The Princess and the Goblins In the late 1800s, George MacDonald published a book in a serialized form that was called “The Princess and the Goblins.” While the name of this book immediately causes people to think of it as a children’s story, a deeper reading of the text can reveal more adult concepts. For example, within the book, there is an entire race of subterranean creatures called goblins who plot to overtake the realm of the sun people. Although these creatures are generally considered to be evil, there are many reasons to believe that they are simply representations of otherness, another culture that must be destroyed by the dominant one.
One of the clues MacDonald provides that the goblins are not strictly evil creatures in the sense that they once lived in the sun, too, but were driven underground by political forces. This is revealed within the first chapter as the legend of the goblins is related: “for some reason or other, concerning which there were different legendary theories, the king had laid what they thought too severe taxes upon them, or had required observances of them they did not like … the consequence was that they had all disappeared from the face of the country.” In most critiques of the concept of others, the other is framed as being someone from a marginalized or downtrodden culture, one that is not as strong. In introducing the legend in this way, MacDonald suggests that the goblins were driven from their above-ground living spaces which are now occupied by Princess Irene, the King and the rest of the sun people.
Part of the reason the goblins are considered to be evil is that their bodies do not look the same as the sun people. They are described as “not ordinarily ugly, but either absolutely hideous or ludicrously grotesque both in face and form. There was no invention, they said, of the most lawless imagination expressed by pen or pencil, that could surpass the extravagance of their appearance.” This is another common means of identifying the other, finding some way in which they are different from the dominant culture. Relating this concept to our world, this description was once used to refer to the darker skin tones of Africans, using it to suggest that these were not people in the same sense that white Europeans were people. The goblin bodies might have changed some from the generations that have lived their entire lives under the earth, but there is a clear indication that the goblins are, under their unattractive surface, human beings, too both because of the legend of their origins and because of the way they think.
Finally, the goblins think in much the same way as the sun people think. Although they are plotting against the sun people, they are plotting to re-acquire the land they once owned and they are trying to do this by appropriating the laws and customs of the dominant culture – i.e. by marrying their prince to the sun peoples princess. “They had got a king and a government of their own, whose chief business, beyond their own simple affairs, was to devise trouble for their neighbors.” This is not so different from the sun people in that Princess Irene’s father the King finds it necessary to leave his daughters to care to others while he works to manage the kingdom and make sure everything runs according to his plan.
By taking a closer look at the text, it is possible to see that the goblins of the story, while deliberately set up to be the villains, can actually be seen to be a subdued other. This is seen in the legend of their origins, the description of their bodies and an understanding of their motives. Once these aspects of their character are understood, they become much more sympathetic characters.