Amazingly enough, even back in the 1880s you could look at a sequel and say “Dude, the original was better.” The Princess and Curdie (1883) is the sequel to The Princess and the Goblin. It comes across as more moralistic and heavy-handed than the original, and lacks some of its charm. Continuing on to MacDonald’s final piece of adult fantasy, Lilith (1895), I have come to the conclusion that his genre work took a downhill turn after The Princess and the Goblin and never really recovered.
Curdie begins one year after Goblin. Curdie is 15 now and turning into a teenager, with a bit of the angst that entails. However, after shooting a pigeon and realizing that it belonged to the Galadriel/Grandmother figure from the first book, he sets his life back on the right path. The fairy godmother sends him on a journey to the capital of the kingdom. She grants him a few boons: the ability to tell good people from bad by holding their hands, and a big ugly monster, Lina, who is really a good person inside. As he travels to the capital he and Lina recruit more unique and ugly monsters, which will of course come in handy later.
Curdie gets to the capital, and is immediately treated badly by the corrupt and petty townsfolk. Only one old woman and her granddaughter are nice to him. He is arrested and led off to jail in a moment rather strongly recalling Christ’s journey to Gethsemane. Lina finds him and they bust out of jail and sneak into the castle. It turns out that the King is being poisoned slowly by his staff, especially the Lord Chancellor and the doctor. Princess Irene from the original book has been too naïve to see any of this (which I found a bit hard to swallow, given how with-it she was a year previously) but is immediately convinced by Curdie’s testimony.
So they (mostly Curdie) separate out the bad people (lots) from the good people (few) in the castle, and all the ugly monsters come in and drive out or capture the bad people. That’s all well and good, but the King isn’t back to being an effective King yet, and the townsfolk are conspiring against him. They call over to the neighboring kingdom, offering to sell out their kingdom for good treatment. Eventually the King, Curdie, Irene, the lone good soldier, a page, a handmaid, and all the ugly monsters go out to face the invading army. It predictably doesn’t go well until the fairy godmother saves the day.
MacDonald can’t contain his cynicism even at the end. The denouement mentions that the King gets better and reforms the kingdom. Irene and Curdie marry and are a great King and Queen. But they don’t have any children and the next king is so greedy that he mines all the minerals (mostly gold) out from under the castle, collapsing it and leading to the collapse and erasure of the kingdom.
So basically, this book is all about the divine right of kings and how the awful urban merchant and middle classes are corrupt and venal. It’s even mentioned that Curdie and his parents are of a noble bloodline, which explains why they’re such good people and it’s OK for him to be King. And of course, the next king not from that bloodline causes the complete destruction of the kingdom. It’s a bit jarring to see it laid out so heavy-handedly; sure, in Lord of the Rings Aragorn is likewise of a noble bloodline, but this is a bit different. From MacDonald’s point of view it would be as if Frodo turns out to have Numenorean blood to explain why he could be so heroic. Also, being able to tell ‘good people’ from ‘bad people’ by touch is horribly reductionistic. And one can’t help thinking that if the king were really that good a king, he’d have managed his staff better and not let himself be poisoned.
Basically, the good bits in this are the awesome ugly monsters, the fairy godmother getting more screen time, and the fact that it is a fast read with charming language. The bad parts, which are much worse than in the Goblin book, are the heavy-handed political and religious allegories, the reduction of Irene’s role, the deus ex machina ending, and the very cynical epilogue.
Moving on to Lilith, this was another fairly heavy-handed work that failed to charm me. A young aristocrat finds himself sucked into a fantasy world where he doesn’t understand the rules. However, he willfully fails to listen to the one person (a crow who is sometimes also a man) who tries to explain the rules to him. Now, the person doing the explaining is also mighty elliptical about the whole thing: heaven forefend that someone should come right out and say: “Look, you can’t do that because these bad things will happen. You should do this other odd thing instead, because that way these good things will happen. Now go to it.” As it is, the crow says: “Don’t do that. Do this silly thing instead. The end.” So our hero disobeys him completely. However, things all turn out ‘OK’ in the end. In fact, at the end of the book you look back and it seems that if he’d followed the crow’s advice, none of the ‘good things’ in the book would have happened.
However, I put ‘good things’ in quotes. Reading from today’s perspective, the ending doesn’t seem all that ‘good’ to me. Plot-wise, the first half of the book is simply our hero stumbling around being an idiot (in my humble opinion). However, he finally stumbles onto the plot in the second half after he’s completely thrown over the advice of the crow. He strikes out randomly across the countryside and has some adventures. He meets a race of good children (because you know, all children are innocent and good). Somehow, he decides that to help the children he needs to go to a city which has a bad woman as a ruler. This would be Lilith, the biblical Adam’s first wife. By the way, the crow is actually that Adam, and his current wife is that Eve. Lilith is a very bad person, especially because she doesn’t like children and forbids anyone in her kingdom from having them. The children in the forest are the cast-off children of this kingdom, kept from growing apparently from a lack of water. Or something. Oh, and Lilith is also vampiric, as our hero completely fails to notice when he finds her in a death-like state (before he knows who she is) and she feeds off him in his sleep to regain her strength.
Anyway, eventually he leads an army of the children to the city to overthrow Lilith’s rule. He captures her and drags her back to Adam. There we get something like the sort of group therapy/public humiliation that some groups today sometimes use to try to ‘cure’ gay people. Adam gets her to admit that she is bad and by the end she is begging him to kill her or cut off her arm to rid herself of her own evil. Very allegorical. Very distasteful.
It’s all a bit of a shame. Phantastes (which I read but didn’t manage to review, whoops!) wasn’t the best written or plotted story ever, but it had some fascinating vignettes that put one in mind of Kelly Link. Princess and the Goblin was really charming, with some great female characters and a straightforward, fun adventure. Then Princess and Curdie took a turn for the biblical allegory and heavy-handed morality. And Lilith is almost nothing but that, surrounded by an incoherent plot that is never fully understood by the reader or the hero. Honestly, I wish I’d stopped reading at Princess and the Goblin. I’d certainly have walked away with a better impression of George MacDonald than I have now.