Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald

My second venture with reading an eBook was George MacDonald's The Princess and Curdie, the sequel to The Princess and the Goblin. The Princess and Curdie primarily follows the adventures of Curdie when he is sent on a mission by the Princess's great-great grandmother, eventually foiling a plan of treason that endangered the life of the king and Princess Irene.

This is a darker tale than The Princess and the Goblin, and the symbolism seems more complex, probably much deeper than I have grasped in my quick, late-night reading. There are certainly images of redemption, but I'm not sure if any particular character could be considered a Christ-figure. Most intriguing to me is the way concepts of faith, reason, and experience are presented and implied. Every person who encounters the great-great grandmother is required to suspend reason to greater or lesser extents, and those who hear of these encounters must choose either to trust and believe those who describe their wondrous, confusing tales or doubt the speaker at the risk of losing what relationship they had. Faith in what the great-great grandmother says is the key thing - one might doubt or marvel at the experience in which those words were heard, but one should never doubt the existence of the great-great grandmother or the truth of her words, even when it seems they contradict good sense and sound reason. Theologians have wrestled with the relationship of faith and reason for centuries, so it is not to be expected that a fairy tale will sort out the issues and make things plain. Yet I think MacDonald does glory in the tension and the paradoxes of faith, recognizing that some things are beyond reason, but at the same time faith and reason are both grounded in truth, in word, in the Word.

Where The Princess and the Goblin seemed like a typical fairy tale with good moral lessons and a fairly predictable, almost formulaic ending, The Princess and Curdie had several passages that reminded me more of Lillith in all its oddities, particularly Curdie's journey across the heath, the many strange and hideous creatures that accompany him, and the descriptions of the city and its inhabitants. Perhaps we are more used to the images and creatures of Narnia and Middle Earth, so even orcs don't seem so terrible and strange, or maybe Lewis and Tolkien crafted myths more to the liking of modern minds. At any rate, I much prefer MacDonald's novels to his fantasy.

Even though I much prefer to hold a book in my hands, one advantage of reading a book online is that it makes it very easy to cut and paste my favorite lines from the page. I apologize for the length of these quotes, but I hope readers will find them to be gems as I did.

"He was a real king - that is, one who ruled for the good of his people and not to please himself, and he wanted the silver not to buy rich things for himself, but to help him to govern the country, and pay the ones that defended it from certain troublesome neighbours, and the judges whom he set to portion out righteousness among the people, that so they might learn it themselves, and come to do without judges at all." (Chapter 1)

"The good, kind people did not reflect that the road to the next duty is the only straight one, or that, for their fancied good, we should never wish our children or friends to do what we would not do ourselves if we were in their position. We must accept righteous sacrifices as well as make them." (Chapter 1)

"There is this difference between the growth of some human beings and that of others: in the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection. One of the latter sort comes at length to know at once whether a thing is true the moment it comes before him; one of the former class grows more and more afraid of being taken in, so afraid of it that he takes himself in altogether, and comes at length to believe in nothing but his dinner: to be sure of a thing with him is to have it between his teeth." (Chapter 2)

"The boy should enclose and keep, as his life, the old child at the heart of him, and never let it go. He must still, to be a right man, be his mother's darling, and more, his father's pride, and more. The child is not meant to die, but to be forever fresh born." (Chapter 2)

"'I see now that I have been doing wrong the whole day, and such a many days besides! Indeed, I don't know when I ever did right, and yet it seems as if I had done right some time and had forgotten how. When I killed your bird I did not know I was doing wrong, just because I was always doing wrong, and the wrong had soaked all through me. . .I was doing the wrong of never wanting or trying to be better. And now I see that I have been letting things go as they would for a long time. Whatever came into my head I did, and whatever didn't come into my head I didn't do. I never sent anything away, and never looked out for anything to come.'" (Chapter 3)

"There was a change upon Curdie, and father and mother felt there must be something to account for it, and therefore were pretty sure he had something to tell them. For when a child's heart is all right, it is not likely he will want to keep anything from his parents." (Chapter 4)

"They were the happiest couple in that country, because they always understood each other, and that was because they always meant the same thing, and that was because they always loved what was fair and true and right better, not than anything else, but than everything else put together." (Chapter 4)

"But they did not lose courage, for there is a kind of capillary attraction in the facing of two souls, that lifts faith quite beyond the level to which either could raise it alone: they knew that they had seen the lady of emeralds, and it was to give them their own desire that she had gone from them, and neither would yield for a moment to the half doubts and half dreads that awoke in his heart." (Chapter 7)

"'Yes,' she went on, 'you have got to thank me that you are so poor, Peter. I have seen to that, and it has done well for both you and me, my friend. Things come to the poor that can't get in at the door of the rich. Their money somehow blocks it up. It is a great privilege to be poor, Peter - one that no man ever coveted, and but a very few have sought to retain, but one that yet many have learned to prize. You must not mistake, however, and imagine it a virtue; it is but a privilege, and one also that, like other privileges, may be terribly misused. Had you been rich, my Peter, you would not have been so good as some rich men I know. And now I am going to tell you what no one knows but myself: you, Peter, and your wife both have the blood of the royal family in your veins. I have been trying to cultivate your family tree, every branch of which is known to me, and I expect Curdie to turn out a blossom on it. Therefore I have been training him for a work that must soon be done. I was near losing him, and had to send my pigeon. Had he not shot it, that would have been better; but he repented, and that shall be as good in the end.'" (Chapter 7)

"'I could give you twenty names more to call me, Curdie, and not one of them would be a false one. What does it matter how many names if the person is one?'
'Ah! But it is not names only, ma'am. Look at what you were like last night, and what I see you now!'
'Shapes are only dresses, Curdie, and dresses are only names. That which is inside is the same all the time.'
'But then how can all the shapes speak the truth?'
'it would want thousands more to speak the truth, Curdie; and then they could not. But there is a point I must not let you mistake about. It is one thing the shape I choose to put on, and quite another the shape that foolish talk and nursery tale may please to put upon me. Also, it is one thing what you or your father may think about me, and quite another what a foolish or bad man may see in me. For instance, if a thief were to come in here just now, he would think he saw the demon of the mine, all in green flames, come to protect her treasure, and would run like a hunted wild goat. I should be all the same, but his evil eyes would see me as I was not.'" (Chapter 7)

"But the fortifications had long been neglected, for the whole country was now under one king, and all men said there was no more need for weapons or walls. No man pretended to love his neighbour, but every one said he knew that peace and quiet behaviour was the best thing for himself, and that, he said, was quite as useful, and a great deal more reasonable. The city was prosperous and rich, and if everybody was not comfortable, everybody else said he ought to be." (Chapter 13)

"He felt sure this must be the king's chamber, and it was here he was wanted; or, if it was not the place he was bound for, something would meet him and turn him aside; for he had come to think that so long as a man wants to do right he may go where he can: when he can go no farther, then it is not the way." (Chapter 18)


Calon Lan said...

This sounds absolutely fascinating and an interesting compare/contrast study to The Prince (Machiavelli) that I re-read recently. I'll be adding the MacDonald book to my list.

S. Mehrens said...

I applaud you for reading this book. My mother read it to me when I was younger and I seem to recall it was a little wordy at times. But it's a great piece of literature and I really should re-read it sometime.

Btw, I wanted to touch base and thank you for participating in the book swap. Also, I wanted to make sure you and your match had gotten in touch. Let me know if you have any questions or problems. Oh and once you've figured out which books you two are going to swap, can you let me know? I'd like to post a wrap-up post -- even if not everyone posts reviews.