The Light Princess and Other Fairy Stories

Fantasy author George MacDonald is known to many readers, including me, for being a favorite of C.S. Lewis. Having heard of his influence on Lewis, I put him on my reading list years ago, but it took Jenny’s putting his stories on my book-swap list for this year to get me to actually read his work.

The edition of The Light Princess and Other Fairy Stories that I read, available on Project Gutenberg, included three stories. (Some other editions with this same title have more.) Although I enjoyed all three stories, the first, “The Light Princess,” was my favorite.

“The Light Princess” is the story of a princess who is light in the most literal sense, thanks to a curse placed upon her by her aunt, the Princess Makemnoit:

Her atrocious aunt had deprived the child of all her gravity. If you ask me how this was effected, I answer, “In the easiest way in the world. She had only to destroy gravitation.” For the princess was a philosopher, and knew all the ins and outs of her book-lace. And being a witch as well, she could abrogate those laws in a moment; or at least so clog their wheels and rust their bearings, that they would not work at all. But we have more to do with what followed than with how it was done.

What follows is a series of amusing incidents in which the princess’s parents and caretakers learn to cope with her tendency to float away when raised in the air or exposed to a breeze. But matters turn more serious when it becomes apparent that the princess’s detachment from the world goes beyond an inability to keep her feet on the ground. She’s also seems unable to develop a spiritual and emotional connection to the world. Her laughs, which are abundant, sound hollow, and her only real joy is being in the water, where she feels something like gravity holding her in place.

Thus, MacDonald turns a fun fairy tale into a meditation on the importance of connection and the value of exiting in a body. I wondered, in fact, if MacDonald, who was a minister, was trying to illustrate why the doctrine of the incarnation, which teaches that Jesus was God in human flesh, is an important piece of the church’s relationship with God.

The second story, “The Giant’s Heart,” is an adventure set in the land of giants. A brave little girl named Tricksey-Wee and her brother Buffy-Bob land in the clutches of a giant who loves to collect little children and have them as snacks. The plucky and unafraid Tricksey-Wee decides not only that she will escape but that she will teach the giant a lesson. Silly character names aside, the story has some great moments, although it sags for a bit when Tricksy-Wee is on her journey to find the giant’s weakness. Thunderthump the giant was too much fun to be out of the story for so long.

The final story, “The Golden Key,” is more serious than the others, and while I didn’t have as much fun reading it, I’ve been thinking about this story more than I did the other two. In it, a boy called Mossy seeks a golden key at the end of the rainbow, and when he finds it, he goes on to try to learn what it unlocks. Joining him on the journey through Fairyland is a poor girl named Tangle. Traveling together and separately, the pair see many wonders, including fish that volunteer to be eaten and a young old man. The story is rich with symbols, and as a whole, it reads like a metaphorical rendering of a journey through life. The imagery of water, fish, and the like seem Christian, but the story isn’t nearly as obvious with its meanings as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I’m going to have to read it a few more times to wrap my mind around the possible meanings.

If you enjoy Victorian fairy tales, or if you’re interested in C.S. Lewis and his influences, these stories are definitely worth a read. I already have three of MacDonald’s novels (Lilith, At the Back of the North Wind, and The Princess and the Goblin) on my e-reader, and I’m eager to read one of those. Any suggestions about which one to try first?

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33 Responses to The Light Princess and Other Fairy Stories

  1. aartichapati says:

    Oh, this sounds lovely! I think I have George MacDonald confused in my head with another author who writes science fiction set in India and who I think has a similar name… but he is a modern author, so clearly not the one you mention here. These stories sound lovely, though I am generally wary of Victorian literature. It tends to be too heavily moralizing and religious in overtone for my tastes.

    • Teresa says:

      Were you thinking of George MacDonald Fraser? I think some of his Flashman books were set in India.

      • aartichapati says:

        No, I was thinking of Ian MacDonald- just did a search of my books to figure out which one I was thinking of. Same last name, in my defense :-)

  2. Lisa says:

    Tricksey-Wee made me think of James Herriot, but his dog patient is Tricki Woo.

    I didn’t know that MacDonald was an influence on C.S. Lewis. There was a copy of The Princess and the Goblin on the library sale shelves this past weekend – I might look for it again. I haven’t read any true fairy tales from the Victorians, just some of the Gothic stories of Margaret Oliphant and Elizabeth Gaskell (which I found heavy reading).

  3. swistle says:

    We had a George McDonald collection at my house growing up. I read it so many times, my mom gave it to me when I was an adult, saying every bent page and chocolate smudge was mine! The Light Princess was one of my top favorites. My mom’s favorite was The Lost Princess; I liked that one too, but I was so mortified by the princess’s embarrassingly rude behavior!

  4. Lilith if you want something adult and more visionary – often really wild; At the Back of the North Wind for something for children and – well, also pretty visionary. Princess and the Goblin and its sequels were pleasures to read but are much less complex.

    I did a MacDonald week with most of the attention devoted to Lilith and North WInd. You will likely have a similar experience as with that last fairy tale – recognizably symbolic material that has shifted in meaning.

    The influence on Lewis is strange and complicated, as you might guess. Lewis though MacDoanld was a bad writer but a sage. He put together an odd book of MacDonald “sayings” plucked from all of the novels (most of which are not fantasy novels).

    MacDonald’s influence on Neil Gaiman is much more direct, meaning Gaiman gleefully steals from MacDonald.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ll have to go take a look at your MacDonald week posts. Now that you mention it, I vaguely remember that week, although I don’t know that I read the posts.

      I knew about the collection of MacDonald’s writings that Lewis put together; at least, I knew of its existence and that it wasn’t a story collection. That’s so interesting that Lewis thought he was a bad writer. I didn’t find that at all, although perhaps I was too caught up in the stories themselves to notice the writing. Then again, if the stories captured my imagination that much, how bad could the writing be?

  5. Jenny says:

    My own favorites of his stories are The Lost Princess (like Swistle’s mom), The Golden Key, and The Castle (a rather mysterious allegory.) I am also very fond of the one about Tangle and Mossy.

    I disagree slightly with Tom that the Princess and the Goblin books are less complex; I think that there is a good deal of hidden (and sometimes not-so-hidden) allegory in them, especially The Princess and Curdie. Macdonald wasn’t capable of writing straightforward stories, I don’t think. He wasn’t that sort.

    • Teresa says:

      I wish the PG version had more of this stories in it because I feel I just got a taste, but these were all pretty good. I think “The Golden Key” will grow on me more with rereading. I keep mulling it over.

  6. Alex says:

    I would start with ‘At the Back of the North Wind’ simply because it was written first and I think you can see a development in terms of his way of integrating his exploration of his theological position into his writing if you move chronologically. You might also think about reading Charles Kingsley, who was another religious minister who used his fiction to explore his beliefs around the same time.

  7. Jeanne says:

    Another vote for At the Back of the North Wind which I remember as lovely although I haven’t reread it lately enough to remember it well.

  8. Jeane says:

    I read some George MacDonald when I was younger, but I don’t recognize the giant story here so I must have missed some. I think I liked best the books with the boy Curdie in them. But my absolute favorite is still At the Back of the North Wind.

  9. Macdonald wasn’t capable of writing straightforward stories

    Has anyone here read any of his “realistic” novels? Titles like The Vicar’s Daughter and Paul Faber, Surgeon? MacDonald wrote a dozen like them, and many have been republished recently, often with new titles, by Christian publishers. I have no idea what they are like.

  10. Jenny says:

    I have, a few of them. They are bread-and-butter stories, potboiler things, as if written by… well, I was going to say Gerard Manley Hopkins, but really as if by George Macdonald. Your basic Scottish-moor stories, or romances, or family stories, usually, but with a strange evening light of Macdonaldish visionary theology on them.

  11. I don’t get Lewis’s dislike for MacDonald’s writing, either.

    I suppose for a lot of people “Victorian fairy stories” means Andrew Lang (another Scot) and his Blue Fairy Book and Green Fairy Book and so on. Or maybe I am wrong and nobody reads those anymore.

    • Teresa says:

      You know, I think I might have had a couple of those as a kid, or at least simplified picture-book versions. I definitely had fairy tale books with colors in the title and that had a pretty wide array of stories, which it looks like Lang’s books did. So people were reading something like those 30+ years ago.

  12. aparatchick says:

    I absolutely adore The Princess and the Goblin; a copy of it has come along with me through the 18 different places I’ve lived since I first read it at the age of 9. It’s part fable, part fairy tale, and well worth reading.

  13. Colyngbourne says:

    I would also recommend reading At the Back of the North Wind next, followed by Lilith, and the Princess/Curdie/Goblins books. If you become as enthralled in George MacDonald as I have in the last few years, you might also consider his Unspoken Sermons. Some of his writing does feel belaboured or on the sentimental side but the depth of his spiritual insight, sometimes wrought in highly fantastical settings and imagery, is exceptional. The idea of a week studying MacDonald is marvellous. I hope you enjoy your further reading.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks for the advice! North Wind seems like a popular choice, so that’s probably what I’ll go for next. I may very well try his Unspoken Sermons at some point. I’m glad to hear they’re worth looking into.

  14. amymckie says:

    This sounds really interesting, and I love the sound of the first one especially!

  15. Kayla says:

    I’ve never read anything by MacDonald, but the animated movie The Princess and the Goblin was one of my favorites as a kid and I bought the book a couple of years ago at a used bookstore. I’m so excited to learn that there are sequels!

  16. boardinginmyforties says:

    I used to love stories likes these when I was younger and have sadly not read nearly as many in the last 10 years or so. I’m intrigued that these were favorites of C.S Lewis and would love to give this one a try.

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