by Bill Gray,
Read the chapter here. Listen and investigate more below:
The title of Chapter 13, ‘Here I Am’—echoing Abraham when commanded to sacrifice his only son Isaac (Genesis 22), Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3) and the young Samuel called by God to prophesy (I Sam 3)—has already implied a religious reading of this fairy tale. However, this is not mere allegory, which for MacDonald becomes all too easily ‘a weariness to the spirit’ (‘The Fantastic Imagination’, 8). It seems closer to Tolkien’s idea that there is an analogy— perhaps in the end even a kind of identity—between fairy tales and the fairy story contained in the Gospels, which is ‘a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories’ (‘On Fairy-Stories’, 78). There is a kind of structural analogy between the fairy story (in this case ‘The Light Princess’) and the story of a larger kind that is the Gospel. A key term here is Tolkien’s coined word ‘eucatastrophe’, which is the moment when apparent catastrophe (properly ‘dyscatastrophe’, Tolkien says), failure and sorrow are reversed and there comes the joy of deliverance which ‘denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief’ (‘On Fairy-Stories’, 75).
Chapter 14 of ‘The Light Princess’ represents this apparent ‘dyscatastrophe’ (the prince’s death) succeeded by ‘eucatastrophe’ (his resuscitation or resurrection), which does indeed lead to tears of joy. The title of Chapter 14, ‘This is very kind of you’, seems almost a kind of pun. On the one hand these words suggest a kind of cool, formal politeness, or ‘phatic’ communication, which invites the equally meaningless ‘you’re welcome’ (or even worse, ‘no problems’). However, ‘kind’ also has a deep theological meaning, related to the divine ‘loving-kindness’ (Hebrew ‘chesed’, Latin misericordia) in God’s creation and salvation of the world. ‘This is very kind of you’ suggests both a trite, meaningless platitude, and also the deepest meaning of all. To use another pun, it is both ‘light’ and the Light of the World.
The prince’s decision to doff his shoe-black’s gear and don princely attire ‘to die like a prince’ points to the revelation of a greater prince in death and sorrow in that ‘story of a larger kind’ that is the Gospel. The news that a man has offered to die for her gives the princess an access of joy, but not a holy joy, for she does not care who it is that is willing to die; a hole needs stopping, and if only a man can do it, so be it: ‘why, get one’. She is much more bothered by the dire state of the lake—this unconcern for ‘the man’ compared the lake is totally reversed at the end of the chapter, to the chamberlain’s discomfiture. Of course the princess changes her tune when ‘the man’ turns out to be the prince, greeting her with that theological double entendre ‘Here I am’ (whether the repeated phrase ‘Put me in’ might be a double entendre of another kind is an open question: as Rod McGillis has already pointed out writing on Chapter 9, you don’t have to be a paranoid John Ruskin to find sexual innuendo throughout ‘The Light Princess’).
Once the prince has been plugged into the hole, and the people dismissed (the king has already gone home for his dinner—MacDonald exposes his total failure as a human being in a turn of phrase), the prince begins to sing. This is not the first time he sings in the story—he had sung the princess a topsy-turvy serenade in Chapter10 where she is in the lake rather than on a balcony. However, it is more usual for the young women to sing in MacDonald, especially in Phantastes, where song can (I have suggested elsewhere) be related to the irruption of Kristeva’s semiotic into the prison-house of the Symbolic order. Here it is the prince who by his sacrifice destroys the living death brought about by the king (the Phallus who doesn’t know what it’s for, and who can’t abide the threatening play of the signifier, i.e. puns) and Makemnoit, his abjected sister. Kristeva’s semiotic seems to be suggested in the following lines, a little reminiscent of the nursery rhymes in the book Diamond and his mother find on the beach at Sandwich in Chapter 13 of At the Back of the North Wind:
As a world without the sound
Of the rivulets underground;
Or the bubbling of the spring
Out of darkness wandering;
Or the mighty rush and flowing
Of the river’s downward going…
When the prince is too overcome to sing anymore, an awkward silence ensues, until the princess says, ‘quite coolly’, lying with her eyes shout: ‘This is very kind of you, prince’. The prince only thinks of replying, politely but pointedly: ‘I am sorry I can’t return the compliment …but you are worth dying for, after all.’
After some hours of this, the prince can no longer bear the princess’s aloofness, but as he finally begins to upbraid her, she interrupts him with cries of “I’m afloat!’, regardless of the fact that this can only mean that the prince’s end is nigh. Still, he’s encouraged by the fact that at least she’s finally awake—the scenario echoes the scene in Gethsemane where the disciples cannot stay awake with Jesus in his agony. Such echoes of the Christian story continue when the prince receives a kind of Eucharistic Last Supper of wine and biscuit (like the Passover matzah or matzos biscuit), which the prince asks for very humbly (just as Jesus makes a point of washing his disciples’ feet before the Last Supper). The prince is consoled by kissing the princess’s finger-tips as she feeds him; but she still does not seem to grasp the gravity of the situation, since she ‘did not seem to mind it, one way or the other’—a peculiarly passionless response to the prince’s passion (in both senses). At the prince’s request not to go to sleep on him, the princess replies, ‘with condescension’ that she will do anything she can to oblige him. Again there is irony here in that the ‘story of a larger kind’ (the Gospel) is precisely about the divine condescension in saving the world through the incarnation and death of Christ.
As the water rises to the Prince’s waist, the princess’s insensitivity culminates in her suggestion that they go for a swim. The prince’s gentle reminder that there will be no more swimming for him finally silences her. Her last words to him when he begs for a kiss are simply: ‘Yes, I will’. After this ‘long, sweet, cold kiss’ he sighs: ‘I die happy’.However, his Liebestod (love-death) is not quick; its slow progress is described in detail. He remains calm throughout; it is almost as if his emotions are transferred to the princess, whose hitherto absent feelings now begin to show dramatically: she feels strange, she looks wild, ‘her eyes looked scared, and shone strange in the moonlight’. She shrieks, and springs into the lake, frantically trying to save him. ‘Love and water brought back all her strength’, and having dragged him into the boat, she ‘rowed and rowed, though she had never rowed before’, and forgetting her dignity, rows ‘[r]ound rocks, and over shallows, and through mud’.
But all in vain. Her dysfunctional family is of no help; her parents sleep through it all, and when the chamberlain tries to curry favour with the woman formerly known as ‘The Light Princess’ by asking about the lake, he is told ‘Go and drown yourself in it!’ The summoned doctors never appear. Fortunately the princess’s old nurse is ‘a wise woman’ who knows what to do. She stands in the line of MacDonald’s quasi-divine wise women, from the old woman with young eyes in Phantastes, through the grandmother in ‘The Golden Key’ and the eponymous ‘Wise Woman’, to Princess Irene’s great-great-grandmother in the Princess books. But for a long time it looks as if they are too late, and the princess, previously incapable of any kind of empathetic emotional response, is ‘nearly distracted between hope and fear’. But finally, ‘when they had all but given it up’, and all hope seems lost, ‘the prince opened his eyes’. Like a kind of baptism, the prince has experienced death by water, but now rises again. As Tolkien says in ‘On Fairy-Stories’, the mark of a good fairy-story is that ‘it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears…’ (75). And so, as we move into the next chapter, it does all end in tears.
Gray, William. ‘George MacDonald, Julia Kristeva and the Black Sun’. Studies in English Literature, Autumn, pp.877-93. Reprinted in Gray, Death and Fantasy: Essays on Philip Pullman, C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald and R. L. Stevenson, (CSP, 2008).
MacDonald, George. The Complete Fairy Tales. Edited by U. C. Knoepflmacher. London: Penguin, 1999.
— ‘The Fantastic Imagination’ in MacDonald, 1999.
— At the Back of the North Wind . Ware: Wordsworth Classics, 1994.
Tolkien, J.R.R. On Fairy-stories  Edited by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson. London: HarperCollins, 2008.