humor in it for childlike adults.

Here’s a Quote Because I Love You:

“The princess got tired. So tired that even her toys could no longer amuse her. You would wonder at that if I had time to describe to you one half of the toys she had. But then, you wouldn’t have the toys themselves, and that makes all the difference: you can’t get tired of a thing before you have it.  It was a picture, though, worth seeing—the princess sitting in the nursery with the sky ceiling over her head, at a great table covered with her toys. If the artist would like to draw this, I should advise him not to meddle with the toys. I am afraid of attempting to describe them, and I think he had better not try to draw them. He had better not. HE can do a thousand things that I can’t, but I don’t think he could draw those toys.”

You might like The Princess and the Goblin if:

  • you’re a fantasy aficionado or simply a fan of Tolkien and Lewis
  • you like fairytales
  • you don’t mind allegory

You might not like The Princess and the Goblin if:

  • you detest allegory and require all of your characters to be nuanced and gritty


Final Thoughts: I liked it. It’s not soaring to the top spot in my heart, but it’s a good piece of writing. It’s nice to get out of the Dickensian poorhouse and into a magical world populated by princesses and goblins and gold-hearted miners.