by Roderick McGillis
University of Calgary
Read the chapter here. Listen to the story and investigate below:
This chapter concerns the radical sensorium, the root of all sensation. In other words, it concerns the free floating that occurs prior to the falling body landing with a whump. Free fall, fortunate fall, felix culpa, the tumble into a physical relationship, in a word – sex, this is the subject MacDonald examines in Chapter 9, “Put me in again.” These are the Princess’s words, but they might as well be the Prince’s too. Falling as elevation is the paradox set out here. The paradox serves to smooth the contradiction between the physical and the spiritual. Both the Princess and the Prince fall into the lake, and in doing so they both rise to the occasion. This chapter is pivotal because it presents the moment in which innocence becomes enriched by a fall from innocence. When later in the story the Princess gives the sacramental meal to the Prince, just before his sacrificial death, we know that this meal is both material and spiritual because we know that the flesh itself is both material and spiritual. The lineaments of gratified desire are necessary to growth. The radical sensorium is at the root of things. The prince fears that the princess might grow beyond his desire’s reach. The unbearable lightness of being in this story receives weight from the power of love.
The Light Princess is a fairy tale and therefore deals with coming of age. Coming of age confronts the growing person with bodily pleasure, and as much as the Victorians did not wish to confront, publicly at least, bodily pleasure, they could not help but consider it. Consider it they did, inventing many clever ways to talk about sex without actually having to present it nakedly, as it were. Chapter 9 is justly famous for its frank presentation of two young people exploring bodily pleasure. To make the point clear, MacDonald has Mrs. Cathcart in Adela Cathcart remark after she listens to a reading of the chapter, “All that is very improper.” As she says this, she turns toward her son Percy to check that the salacious material has not adversely affected him. As the narrator notes, “her fears must have been dispersed the same moment” because young Percy lies prone on a couch seemingly oblivious to the juicy material that has just, at least ostensibly, passed over his head. Adela defends the drift of the chapter by reminding everyone that what they are hearing is, after all, a fairytale and must not be judged by the conventions of real life. At least one reader disagreed with Adela. John Ruskin expressed disapproval at this chapter’s swimming scenes as possibly “seriously harmful” to many children. Ruskin found the amorous bits too obvious and suggested that MacDonald recast these in a “simpler and less telling way” (Raeper 222).
Chapter 9 introduces the Prince who has come from far away to Lagobel (“beautiful lake”) seeking “the daughter of a queen” (48). Why he seeks the daughter of a queen as opposed to the daughter of a king or of a king and queen is curious. Old English cwen signifies “wife,” and more specifically wife of a king and so the word does double duty denoting both wife and royalty. However, the word also has connections with the transcendent, referring in Sanskrit to the wife of a god, a goddess. In western Christian tradition, we also have the Queen of Heaven (see Jeremiah 7:18). In other words, the woman the prince seeks combines material and spiritual aspects that we see in the sacramental meal and in sexuality. The material always corresponds to the spiritual (cf Swedenborg and the doctrine of correspondences).
The Prince finds himself alone in a forest, and MacDonald lets us know that he knows the significance of fairy tale forests as the location of the fallen senses. He also notes a gender difference when he says that forests allow princes to follow their fortunes (i.e. sow their wild oats while the bran stays outside the forest), whereas princesses “are forced to marry before they have had a bit of fun” (50). “Fun” here somehow relates to bran and sieves and forest, and fortune. Before too long, fun will come to our princess in a fortunate fall. In keeping with our theme of subversion, MacDonald suggests that a little premarital dalliance just might be healthy fun (no wonder Mrs. Cathcart and Mr. Ruskin were shocked). The prince happens to come across the princess swimming in a lake, and thinking she is drowning he plunges into the water to save her. Arthur Hughes’s illustration of the Prince at this point gives us a young fellow on a husky horse (stallion?) with a sword by his left leg and something that looks suspiciously like a French horn at his lips. More accurately, what the Prince blows is a hunting horn, and as we know hunting derives from the Middle English venery (venerie) a word that connects the chase with sexual activity. The horn is Hughes’s invention; his young Prince is on the hunt and horny. The visual pun complements the verbal ones (see page 37 of “The Light Princess”).
The rest of the chapter follows the two young people on their midnight swim. The Princess expresses outrage at the Prince’s liberties, not only delivering four repetitions of the word “naughty,” but also delivering this word in lower case, italics, small upper case, and larger upper case letters (52). According to the Princess, the man in the water with her is naught; that is, he is nothing, immoral, wicked, and worthless. The Princess’s outburst is another subversive stoke. “Nothing” is a word with specific gender implications; the much ado about nothing in Shakespeare’s play has to do, in part, with the female genitalia, but here the nothing refers to the male. The Princess may be in a passion, but she nicely reverses convention. Reversal is her modus operandi as she asks why the Prince should “pull me down out of the water, and throw me to the bottom of the air” (53). With the words “naughty” and “passion” the sexual innuendo begins. The two swimmers pun on “falling,” verbally splashing pleasurably. Finally, the princess’s guardians spy her from the shore and call her to come back. Regretfully, she prepares to go home, commenting that her swim has been “delightful” (56). And indeed it has. Despite the darkness of the night, the Princess has been enlightened as to a certain pleasure. The Prince, for his part, has begun his task of “delightening” the Princess. The prefix “de” is rich in suggestive power here; the Prince will take the lightness from the Princess and he will also bring her great pleasure.
The Princess asks her companion to give her a push up so that she can float to her room, and he graciously complies. But first he asks if she will return to the water the next night. Her reply indicates not so much the female’s inability to make decisions as it does the Princess’s confusion. “To be sure I will. I don’t think so. Perhaps” (58). From strong assertion to wobbly indecision, these words register both the strong pull desire has and also the equally demanding repressive forces of conventional behaviour. She very much desires to come, but perhaps she ought not. The Prince fully understands the Princess’s difficulty and his only response is to exhort her not to tell. Mum’s the word. The intimacy between the two young people can only cause trouble if the grownups know of it. They will most assuredly disapprove, just as Mrs. Cathcart does. The sexual implications of what happens in this story are as subversive as those in Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, a work contemporary with The Light Princess. MacDonald’s genius is to raise a sensitive subject, to treat it seriously but with a lightness of touch that reminds us just how intricate human experience is. His sly prose manages to communicate the pleasure of the text, a pleasure that is both cerebral and sensual. Awash in puns, the reader experiences a pleasure that the text details in the swimming adventures of the Princess and the Prince.
MacDonald, George. Adela Cathcart. (1864) From Ever Yours, George MacDonald, Robert Trexler, 2004.
—. The Light Princess. With Pictures by Maurice Sendak. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984.
—. “The Light Princess.” The Complete Fairy tales of George MacDonald, with original illustrations by Arthur Hughes. New York: Schocken Books, 1977: 13-63.
Raeper, William. George MacDonald. Tring, England: Lion, 1987.