George MacDonald’s “The Light Princess”

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I thought that “The Light Princess” was quite a realistic fairy tale.

I know that’s an odd thing to say about a story of wicked-witch aunts, floating princesses, and a White Snake of Darkness, but it’s true. George MacDonald wrote odd and charming fairy tales, admired by the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Edith Nesbit; like most great children’s storytellers, he really wrote for adults as much as for children. I suspect that there might be more in “The Light Princess” for the grown-ups than for the little ones.

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It starts ordinarily enough (as fairy tales go). In a kingdom on the edge of a beautiful lake (Lagobel) live a king and a queen, long childless, but finally about to have a daughter. While compiling the guest list for their daughter’s christening, they forget to invite the king’s sister, which is a bad move, since she’s a witch. The royal sister makes her appearance anyway, and puts a curse on the little princess: the child becomes gravity-less, and if not held tightly, she’d float clear away.

The problem is even worse that it initially appears. As the princess grows older, it’s clear that she lacks not only gravity, but gravitas. She laughs at everything, all the time, no matter how serious or tragic. There is something odd about her laughter, though.

What it was, I find myself unable to describe. I think it was a certain tone, depending upon the possibility of sorrow — morbidezza, perhaps. She never smiled.

She never cried, either.

Only one thing makes the princess almost normal, more serene and thoughtful: to swim in the beautiful lake. While swimming one evening, she’s discovered by a wandering young prince, and thereafter she sneaks off every evening to frolic with him in the lake. These swimming scenes were so scandalous to Victorian readers that MacDonald couldn’t sell “The Light Princess” as a standalone children’s story, and had to sneak it into his novel Adela Cathcart (along with several other stories) as tales told to Adela by her eccentric uncle, Mr. Smith.

This is where the realistic part comes in. The prince falls in love with the princess of course, pretty much at first sight (and she wasn’t very nice to him on their first encounter). This is the most fairy-taleiest of fairy tale things; it infects romance novels and rom-com cinema, but how often does it actually work out happily ever after in real life? We’ve probably all read those filler articles in the news about cute, frisky nonagenarian couples celebrating their 75th wedding anniversaries, or whatever. Inevitably, one will say about the other, “The moment that I laid eyes on her, I knew she was the one for me.” I guess in those cases, Grandpa (or Grandma) was right, but for every one of those forever-marriages, how many ended in ugly divorces — and how many more at-first-sight romances simply fizzled out before ever getting to that stage? I’m a bit skeptical about love at first sight, and I’ve been married a long time.

What I liked about the prince, though, is that he seemed quite open-eyed about the princess’s personality, her self-centeredness and flightiness and faults.

The prince soon found out that while in the water the princess was very like other people. And besides this, she was not so forward in her questions or pert in her replies at sea as on shore. Neither did she laugh so much; and when she did laugh, it was more gently. She seemed altogether more modest and maidenly in the water than out of it.

But when the prince, who had really fallen in love when he fell in the lake, began to talk to her about love, she always turned her head towards him and laughed. After a while she began to look puzzled, as if she were trying to understand what he meant, but could not—revealing a notion that he meant something. But as soon as ever she left the lake, she was so altered, that the prince said to himself, “If I marry her, I see no help for it: we must turn merman and mermaid, and go out to sea at once.”

I know that the modern ideal man would have preferred a princess who was pert and forward, but I’ll cut this prince some slack for being a Victorian. And at least he had no illusions that he could change her (permanently), once they got married.

The pair get on swimmingly (ha!) until the princess’s evil aunt realizes that water makes her niece happy. So naturally, she hatches a scheme to drain the lake. As the water drains away, so does the princess’s life. An ancient prophesy advises the king that the only way to save the lake — and the princess — is for someone to willingly use their body to plug the leak that is draining the lake, and to drown while doing so….

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MacDonald was an ordained minister, though his unorthodox views made him too controversial to retain a parish; he published sermons and spiritual writings as well as fairy tales. The last part of “The Light Princess” is full of Christian symbolism. I honestly don’t think that this detracts from a “straight” (surface) reading of the tale. The Prince isn’t exactly a Jesus figure, in that he makes his choice specifically for the princess, not for the good of the kingdom. Everyone around him acts fairly ungrateful (or at least unconcerned) about the fact that someone is about to die to get them out of trouble, and unfortunately, that’s probably fairly realistic, too.

Is this the end of the prince? Does the princess recover? You can find out here, thanks to Project Gutenberg. There’s one uncomfortable passage that reminds us that Victorian views on corporal punishment were not the same as ours, but it’s also implied that the king did not usually behave that way, as a father. Other than that, I enjoyed the story quite a bit.

“The Light Princess” is the first story in Penguin’s volume of George MacDonald’s The Complete Fairy Tales. The second story is another odd and creepy tale called “The Shadows”, which I also liked, though I don’t think I completely get it. But according to Mr. MacDonald, that’s okay, too. I’m looking forward to the rest of the stories in the collection.

Check it out.


  • The top illustration is by George C. Papé, for “Ringfalla Bridge” in The Diamond Fairy Book (1897). Image: Project Gutenberg.
  • The next two illustrations are from 1926, for “The Light Princess”, by Dorothy Lathrop. I found them, along with several others, at this blog post. The blogger mentions that they know this story (with these illustrations) from a set of books that they grew up with, called The Junior Classics, which possibly came as a premium with a set of Collier’s Encyclopedias that their mother bought. Oh, print encyclopedias, another victim of the internet. My parents had a set of Collier’s, too. I grew up with a set of eleven or so volumes of fairy tales, folk tales, and excerpts of classics called My Book House — also a premium with the Collier’s (I think). Beyond the stories themselves, I especially remember the lovely art nouveau illustrations and plates. I don’t remember “The Light Princess”, though, nor Ms. Lathrop’s illustrations. I’m definitely a fan of her work now (and Mr. Papé’s, too).

    To be honest, I can’t say I miss the encyclopedias. But I definitely miss the premiums.

  • Maurice Sendak also illustrated a volume of The Light Princess, originally published in 1969, reprinted several times since. It’s available at Amazon.

7 thoughts on “George MacDonald’s “The Light Princess”

  1. I have this story…I really should read it! I’ve only ever read The Golden Key and a couple of chapters from Phantastes. (I think I’ve read The Princess and the Goblin too…) And from what I’ve read of MacDonald I suspect his stories have layers, and they most certainly were not meant for children alone. The Light Princess sounds very interesting…I’ll look forward to reading it. 🙂

    • Phantastes has been on my to-read list for a little while, though I haven’t gotten to it. I think his shorter fairy tales are better introduction to him, for me at least.

      “The Light Princess” reminds me of the old Rocky and Bullwinkle show, with references and jokes that probably go over a child’s head, but make their parents chuckle. The romance between the prince and princess is quite well developed when compared to most fairy tales — I almost want to call it a YA fairy tale, as it seems like it would appeal more to a tween or a teen than to a six-year-old, say. In contrast, “The Giant’s Heart” is very much a fairy tale a six year old would enjoy (and me, too!), while “The Shadows” feels like it was written for adults (or YA).

      It’s been interesting reading The Complete Fairy Tales, so far….

  2. Your insight about “love at first sight” is supported by research. When people see a photo of someone, there tends to be general agreement on ratings of attractiveness. Research says that as we get to know the person, however, that impression is subject to great change. Subsequent ratings diverge depending upon who the rater is and how they come to evaluate this new person, their personality, their interests, etc.

    • Makes sense! And it’s something that there isn’t room to deal with in a fairy tale, of course. But I like that MacDonald at least touched upon it…

  3. Pingback: Another Good Fairy Tale by George MacDonald | Multo (Ghost)

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