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“The Light Princess,” written in 1864, follows a classic fairy-tale convention: a king and queen have a daughter, plan a baptism, but forget to invite a wicked witch, who then casts an evil spell at the ceremony.George MacDonald, “The Light Princess” (1864; Project Gutenberg, 1996), http://www.gutenberg.org/files/697/697-h/697-h.htm. Then George MacDonald adds a unique twist: the spell prevents the infant from having any gravity. She floats in the air and must be tethered to a string at all times, and she is never serious or grave about life concerns, only laughing at any encounter. The fairy tale, as you might expect, moves toward a climax where the Light Princess will hopefully find her gravity. Allison, a geography major, was intrigued by MacDonald’s use of nature and geological time in his fairy tales and wrote a paper on “The Light Princess” using an ecocritical approach.
George MacDonald (1824–1905) was a Scottish writer and a close friend of Lewis Carroll. In fact, Carroll brought a draft of Alice in Wonderland to MacDonald so that his children could read it. They loved it! MacDonald and Carroll found in the fairy tale not only an outlet for their literary imagination but also a form for expressing central thematic concerns. Carroll, for example, was critiquing the moral and didactic nature of children’s literature that children were expected to read (or to have parents read to them in the nursery). MacDonald grappled with many issues, but one in particular was the relationship between humans and their environment, particularly in light of Darwin’s propositions in Origin of Species, which presented the theory of evolution. In two of his longer fairy tales—The Princess and the Goblin (1872) and The Princess and Curdie (1881)—MacDonald gives a young miner boy, Curdie, magical powers that allow him to see whether a person is evolving to become a better person or devolving back to a beastly state. In other words, MacDonald was using the theory of evolution to create a fairy-tale world that also encompasses a kind of spiritual evolution. While Allison’s paper is not directly related to Darwin or Darwinian literary criticism, she does focus on the importance of nature in MacDonald and the disastrous results that can happen when one is separated from nature, a concern central to writers and readers in the nineteenth century who were being asked to reconsider the environment, not only in terms of the effects of the Industrial Revolution but also in regard to Darwin’s quite subversive theory of evolution.
Dr. John Pennington
Classic and Contemporary Fairy Tales
6 March 20–
Separation From Nature in “The Light Princess”
Estrangement from nature is an extremely important theme of the fairy tale “The Light Princess” by George MacDonald. In the kingdom the story takes place in, people, or at least those described in the story, are very alienated from the natural world. The characters that are most separated from nature are the princess; the king, the princess’s father; Princess Makemnoit, a witch and the princess’s aunt; and Hum-Drum and Kopy-Keck, two philosophers who work for the king. Their separation from nature is bad for them; people are supposed to live connected to the natural world.
In “The Light Princess,” George MacDonald stresses the importance of a connection between humanity and nature. In the article “Traveling Beastward: An Ecocritical Reading of George MacDonald’s Fairy Tales,” Björn Sundmark calls the fairy tales written by MacDonald pastorals, claiming, “pastoral implies a contrast between urban and countryside, between culture and nature” (9). The characters in “The Light Princess” that are overly concerned with culture are too separated from nature, which, from the way it is treated in the story, appears to be superior to culture. Nature is shown to be good, as “nature is a powerful presence in George MacDonald’s work, encountered in many moods but always as a force for good” (Pridmore 1), and culture is portrayed as isolating. A description of nature’s goodness in “The Light Princess” is the princess’s reaction to the lake: “the passion of her life was to get into the water, and she was always the better behaved and the more beautiful the more she had of it” (MacDonald 29). The idea that culture is isolating is shown by the behavior of the king, Hum-Drum, and Kopy-Keck. The king spends his time shut up in a room with his money, “where it was all but a capital crime to disturb him” (MacDonald 45). The money can be seen as a symbol of culture, if culture is defined as the human part of the world. Hum-Drum and Kopy-Keck, with their outlandish medical advice, must have been well-educated to get a position working for the king, but they probably have never closely observed or experienced the way nature works, or they would have been able to give advice that was not at odds with nature. For example, when thinking of one cure for the princess’s lack of gravity, they “agreed in recommending the king to bury her alive for three years” (MacDonald 30). Hum-Drum and Kopy-Keck are so distanced from nature that they are unable to create useful, sensible recommendations for medical treatments.
Of all of the characters in “The Light Princess,” the princess is the most alienated from nature. She lacks gravity, an important connection between humanity and the natural world, in two ways: physically and psychologically. In the physical sense of not having gravity, she is not affected by Earth’s gravitational pull. She has no physical weight. In the psychological sense, she lacks the ability to be serious or to really love anyone. A symptom of her lack of gravity is “laughter at everybody and everything that came in her way” (MacDonald 23). She cannot feel the full range of human emotions. Sundmark says that “she is unable to form any attachments to other people” (11) and “her laugh is missing something—the possibility of sorrow” (11). This leads up to what John Pridmore says in his article “Nature and Fantasy.” Pridmore claims “the love of nature leads at last to the love of man” (1). In the princess’s case, the situation is similar but reversed; her love of the prince allows her to connect with nature. Only after she falls in love with the prince does she regain her gravity. Besides becoming affected by Earth’s gravitational pull, she becomes able to be serious and actually care about things, as demonstrated when she saves the prince’s life at the risk of draining her beloved lake away again.
Sundmark, when he writes about George MacDonald’s fairy tales being pastorals, says “pastoral is concerned with beginnings, or rather, the notion of a better, more natural way of being in and with nature” (8). The princess experiences a new beginning in her life when she gains gravity and is able to live a superior kind of life in connection with the natural world. Princess Makemnoit’s magic that had forced her to remain separated from nature is now gone. The princess is no longer separated from the natural world, but she has still been alienated from it for so long that she still must learn to stand on her own two feet in this new way of living. The prince teaches her about how to live in the world with gravity. He has to teach her how to walk, because “she could walk no more than a baby” (MacDonald 52). Like a baby, the princess must learn to cope with living in the world. The comparison of the princess to a baby reflects the fact that she is at a new beginning in her life. Once she gains her gravity, her connection with the natural world, she must learn how to live in a new way.
Even before she regains her gravity, the princess is not completely devoid of any sort of connection with nature, though. She has gravity while she is in the water; she comes to enjoy being in the lake and swimming, showing us that she enjoys and wants a connection with the natural world. The princess still has a tenuous connection with nature before Princess Makemnoit’s spell is broken. “Nature shapes us long before we are aware of her presence, more deeply as we come to accept Her formative role” (Pridmore 4); this is shown by the fact that nature has a small role in shaping the princess’s character and by the way it affects her even more when she is finally able to regain her long-absent gravity. During the time when the princess does not have gravity, she feels a connection with the lake, because “the moment she got into it, she recovered the natural right of which she had been so wickedly deprived—namely, gravity” (MacDonald 28). The lake comes to be one of the few, if not the only, exceptions to the rule that the princess is unable to genuinely care about anything. Later, when she has recovered her gravity, she is able to feel affection for more than just the lake; she can care about other people, such as the prince.
Another character separated from the natural world is the king. In the beginning of “The Light Princess,” an example of the king’s alienation from nature is the way he apparently spends much of his time in his counting-house with his money. He greatly values the aspects of the world created by human civilization, the manmade benefits of wealth, and rejects the far greater value found in the natural world. This goes along with what Björn Sundmark writes about in “Traveling Beastward,” although in this instance he is talking about The Princess and Curdie, not “The Light Princess.” He says that after the characters Irene and Curdie die, the new king “undermines the city in his hunt for gold” (Sundmark 7); his actions lead to disaster. In the case of The Princess and Curdie, the disaster is the city’s destruction. The disaster occurs because, when people “look only to profit, civilization and mankind is doomed” (Sundmark 7). The king from “The Light Princess,” like the king from The Princess and Curdie, is more concerned with wealth than he should be. His love of money does not lead to his kingdom’s downfall, but he is so disconnected from the natural world that he spends his time in his counting-house while taking very few actions personally to attempt to stop the lake from draining away. After his daughter regains her gravity, however, the king “divided the money in his box” (MacDonald 52), showing that he, like the princess, may be becoming more connected to nature.
Hum-Drum and Kopy-Keck, the philosophers, are also characters estranged from nature. They are tasked with the undertaking of diagnosing and finding a cure for the princess’s lack of gravity. Their diagnoses are exceedingly unusual, to say the least. Besides coming up with diagnoses, they do think of some potential cures, but those cures are vile, useless, or both. Kopy-Keck thinks the princess “should therefore be taught, by the sternest compulsion, to take an interest in the history of the earth” (MacDonald 27) and “study every department of its history” (MacDonald 27) because he believes that her soul is from Mercury and “there is no relation between her world and this world” (MacDonald 27). Hum-Drum thinks “the motion of her heart has been reversed” (MacDonald 27) and recommends a complicated, painful-sounding process that involves draining the princess of quite a bit of her blood (MacDonald 28). The cures that Hum-Drum and Kopy-Keck think of to try out on the princess could never work, but nature, along with love, does help her regain her gravity. In accordance with what John Pridmore says in “Nature and Fantasy,” “nature, co-operating with the love of family and friends, is seen by MacDonald to work for our healing” (2). When the princess cries after the prince almost drowns, nature and love restore her gravity.
Princess Makemnoit, the one who causes the princess to lose her gravity, is another character that is separated from the natural world. The rift between her and nature is entirely of her own doing, the result of her conscious actions. Her use of magic to control aspects of nature separates her from it. She understands natural laws, such as the laws of gravitation, as things she can use, judging by the fact that MacDonald says “she could abrogate those laws in a moment; or at least so clog their wheels and rust their bearings, that they would not work at all” (17). As Sundmark says, “Human industry and civilization inevitably change the face of the earth, affect nature violently and noisily” (8). Princess Makemnoit’s magic is “human industry and civilization” (Sundmark 8) harming the natural world, and thereby separating Princess Makemnoit from nature. Her magic disrupts the earth and the natural order of things by taking away her niece’s gravity, draining the lake, and making the streams stop flowing.
The separation between nature and the characters of “The Light Princess” could reflect views on human interaction with the natural world that came about in the nineteenth century. As Björn Sundmark says, reading MacDonald’s fairy tales from an environmental standpoint helps us understand how some people of MacDonald’s time thought about nature and “provides a perspective on the ways in which the relationship between man and nature is expressed today” (2). Sundmark writes about symbolism, which can help us understand what the author means in his stories or hint at what the author values. While describing MacDonald’s use of symbols in his writing, he says “the force of the symbol is diminished if its function as referent is over-emphasized” (Sundmark 2). Sundmark means that things in the stories should be what they are written to be, but they may also have other meanings (2). The symbolism may lead us to see an environmental theme. For example, the princess’s lack of gravity is an important symbol in “The Light Princess.” Her lack of gravity is exactly what MacDonald says it is, but it can also symbolize something else: her lack of a connection with the natural world. Another symbol is the lake, which represents the possibility of the princess becoming connected to nature. Before the princess gets her gravity, it is the only place where she is has a connection to the natural world. A third symbol is the princess’s tears. They are a symbol of unity with nature. When the princess lacked gravity, “to make the princess cry was as impossible as to make her weigh” (MacDonald 30). She was finally able to cry after she gained gravity.
The separation between the characters and the natural world is an important idea in George MacDonald’s “The Light Princess.” The princess, the king, Princess Makemnoit, Hum-Drum, and Kopy-Keck are all disconnected from nature. At the end of the story, the princess and the king become more connected to the natural world, which is shown to be good for their characters. Princess Makemnoit stays alienated from nature and dies at the end of the story, killed in a disaster that would never have occurred if she had not spurned nature and turned solely to the human part of the world. Hum-Drum and Kopy-Keck are not main characters, so MacDonald does not tell us their fates. MacDonald uses symbolism in “The Light Princess” to convey the message that people should live connected with nature and not just with culture. Humanity must live as part of the world instead of attempting to isolate ourselves in an impenetrable fortress of human culture. If we distance ourselves from the natural world too much, we cannot live good, fulfilling lives.
MacDonald, George. “The Light Princess.” The Complete Fairy Tales. Ed. U. C. Knoepflmacher. New York: Penguin, 1999. 15–53. Print.
Pridmore, John. “Nature and Fantasy.” North Wind 19 (2000): 2–8. North Wind Archive. Web. 3 Mar. 2011.
Sundmark, Björn. “‘Traveling Beastward’: An Ecocritical Reading of George MacDonald’s Fairy Tales.” North Wind 27 (2008): 1–15. North Wind Archive. Web. 3 Mar. 2011.