George MacDonald may be one of the most famous children's book authors you have never heard of. Born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland in 1824, he is remembered for his theosophical writings as well as his works of fantasy. As a pastor, he was controversial, preaching God's universal love and the possibility that none would ultimately fail to unite with God. As a fantasy writer, he is best remembered for his adult works, Phnatastes: A Faeirie Romance for Men and Women and Lilith. His best known children's works are The Princess and the Goblin, At the Back of the North Wind and The Light Princess. He is cited as an influence and inspiration to the poet, WH Auden, JRR Tolkein, Madeleine L'Engle and CS Lewis who said, after reading Phantastes cover to cover, "I knew that I had crossed a great frontier."
Written 1872, The Princess and the Goblin is the story of Princess Irene and a plot amongst the kingdom of goblins, or cobs, to kidnap her and marry her off to the horrid Prince Harelip, who is half goblin, half human and has a fetish for feet. The goblins, it seems, are somewhat club footed and without toes and their feet are the tenderest, weakest part on them. Princess Irene is sent to be brought up by country people in a house that is half castle, half farm house, because her mother is too weak to care for her. The servants who care for her are well aware of the goblin folk who inhabit the nearby mountain but do not speak of them for fear of upsetting Irene. Long ago, these goblin folk lived above ground with the humans, who grew intolerant of their differences. A series of laws and taxes were passed and the race of little people eventually found themselves and their livestock seeking refuge underground. There, they and their animals grew accustomed to the dark and the damp and evolved over the years to the horrible, vengeful creatures of the story. As well as goblins, miners work the mountain, excavating ore. They protect themselves from the goblins by showing no fear and singing nasty rhyming songs about the goblins, since the goblins cannot sing and cringe and flee when they hear others doing so. While out one day playing on the mountainside with her nurse, Lootie, Princess Irene encounters a goblin. Scared witless, Lootie grabs her hand and runs off, becoming hopelessly lost. However, they have the good luck to come upon Curdie, son of Peter, both of whom are miners. Curdie sings a song, the goblins flee and he sees the Princess and her nurse back to the garden gate. This disturbing event is followed by a strange event in which Princess Irene, bored and alone, opens a cupboard and finds a hidden staircase. She follows it up and up and finds a long hallway full of rooms. She thinks herself hopelessly lost, but finds yet another staircase at the top of which are three doors. Upon opening a door, the Princess finds a beautiful, magical woman at a spinning wheel who claims to be Irene's great-great-great-great grandmother, Irene. But is she a benevolent protector or an evil spirit out to entrap Irene? The paths of Curdie and Princess Irene, as well as the grandmother in the tower, cross again in the course of the story. Though unable to believe the Princess' story about her grandmother, Curdie proves himself to be brave and clever and finds a way to save the Princess from a horrible fate and continue on in the sequel, The Princess and Curdie.
Although the page number quoted above is from the Puffin Classics Series, the version I read was part of a collection of the works of George MacDonald and clocked in at 150 pages with illustrations, and was a quick read. I think this would be a wonderful read out lout that could be done over a few nights. Despite the fact that it is 150 years old, there is not too much arcane language to throw a young reader off. The goblins have a wordy way of speaking, but their dialogue does not take up much of the story. MacDonald does a wonderful job describing the beautiful mountain countryside where the story takes place and his goblins are more vain than frightening. The scenes with the grandmother are wonderfully, deliciously written, and my favorite parts of the story, even though I was never sure until the end of the story if she was who she claimed to be. I was given my collection of MacDonald stories more than twenty years ago by a dear friend and I am ashamed to say that, as someone who claims to love fairy tales, I had not read any of his writings until now. If you find you enjoy MacDonald's works and are also fans of the illustrations of Maurice Sendak, don't miss The Light Princess, the wonderful story of a princess who, at her christening is cursed with "lightness" of both body and spirit but discovers she can regain her gravity when swimming in the beautiful lake by her castle.