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Classic Book of the Month: A quirky Victorian tale with solid Christian morals


WORLD Radio - Classic Book of the Month: A quirky Victorian tale with solid Christian morals

George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin is one of the first fantasy books written for children

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, April 2nd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Classic Book of the Month.

Book reviewer Emily Whitten recommends a Victorian author who helped invent a new genre

EMILY WHITTEN: In 1872, Scottish author and minister George MacDonald first published our Classic Book of the Month for April, The Princess and the Goblin. Before publishing it, he read the book aloud to his own children. All 11 of them. With so few books for children back then, MacDonald hoped to do something relatively new–delight them with a fantasy story written just for kids. Here’s narrator Andy Minter.

AUDIOBOOK: One very wet day when the mountain was covered with mist, which was constantly gathering itself together into raindrops and pouring down on the roofs of the great old house which it fell in a fringe of water from the eaves all round about it, the princess could not of course go out. She got very tired, so tired that even her toys could no longer amuse her.

In The Princess and the Goblin, Princess Irene finds a hidden room in her castle where her great-great grandmother lives, a fact which no one will believe, not even Irene’s nurse:

AUDIOBOOK: It is not at all becoming in a princess to tell stories and expect to be believed just because she’s a princess. But it’s quite true I tell you. You dreamt it then, child. No, I didn’t. I went upstairs, and I lost myself, and if I never found the beautiful lady, I would never have found myself.

Soon after, the Princess encounters goblins–these are awful creatures who live underground and who plot to get rid of the humans. But Princess Irene’s grandmother gives her a magical ring to help foil their plans. Irene also teams up with a 12-year-old miner named Curdie who discovers the goblins’ weak points.

AUDIOBOOK: Curdie then rushed into the crowd, stamping right and left. The goblins drew back, howling on every side as he approached. But they were so crowded that few of those he attacked could escape his tread.

I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say, this is not your typical fantasy story. One way the miners fight the goblins is by singing silly rhymes, so it feels a bit like Monty Python at times. If your kids have the patience to stick with this quirky Victorian tale–and you may need some patience–Wheaton professor Timothy Larsen says it’s worth it in the end.

LARSEN: It's so fun and that's a mark of MacDonald's princess and fairy tales.

Larsen is a historian who’s worked on several books related to MacDonald, including an annotated version coming this May of his Diary of an Old Soul. Larsen says the Christian themes of MacDonald’s work make sense, given his background.

LARSEN: He actually trained for the Christian ministry, and though he did not pursue that long term, he kept up a preaching ministry his whole life. He was a very dedicated Christian, very committed to being a follower of Jesus Christ, and made that the lodestar for everything that he did.

MacDonald did have some quirky theological beliefs, especially about the afterlife, but they don’t impact this story. Instead, Christian families will find this book wisely challenges readers to take faith seriously. MacDonald lived at a time when science and philosophy were beginning to be more antagonistic to Christianity. Many embraced materialism, or the idea that matter or physical stuff is the only thing that really exists. In that view, God and miracles aren’t real.

LARSEN: And so what he's saying is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to follow him, to trust him. It doesn't mean that you could answer all philosophical, scientific questions that might come up. You don't need to have a philosophy of miracles. You need to discern that Jesus is telling you the truth, that he is worthy of your trust and then you follow him.

We also see Irene and Curdie learn lessons about courage and honesty, which in other novels might feel too moralistic. But MacDonald keeps kids reading with clever word play. He was close friends with the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and he uses a similar kind of humor.

LARSEN: He has a wonderful way of like kind of confiding in the reader and bringing you in on the joke.

One of my favorite running gags starts when Irene first meets her grandmother. She tells Irene “I’m your father’s mother’s father’s mother” but that goes totally over Irene’s head. So, Irene just calls her her “very great huge grandmother.” Word to the wise, that kind of humor does come across better in an audiobook or through reading aloud. As far as cautions go, there’s really nothing here of note. No witches or anyone casting spells. And very little violence.

LARSEN: There's one incident where there's a drowning situation, which is an accident, but there aren't people killing each other. And so I think it's a fascinating model to me of how you can have adventure and conflict that is super exciting, and yet you don't have to make everything so violent the way that our culture sometimes wants to today.

Our Classic Book of the Month for April is The Princess and The Goblin by George MacDonald. If your family is looking for a clean fantasy story with solid Christian morals, I do recommend reading the Narnia books first. MacDonald helped pioneer this genre of kids’ lit, but Lewis built on that beginning, reaching even higher heights. Still, once you’ve exhausted Narnia, MacDonald might be the next best addition to your family library.

AUDIOBOOK: There was a hideous noise in her room—creatures snarling and hissing and rocketing about as if they were fighting. She immediately took off her ring and put it under her pillow. As she did so she fancied she felt a finger and thumb take it gently from under her palm. 'It must be my grandmother!' she said to herself, and the thought gave her such courage that she stopped to put on her dainty little slippers before running from the room.

I’m Emily Whitten.

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