To Be Royal in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin (2 of 3)

In my last post, I included the quote from Ursala Le Guin who had this to say about royalty in The Princess and the Goblin:

“A princess is a girl who behaves nobly; a girl who behaves nobly is a princess. Curdie the miner, being brave and kind, and behaving (or anyhow trying to behave) nobly and wisely, is a prince. The king is king because he’s good man. No other definition is allowed. This is radically moral democracy.”

Le Guin can make this statement because MacDonald is clear in what he expects of royalty. Throughout the novel, MacDonald intersperses definitions of
royalty by stating that “a true princess does…” and “a princess never…”. MacDonald leaves little room for speculation to what he means when he places teaching about morality squarely on the symbolic shoulders of royalty. Yet, there are two kinds of royalty found in this book: the true royalty of the king, the great grandmother, Princess Irene, and Curdie (who is accepted by royalty because of his royal behaviour), and the false royalty of the goblins who create their own monarchy as a rejection of true royalty. *As a special note–there is some great research into physical positioning of characters and their moral goodness in the story (example: great grandmother lives in the highest point of the castle while the goblins live in the depth of the mines).

With this said, I’m suggesting we can understand what MacDonald accepts as moral and good by understanding what he accepts as truly royal. This examination can undoubtedly be done in a number of different ways, but I will limit it to two types of examinations. Firstly, I will look strictly at the character dialogue and direct references that MacDonald uses to describe royalty. And secondly, I will look at royalty in relationship to a characters position to light. For the purpose of brevity, I will only focus on dialogue in this post.

Here is a list (I am using the Puffin Classics edition):

“Then she wiped her eyes with her hands, for princesses don’t always have their handkerchiefs in their pockets, any more than some other little girls I know. Next, like a true princesses, she resolved on going wisely to work to find her way back” (9).

[Conversation about Irene keeping her promise to kiss Curdie] ‘”Nurse, a princess must not break her work,'” said Irene, drawing herself up and standing stockstill. Lootie did not know which the king might count the worse–to let the princess be out after sunset, or to let her kiss a miner-boy. She did not know that, being a gentleman, as many kings have been, he would have counted neither of them the worse. However much he might have disliked his daughter to kiss the miner-boy, he would not have had her break her word for all the goblins in creation” (43).

[About Mrs. Peterson] “She made and kept a little heaven in that poor cottage on the high hillside–for her husband and son to go home to out of the low and rather dreary earth in which they worked. I doubt if the princess was very much happier even in the arms of her hug great-grandmother than Peter and Curdie were in the arms of Mrs. Peterson” (93).

[Mrs. Peterson’s conversation about the royal family] “‘But first, I may as well mention that, according to old whispers, there is something more than common about the king’s family; and the queen was of the same blood, for they were cousins of some degree. There were strange stories told concerning them–all good stories–but strange, very strange. What they were I cannot tell, for I only remember the faces of my grandmother and my mother as they talked together about them. There was wonder and awe–not fear–in their eyes, and they whispered, and never spoke aloud'” (185).

[Irene addresses Lootie after Lootie accuses her of “telling stories”] ‘Just as bad to say nothing at all as to tell stories?’ exclaimed the princess. ‘I will ask my papa about that. He won’t say so. And I don’t think he will like you to say so'” (195).

[The king addresses Irene after she tells him she made a promise to kiss Curdie] “‘Indeed she must, my child — except it be wrong,’ said the king” (231).

[Before the house is flooded] “The king, who was the wisest man in the kingdom, knew well there was a time when things must be done and questions left till afterwards. He had faith in Curdie, and rose instantly, with Irene in his arms” (234).

[Curdie saving the horses] “Curdie got on the king’s white charger and, leading the way, brought them all in safety to the rising ground” (236).

“‘I wish,’ said the king, when they stood before him, ‘to take your son with me. He shall enter my bodyguard at once, and wait further promotion'” (238).

[Describing the goblins after the flood] “But most of them soon left that part of the country, and most of them who remained grew milder in character…Their skulls became softer as well as their hearts, and their feet grew harder, and by degrees they became friendly with the inhabitants of the mountains and even with the miners” (241).

What does all of this mean? 

So, if we start with the assumption that many fairy tales are built upon symbolism and metaphor, and build from that assumption with the Ursala Le Guin’s quote about true royalty being a symbol of goodness, then what we have in The Princess and the Goblin is a picture of what MacDonald’s sees as the essential virtues of goodness. This is not an extensive list, but here are a few that seem obvious to me (if you see any that I missed, please feel free to add).

True Royalty is…

Based on virtue not position (although the position is often symbolic of the virtue)

Honest and Truthful


Knowledgeable between right and wrong

Willing to trust and have faith

Willing to serve

Willing to lead

Willing to accept others’ shortcoming

Willing to be led by a “higher light”

In the third and final installment, I will discuss how true royalty in P & G is recognized by a person’s position to light (particularly that of the grandmother), and I will also discuss the goblin’s “royalty” and why that structure is different from the true royalty of the people
above ground.


To Be Royal (1 of 3)

To Be Royal (3 of 3) 

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