Replete with metaphor and symbolism, word-play and charming innocence, George MacDonald’s The Light Princess is always a treat to re-read.
My favorite types of books to read are ones with layers of meaning, which still retain their aesthetic appeal. As I re-read this classic children’s fantasy, I admired the depth and imagination MacDonald brought to the simple tale.
I have loved George MacDonald’s stories since I was a little girl. As he was a former pastor with a flair for the fantastical, I always found his works to be full of mystery and hidden meaning, just beyond my grasp.
I appreciated how U.C. Knoepflmacher put it in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of MacDonald’s Complete Fairy Tales:
“These fictions best dramatize MacDonald’s long distrust of ready-made systems and conventional assumptions—“adventitious wrappings” that he, like Thomas Carlyle, his fellow-Scot and mentor, set out to “re-tailorize.” Addressed to both children and adults, MacDonald’s fairy tales enlist paradox, play, and nonsense in a relentless process of destabilizing priorities he wants readers to question and rethink.”
Basically, George MacDonald defied the stereotypes of fairytale and fantasy, and didn’t offer clear-cut morals and meanings. It is one of the most delightful and frustrating elements of his writing. There are a few elements of the story which stand out, the concept of lightness being the dominate one, so it is to that I will turn my attention first.
It is with lightness that the play on words begins- for the princess is light in body, and gravity does not work on her like it does on other people. The “gift” was given to her as an evil curse, from the King’s sister who felt slighted. At her christening the wicked sister speaks the evil words,
“Light of spirit by my charms, Light of body, every part, Never weary human arms— only crush thy parents’ heart!”
And the work is done! Thus, being “light” descends like a cloud of darkness upon the princess.
She is soon tumbling up through the air instead of down, as gravity does not affect her like it does to others. She is also light of spirit and cannot feel sadness or remorse. This may seem appealing at first, but don’t underestimate the gravity of the situation! MacDonald proves throughout the tale that this is a tragedy.
Her condition vexes her parents, the king and queen, who experience her lightness of heart as insensitivity. She cannot feel empathy for another and becomes a creature of her own sort, living in emotional isolation.
Materialism vs. Spiritualism
And what do her parents do to try to solve the issue? They bring in metaphysicians, another play on words, as they are both portrayed as philosophers and “physicians” in the sense that they are trying to figure out how to cure her.
One is a Materialist and the other, a Spiritualist. Sadly, neither are able to arrive at a humane solution for solving the dilemma, for the Spiritualist approaches matters as being completely of the mind which can be solved through forced study of every area of earth’s history. The Materialist, on the other hand, treats the issue as being of the body, and even goes so far as to suggest physical measures such as lobotomy and risky procedures that could result in her death!
I think MacDonald is having a little fun here ragging on philosophical positions. I would venture he is suggesting that both extremes can be unhelpful, especially when dealing with actual human beings.
As the story moves on, the question remains: how will the Princess become acquainted with gravity and being grounded? The problem is ultimately given a metaphorical solution: she “falls” in love. Or at least, under its influence.
She is cured through the loving sacrifice of another: a dear Prince who offers to stand in the hole at the bottom of her beloved lake, which has all but dried up.
As he stands there, the water begins to build up around him and oddly enough he begins to sing (as is frequent in MacDonald fairytales!). His song concludes with:
“Lady, keep thy world’s delight; Keep the waters in thy sight. Love hath made me strong to go, For thy sake, to realms below, Where the water’s shine and hum Through the darkness never come: Let, I pray, one thought of me Spring, a little well, in thee; Lest thy loveless soul be found Like a dry and thirsty ground.”
The prince’s words are a wish and prayer for the princess, even as he waits to meet with his end. He wants her to realize the meaningfulness of his loving sacrifice for her, and to be able to experience love herself. Being too light-hearted has made her unable to feel it.
As I was reading this story, something struck me as familiar. I wondered if it, in part, inspired J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. There are similarities, mostly being the ability to defy gravity along with a certain lightness of heart. There is also a shared proclivity for mischief between the Princess and Peter, and as a fellow Scotsman who probably had read MacDonald’s tale, I’m sure there was some at least unconscious influence here.
I didn’t know BBC had made a movie version of this! It is hilarious, made circa 1985 with cheesy cartoons mixed with real people which I’m sure was cutting-edge at the time.
movie version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dPVdAcvxWY
They’ve also made musicals based on The Light Princess. It makes sense, as MacDonald put a bit of singing in it to begin with.
Now, I noted at the beginning that MacDonald was not trying to convey a simple, tidy message through this tale. However, I think from the themes of the tale lessons can be drawn about not being too light-hearted in life, the importance of being grounded, and that true love is sacrificial, laying one’s life down for another (incidentally, a very Christian theme, too!).
So…what do you think? Is being too “light-hearted” a bad thing? Are you a fan of fairytales? Ever read old Scottish ones such as this?
If you’re interested you can get your own copy! It usually comes in a collection of his stories. Also, Project Gutenberg has man of them available online! http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/127