This Little-Known Fairy Tale Is Filled With Some Serious Girl Power

Carolyn Laggatuta/Stocksy

As much as I love fairy tales, I'll be the first to admit that they're often hella misogynistic in the treatment of their female characters, sometimes even violently so. There's one little-known fairy tale that's full of girl power, however, and it's one of my favorite stories ever. It's George MacDonald's 1872 novel, The Princess and the Goblin, and I've got so many reasons why you should read it.

The Princess and the Goblin centers on a lonely, eight-year-old princess, Irene — pronounced as "eye-REEN-ee" in the 1991 animated film adaptation — who discovers that her great-great-grandmother and namesake lives in a secret room in her father's palace. The grandmother is kind, and eventually gives Irene a magical gift: a ring attached to a superfine thread that she may always follow home if she gets lost. And my oh my, does Irene ever need that ring.

You see, Irene is a very good little girl with some particularly bad luck. She goes on an outing with her nursemaid, Lootie, only to nearly be captured by the goblins who live underground. Irene and Lootie are rescued by Curdie, a boy who works in the mines and knows all about the goblins. When Curdie later sneaks into the goblins' lair to spy on them, Irene's ring leads her to his rescue.

Curdie overhears the goblins' conversations in the mines, and learns that they intend to tunnel into the palace, kidnap Princess Irene, and marry her off to the goblin prince. When he tries to warn the guards about the goblins' plan, they lock him up instead. Irene manages to escape, but Curdie believes she has been abducted, and he follows her magic thread to try and rescue her. The thread leads both Irene and Curdie to his mother's little house on the mountainside, where everyone is safe and sound. Everything turns out well for the novel's human characters, and the evil goblins meet their end after attempting to steal away the princess.

I was first introduced to The Princess and the Goblin in the early 1990s at my local video store, from which I rented such animated fantasy classics as A Troll in Central Park and Once Upon a Forest. The animated adaptation of MacDonald's novel came out in 1991, and I watched transfixed as a cast of lovable characters with funny names sang and stomped around to defeat the goblins, who hated music and had very soft, squishy feet. What I didn't realize at the time was how the story, although not necessarily feminist, was full of girl power.

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald, $15, Amazon

In most fairy tales, female characters may be categorized as either maidens, mothers, or crones, limiting the roles they are allowed to play. The Princess and the Goblin bucks this trend from the outset. The novel features five women and girls in speaking roles — Irene, her great-great-grandmother, Lootie, the goblin queen, and Curdie's mother — and none of them fits perfectly into the maiden-mother-crone trichotomy.

Irene is pure and innocent, but also courageous. When she gets lost in the palace on her first journey to her great-great-grandmother's room, MacDonald tells us that, although Irene cries in frustration at her situation, "She did not cry long, however, for she was as brave as could be expected of a princess of her age." And even though Curdie helps to protect Irene and Lootie from the goblins when he first meets them, it is Irene who saves each of them on separate occasions, with the help of her grandmother's magic ring.

The great-great-grandmother is a mysterious character, visible only to Irene. As an elderly woman — albeit a young-looking one — with magical powers, spinning thread in a secret room in the palace, she reads as an inversion of the wicked fairy in "Sleeping Beauty," who fits the same description. Instead of wishing harm on Irene, as the fairy does to Sleeping Beauty, the great-great-grandmother heals both the princess and Curdie when they are injured. She has also protected Curdie's mother from the goblins in the past. And because the grandmother is the source of Irene's magical gifts and guidance, the princess never has to turn to a man or boy to know where to go or what to do next.

Nurse Lootie plays the Victorian mother role in The Princess and the Goblin, trying her best to raise Irene as a "proper" young lady. She attempts to keep her charge grounded, in spite of the princess' flights of fancy. Irene's headstrong nature causes her to disregard Lootie's teachings, but MacDonald shows us that they aren't always on the mark, as in this passage from their first meeting with Curdie, whom Irene has promised to kiss: "Lootie did not know which the king might count the worst — to let the princess be out after sunset, or to let her kiss a miner-boy. She did not know that, being a gentleman, as many kings have been, he would have counted neither of them the worse. However much he might have disliked his daughter to kiss the miner-boy, he would not have had her break her word for all the goblins in creation. But, as I say, the nurse was not lady enough to understand this, and so she was in a great difficulty, for, if she insisted, someone might hear the princess cry and run to see, and then all would come out."

The goblin queen serves as the main villain of The Princess and the Goblin, much more so than her stepson, the evil Prince Harelip (renamed Froglip in the 1991 film, as "harelip" is an offensive term). The queen is vain and nasty. She is the only goblin allowed to wear shoes — a rule she made up so as not to appear inferior to her predecessor, the prince's mother, who was human — and this allows her to capture Curdie when he cannot stamp on her feet to get away. Although she opposes the plan to marry her stepson off to a human, she fights viciously alongside the rest of the goblins when they storm the palace. Unfortunately, MacDonald's punishment for the Goblin Queen's "unladylike" behavior is to make her susceptible to violence from men: "Woman as she may be," Curdie tells his mother, "I won't spare her next time."

Finally, there is Curdie's mother, a goatherd who protects Irene after the goblins attack the palace. One of her best scenes, however, comes just after Curdie's liberation from the goblins' clutches. As her son struggles to understand how the sheltered, eight-year-old Irene knew where and when to find him, Curdie's mother advises him to take the simplest course of action and believe Irene. The miner-boy's mother recounts an experience she could never fully explain, in which someone — strongly suggested to be the great-great-grandmother — sends a magical pigeon to scare off some goblins who were harassing her, and who never again gave her trouble after that. When Curdie admits that he has to believe her because she is his mother, she responds: "There are other people in the world quite as well worth believing as your own mother . . . There are mothers far more likely to tell lies than the little girl I saw talking to the primroses a few weeks ago. If she were to lie I should begin to doubt my own word."

Even though the Victorian era wasn't exactly the best time to be a woman in the Western world, George MacDonald's 1872 novel is an accidentally feminist work of children's literature. I say "accidentally," because MacDonald himself wrote in the introduction to The Princess and the Goblin that "[E]very little girl is a princess, and there would be no need to say anything about it, except that she is always in danger of forgetting her rank, and behaving as if she had grown out of the mud. I have seen little princesses behave like the children of thieves and lying beggars, and that is why they need to be told they are princesses." Clearly, MacDonald held some really classist and misogynistic views of women — not to mention the ableism inherent in naming the goblin prince "Harelip" — but The Princess and the Goblin remains a little-known, girl-powered fairy tale that should be on your radar.