Thu
Apr 7 2011 4:20pm
Slipping a fairy tale into the mundane: The Light Princess

The Light Princess by George MacDonaldIf Phantastes had not been, perhaps, a complete success, artistically or financially, and if MacDonald found himself writing in a more realistic vein in his next few novels, he found that he could not quite give up writing fairy tales altogether. He gathered some of these into his enormously long three volume realistic novel Adela Cathcart, the story of an annoying and sickly young Victorian woman who is All Mysteriously Ill, with what might now be called clinical depression. (I don’t mean to imply that people, or fictional characters, with clinical depression are annoying, just that Adela is.) To cheer her up, the narrator, a Dying Old Bachelor with Depressing Thoughts proposes a regimen of storytelling. Since apparently no one in this novel has anything else to do, everyone enthusiastically agrees, and the storytelling begins after some more tedious dialogue.

Adela Cathcart could, I suppose, be considered an early interstitial work, intermingling, as it does, short stories, rather tedious church sermons, hymns, social commentary, mediations on death and snowstorms, and dreadful poetry. But if few these days can be bothered to read the entire framework novel, much less the sermons (did I mention, long and tedious?) some of its short stories have become recognized classics in their own right, appearing in numerous anthologies. Perhaps the best known of these is the novella The Light Princess, one of MacDonald’s unquestioned fantasy masterpieces, and considerably better than the book it was doomed to appear in.

Drawing from several nursery rhymes, many quoted directly in the tale, and some of Grimms’ fairy tales—in particular, Briar Rose, or the Sleeping Beauty, a tale MacDonald knew quite well, The Light Princess is possibly be the most delightful of MacDonald’s stories, full of wit and humor, and—for once—tightly plotted. The characters in the novel, admittedly, find much to criticize, but I suspect that most readers will be chuckling.

As in the tale of Sleeping Beauty, The Light Princess begins when a king and queen forget to invite a certain evil fairy to their little daughter’s christening. You would think that fairy tale parents would know better by now. (The Adela Cathcart characters voice other objections: they don’t think that church services should appear in fairy tales, and they don’t think that evil characters or evil deeds can appear in churches.) The irritated fairy—who, in this tale, is the king’s sister, making it even worse—retaliates by taking away the little princess’ gravity. (This is achieved, the narrator explains, by a careful study of physics, although for some reason our physicists have so far failed to achieve similar results.)

The spell has some immediate and decidedly negative practical effects: the princess simply cannot stay on the ground, unless someone literally hangs on to her. On the bright side, this means she can be easily tossed from one person to another. (The story fails to explain how she avoids what would seem to be the inevitable concussions.) More worrisome: the princess simply cannot be serious, for an instant, laughing at anything and everything. This makes her a delight to be with, but also means that no one can persuade her of the seriousness of her condition, increasing the risk that she will eventually just float away. (She voices a wish to be a kite.)

Even metaphysics is of no help whatsoever.

Eventually, the princess finds a lake, where she can swim, and find something new—heaviness. And she also, of course, finds the inevitable prince, willing to blacken shoes and make other sacrifices for her sake. (The audience of the framework novel finds some of their dealings quite, quite improper, but, well, they are Victorians. I just mention this in case you are easily shocked.)

The frivolousness, of course, is meant in part as a contrast to the incredibly depressed character of the novel (who does cheer up after hearing the tale.) But something more is going on here: an illustration of MacDonald’s belief that love is needed to create balance in life. (This is also a theme of the novel, if not as charmingly told there.) And it is a repeat of his belief that love is not, as is commonly said, blind, but rather, something that allows clear sight. Until the princess learns love, she cannot see that she even has a problem. It is a frivolous tale with unexpected depths, and if the audience in the novel thinks that the frivolity is a problem for the serious parts, and vice versa, audiences outside the novel will, I think, enjoy the tale far more.

I cannot recommend the novel unless you are looking for a cure for insomnia, in which case, did I mention the tedious sermons? But I can highly recommend The Light Princess as a bit of lighthearted fun, and an excellent example of the fine work done by Victorian fantastists. You can find it in either a very long Chapter Five of its novel, or independently in various anthologies or online.


Mari Ness is now worried that her two cats will begin a formal study of physics and finally learn how to get rid of gravity, the only thing keeping them from utter destruction. She lives in central Florida.

11 comments
ImagineThat
1. ImagineThat
Thank you for posting about one of my favorite often-overlooked children's stories! Always paired with it--in my mind, at any rate--is the Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye. Would you consider doing a post about that little-known gem sometime as well?
ImagineThat
2. Mike Allen
Cool essay, Mari!
ImagineThat
3. Cedar Sanderson
Oh, Yes, I second the Ordinary Princess! My eldest daughter loved that story. I read a lot of George McDonald in my teen years, but not this one, which I now look forward to very much.
Rich Horton
4. ecbatan
I love The Light Princess. If you can find the Sendak edition (pictured above), it's a great way to have the story.

I had no idea of its genesis -- a story told by characters in Adela Cathcart -- thanks for that! I thought it was just a standalone story.

Another story I like a lot -- completely different in tone -- is The Golden Key, also available in one of those Sendak-illustrated editions.

(Other good MacDonald fairy-tale-based stories: "The Wise Woman; or, The Lost Princess", "The Carasoyn" aka "The Fairy Fleet", and "The History of Photogen and Nycteris" aka "The Day Boy and the Night Girl".)

--
Rich Horton
Mari Ness
5. MariCats
@ImagineThat and @CedarAnderson -- Huh. I'm mostly familiar with Kaye's mystery/suspense novels (Death in the Andamans, Death in Berlin, Death in Cyprus, Deaths in various other scattered locations of the former British Empire), which I've enjoyed in the lighthearted way that you can enjoy watching British people mourn over losing their empire while killing one another. Fun stuff. Somehow or other I missed this book, though, and I'll have to check it out. It does seem to be at the library but no promises.

@Mike Allen - Thanks!

@ectaban - That's because the novel is just awful. Without Gutenberg I doubt anyone would bother to reprint it - and yes, it is that bad. Which is the main reason I picked the Sendak cover. How exactly anyone managed to struggle through to find this story is a minor miracle in itself.

I'll be reviewing the Day Boy and The Night Girl later on.
ImagineThat
6. kitkatw
I love this book! I found it as I was wondering around a library last year. I had no idea it was part of a bigger book. I was extremely surprised to see a post about it on Tor!
ImagineThat
7. seth e.
If I remember, and I can't find the source for this, MacDonald had to sneak The Light Princess into Adela Cathcart because Victorian publishers really did find it too improper to publish alone as a children's story. It was the scene of the prince and princess swimming together that did it--too sexy for the 19th century.

The lost essay in which I read this suggested that, in the context of MacDonald's other fantasies, and the constant emphasis on male and female energies in harmony as a means of bringing the spiritual world into the sensual, the publishers were right, and MacDonald really did mean it to be sexytimes. That passed me right by when I read it, though, both as a kid and in my twenties.

The Day Boy and the Night Girl is my favorite of his stories! Though probably not his best.
Mari Ness
9. MariCats
@kitkatw - Wandering through libraries is the BEST way to find new stuff.

@seth e - That might well be true. Admittedly, Adela Cathcart (1864) was published years after the far more shocking Tenant of Wildfell Hall (spousal abuse! alcoholism! AND WORSE! Ok, kinda tame by contemporary standards but shocking in its day.) Then again, Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) and Wuthering Heights (1847) weren't intended for children, and Tenant was repressed for years, so your point remains, and other Victorian writers -- Bram Stoker as probably the most famous example - masked erotic images using the language of the fantastic.

Any sexiness passed right by me as well, though, and I certainly didn't get the impression that they were doing anything in the water other than swimming. Actually my guess was that he was willing to die because they hadn't done anything else besides swimming and he figured they never would so why not die?
Mari Ness
10. MariCats
@kitkatw - Wandering through libraries is the BEST way to find new stuff.

@seth e - That might well be true. Admittedly, Adela Cathcart (1864) was published years after the far more shocking Tenant of Wildfell Hall (spousal abuse! alcoholism! AND WORSE! Ok, kinda tame by contemporary standards but shocking in its day.) Then again, Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) and Wuthering Heights (1847) weren't intended for children, and Tenant was repressed for years, so your point remains, and other Victorian writers -- Bram Stoker as probably the most famous example - masked erotic images using the language of the fantastic.

Any sexiness passed right by me as well, though, and I certainly didn't get the impression that they were doing anything in the water other than swimming. Actually my guess was that he was willing to die because they hadn't done anything else besides swimming and he figured they never would so why not die?
ImagineThat
11. mrpond47
Another great write-up! Thanks for taking on this project, MariCats! You're getting me inspired to read more MacDonald. 'The Light Princess' is hysterical. Although I disagree about Adela Cathcart, and just read a lovely cloth-bound reprint. If you want some really tedious sermons, by the way, I suggest looking up Lancelot Andrews, or the novels of John Newman--both widely read in their day. MacDonald is actually quite lively for 1864.

About the swimming scenes--there's a fun bit of backstory behind that. John Ruskin read 'The Light Princess' in manuscript, and sent MacDonald a lengthy critique in which he suggested that the swimming scenes were too improper and would be damaging to children. (This from a childless and possibly impotent bachelor to a man with eleven children, but never mind.) MacDonald, however, published the story unaltered, but gave all of Ruskin's objections to Mrs. Cathcart, the grim voice of prudery and all things superificial--Adela's aunt, and the ostensible evil witch of the story. Ruskin promptly wrote a hilarious letter in mock-fury, accusing MacDonald of inventing 'all wrongs to choke up my poor little right with.' But in this case, MacDonald was right and Ruskin wrong, I'd say.

@ectaban -- Sendak's illustrations are breathtaking. Perfect for the story, I think.
ImagineThat
12. arav
I have the Sendak illustrated "Golden Key." I hope to find a copy of "Light Princess," too, since it's my favorite MacDonald fairy tale.

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