Friday, December 2, 2011

Adventure classics -- Light in every way

The Light Princess
by George MacDonald

I’ll admit not catching most of George MacDonald’s sly satirical touches when I first read his mid-nineteenth century fairy tale, “The Light Princess,” in my family’s 1956 edition of The Junior Classics. But I knew that this story about a princess with a mind of her own -- light as it was -- was like nothing else I’d ever seen.

This wasn’t a princess who stayed obediently cloistered in a tower. Or whose idea of a rowdy night out was going to sleep for a hundred years. Not on your life. This was a princess who, when confined to her room, climbed out for a midnight swim.

And if a handsome prince happened to come along -- she wasn’t about to put herself out looking for one -- she didn’t worry about whether their friendship conformed to conventional Victorian standards of deportment. As long, of course, as he was a good swimmer. Swimming was her passion and water, indeed, was the only medium in which she could enjoy the freedom of not floating off into the atmosphere.

Because much as some of us may wish to register more lightly on our scales, this princess really was light -- a defect wished on her by a spiteful aunt, whose witchcraft had deprived the princess of her gravity in both the scientific and psychological senses.

Of course, she was able to regain her gravity by falling (one of MacDonald’s many puns -- and they are hilarious, not horrible) in love. And when her boyfriend the prince (he’s the obedient one in the story) offered to die by drowning to save her life, threatened by the actions of the same wicked aunt, the princess saved his life instead.

Given that the story is from the hand of the Scottish preacher turned professor turned author who C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien acknowledged as an influence, both the
obedient and disobedient have their proper place in the scheme of things.

Lewis Carroll, who would complete Alice in Wonderland with MacDonald’s encouragement, wrote in his diary in July 1862 about a walk with MacDonald. They took MacDonald’s publisher the manuscript of “The Light Princess,” which included, in Carroll’s words, “some exquisite drawings by Hughes.”

I was unable to find any of the drawings by Pre-Raphaelite painter and illustrator Arthur Hughes, but I’ve snitched one of his more famous paintings, “Ophelia,” to go with this post. If that sounds too serious, consider the description of the fairy tale’s light-minded princess: “. . .she would laugh like the very spirit of fun; only in her laugh there was something missing. . .I think it was a certain tone, depending upon the possibility of sorrow -- morbidezza, perhaps.”

“The Light Princess” is included in numerous other editions of MacDonald’s works, with illustrations by artists as famous as Maurice Sendak and actor Humphrey Bogart’s mother Maude Humphrey. But it’s also available online at

Want to know more about George MacDonald? See

(Next Friday, a December of spirited adventures continues with Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Bridge of San Luis Rey.)

1 comment:

  1. Memories of childhood, including your next post about The Bridge of San Luis Rey. For those who want the Cliff Notes, the bridge does come in movie package!