The Germanic and Celtic Tradition by George MacDonald

The Germanic and Celtic Tradition by George MacDonald

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The Germanic and Celtic Tradition by George MacDonald


One of the most interesting things about fairytales is how the author has borrowed ideas from ancient myths and legends and kept them alive in their writings. The Princess and the Goblin is one of these fairytales. In writing this novel, George MacDonald has incorporated much of the folk tradition in his characters and plot. Specifically, his concept of goblins seem to be drawn from the tradition of dwarfs, gnomes, and kobolds of Germanic myth and the fairies, or elves, of Celtic myth.

In accordance with the Celtic and Germanic traditions, the goblins of The Princess and the Goblin dwell inside mountains, away from sunlight and especially away from those who live on the earth's surface. The Celtic story of the Green Children tells of two children who, after accidentally wandering up to the surface, had fainted under the sheer brightness of the sunlight (Curran, 129). The Germanic dwarfs only dared to venture out to the surface after nightfall, because the sunlight would turn them into stone (Kafton-Minkel, 34). Although MacDonald's goblins would not encounter the same fate as the Germanic dwarfs if they were to surface during the day, they do detest the brightness of the sun, and prefer to remain underground, surfacing infrequently and only at night (4, 61). The goblins' irregular, grotesque features are most likely a consequence of their subterranean habitat. The once humans "had greatly altered in the course of generations" (MacDonald, 4) and very much resemble the dwarfs and other mine spirits of the folk tradition. Due to the lack of sunshine and unbalanced diet, MacDonald's goblins are short and "ludicrously grotesque in face and form" (4). Their long arms, nail-less hands, and toeless feet are only some examples of their deformations. However, because of their work, digging out precious stones, tunnelling through the mountainous rock, and living hard lives in their rough and crude cavern homes (Kafton-Minkel, 35), dwarfs and goblins are not weak, but broad, stocky, and unbelievably strong. Dwarfs are known to be "stronger, craftier, and more skilful than humans" (Kafton-Minkel, 34), and this characteristic is also attributed to the goblins in The Princess and the Goblin; although the goblin queen was surrounded by "such skilful workmen" (MacDonald, 207), she still hadn't had a replacement shoe made.

Those are not the only similarities between MacDonald's goblins and the subterranean creatures of the folk tradition.

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Another similarity is their attitude towards and their treatment of humans. Most dwarfs and gnomes were said to be obsessed with the accumulation of precious metals and gems. They "consider themselves guardians of the earth's treasures" (Kafton-Minkel, 35), and would therefore do anything to prevent the miners or other treasure-hunters from finding the precious stones. Dangerous tricks, including leading miners to dangerous sites in the mine or causing cave-ins are examples of the kind of measures they would take. If the dwarfs are somehow forced into making weapons or jewellery for humans, they would sometimes curse their creations, making the owners miserable (Kafton-Minkel, 35). To a degree, dwarfs resemble me n physically, but are infinitely less beautiful. It is said that some dwarfs are envious of humans' "tall statures and fair complexions" (Kafton-Minkel, 35) and hate them all the more because of it. The goblins in The Princess and the Goblin have different reasons for hating humans, but despise them all the same. Perhaps they are also a little jealous of them (though not of their toes), because their lawns are so much fun to romp on (MacDonald, 102) and the food is so much more plentiful. The goblins' hatred brings them to cause mischief among the human ranks; "their great delight was in every way they could think of to annoy the people who lived in the open air above them" (MacDonald, 4). They terrorize those who dare to walk alone along the mountain paths, and take the sheep from their pastures every once in a while. It is their dream, however, to seek revenge against the humans by plotting to kidnap the princess Irene. This idea of kidnapping children is not unheard of in the folk tradition. The fairies of Celtic myth were believed to fancy human babies over their own, and would steal the mortal children and leave a mean-tempered or disabled fairy child in its place (Curran, 109).

The last similarity between the underground-dwelling creatures of myth and George MacDonald's goblins is their shared dislike for music. The Knockers, mine spirits believed to have frequented the mines of the 18th and 19th century Cornwall, were offended by whistling, among other things, and would play dangerous tricks on those who had offended them (Parkinson and Topham). MacDonald's goblins "can't bear singing" (35). They flee at the sound of it, allowing the miners to use it as a mechanism for safe passage when goblins are about.

The races of small beings that inhabit hills and mountains and other underground places have existed in folk tradition for many hundreds of years. Although goblins occupy a different folk tradition than dwarfs, elves, kobolds, fairies, and gnomes, it is my belief that George MacDonald has used many of the original ideas from the ancient folk tradition of the latter in his portrayal of the goblins in his story The Princess and the Goblin.

Works cited:

Celeste. Web Page. Fairies of the Realm. 2000.http://www.usa2076.com/fairies/

Curran, Bob. The Creatures of Celtic Myth. London: Cassell & Co., 2000.

Kafton-Minkel, Walter. Subterranean Worlds: 100,000 Years of Dragons, Dwarfs, the Dead, Lost Races, & UFOs from Inside the Earth. Port Townsend: Loompanics Unlimited, 1989.

MacDonald, George. The Princess and the Goblin. London: Puffin Books, 1996.

Parkinson, Danny J., and Ian Topham. Web Page. Mysterious Britain: Mysteries, Legends, & the Paranormal. 2001. http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/
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