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

In the previous two posts, I wrote about the symbol of royalty and the positive aspects of that royalty in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin. In this final post, I want to direct your attention to the false picture of royalty that MacDonald paints through the characters of the goblins. I want to do this by first taking a look at what MacDonald says about the goblin “royalty” and then conclude by comparing both sets of royalty (human and goblin) to their position and reaction to light. I hope you have enjoyed the last two posts, and I hope that this one is also insightful.

MacDonald’s description of the goblins

“There was a legend current in the country that at one time they [goblins] lived above ground, and were very like other people. But for some reason or other, concerning which there was different legendary theories, the king had laid what they thought too severe taxes upon them, or had requires observances of them they did not like, or had begun to treat them with more severity, in some way or other, and impose stricter laws, and the consequence was that they had all disappeared from the face of the country. According to he legend, however, instead of going to some other country, they had all taken refuge in the subterranean caverns, and then seldom showed themselves in any number, and never to many people at once” (4).

“The goblins themselves were not so far removed from the human as such a description would imply. And as they grew misshapen in body they had grow in knowledge and cleverness, and now were able to do things no mortal could see the possibility of. But 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” (4).

“…especially against the descendants of the king who had caused their expulsion, that they sought every opportunity of tormenting them in ways that were as odd as their inventors; and although dwarfed and misshapen, they had strength equal to their cunning. In the process of time they had got a king and government of their own, whose chief business, beyond their own simple affairs, was to device trouble for their neighbours” (5).

“The goblin’s glory is his head” (53)—[because of its hardness]

“‘Now light your torches, and come along. What a distinction it is to provide our own light, instead of being dependent on a thing hung in the air–a most disagreeable contrivance–intended no doubt to blind us when we venture out under its baleful influence! Quite glaring and vulgar, I call it, though no doubt useful to poor creatures who haven’t the wit to make light for themselves!'”

‘”Regardless of the fact that we were the first possessors of the regions they now inhabit, regardless of the fat that we abandoned that region from the loftiest motives; regardless also of the self-evident fact that we excel them so far in mental ability as they excel us in stature, they look upon us as a degraded race, and make a mockery of all our finer feelings'” (67).

“…while their owners had sunk towards them…” (101).–[in reference to the goblins becoming more like animals]

‘”Don’t talk to me of his mother! You positively encourage his unnatural fancies. Whatever belongs to that mother ought to be cut out of him…If you expect me to approve of such coarse tastes, you will find yourself mistaken'” (134).–[Goblin Queen referring to Harelips sun-mother]

‘”but what do you mean by the king and queen?’ asked the princess ‘I should never call such creatures as those a king and a queen'” (167).

‘”…But they think so much of themselves!’ said his [Curdie] mother. ‘Small creatures always do'” (191).

“A good many of the goblins with their creatures escaped from inundation out upon the mountain…and most of those 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 mountain and even with the miners” (241).

What to make of this

From these descriptions, we can understand how MacDonald defines royalty by understanding what true royalty is not: According to MacDonald, It is not:


Cunning and Mischievous

Seeking to undermine others







Unaware of true moral position

Creates a separate moral position

Ugly in nature
P & GUndoubtedly, if this story were made today, we would be hearing a subverted story from the goblin’s perspective who would probably end up being the heroes because the king was too harsh on them. And while I say this a little tongue and cheek, it amazes me how little our modern fairy tales have to say about royalty as goodness…or just goodness period. I think relativism has a large part to play in this–not that people don’t want to know what goodness is, but because we have subverted any and all forms of authority for the sake of equality–so it’s hard to find a solid definition of goodness. Unfortunately, when good and evil become indistinguishable from one another, it creates moral confusion.

I was asked a few days ago what I thought about the t.v. show Once Upon a Time. Truthfully, I haven’t watched the show, so I didn’t really have an opinion, but an interesting question followed that I believe demonstrates the kind of subversion I just mentioned.

“I know you talk a lot about virtue in fairy tales,” the woman asked, “but don’t you think there is hope for all characters? Both good and bad? Even the wicked witches?”

I stopped to think about the question for a moment. By saying “yes, there is hope of redemption for the witches,” I would appear benevolent and accepting. After all, doesn’t God desire to save all people?

But this is the trap of relativism. It is a misdirection, and eventually lowers goodness to make the wicked seem acceptable. In other words, by removing all points of moral reference, the good and evil are difficult to distinguish.

Fortunately, my wits came back to me, and I responded, “What makes you think that the witch wants to be saved? And if so, what would she be saved from and be saved to?”

Relativism in fairy tales has created a mashed-up mud puddle of virtue–we want to see the story from all points of view but often forget to have a reference point that lets us know whether we are looking up or down.

In other words, we can get a bad case of moral vertigo.

In The Princess and the Goblin, those who are further from the light are further from the truth, and the true royals of the story–Curdie, Mr. & Mrs. Peterson, Irene and her King-papa–are the only ones that can see the grandmother’s lamp. This lamp is the ultimate moral reference point of the story! The further a character is from her lamp, the more grotesque he or she becomes.

Notice that the goblins revel in the fact that they can live solely by their own lights; in fact, they mock those who rely on anything that isn’t made…even if it is the most natural and powerful sun by which the entire universe bows down to.

In the end, MacDonald creates a clear picture that false royalty is rooted in the goblin rebellion and their self-created theology where they are the authority.

It is only when the goblins exit (or are forced to leave) their self-constructed catacombs that they become less grotesque in appearance. And of course, in MacDonald’s symbolic world of The Princess and the Goblin, to be beautiful is to be royal, and to be royal is to be good, and to be good is to know that there is a reference to goodness beyond ourselves.

To Be Royal (1 of 3)

To Be Royal (2 of 3)

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