I have a confession to make. When I read George MacDonald’s “The Princess and the Goblin,” I was just the tiniest bit underwhelmed. “Really?” I thought to myself. “This is the book that practically invented modern fantasy?” Don’t get me wrong, it was a pleasant little book, very nice in its way, and I’d still like to read the sequel. But it just didn’t have that extra something for me that would make me praise it to the skies.
Isn’t it wonderful that “The Light Princess” has exactly that? Three beautiful stories together in one small package, this treasure of a book is the one that truly deserves to be called the pioneer of fantasy as we know it.
The title story begins as most fairy tales begin: with a curse. The king and queen, through little fault of their own, quite forgot to invite the king’s irascible sister to their daughter’s christening. But this isn’t just any cranky aunt: this is a witch. And this isn’t just a witch: this is a CLEVER witch. The princess’s wily aunt doesn’t let her get away with sleeping for a hundred years. She curses the princess with lightness in two senses of the word. The princess is so light that she must be held down at all times to keep from floating up to the ceiling, and she is so light that she is unable to take anything seriously. Whoever can manage to make her weep can break the spell, but there’s little chance of that happening – until a prince with a soft heart and a will of iron arrives on the case.
The next story, “The Giant’s Heart,” is much shorter (so is the last, actually). It’s about a brother and sister who get caught in a giant’s lair and go on a quest to find his heart so that he will let all his other captive children go free. Although this was my least favorite of the three stories, it’s still witty, fun, and doesn’t talk down to the reader. That’s one of MacDonald’s best attributes, I think.
The final story, “The Golden Key,” tells of a young boy who finds – what else? – a gold key beneath the rainbow and the journey he takes to find the lock that belongs to it. He meets many friends along the way, including a young girl, a beautiful grandmother that’s very similar to the grandmother in “The Princess and the Goblin,” and three very old men. This story has beautiful imagery full of brilliant colors and mysterious beings. It reads something like a mix between C. S. Lewis and E. Nesbit, both of whom cited MacDonald as an influence in their work. Although I’m still not entirely what the story is about (I think it may have something to do with the journey of life), it’s not really necessary to understand this one to enjoy it – and I’m usually one of the biggest overthinkers I know!
However, “The Light Princess” is still my favorite story in the book, mostly because it contains lines like this: “And the king said to himself, ‘All the queens of my acquaintance have children . . . and my queen has not one. I feel ill-used.’ So he made up his mind to be cross with his wife about it. But she bore it all like a good patient queen as she was. Then the king grew very cross indeed.” Or, when the prince is falling in love: “No prince, however, would judge of a princess by weight. The loveliness of her foot he would hardly estimate by the depth of the impression it could make in the mud.” It’s so silly, but at the same time it’s so sweet, too, the whole thing. The best kinds of stories are like that.
So read some of these best kinds of stories. You’ll be glad you did.