It's a credit to "Princess and the Goblin" that its author was a personal favorite (and shaping influence) to fantasy titans C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. But if their liking for George MacDonald's works isn't enough to impress, then take it just for what it is: A creepy, unique, compelling work of early fantasy.
Little Princess Irene has always been kept in ignorance of the goblins -- until one night when she and her nursemaid stay out a bit too late, and are chased by a bizarre creature. They are rescued by a young miner boy, Curdie, who tells her the way to deal with them.
While mining, Curdie explores underground caverns where the goblins dwell, uncovers a terrible plot -- and is taken captive by the malignant goblin queen. And Irene explores a mysterious tower where her magical "great-grandmother" lives -- not knowing yet that she's at the center of the goblins' plotting, and that Curdie may be her only hope.
Like many early fantasy stories, "The Princess and the Goblin" is a book completely free of cliches. Written in the 1800s, this book has the flavour of a long-forgotten fairy tale that MacDonald simply dug up and presented to the public. We have goblins, monsters, a heroic young boy, a brave princess, noble kings and magical ladies. What else is a fairy tale about?
It's also striking for its mixture of childlike optimism and extraordinary writing. MacDonald often writes some scenes with the sort of twee flavour of many nineteenth-century novels, with chirrupy kids and kindly servants. But he also can whip up some truly amazing atmosphere: exquisite moonlit scenes that play out like dreams, or underground disasters that sound like nightmares.
Similarly, it's a credit to him that the characters of Curdie and Irene are as likable as they are. Irene in particular is a triumph, since she borders on twitty sometimes. Perhaps that was deliberate, since this little girl gradually grows in strength and guts as the book progresses, bringing her up to speed with the more mature Curdie.
Part fable and part-fairy tale, and populated with goblins, miners and magical grandmothers, "The Princess and the Goblin" is an enchanting prelude to the modern fantasy genre.