by John Patrick Pazdziora
University of St Andrews
Read the chapter here. Listen to the chapter and investigate below:
Literary fairy tales abound in stagy villains. Unluckily for the royal new parents in The Light Princess, the king’s own sister is one of them; she’s a malevolent witch. Naturally enough, she’s infuriated at being omitted from the guest list to her niece’s christening; the narrator has already told us that she was left out from her father’s will. And so the embittered, disinherited, spiteful Princess Makemnoit does exactly what That One Uncle does each year for Christmas dinner: she turns up without being invited.
That Princess Makemnoit is the villain of the story is obvious. The narrator introduces her with vicious enthusiasm, gleefully describing a larger-than-life baddie: ‘She was a sour, spiteful creature. The wrinkles of contempt crossed the wrinkles of peevishness, and made her face as full of wrinkles as a pat of butter’ (Complete, p. 16) It’s a turn of phrase, and of character development, worthy of Roald Dahl or L. Frank Baum. For sheer ugliness and spitefulness, and for the inventive meanness of her curse, Makemnoit ranks among the most extravagant fairy tale villains.
The Light Princess is an adaptation of the French conte form, exemplified by Perrault and Madame D’Aulnoy. (Thackeray plundered the conte for The Rose and the Ring (1854), and Andrew Lang would later use it for Prince Prigio (1889).) A royal christening is a set piece of the conte; you remember the most famous example as ‘Sleeping Beauty’. It provides a convenient way for the storyteller to establish both the trials and advantages that the characters will possess. It also allows for the traditional fairy godparents to magically intervene in their godchild’s life. And most significantly, it recalls traditional folkloric belief that unbaptized children are vulnerable to the fairies.
MacDonald’s handling of this familiar tableau in The Light Princess, and later in ‘Little Daylight’, is unique: he uses it to address the greater problem of religion’s frequent impotence in the face of questions of suffering and evil. Serious questions of faith and metaphysics underlie most of MacDonald’s fairy tales, and, for all its gleeful hilarity, The Light Princess is no exception. Humorously, lucidly, and a bit cheekily, it tells the story of a young woman’s illness and convalescence, and her initiatory passage from adolescence through adulthood, from selfishness to compassion. The Light Princess is, at its heart, the story of two young people—in this case, a prince and a princess—finding their own way into the world without substantial help from grown-up authority. Through the course of the tale, they struggle with the complexities of caring for another person, and dealing with sickness and suffering.
MacDonald drew attention to the seriousness of his purpose when he set the tale within the frame narrative of his novel Adela Cathcart (1864), a story about an depressive young woman whose participation in a reading circle is helping her find a reason to keep living. The Light Princess is the first story presented to the reading circle. The narrator of the novel, Mr John Smith, reads it to the group, and he pauses for a drink of water at the end of this chapter. This gives occasion for Mrs Cathcart—the aunt of the titular heroine, primly embodying a Victorian snobbery that is still with us—to voice the first of her many passive-aggressive objections to the work:
“One thing,” said Mrs. Cathcart with a smile, not a very sweet one, but still a smile, “one thing, I must object to. That is, introducing church ceremonies into a fairy-tale.” (p. 60)
Her objection is answered by another member of the reading circle—a clergyman—who asks ‘Do you suppose the church to be such a cross-grained old lady, that she will not allow her children to take a few gentle liberties with their mother?’ (p. 60). The implication seems to be that Mrs Cathcart is not objecting to the presence of the church, as such, but to the whole project of the fairy tale. Church services, religious leaders, and sacred ritual are frequent and polyvalent elements in the folk traditions MacDonald was drawing from. Mrs Cathcart continues to object to the story for its duration, on equally spurious grounds. Her intention seems to be to disrupt the tale and spoil any cathartic effect it might have, and distance it from the liminal space and unanswered questions folklore is meant to address.
It’s likely no coincidence that both Mrs Cathcart and Makemnoit could be aptly described as that sort of ‘cross-grained old lady’. There is a striking parallel between Mrs Cathcart and Makemnoit, both sour old aunts more interested in their personal grudges than in their niece’s well-being. Mrs Cathcart isn’t a witch, of course, but she represents a dull, unimaginative grown-up of the sort MacDonald disliked. Her self-important belittling of whimsy and play is, for MacDonald, no less destructive than the ‘mischief’ of Makemnoit.
So the tale continues with its ‘gentle liberties’ unabated. As a writer for children and young people, MacDonald was firmly on the side of the child, celebrating nonsense and whimsy above didactic pomposity. He approaches his serious, even grim themes with the anarchic, bumbling antics of a ridiculous cast of characters; the catharsis of the story is mediated through play. As he would write a few years later in The Seaboard Parish (1868):
Then only is a man growing old when he ceases to have sympathy with the young. That is a sign that his heart has begun to wither. And that is a dreadful kind of old age. The heart needs never be old. Indeed it should always grow younger. Some of us feel younger, do we not, than when we were nine or ten? It is not necessary to be able to play at leapfrog to enjoy the game. (pp. 5-6)
For all its thematic seriousness, The Light Princess is light-hearted and hilarious; unlike Makemnoit or Mrs Cathcart, MacDonald knew well enough that a storyteller has no need to always be solemn. So the story about the need for gravity is filled with levity; the quest for tears is fraught with laughter.
MacDonald, George. Adela Cathcart. 1864. Whitehorn, CA: Johannesen Press, 1994.
—. The Complete Fairy Tales. Edited by U. C. Knoepflmacher. London: Penguin, 1999.
—. The Seaboard Parish. Vol I. London: Tinsley Brothers, 1868. http://archive.org/details/seaboardparish01macd