George MacDonald and the "Light Princess"

By Bob Trexler

When asked what his fairy tales mean, George MacDonald replied, "So long as I think my dog can bark, I will not sit up and bark for him" , meaning that his tales must speak for themselves. So, forgive me for barking, but there may be some who have not met George MacDonald's dog - it is truly one of the hounds of heaven who will chase you down as it did C.S. Lewis, only to find that what you had encountered was not a dog at all, but God.

This is the irony of MacDonald's fairy tales: things are not always what they seem. They represent more than one thing; natural and supernatural, material and spiritual, external and internal, or a play on words as you find in "The Light Princess". This is the most comic of MacDonald's stories, full of puns and double-meanings.

This essay is organized into four areas:

1) A plot summary of "The Light Princess"

2) The events surrounding and leading to it's publication

3) Some theories and themes of MacDonald's writing

4) Reflections on MacDonald's purpose in writing the story

There was once a King and Queen to whom a daughter was born. Invitations were sent for the baby's christening, but the King forgot to invite his sister, Princess Makemnoit. This sister, who is actually an evil witch, attends the christening anyway, angry at being forgotten. During the ceremony she places this spell on the child:

"Light of Spirit by my charms

Light of body, every part.

Never weary human arms -

Only crush thy parents heart !" 2

From then on the daughter princess floats about for many years, taking nothing seriously. Finally the King and Queen consult with the college of metaphysicians. The Chinese Hum-Drum and Tibetan Kopy Keck give them advise, but the King finally dismisses them both.

Through a boating accident at a lake by the castle, it is discovered that by being placed in the water, the princess regains her normal gravity. So, she delights to spend as much time as possible in the lake. Meanwhile, a prince from far away is traveling in search of the perfect princess to marry. At dusk he happens upon the princess in the lake laughing loudly. The prince, mistaking her laughter for shouts of distress, jumps into the lake and carries her out. She demands to be put back in, so the prince carries her up a bank 25 feet above the lake and they jump in together. The prince has fallen in love with the princess, but the princess only cares about jumping into the lake with the prince.

When the King's evil sister learns that the princess is so happy in the water, she causes another spell to slowly drain the lake and also to dry up the entire kingdom. When the lake began to dry up, the princess remained in the castle and thought no more of the prince. The prince is love-sick and goes away to consult a hermit he met in his travels. Upon returning, the prince learns that a gold disk was discovered at the bottom of the lake with the following words:

" Death alone from death can save.

Love is death, and so is brave.

Love can fill the deepest grave.

Love loves on beneath the wave." 3

There is a further message on the disk that only if a man willingly sacrifices himself by filling the hole in the lake with his own body, can the lake be restored and the kingdom saved. The prince offers himself to the King with one condition; the princess must keep him company and feed him until the water rises over his head. After the water closes over the princes head, the princess suddenly shrieks and pulls the unconscious prince into her boat.

The prince is brought back to the castle, more dead than alive. Finally, the prince opens his eyes and the princess bursts into tears for an hour. At the same time a great rain fell on the kingdom all the while the sun shone, forming a beautiful rainbow around the palace.

The evil sister caused no more trouble, and soon afterward her house, which was a cavern under the lake, collapsed and she drowns. The princess regained her gravity, married the prince and they lived happily ever after.

George Macdonald was 40 years old when Adela Cathcart, the novel in which "The Light Princess" first appeared, was published, though the fairy tale was written before the novel. MacDonald had become a professor of literature at London University five years earlier and a few years before its publication, instead of a lecture, MacDonald read "The Light Princess" to his students. In July of 1862, Lewis Carroll recorded in his diary that he met George MacDonald in London. He writes, "I walked a mile or so with him on his way to a publisher with the manuscript of his fairy tale "The Light Princess" - in which he showed me some exquisite drawings by Hughes." 4

The next year, Lewis Carroll showed MacDonald his manuscript of Alice In Wonderland, and with the approval and encouragement of MacDonald's children, he enlarged the story and had it published. In 1863, a year before Adela Cathcart, another influential Victorian fantasy was written by Charles Kingsley called, The Water Babies. It is interesting to note that all three of these fantasies - though different in significant ways, were published within a few years of each other. It is also interesting to note that two of these authors (Kingsley, and MacDonald) were members of an informal circle of writers who were highly influenced by the Christian Socialist, FD Maurice.5 This group could be compared in some ways to that 20th century group of writers we call "The Inklings". In various ways, these 19th century writers drew upon the Romantic, neo-platonic ideals from Blake and Coleridge and (especially in MacDonald's case) the German Romanticism of Novalis.

But let me back up from 1864 to the year 1840, when George MacDonald was 16 years old, to chronicle the depth and breadth of knowledge that MacDonald brought to his writing. At age 16 MacDonald entered the University of Aberdeen. At age 22 MacDonald earned a masters degree in Chemistry and Physics. At age 26 he earned another masters degree in theology. He was proficient in Latin and Greek, and preferred to read the new testament in the original greek. He knew German and produced well respected translations of "The Spiritual Songs" and "Hymns To The Night" by Novalis. It is possible that his ability to read German gave him greater access to the influential philosophies of Kant, Shelling, and Fichte and the German Biblical higher criticism. Regardless, it is clear that MacDonald was familiar with all the philosophies, sciences, literary theories, and theology of his time.

He enjoyed mathematics, and if the interests of his novel's heros reflect his own - he especially enjoyed Euclid geometry. MacDonald's favorite literature included many authors who would be shared by his greatest 20th century admirer, C.S. Lewis. This list includes Spenser's The Fairy Queen, Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress, Shakespear, the English Romantics, and Dante.

I mention MacDonald's background because the introductions and prefaces to MacDonald's stories from the 1970's and 80's, when a resurgence of interest in MacDonald began, fail to mention the broad renaissance education that he drew upon - leaving the impression that MacDonald had no employment options other than to write stories when he was forced to resign his pulpit. Even CS Lewis's preface to his anthology of George MacDonald gives no hint of MacDonald's scholarship. More recent studies have begun to correct this impression and future MacDonald studies will pursue the many threads of influence from his broad education.

All MacDonald's ideas derive from and point toward two central themes: The Fatherhood of God and the obedience of the Son. But in choosing these two themes, it would be necessary to include death as the major subheading under the obedience of the son, for it is clear from MacDonald's writings that our obedience is to be modeled after that of Jesus Christ, who became obedient unto death. As Tolkien said correctly, "Death is the major theme that most inspired George Macdonald."6 It is the major theme of Lillith, At The Back of The North Wind, "The Golden Key", and one of the themes of "The Light Princess".


In the process of developing these themes, MacDonald created a psychology and epistemology which provide the structure upon which MacDonald's mythic symbolism rests. It is not a structure in the artificial sense of hanging ideas like coats on a coat-rack. MacDonald's message and imagination are so well integrated that it is impossible to mistake them for allegories. You find these creative theories primarily in the essays: "The Imagination: It's Function and Culture" and "A Sketch of Individual Development". 7 As surely as Tolkien mapped out the history and landscape of Middle-Earth, MacDonald mapped out the history of an individual's religious consciousness and the landscape of the human mind. His theories of personal development anticipated many of the theories of the subconscious later made famous by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

In the letters of CS Lewis, Lewis writes that he and Tolkien discussed writing a book together on language. The proposed title was "Language and Human Nature". 8 The combined role of language, myth and imagination were central to Tolkien, Lewis, and Owen Barfield's understanding of human beings. In this they followed in the footsteps of others in the wide river called Romanticism, and in particular, that stream of thought which most attracted George MacDonald. The role of poetic language in human consciousness as it is used by MacDonald and those following him, provides an important key toward understanding the difference between the modern myth and the mythology of MacDonald and the Inklings.

MacDonald's use of language and symbol provide the means of communicating his imminently practical, though mythic message. If I were to compare the purpose of MacDonald's writings with that of the investigative reporter who seeks to answer the questions: "Who, What, Where, When, and How?" , George MacDonald spent a minimum of effort with the first four questions and a majority of his effort on the question "how?". It is his focus on the process of spiritual education, the "how can it be accomplished" question, that provides the immediacy and practicality in everything he wrote.

To return to Adela Cathcart and "The Light Princess", what is MacDonald's purpose in writing the story? As mentioned earlier "The Light Princess" is a story within a story. The purpose of the storyteller in the novel is to lead Adela out of an emotional depression. This depression is diagnosed by two brothers - one a doctor and the other a minister - as being a spiritual rather than a physical problem. By means of storytelling, they believe they can awaken her deadened feelings. Seen in this context, it seems clear that in some ways the light princess is the mirror-opposite of Adela. For one everything is serious, for the other everything is frivolous.

Even Adela's father is like the King in "The Light Princess" - being very literal and without appreciation for double-meanings. One of the primary intentions of the story, and the novel surrounding it, is that there are spiritual, psychological, and emotional laws which are as real as the laws of science, nature, and gravity. To take it a step further, these unseen laws have primacy and the ability to affect the natural world (just as when the princess repents in tears and water is restored to the kingdom).

It is love which brings the spiritual and natural back into harmony. The prince has a Dante-like beatific vision of the princess and is inspired to sacrifice himself to bring her joy. In the process (neither of them conscious of the consequences of what they are doing) the princess has an appropriate emotional response and saves the prince. In this way, the man and woman are the salvation of each other.

Some comparisons with MacDonald's story Lillith, published 31 years after "The Light Princess", serve to confirm the central importance of certain themes and symbols common to them both. Just as Mr. Vane in Lillith was invited to die, so is the prince in "The Light Princess". The difference is that the prince accepts quickly and Mr. Vane after much struggle under his own efforts. The work or duty to which they are called is also alike: helping others obtain life-giving water, without which the land is parched and it's inhabitants in mortal danger.

The solution to the dilemma in both stories is death. But in the strange juxtaposition of things in MacDonald's fairy tales, to be dead is to be truly alive. And the dreamlike vision of life presented to us through his fantasy is a reflection of that eternal reality. For, to paraphrase MacDonald's favorite quote from Novalis; life is, or should be, a dream of a greater reality.


1 MacDonald, George "The Fantastic Imagination", from A Dish of Orts (1893), reprinted by Johannesen Publishing (1996), p 321.
2 MacDonald, George "The Light Princess", from Adela Cathcart (1864), reprinted by Johannesen Publishing (1994), p 60.
3 MacDonald, George "The Light Princess", from Adela Cathcart (1864), reprinted by Johannesen Publishing (1994), p 92.
4 From Roger Lancelyn Green's introduction to The Complete Fairy Tales of George MacDonald.
5 Prickett, Stephen. Victorian Fantasy, Indiana University Press. 1979. p 159.
6 Lewis, C. S. editor. Tolkien, J.R.R. "On Fairy Stories" Essays Presented to Charles Williams, Eerdmans Publishing. 1996. p 81.
7 MacDonald, George. A Dish of Orts (1893), reprinted by Johannesen Publishing (1996).
8 W.H. Lewis, Walter Hooper, editors. Letters of C. S. Lewis. MacMillan. 1988. p. 399.

This essay first appeared in "CSL: The Bulletin of the New York C.S. Lewis Society", Vol. 30, No. 3-4, March-April 1999, Whole No. 353-354 and is reprinted by permission.

Copyright 1999 New York C.S. Lewis Society.

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