Transcendence: The Princess

Each week, we’ll look at another example of what I call a “moment of transcendence” – a scene from a show, a passage from a book, or anything else, that I find soul-piercingly resonant: joyful, sad, awe-inspiring, terrifying, or whatever. These moments are highly subjective, so you may not feel the same way I do, but nevertheless I’ll try to convey why I find the fragment so powerful. I hope we can enjoy it together.

This year, I received from my sister-in-law – among other wonderful Christmas gifts – a copy of The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald. I finished it last night.

I’ve been wanting to read it for a while now. It came out in 1872, and MacDonald’s work is supposed to have been enormously important in the modern fantasy genre, influencing such luminaries as Lewis Carroll, J. R. R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, G. K. Chesterton, Walter de la Mare, and C. S. Lewis.

Honestly, I was pretty underwhelmed with the book itself. Maybe it was a big deal at the time, to an audience who had never seen anything like The Lord of the Rings, but by today’s standards it feels a little…boring. Nobody ever seems to be in much danger, aside from a few brief moments, since a certain benevolent caretaker solves most problems with her magic before they get too serious. Also, there’s a fair bit of moralizing and setting-a-good-example for children, which gets old fast. (The lack of such moralizing, by the way, is one of the reason Carroll’s Alice books were – and are – so popular.)

On the plus side, The Princess and the Goblin is astonishingly gender-equal by 1872 standards, and – in my opinion – better than average in that department even by today’s standards. So that’s pretty cool.

Despite being kind of dull, however, the story does have its moments. The one which struck me most was this brief exchange, in which the eight-year-old Princess Irene first meets her great-great-grandmother, whose supernaturally long life and somewhat youthful appearance are both due to enchantment.

“Is that what makes your hair so white?”

“No, my dear. It’s old age. I am very old.”

“I thought so. Are you fifty?”

“Yes – more than that.”

“Are you a hundred?”

“Yes – more than that. I am too old for you to guess. Come and see my chickens.”

It’s that last part: I am too old for you to guess. A simple, understated little sentence, but more effective in its own way than a dramatic speech about watching kingdoms rise and fall. Don’t worry about it, child – I am beyond what you can imagine. Now let’s go look at my animals.

I’m just starting to read The Arabian Nights now, a version edited by Muhsin Mahdi and translated by Husain Haddawy, which seems pretty good and faithful to the older versions of the stories. More thoughts as I think them.

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