Like many other renowned novels aimed at children, George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin draws extensively from the folk tradition in his telling of the tale. Many of the figures presented, such as the nurse and Curdie, have precedent in the tradition, but the grandmother in particular stands out. Archetypally, she is a variant on the Old Man, though she bears the undeniable touch of the supernatural as seen in common folklore - at times she is otherworldly and some of her actions and abilities are of the sort frequently associated with witches.
The archetype of the Old Man - or, in this case, Old Woman - is one of the most frequently encountered in folk tales, and slips seamlessly into The Princess and the Goblin as Princess Irene's wise, kindly grandmother. In this guise, she provides guidance for the young princess, advising patience with the disbelief of both Curdie and Lootie, the nurse, and encourages Irene to be honest about what she herself has seen despite. In the tradition of the Old Man figure, who often provides an item the protagonist needs to progress on their journey, the grandmother gives the princess a ring with a gossamer thread "too fine for [one] to see it" with instructions on how to use it should Irene find herself in danger which proves instrumental to the outcome of the story (pg. 119). Keeping with the archetype, though, the grandmother never intervenes to take direct action, merely sets up the right conditions for the princess' actions, and is largely content to remain in the attic and allow Irene to come to her. Within the constraints set by previous appearances of Old Man figures in folk tales, there is a lot of leeway for the grandmoth...
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... Glinda from L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz.
As a novel recounted in the fairy tale tradition, The Princess and the Goblin succeeds beautifully. It employs the element of the Old Man archetype to aid and advise the princess, woven into an intriguing character with peculiar supernatural aspects drawn from the wider folk tradition. As such, the grandmother becomes a witch who is more than folklore would have one believe, an old woman not quite of this world, and exactly as she would have Princess Irene see her - as a grandmother.
Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts
Folklore and Witchcraft
Keightly, Thomas The Fairy Mythology AMS Press, New York, NY, 1968
Briggs, K.M. The Personnel of Fairyland, Singing Tree Press, Detroit, Michigan, 1971
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