Sunday, January 31, 2010

Galadriel's Secret Origins

If I previously found drops and streams of modern fantasy in George MacDonald's Phantastes (1858), in his children's book The Princess and the Goblin (1872) I seem to have found the headwaters. It makes sense that the fantastic imagination had more room to roam in children's literature at the time. Today's resurgence of YA sf/f (see the flap about the YA-heavy Hugo novel nominees in 2009) shows this cycle continuing. And of course, J. R. R. Tolkein wrote The Hobbit before he tackled The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, if you've read The Hobbit to your children but they're not quite old enough to head off for Harry Potter or LotR yet, pick this one up. It strikes many of the same notes, and has aged quite well.

Irene is a princess (a true princess, not spoilt at all), and she lives in one of her father's country houses. There's the household and retinue, and out in the mountains there are miners and (unbeknownst to the princess) goblins. Irene discovers her magical grandmother living in parts of her house that are only there sometimes. None of the rest of the house knows about the grandmother, and even Irene sometimes thinks she dreamed it all. However, she is true to her word and believes in herself, and the grandmother gives her a magic ring that will see her through troubling times to come.

Curdie is a brave young miner, a little older than Irene. He rescued her when she stayed out too late one night. He discovers that the goblins have hatched a plot against the miners and the King's men. However, in his spying he eventually gets captured by the goblins. Irene, following a thread (that neatly ties the plot together, literally and metaphorically) from the magic ring, finds Curdie and rescues him. He's very grateful, but doesn't believe in the ring or the grandmother, which he can't see. Irene is very vexed with him.

Curdie continues spying on the goblins, but is then captured by the King's men. They don't believe him any more than he believed Irene. However when the goblins overrun the house he escapes and helps drive them back. He knows their two weakness: recited poetry (much simpler than the lyrical verse found in Phantastes, same comparison between poetry in Hobbit vs LotR) and very tender feet. Goblins don't have toes (although their Queen does, and she's very self-conscious about it). And they've lost any and all creativity, so the creativity of others causes them pain. The princess had already escaped the goblins of her own accord, but she gets stuck with Curdie and his (very noble) parents for a while. Eventually they make it back in time to present her to her father, who had finally ridden in with his men in response to the emergency. There's one more crisis before the end, but Irene's nobility and Curdie's leadership see everyone through safe and sound.

My description makes it sound a bit trite, but there are some interesting elements here. For one, Irene rescues Curdie, and there's a lot to be said for that. Also unusually, there are three strong women here: Irene, the mysterious grandmother, and Curdie's mother. Another prominent, although a bit flibbertigibbet figure is Irene's nurse. Amazingly enough, this short novel from 1872 passes the Bechdel test with flying colors in that Irene speaks to all the other women about things that aren't boys or men or Curdie. Considering how few modern narratives can say the same, I found this quite refreshing.

The links to Tolkein are very clear. The mountain & the goblins feel just like the situation where Bilbo meets Gollum for the first time in Hobbit. The description of how the goblins evolved has strong parallels with Gollum's backstory:

There was a legend current in the country that at one time they lived above ground, and were very like other people. But for some reason or other, concerning which there were different legendary theories... and the consequence was that they had all disappeared from the face of the country. According to the legend, however, instead of going to some other country, they had taken refuge in the subterranean caverns, whence they never came out but at night... Those who had caught sight of any of them said that they had greatly altered in the course of the generations; and no wonder, seeing that they lived away from the sun, in cold and wet and dark places. They were now, not ordinarily ugly, but either absolutely hideous, or ludicrously grotesque both in face and form... The goblins themselves were not so far removed from the human as such a description would imply... as they grew in cunning, they grew in mischief, and their great delight was in every way they could think of to annoy the people who lived in the open-air storey above them.
There's a magic ring, although Irene's is limited and very specific to her adventures. And in the grandmother, I believe we have the template for Galadriel, amazingly enough. In her bedroom is a bath that appears to be the antecedent of the fountain in which Frodo & Sam see bits of the future.

'Do you see that bath behind you?'

The princess looked, and saw a large oval tub of silver, shining brilliantly in the light of the wonderful lamp.

'Go and look into it,' said the lady.

Irene went, and came back very silent with her eyes shining.

'What did you see?' asked her grandmother.

'The sky, and the moon and the stars,' she answered. 'It looked as if there were no bottom to it.'
Add to that her whole mien, her wisdom & beauty that are almost as frightening as comforting, which speaks to what would later be Tolkein's elvish.

Read today, her introduction feels a bit sinister. A magical old woman, in control of who can see her and who can't, who has intense interest in a particular child. I was all set for her to be a bad witch, which says depressing things about how wise women are portrayed today. Delightfully, she actually is good and wise. And intriguingly, she keeps her secrets! Her story isn't at all explained at the end of the book, which just left me wanting more. I understand that there's a sequel, The Princess and Curdie, and I'm hoping to track down a copy. Irene & Curdie are both nice enough, very brave & courageous children who make it through some very dark places together, but I really want to know more about that grandmother!

Here's another way that you know that a story is good: I told my mother that I was picking up some George MacDonald. She said that she felt like she'd heard the name before. I mentioned Phantastes and Lilith, but when I mentioned The Princess and the Goblin she lit up. She proceeded to tell me the whole story, which she'd loved as a girl in the 40's. I was mildly put out, since I thought Mom and Dad had read all the good English children's lit to me growing up, but apparently they missed that one. No matter, it just gives me the opportunity to discover it now, when I can appreciate just how much it relates to the genre as a whole. Chalk up another one in the "delightful!" column of the classics roster.


Farah Mendlesohn said...

I came across this one in the school library where my mother worked. Although it's not the starter book that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was, I think it may have been the book that carried me past adolescence into a stronger interest in the fantastic.

Unknown said...

Definitely a great book! It did not remind me so much of Tolkien, however, as of the german romantic poet Novalis (whom Macdonald acknowledges as an influence).

"The princess and Curdie" is a must-read. I won't spoil it for you by saying that it's much more adult than the first book - more sombre, even pessimist. And the Grandmother has a strong appearance indeed.

A propos the Grandmother: I find it productive to think of her as incorporating God (in the christian sense). Now how's that - a writer who was also a christian minister casting God as a woman! No wonder Macdonald was thought unorthodox at the time...

Farah Mendlesohn said...

It's quite possible for the Grandmother to be Mary also. Isn't there lots of blue light? I rather like the idea of Mary getting to be a formidabble grandmother.

Oz said...

The Princess and The Goblin were a present to me from a teacher. I read it when I was 9. I also read The Princess and Curdie, which, as I remember, is not quite as good.

I'm glad you liked it and to hear it stands up well to an adult reading it.


Karen Burnham said...

Farah - I can see how this book would make an excellent bridge between fantasy for the very young and fantasy for the adult.

I like the idea of the Grandmother as a Marian figure. There is definitely a lot of blue & silver in the imagery, and of course she is very compassionate.

Kaspar - I saw MacDonald reference Novalis in the intro to Phantastes. Is Novalis itself worth reading? i.e. it is comprehensible to today's audience, and is there a good translation into English?


Unknown said...

Karen -

I cannot judge the quality of english translations of Novalis, since I'm german speaking and read the original. There isn't much he wrote, anyway - his complete works fit nicely within one book ~2 cm thick. Most of it is poems. I find them very beautiful, but then I have a taste for romantic (and, at times, highly symbolic) poetry.

The closest to Macdonalds prose would be Novalis' novel fragment "Henry of Ofterdingen", of which there appears to be an english edition currently in print. The Amazon comments rate the translation as OK. But, the work is sadly unfinished, and I share the often expressed opinion that Novalis' poems are where he's at.

I found a reference to an english translation of Novalis' "Hymns to the Night" done by none other than Macdonald himself, but have not been able to find out more. That would be interesting indeed...

Karen Burnham said...

Kaspar - thanks for the info! I will definitely try to find some of those, they sound fascinating.


I love old fairy tale's. I'll need to check this one out. Looks good.

Karen Burnham said...

Mary, if you like older fairy tales, you could also check out MacDonald's "Phantastes." It's written for adults, and the protagonist travels to a fairy land where lots of interesting things happen to him.

KiplingKat said...

I actually got this from Grammie as a kid. I didn't realize you hadn't read it. :)

Karen Burnham said...

That's cool! I do wonder how I missed it.

Hey, I got Anne of Green Gables from Gram instead! I think you got the better part of that deal (although in fairness, I did enjoy several of the Anne books when I was 6-8).