Inspiring or elitist? Or both?
Before we get started I should offer my alternative reading first: in this fairy tale a good hearted peasant boy rescues a princess from evil goblins, thereby winning her heart and the respect of her father the king.
Enough said? But the more I think about this book, the more there is to think about. The values are just so different to just about anything else I’ve read and don’t have a neat category waiting. The conventions are turned around – did I mention that the princess also rescues the peasant boy? I can’t say I enjoyed it as much as I did previously reading the sequel (accidentally out of order), but I’m not sure if that reflects higher expectations or me just being in a different mental space – rather than a difference in quality.
Macdonald encourages his target audience of young girls and boys to think of themselves as princesses and princes, and to act accordingly. His didactic intention is quite unapologetically overt, as in his not infrequent prods along the lines of: “Irene knew to be polite – not like some princesses I can think of.” He’s really run with that childish statistical impossibility that just about every individual pre/early teen (cf. Adrian Mole) feels: that they are destined for greater things than everyone else. Thus it’s not a problem that there are only an elect few in the kingdom who have royal character: Macdonald’s intended audience will generally assume they’re with that specialised minority.
Or is that my culture speaking – where children are raised on unrealistic dreams that they’ll have to grieve the loss of upon reaching maturity? Were 19th century kids raised on more pedestrian expectations? However there’s still a sense of the magic of childhood in Kipling – although unlike Kipling Macdonald seems to feel it’s possible to maintain that magic into adulthood. Perhaps it’s partly that Macdonald was writing for a more wealthy element within his society (that element who, at very least, were literate) who already had an idea of their class as an elite. Anyway…
In the world of this book most are blind, or at best short-sighted. The key to supernatural vision comes through character and faith – although it also seems to be genetic: the princess really is royal, despite having no mother and hardly ever seeing her noble father. She rises above her shallow-natured nurse to deserved imperious rule.
It’s all about integrity, and it seems many have forgotten how to be pure, or were never taught. You can see why Lewis acknowledged MacDonald as his master – he constantly throws out surprising pictures of what it means to be innocent, and how this is actually strength, while wickedness or selfishness can’t even apprehend this as anything but simple-mindedness or weakness. I think I enjoyed Lewis’ depiction of this with unfallen Eve in Voyage to Venus (Perelandra) more, but there’s an acknowledged debt.
I’m still unsure whether this really does synchronise with what Jesus taught and stood for. It’s definitely a possible reading of the kingdom of God – which is only for a few. Only a few are able – or will choose – to be morally courageous. Consistently making these choices makes you ‘royal’ in the mythical sense – you escape the mire of petty self-advancement/protection and live in the fullness of righteousness that rightly places you above your subjects. It’s also royal in the biblical sense: we know who your father really is by how you live. Curdie has always been prepared to lose his life, and in so doing, as Jesus says, gains it: he doesn’t even think about it that much, you just do what is right, and if death ensues, that’s a relatively minor consequence compared with the alternative of not doing right (cf. Gene Wolfe’s Sir Able in The Knight). Thus, MacDonald illustrates, he gains a wholeness of being that, for example, the timid nurse can’t even imagine. Jesus called people out of ‘the world’ into a spiritual awareness that transcended it – the kingdom that is ‘within you’. There’s also an attempt to paint a world where benign cosmic forces can step in at any time to bring supernatural rescue – but often inexplicably don’t, and good people must often use their own diligence, courage and skill to fight alone – this being the way many Christians interpret their experience in this world.
Why, then, am I still uncomfortable? I suppose there’s just such danger in this arrogance. Curdie and the Princess don’t even think about the fact that their conviction of what is right might mean dismissing the opinions of ninety percent of the people they meet. Perhaps some of my discomfort rises from having some Christians blithely dismiss the actions and thoughts of stacks of people they don’t begin to understand (or even try to). But does such ignorant misjudgement necessarily justify the contemporary cant of unwillingness to judge anything (cant as at heart pluralism is highly intolerant)? But that’s what MacDonald glories in – most people are compromised, and he emphatically urges his readers to keep to the higher vision. To not be motivated by what drives just about everyone.
It reminds me a bit of an Orson Scott Card quote referring to his own Mormon church:
“…I find it extremely discomfiting that, really to a shocking degree, love of money has pervaded Mormon society. It's something that as a people we have great cause to repent of. I think it will lead to our condemnation in the eyes of God. When I talk that way, there are some people who are extremely troubled because they think I'm saying that they're wicked. And they're correct -- I am."
Likewise some would say, “Hang on George, I feel like you’re saying just about everybody’s got it wrong except you.” And he might reply, “You’re right, I am.” Although rather than confrontationally pointing at others and saying, ‘You’re wrong’, MacDonald paints a picture of holiness and says, “Look at that – that’s right.” It’s up to his readers to draw uncomfortable conclusions – or, rather, be inspired to step out of the narrow selfish bounds of convention that surround them.
Curdie is still, however, an earthly hero: he defeats rather than loves his enemies. MacDonald mixes his love of fairy tales with that of the New Testament. We’ve got nascent romance alongside supernatural endorsement of goodness. And what do we do with the fey/enigmatic goddess/great-great-grandma? Macdonald’s biographers point to his veneration of his step-mother, and for a patriarchal time his books have some unusually powerful women that are hard to fit into mainstream doctrine.
I suspect MacDonald wouldn’t have had any problem with that.