Hello, this is Fr. Michael Gillis and I’m speaking of books…
Today I will be talking about George MacDonald's children’s fantasy, “The Princess and Curdie.” This is the sequel to “The Princess and the Goblin,” but you don’t have to read that first to enjoy "The Princess and Curdie."
However, before you enjoy any tale by George MacDonanld, you must first let go of your 21st century sensibilities and be willing to enter an imaginary world more glorious and more severe than what most of us would call good. In the world of Curdie and the Princess, virtue, loyalty and truth are more important than this transient life--either losing it yourself or taking it from others. In other words, it is a world that we might call brutal, although it is an honest brutality. It is a brutality in which an honest and true person must personally confront that which is wicked and selfish--and the consequent injury to life or limb is merely a natural part of the exchange.
It is certainly a far cry from our politically correct culture which cannot stand the personal pain of an angry slur, but nonetheless enjoys the impersonal violence of video games and movies--and through technology can keep real violence far away through bombs triggered from a distance and hospitals that keep the dying out of our sight. For us (in North America) today, violence is seldom personal, and when it is personal, we consider it an unusual tragedy, not a normal part of life and death in a sin-filled world. But in the world of Mac Donald’s fairy tales, violence is always personal. The wicked and the righteous confront each other personally.
In The Princess and Curdie, the fairy tale at hand, Curdie is growing through his early teen years and beginning to disbelieve in the angel-like Great Great Grandmother of Princess Irene, the young princess whom Curdie had saved from the goblins in the previous novel. Curdie is beginning to care more about what his fellow miners think of him than of what his parents think of him. He is beginning to doubt what he had known so clearly to be true within himself just a short while ago, simply because it is not being confirmed by his peer group.
However the Great Great Grandmother has not forsaken him, and through a random act of violence in which Curdie shoots a white dove with the bow he had made, She reveals the softness of Curdie’s heart in that he is sorry for the harm he has done. In seeking to heal the wounded dove, Curdie reencounters the Great Great Grandmother. She confronts him for allowing himself to be led into cynicism by his peers and calls him to a dangerous mission to serve the King. Really it is just what every teenage boy needs: a noble purpose bigger than himself that will require discipline, suffering, and recognition in the eyes of those in power.
Perhaps the most powerful theological theme of the book is introduced early. The Great Great Grandmother explains to Curdie that many human beings are becoming like animals and many people with apparently wicked or ugly qualities are actually becoming more human. But you cannot always tell from the outside which way people are going. She uses the example of two men walking up or down a hill side. Viewed quickly from a distance, you cannot easily tell which one is ascending and which is descending. Similarly, from the current appearance of one’s life’s circumstances, you cannot easily tell whether or not the person is becoming more human or more animal.
Curdie receives two gifts from from the Great Great Grandmother for his mission. The first gift is the ability to discern by shaking hands whether one is becoming more human or more animal--and which animal too. And the second gift is an extremely ugly, dog-like creature to be his servant. Right away, Curdie touches the paw of this frightening creature only to discern the beautiful hand of a young woman.
Curdie and the creature, named Lina, journey together to the capital of the kingdom only to find its citizens in a state of deep selfishness (which as Mac Donald describes it sounds in many respects like what we today might call healthy capitalism). Curdie and Lina are thrown in prison for killing the dogs that attacked them--that it was an act of self-defense makes no difference, for the owners blame Curdie for being a stranger and Lina for just being ugly and frightening. However, in the prison they discover a secret passage into the King’s castle. There they uncover a plot to slowly poison the king, and with the help of 49 hideous creatures similar to Lina, (whom they recruited on their journey to the capital) they help the king win back his kingdom.
However, the fairytale ends on a bitter note. Although the king wins back his kingdom, it is largely populated by citizens who cooperated with those who betrayed him. Nevertheless, Curdie is able to go through the kingdom shaking hands and recommending people for the king’s new court--men and women who are becoming men and women. The Great Great Grandmother reveals that Curdie’s parents are of an ancient royal line, and this qualifies him to marry the princess--whom he saved in the first fairytale. You would think this is the final note of a fairytale happy ending, but it is not.
Mac Donald extends the final note to the king who follows Curdie, he and the princess not having any children. In the final passage of the fairytale, we find out that Curdie’s successor to the throne returns to capitalist ways, and driven by greed he exploits the mineral resources of the kingdom to such an extent that the kingdom collapses--literally. The gold mine over which the capital is build collapses and falls into the river.
Not a very happy note to end a children’s fairytale with. And yet, it is a note that rings very true, especially today, almost 150 years after it was written.
For those of you my dear listeners who have the courage to read real fairytales, I whole-heartedly recommend to you the work of George Mac Donald. The tale I spoke of today is called “The Princess and Curdie,” which is the sequel to “The Princess and the Goblin.” But perhaps my favorite George Mac Donald fairy tale is, “The Back of the North Wind,” but I give you fair warning: it may change your life.
For Speaking of Books, this is Fr. Michael Gillis