by Danny Gabelman
Read the chapter here. Listen to the chapter and investigate below:
Makemnoit’s goal in cursing the princess is to ‘make the whole family miserable,’ and in this chapter we begin to see the effects of this defective cause. What was only hinted at in the nonsensical nursery-rhyme curse from chapter two becomes explicit in the opening line of chapter three: ‘Her atrocious aunt had deprived the child of her gravity.’ Given the cleverness of Makemnoit (she beat ‘all the clever [witches] in cleverness’) and all the possible curses that she could have inflicted on the princess and her family, we have to wonder—why gravity? Weightlessness might be unusual and inconvenient, but it doesn’t seem nearly as sinister as poisoned apples or magic spinning needles. Indeed, many people dream of the freedom and joys of being unencumbered by gravitation.
Perhaps this ambiguity, however, is part of the curse. Usually witches are much more flamboyant and exultant at christenings as with the witch in MacDonald’s ‘Little Daylight’ who insists upon punctuating her public curses with triumphant laughter (‘Ha, ha! He, he! Hi, hi! Ho, ho! Hu, hu!’). Makemnoit, however, mutters her curse while spinning in place so that ‘they all thought she had lost her wits,’ but no one knows exactly what the witch has done until the princess ends up floating ‘like a baby-laughter-cloud in the air.’ But is this a wholly negative development? Instead of being ‘as lovely a little princess as ever cried’, the princess now floats ‘in perfect comfort and satisfaction’ as testified ‘by her peals of tiny laughter.’ What parent wouldn’t exchange their baby’s crying for laughter? Instead of a straightforward curse (transformation into a frog, interminable sleep) Makemnoit chooses an ambiguous curse that prolongs the perplexity and uncertainty of her parents—especially the king.
The king’s first thought upon discovering his daughter’s deprivation is, ‘She can’t be ours, queen!’ The king likes his realm to be simple, ordered and clear. We learn later that he ‘hated all witticisms, and punning especially’ precisely because he could not be certain of something’s meaning. In a way, the king seems to find his identity in various forms of gravity. He expects other people to address him with solemnity and sincerity, and he reacts with frustration whenever he senses a hint of levity from others. This is likely because he is insecure in his position. MacDonald tells us wryly, ‘he was a little king with a great throne’. Wealth, power and prestige are weighty in the eyes of the world, and the king craves them all—he is a slave to gravity.
This helps explain both Makemnoit’s choice of curse and the king’s initial response (‘She can’t be ours!’). A princess without gravity strikes the king with horror not just because it is problematic and inexplicable but also because of how it reflects upon himself. It subverts his authority, mocks his dignity and jeopardizes his legacy. To protect himself from this nightmare, the king dissociates himself from the child and suggests that maybe the princess was exchanged at birth. Here MacDonald might be drawing on the folk tradition which said that babies were sometimes abducted by fairies and replaced by otherworldly changelings (Pazdziora, 264). Though she was not substituted, the princess has undoubtedly gained many of the characteristics of fairies—mobility, lightness, laughter and playfulness. The princess is now a child of heavenly ether, and in order to return her to the earthy realm of gravity, the king must get a servant to pluck her from the air with tongs. In association with grabbing a baby, ‘tongs’ suggests forceps, and the end of the chapter could be read as a birthing scene in which the princess is pulled from the womb of ether and brought down to the gravitational realm of ‘little kings.’
The queen, meanwhile, is ‘much cleverer than the king,’ and, although she too is ‘horror-struck’ when she discovers the princess’ deficiency, she quickly begins to suspect that ‘this effect defective came by cause.’ Interestingly, this quotation is taken from Shakespear’s Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2 in which the king and queen discuss Hamlet’s malady with Polonius. It might seem a bit incongruous to have a line from one of the world’s greatest tragedies in a whimsical fairy-tale, but given MacDonald’s love of intertextuality (cf. the chapter epigrams in Phantastes) it is unlikely that this is haphazard. MacDonald has given us an open invitation to compare ‘The Light Princess’ to Hamlet.
Instead of concluding with my thoughts on Hamlet and ‘The Light Princess’, however, here are a few adumbrated ideas that might arouse speculations and comments:
1. Echoes of Claudius in the king (anxiety, insecurity, sibling rivalry, dislike of double meanings)
2. Echoes of Gertrude in the queen (love of her child, clever, submissive?)
3. The light princess as an anti-Hamlet (one cursed with gravity the other with anti-gravity)
4. The interpenetration of comedy and tragedy
5. Polonius and the narrator of ‘The Light Princess’ (just a few lines before ‘this effect defective came by cause’, Polonius says his famous line, ‘brevity is the soul of wit’)
6. Madness and aberration (is madness always tragic?)
Pazdziora, John Patrick, ‘How the Fairies Were Not Invited to Court,’ in Rethinking George MacDonald: Contexts and Contemporaries. Edited by Christopher MacLachlan, John Patrick Pazdziora and Ginger Stelle. Glasgow: ASLS. 2013.