One of the things I love about my son? When I say, “This is a book that kids have been enjoying for over a hundred years”, he gets excited about reading it. This is one that I read and reread as a child, and my first rereading as an adult.
The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald. Strahan & Co, 1872.
Once upon a time, a princess lived in an old country house on a mountain, cared for by her nurse and with only occasional visits from her King-Papa. But when she accidentally stays out after dark, she and her nurse see goblins for the first time. A brave and saucy miner boy named Curdie rescues them. Soon, the Princess Irene learns about her magical Great-Great-Grandmother, who lives in a high tower and can only be found and seen when she wishes it. Grandmother gives the Princess Irene a magical ball of thread which she can tie to ring, so that whenever she’s frightened, she can follow the thread to a safe place. Meanwhile, Curdie investigates the goblin realms close to his mine, and finds that they are planning Dastardly Deeds. He puts himself at great risk to find out exactly what those plans are and how to stop them. There’s a lot of silly poetry, too, as Curdie’s main defense against the goblins is to sing long insults in rhyme at them.
Well. The Princess Irene is the very ideal of a Victorian little girl. She is neat, pretty, obedient, and keeps her promises and her faith in her grandmother, even when no one else believes her. Though she’s described as brave, her bravery consists mostly of believing that she will get to safety eventually if she follows her grandmother’s thread, something that doesn’t quite feel as exciting today as it did when the book first came out. The grandmother (sometimes looking young and beautiful, sometimes old and frail, always kind and wise) is a more compelling character. My son was not bothered by Irene’s failings, he said, because he identified so strongly with Curdie. Curdie, as a twelve-year-old working overtime in the mines to try to earn enough money to buy his mother warm winter clothes, offends my motherly sensibilities, but this is a well-documented shift in values since that time. My own son just thought that Curdie was very cool, and listened raptly to the adventures that both children had with the magical grandmother and the grotesque goblins. He wanted to go right on to The Princess and Curdie, only we got sucked into reading Jinx first instead. The Princess and the Goblin is still quite accessible for a Victorian story, and a good choice for young advanced readers, as it has more advanced vocabulary without objectionable content.