In the age of instant communication and sophisticated entertainment we have forgotten or have never known that there was once a time when conversation and telling stories around the hearth were the primary sources of news and entertainment. There was also reading or course, but only for those lucky enough to be literate and to be able to afford books. The Princess and Curdie takes place in such a time and among people who relied heavily on stories and word of mouth for information about the world. The book, written by George MacDonald, was first published in 1883, a sequel to his best known children’s book The Princess and the Goblin.
In the mountain town where Curdie lives with his parents, there have been rumors circulating for generations, in the mines and in the cottages, about a witch known as Old Mother Wotherwop. The witch has been seen by many, and although she is usually an ancient crone, it is said she can appear in various shapes such a beautiful young woman or an angel. Some say she is a healer but most say she is bad news, a trouble-maker. In truth she is one the princess called her great-great-grandmother in The Princess and the Goblin. In The Princess and Curdie this person becomes more of a Christ figure.
There is a scene in The Princess and the Goblin in which the princess, Irene, takes Curdie to the castle tower meet her great-great-grandmother and since he cannot see her he hurts Irene’s feelings by saying great-great-grandmother must be imaginary. In that novel Curdie appeared as a brave clever 12-year-old miner boy who makes up songs and helps Irene to purge the mountains of hive of evil goblins who have been plotting trouble there for many years.
In the sequel, a year has passed and Curdie has become a bit duller and lazier. The change is subtle but he is definitely beginning to backslide. He has become less attentive to his parents, less aware of the beauty in nature, and he no longer sings his original songs. He does miss Irene who has moved to a new location with her father, the king. One day, on his way home from working in the mines, Curdie sees a white pigeon and thoughtlessly shoots it with an arrow. As he picks up the bird, still struggling for life, he remembers that Irene said her great-great-grandmother had a white pigeon and wonders in horror if this the same bird.
Filled with remorse, he runs with the dying pigeon to the castle, empty now except for a few servants, and after arguing with the housekeeper, makes his way to the tower, hoping the find the old woman. He does find her this time and she heals the bird and also forgives him for his thoughtless act. In fact she says she is glad he shot the pigeon because it caused him to seek her. The lady asks him to meet her the next day and when he does she gives him a mysterious mission.
Only after he proceeds west as instructed does Curdie discover that his mission is once again to rescue Princess Irene and her father the King. They have fallen into hard times and are in great danger. To help him on his mission the lady gives Curdie two gifts: a hideously ugly dog-like beast named Lina to help him on the journey and a special power.
Curdie’s special power is the thing I liked most about this book. He is able to discern the true nature of a person or creature by holding their hand or paw. For example Lina’s paw feels to him like the hand of a child while the hand of an evil man feels like a bird of prey. The philosophy behind this gift, which I think corresponds to spiritual gift of discernment in 1 Corinthians 12, is an idea I find especially fascinating.
I have encountered similar ideas in the works of Victor Hugo and C.S. Lewis. The idea is that animals correspond with certain aspects of human souls. We know our literature has often made metaphorical use of animals, but this idea is more than that: humans are either descending towards beasthood or moving toward the full expression of humanity which is the image of God that our creator intended. MacDonald takes the notion even further: animals also are moving to higher or lower levels. You cannot tell merely by looking at either human or beast in which direction they are moving. Lina is an ugly beast but her soul is moving in the direction of humanity.
As the lady explains it to Curdie:
‘Now listen. Since it is always what they do, whether in their minds or their bodies, that makes men go down to be less than men, that is, beasts, the change always comes first in their hands—and first of all in the inside hands, to which the outside ones are but as the gloves. They do not know it of course; for a beast does not know that he is a beast, and the nearer a man gets to being a beast the less he knows it. Neither can their best friends, or their worst enemies indeed, see any difference in their hands, for they see only the living gloves of them. But there are not a few who feel a vague something repulsive in the hand of a man who is growing a beast.
‘Now here is what the rose-fire has done for you: it has made your hands so knowing and wise, it has brought your real hands so near the outside of your flesh gloves, that you will henceforth be able to know at once the hand of a man who is growing into a beast; nay, more—you will at once feel the foot of the beast he is growing, just as if there were no glove made like a man’s hand between you and it.’
This gift comes in handy when Curdie finds that the town and castle where the king has relocated is crawling with plotters and deceivers. Knowing who to trust becomes key to saving the king and his kingdom. Since this is a fairy tale we would expect that the hero and heroine live happily ever after. Do they? Well I cannot tell you that without spoiling the story. I will hint that it is not exactly what you might expect. I’ve read several reviewers who are really annoyed by the ending. I am not. The ending is about as happy as it can be in a world populated flawed human beings, also known as sinners. The Princess and Curdie is a Christian fairy tale, sort of an oxymoron in the sense of “true fiction.” Because if a fairy tale is Christian it can’t tell lies. But I cannot tell you more without spoiling the story.
I recommend this book highly to all who love fairy tales, adventure stories, Victorian literature, and philosophical fiction. My only criticism is I think the title should be Curdie and the Princess because it is much more about Curdie than the princess. And that’s really my only criticism.