91 pages 3 hours read

George MacDonald

The Princess and the Goblin

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1872

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Summary and Study Guide


The Princess and the Goblin, first published in 1872, is a Victorian children’s fantasy novel written by George MacDonald. Arthur Hughes and W. B. MacDougall created the accompanying drawings for the original publication, and Jessie Wilcox Smith added new visual art to the story in 1920. In 1992, the novel was adapted into a full-length animated feature film of the same name.

This guide utilizes the 2018 Leaves of Gold Press version of the novel.

Plot Summary

Told in the form of a bedtime story, The Princess and the Goblin is the tale of protagonist Irene, an eight-year-old princess who is being raised by servants in a farmhouse in the mountains. Humanlike goblins inhabit the caverns of the mountains; they once lived among people but retreated underground when the king at the time placed harsh sanctions upon them. The goblins formed their own government, appointed a king, and developed a livelihood underground. They became ugly but strong, and they spend their time causing mischief for people.

One day, Irene decides to follow a secret passageway in her bedroom that leads to endless doors and hallways. Although she becomes lost and afraid, she presses on, eventually finding a room with three doors. Irene opens a door to find an old but youthful-looking woman spinning thread. The woman is Irene’s great-great-grandmother (afterwards called simply “Grandmother”), also named Irene. Nobody has seen Grandmother except Irene, and after seeing the pigeons whose eggs Grandmother lives off of, Irene returns to her nurse. Irene tells her nurse, Lootie, about her experience, but Lootie dismisses it as a made-up story. This upsets Irene, who begs Lootie to let her prove the story’s truth. When Irene decides to ask her grandmother for permission to bring Lootie to see her, she cannot find her way back to Grandmother’s room. Disappointed, Irene retreats, deciding not to mention Grandmother to Lootie again.

The next day, the rain clears and Irene and Lootie go for a walk. They stay out too late, which frightens Lootie, who worries about the goblins. They become lost but soon encounter Curdie, a miner boy, who belts out verses to keep goblins at bay. He takes Irene and Lootie back home, and they encounter a goblin on their way. Curdie fights it off by singing. Irene becomes fond of Curdie and promises to give him a kiss when she sees him again.

That night, Curdie is visited by goblins and decides that he will stay in the mines the next night to find out what they are up to. When he does, Curdie realizes there is a goblin family just on the other side of the rocks he is mining. He listens to them talking and hears about their weak feet, as well as a plan to cause trouble for the miners. After the goblins leave, Curdie follows them. He soon finds the king’s palace, a large cavern filled with goblins. The king’s court speaks of two plans to take revenge upon the humans who stole their land and continue to mock them, and one of the goblins reveals a large water source that they can use. Curdie retreats, reasoning that the goblins intend to flood the mines. He wonders what their other plan is and goes home to tell his father everything.

Days later, Irene is visited by her father, the king. They walk through the garden together. Irene tells her father about Grandmother, whom he admits he has never seen. He knows about the night that Lootie brought Irene home late, and he lectures Lootie severely. The king leaves three guards to watch over the farmhouse.

Autumn passes, and in winter, Irene pricks her finger on an old ornament. She is sent to bed early but soon wakes to find moonlight shining through the ceiling. She knows it must be Grandmother and rushes up the passageways to find her there. Grandmother reveals she is spinning a thread for Irene and invites Irene to sleep in her bed. Inside the bedroom hangs a large moon, which is Grandmother’s source of magic as well as a beacon for the pigeons. Grandmother warns Irene that Irene must visit next Friday, or she may never find Grandmother again. She heals Irene’s wound, and when Irene awakes the next day, she is in her own bed and recovered.

Curdie continues working in the mines, spending time each night exploring the goblin caves and using a thread to find his way back. He discovers some goblins hard at work mining but cannot figure out why. Over the next few nights, the goblins’ pets begin appearing around the farmhouse. The creatures are grotesque and humanlike, standing on their hind legs and more cunning than they appear.

Friday night arrives, and a goblin pet enters Irene’s bedroom. She runs in fear up the mountain and becomes lost in the dark. Her grandmother’s moon lamp appears, leading her back home, where she runs to meet Grandmother as promised. Grandmother gifts Irene the thread she has been spinning, attaching it to a ring. She briefly burns the ball of thread and then places it in a drawer, noting that it will keep them connected to each other. Irene can use the thread to find her way to Grandmother when she is in trouble.

Spring arrives and the king comes to visit. He tells Irene that the ring was her mother’s. He steals away to the tower to see Grandmother, appoints six more guards to protect against the goblin creatures, and sets off again.

One night, Curdie gets lost when creatures get hold of his axe and lead him astray. He realizes he is above the royal chamber and hears Prince Harelip talking about marrying a girl from the sun world. Curdie falls into the chamber and is attacked by the goblin family and several minions. The queen throws him into a hole, shutting him inside. He wakes to hear the royal family talking about feeding him to their pets in a couple of days. He starts to sing a rhyme to bother them, and after they retreat to bed, he sits awake planning his escape.

Irene wakes in the morning to the sound of something hissing in her room. She becomes afraid and places the ring under her pillow; she then begins following her grandmother’s thread. It takes her up the mountain and then into the caverns. Irene follows it without fear until it brings her to a heap of rocks that form a wall. Irene becomes frustrated and begins to doubt her grandmother, but she soon realizes she can clear the stones away. She clears half the stones and then hears Curdie singing. Realizing why she is there, Irene clears enough stones to allow Curdie to push the slab away and free himself, and the two escape through the tunnels, following Irene’s thread. They pass by the king and queen goblins as they lay sleeping, and Curdie steals back his axe and takes one of the queen’s shoes, discovering she has six toes.

Curdie doubts Irene’s claims about her grandmother’s thread bringing her to save him, but Irene leads Curdie out of the caves and into the farmhouse, where the thread leads them to her grandmother. Curdie cannot see Grandmother or her magic, and Irene is distraught when he accuses her of lying. Grandmother reminds Irene that she must be patient with Curdie because believing is not always as simple as seeing.

Curdie tells his parents everything. To help him believe, Curdie’s mother shares a story in which the moon-lamp and a white pigeon saved her from a group of goblins. Curdie trusts his mother and begins to see that he might have been wrong. He believes that Harelip wants to kidnap and marry Irene and that the goblins are mining along the stream to accost the castle from below.

Irene wakes to find Lootie and several servants and guards surrounding her. Lootie begins yelling at her, and Irene insists that there is no point explaining where she has been since Lootie will not believe her. She remains calm as Lootie yells, requesting a new caretaker and calling for the king. All of this terrifies Lootie, who breaks down in tears; Irene then retracts her threats, which were empty to begin with.

The summer comes, and Curdie notices that the goblins have started mining upwards. He begins scouting the farmhouse but is captured and wounded one night by the guards, who do not believe his claims about the goblins’ plan. The same night, the whole population of goblins breaks into the cellar underneath the farmhouse. Curdie is healed by Grandmother as he sleeps and wakes to defend the house and the princess. The goblins attack as Curdie and the guards fight them off by stamping on their feet. The goblins eventually retreat into the caves, but Irene is missing. Curdie feels the thread touch him and determines to follow it. It leads him back to his own house, where he finds Irene safely sleeping in his mother’s arms. Irene wakes, Curdie apologizes for not believing her, and they each tell of their experiences. Afterward, Curdie goes to warn his father about the goblins’ plan to flood the mines. He and the other miners secure the mine with stones and cement, and Curdie rushes home to find his house nearly flooded. Everyone remains safe inside, and Irene stays overnight to avoid being caught in the flood.

The next morning, the king arrives, and everyone is relieved when Curdie brings Irene home safely. Irene tells the story of everything that occurred and then gives Curdie the kiss she promised him. A feast is held for the entire kingdom, but in the middle of the night, it is interrupted by the goblins’ flood. The mine is secured in time, but the house is flooded and evacuated. Meanwhile, the goblins accidentally flood their own caverns. Curdie leads the guard to save the horses and then brings everyone to safety. The king offers to recruit him onto his guard. Curdie declines, wanting to stay with his family, and Irene promises to visit him. Many of the goblins die in the flood, some move away, and those who remain become friendlier and learn to live alongside the humans.

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