Monday, May 17, 2010

The Princess and the Goblin-- a baptised imagination, a thread for a guide

Those who know their CS Lewis will know that there was one book, which he picked up by chance, that had a remarkable, life-changing effect on him, and was pivotal in his conversion to Christianity. That book was Phantastes, a sort of adult fairy tale novel by George MacDonald. Lewis later said in Surprised by Joy-- the autobiographical account of his conversion--that as he read the haunting tale of Anodos "That night, [his] imagination was, in a certain sense, baptised." For the "bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anodos" --holiness-- was something he had never come across or experienced before. And he found it was not a quality confined to the world of fantasy but that it rather came "out of the book into the real world and [rested] there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged." In other words it coloured his perception of the real world and endowed all things in it with a kind of greatness-- almost super-reality.

It does not cease to amaze me that the same author who changed Lewis' life was also pivotal in my own. The Princess and the Goblin is of course a children's novel but it has the same quality about it-- the "bright shadow." And while I was completely unaware of it at the time it too baptised my imagination. I do not recall how old I was when my parents read it to me-- young enough I did not read it myself at least. But it was not until I was in my early twenties that I rediscovered it and was surprised by how important it had been in my life.

The story is that of young Princess Irene who lives with her nurse and servants in a castle on the mountain while her King-papa is about his business in the country. One very dull day she gets lost in the house and discovers a secret stair that leads her to a tower in which her great-great grandmother dwells unbeknownst to anyone else in the house. Her grandmother spins a ball of spider silk thread to which she fastens a ring--once belonging to Irene's mother. She tells Irene that if she is ever frightened she must take off her ring, put it under her pillow and follow the thread with her finger until it leads her back to her grandmother. The mountain below is full of goblins who hatch an evil plot to carry off the Princess for a bride to their Prince Harelip and it is with the help of Curdie, a miner's son, and her great-great grandmother's thread that Princess Irene escapes them and they defeat the goblins.

The story is full of Christian symbolism. The great grandmother is endowed with more than one trinitarian quality. In some scenes she is the Spirit, appearing as a dove come to frighten away the darkness, or a fire of roses which transforms the quality of all things. Other times she is like the Father or the Son. It is difficult to describe as it is not so obvious or complete a parallel as Narnia's Aslan. The characters of the Princess and Curdie, the king-papa, the goblins, and even Curdie's mother all have archetypal qualities. And the same quality of holiness colours the tale as the Princess and Curdie learn to trust her grandmother to bring them safely through the darkness and defeat the goblins.

I did not appreciate the symbolism until I was an adult of course. But the the images of the tale and the "bright shadow" that coloured them, the fire of roses, the bath of stars, the globe of light, the thread of spider silk, the heirloom ring, the beautiful grandmother both young and old, all of them remained with me and changed the way I saw things in the real world, shaped my perceptions and well, baptised my imagination.

Of course I didn't know it at the time. It was not until I was in my early twenties, suffering from a multitude of fears myself and having got quite lost just like Princess Irene did the day she found her grandmother's secret stair, that I did a little research on myself. I picked up some of my favourite childhood books again. I'd quite forgotten the the story till then. In Lewis' Screwtape Letters Wormwood is properly told off by his uncle Screwtape for making the very lamentable blunder of allowing his "patient" the pleasure of reading a book he really enjoys because it would make him feel that he was "recovering himself." And that is just what happened when I reread The Princess and the Goblin in the midst of my fears and confusion. I recovered myself at once and suddenly began to understand where I came from again and who I was and to Whom.

The realisation was an important one. Until then I had been living in a sort of romantic fantasy world in which I was "submerged in self-pity for imaginary distresses." One true encounter with that "bright shadow" and I could see quite clearly just what was nonsense and what was real. I'd found the thread and it led me out.